The revised psychopathy checklist (PCL-R)

What is the PCL-R?

The PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised) is a 20-item rating scale for psychopathy. The PCL-R is considered a reliable and valid tool for measuring psychopathy, but its use is limited to forensic psychologists and other forensic mental health practitioners. The results should be considered in collaboration, only part of a broader, comprehensive assessment.

What is psychopathy?

Psychopathy is characterised by enduring antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, egotistical, and charismatic traits. People with psychopathy often engage in criminal behaviour and tend to manipulate and exploit others for personal gain. Psychopathy is a complex and controversial topic and is considered a spectrum disorder with varying severity. Not all individuals diagnosed with psychopathy are violent or engage in criminal behaviour.

People with psychopathy may display a range of traits and behaviours, including:

  • Impulsive and irresponsible behaviour
  • Lack of empathy and emotional depth
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Manipulative and deceitful behaviour
  • Lack of remorse or guilt for their actions
  • Chronic lying and dishonesty
  • Impulsive and thrill-seeking behaviour
  • Aggression and a history of violence
  • Lack of responsibility and blame-shifting
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships

What is the history of the PCL-R?

Dr Robert D Hare developed the PCL-R in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The PCL-R was developed as an updated version of the original Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) developed by Dr Hervey Cleckley in the 1940s. The PCL-R is based on Checkley’s concept of psychopathy and has been widely used in clinical, research, and forensic settings.

The items on the PCL-R are scored based on a semi-structured interview and a review of the individual’s file or record. The total score on the PCL-R ranges from 0 to 40, with higher scores indicating a higher level of psychopathy.

The PCL-R has been widely researched and validated in clinical and forensic settings and has been used in many countries worldwide. Despite its widespread use, the PCL-R has also been the subject of criticism and controversy, particularly its use in legal and criminal proceedings.

Prison cell

What is the purpose of doing a PCL-R?

A PCL-R can inform the assessment of an individual’s risk for violent behaviour, help in the treatment planning for individuals with psychopathy, and aid in the legal and criminal justice system. Only trained mental health professionals should administer the PCL-R and interpret the results.

How valuable is the PCL-R in predicting the risk of violence?

The PCL-R has been shown to be useful in predicting the risk of violence in some individuals with psychopathy. The PCL-R is not a perfect predictor of violence, and many individuals with high scores on the PCL-R do not engage in violent behaviour. The PCL-R should not be used in isolation to predict violent behaviour but as part of a comprehensive risk assessment that considers multiple factors.

Is the PCL-R a controversial assessment?

The PCL-R is a widely used and widely accepted assessment tool in the field of mental health, but it is not without controversy. Some criticisms of the PCL-R include the following:

  • The reliability and validity of the PCL-R have been called into question by some researchers, who argue that the tool may not accurately capture psychopathy in all individuals.
  • The use of the PCL-R in criminal proceedings has been criticised, as some argue that it may be used to unfairly label individuals as “psychopaths”, which may result in harsher legal outcomes.
  • There are concerns about the cultural bias in the assessment, as the criteria for psychopathy were developed primarily based on studies of male, Western, criminal populations.
  • The PCL-R does not account for other important factors contributing to an individual’s risk for violent behaviour, such as environmental factors, mental health history, and level of support.

Despite these criticisms, the PCL-R remains one of the most widely used tools for assessing psychopathy.

Can the PCL-R be used in women?

Yes, the PCL-R can be used in women, but the criteria for psychopathy were developed primarily based on studies of male, Western, criminal populations. Research has shown that the expression of psychopathy in women may differ from that in men. Some researchers argue that the current criteria for psychopathy may not accurately capture psychopathy in women. Women with psychopathy may display different behavioural and personality traits than men with psychopathy and may be less likely to engage in violent or criminal behaviour.

Can the PCL-R be used in adolescents?

The PCL-R is typically used to assess psychopathy in adult populations and has not been validated in adolescents. The use of the PCL-R in adolescents is discouraged as

the developmental stage of adolescence may affect the assessment of psychopathy, as some traits that are characteristic of psychopathy, such as impulsivity and lack of guilt, may be part of normal adolescent development.

How long does it take to carry out a PCL-R assessment?

The length of time it takes to carry out a PCL-R assessment can vary, depending on the complexity of the case and the availability of relevant information. On average, a comprehensive PCL-R assessment can take anywhere from 2 to 8 hours to complete. The evaluation involves thoroughly reviewing the individual’s clinical history, including mental health records, criminal records, and other relevant information.

How easy is it to challenge a PCL-R in criminal proceedings?

In some cases, the use of the PCL-R may be challenged based on the validity and reliability of the assessment tool, the qualifications of the assessor, or the use of the assessment in legal proceedings. Challenging a PCL-R in court can be complex. It will likely require an expert witness to address the assessment’s validity and reliability and the assessor’s qualifications.

PCL-R in case law

R v. Johnstone [2011] EWCA Crim 2653 is a UK Court of Appeal case that dealt with using the PCL-R, or Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, in criminal proceedings. In this case, the defendant was convicted of murder and was assessed using the PCL-R by a forensic psychologist. The results of the assessment were used to support the prosecution’s argument that the defendant was a psychopath and was at high risk for reoffending.

The defendant appealed the conviction, and the Court of Appeal considered the use of the PCL-R as evidence in the case. The Court of Appeal noted that the results of the PCL-R assessment should be considered as part of a comprehensive assessment that considers multiple factors, including the individual’s mental health history, environmental factors, and level of support.

How can Expert Court Reports Ltd help?

We have several forensic psychologists and psychiatrists who are proficient in using the PCL-R.  If you want to commission a PCL-R or wish to explore the relevance of an existing PCL-R assessment, please call us on 01865 587865, email, or request a call by completing our online form.

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