Fifty years ago, his chilling experiences as a prison psychologist led Robert Hare on a lifelong quest to understand one of humanity’s most fascinating — and dangerous — disorders.
Robert Hare steps out of the sunlight and into a West Vancouver pub. “Let me see your eyes,” says the 82-year old, piercing me with a cautious gaze that has sized up hundreds of criminals, including some of Canada’s most notorious psychopaths.The word itself has become a synonym for a certain type of evil, denoting a specific breed of cunning, bloodthirsty predator who lacks empathy, remorse and impulse control, readily violating social rules and exploiting others to get what he or she wants. Psychopaths are capable of the most heinous crimes, yet they’re often so charming and manipulative that they can hide behind a well-cultivated mask of normalcy for years and perhaps their entire lives. Only the ones who get caught become household names, such as Ted Bundy, “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy and “Ken and Barbie Killers” Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
Hare’s oblique wariness of a reporter brandishing a voice recorder in a busy taphouse is perhaps no surprise, given his expertise with the subject and the research that suggests 1 in 100 people are psychopaths who tend to blend in, like cold-blooded chameleons.We know psychopaths make up 15 to 20 percent of the prison population, at least 70 percent of repeat violent offenders and the significant majority of serial killers and sex offenders. We know they’re difficult to treat using conventional methods, partly because they rarely seek out treatment. Yet they’re three times more likely to be released — and they get paroled almost three times faster — than their non-psychopathic counterparts. With the advent of neuroscience, we know the brains of psychopaths are atypical, leading some experts to call psychopathy a neurodevelopmental disorder, akin to autism, and one that’s diagnosable even in small children.
We know so much about psychopaths because of The Hare — officially the Psychopathy Check List-Revised (PCL-R) — the test that Hare developed for researchers in 1980 and released publicly in 1991. It’s now the gold standard used by researchers, forensic clinicians and the justice system to identify the hallmark traits and behaviors that make psychopaths chillingly unique.With his leather jacket, silver goatee and circumspect gaze, Hare looks more like a retired detective than an emeritus academic. Ostensibly, he retired in 2000, when he closed his renowned psychopathy research lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC). But Hare remains an active researcher, developing new assessment tools, giving keynote addresses at conferences around the globe and holding workshops for forensic clinicians, prison staff and FBI profilers. Since his so-called retirement, Hare has spawned variations of the PCL-R to assess youth and children exhibiting early signs of psychopathy. He’s also turned his gaze on corporations. Finding that up to 4 percent of corporate staffers are psychopaths, he’s validating a research tool that HR departments and corporate staffers could eventually use to screen prospective and current employees, from mailroom to corner office. What makes these people tick? How can we safeguard society against them? Perhaps most importantly, how are these predators spawned? Hare, known as “Beagle Bob” among his inner circle for his tendency to follow a scent, has devoted more than 50 years to wrestling with these questions, starting at a time when we didn’t even have a succinct definition for psychopath.
Unfortunately, Cleckley’s rally call was largely ignored by the medical community. By the late ’60s, the bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual(DSM), had replaced “psychopathic personality” with “antisocial personality disorder,” which still didn’t include hallmark psychopathic traits such as lack of empathy and callousness.This DSM classification endures today, yet while most psychopaths are diagnostically antisocial, the majority of people with antisocial personality disorder are not psychopaths.
Hare’s path into psychopathy research happened by chance and circumstance. He grew up in a close-knit family in a working-class suburb of Calgary, Alberta. Hare found school easy but had no clue what he wanted to do with his life. He liked math, science and archaeology, but he took a mix of courses at the University of Alberta, including psychology.By the late 1950s, he was completing his master’s degree in psychology. “I was curious about what drives our perceptions, emotions, motivations,” he says. “I wanted to know what was going on from an experimental scientific perspective.”
Hare’s primary job involved assessing prisoners, using available tools ranging from personality tests to Rorschach ink blots, all of which were scientifically unreliable and, he’d soon discover, much less useful than the insights of prison guards.He was installed in a remote part of the prison, many locked doors away from the guards, making the panic button above his desk useless. Within the first hour, he encountered his first psychopath, an inmate he calls Ray.
Throughout Hare’s eight-month stint at the penitentiary, Ray persuaded Hare to endorse him for various plum prison jobs, including the auto shop, which led to a chilling send-off for Hare when he left to finish his doctorate degree at the University of Western Ontario. Hare brought his car to the shop for a tune-up just before his young family took their cross-country relocation trip.As they drove down a hill, the brakes failed. Luckily they made it to a service station, where a mechanic discovered that the brake line had been rigged for a slow leak. Hare was relieved to escape to the academic world, now with an interest in studying the behavioral effects of rewards and punishment. He came across Cleckley’s book, and in these detailed character portraits, Hare recognized Ray, particularly his ability to charm and dupe otherwise sensible people. The inmate’s smooth-talking personality type had become a puzzle that Hare would devote his life’s work attempting to solve.
Making the List
Hare’s first breakthrough psychopathy experiment measured physiological arousal. While hooked up to a sweat gland monitor, volunteers, all male, were told that they’d receive a brief shock eight seconds into a 12-second countdown.The study, published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1965, revealed that while most criminals and control subjects exhibited significant physiological stress in anticipation of the shock, psychopaths did not. In a similar study published the following year, participants were given the option to be shocked immediately or 10 seconds later. Eighty to 90 percent of non-psychopaths and community controls chose to get it over with immediately, but only 56 percent of psychopaths chose that option, suggesting that they did not mind waiting for an unpleasant event.
The results piqued Hare’s interest, but forensic psychology was in its infancy, and psychopathy research was virtually non-existent. “The literature on the topic was pretty barren,” says Hare. “Cleckley and I were two voices crying in the wilderness,” he says. “At times, I was ready to pack it in and go into archaeology. But I stuck at it.”
While hooked up to an EEG that tracked brain activity, study participants looked at neutral or emotional words — table, desk, carpet, corpse, maggot, torture — followed by scrambled words.“With emotional words, most people can differentiate between words and scrambles very quickly, with high accuracy,” says Hare. “But psychopaths responded the same way to emotional and neutral words. There was no emotional turbo boost. That was stunning. In 1991, we submitted the paper to Science, and it was turned down at first because the editors thought these can’t possibly be real people.” Science ultimately published the paper later that year, and it was replicated a few years later in the first-ever brain imaging study of psychopathy, a collaboration between Hare and the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center substance abuse clinic.
As Hare drives us to his home near Horseshoe Bay, commenting occasionally on dangerous drivers exhibiting psychopathic traits, he points out that “scores of researchers doing MRIs have since replicated those early studies.”Hare’s reputation for cutting-edge scientific research attracted many students to the Hare Lab, including Kent Kiehl, who completed his master’s and doctorate degrees there from the mid-1990s until the lab closed in 2000. “ We discovered very striking differences between psychopath and non-psychopath brains,” says Kiehl, who has continued his research at the University of New Mexico since 2007. “But Bob taught me that it’s more important to listen to their stories and life histories. He’s interviewed some of the most notorious psychopaths in Canada. That makes him unique. Eighty percent of the researchers in psychopathy, some of the biggest names, have never actually met a psychopath. They haven’t spent time with the material, if you will.” The 46-year-old Kiehl is executive science officer at the Mind Research Network forensics lab, which travels to local prisons with a mobile fMRI machine, tracking blood-flow changes while subjects are exposed to neutral and violent words and imagery. So far, Kiehl has assessed more than 5,000 brains and found that psychopaths have functional and structural anomalies that affect emotions, impulse control and cognition, leading him to view psychopathy as a neurodevelopmental disorder — a belief he shares with a number of other researchers and psychologists.
Hare is wary about the impact of brain scans in the courtroom. “Neuroscience is sexy right now, and brain scans are attention-grabbers,” he acknowledges as we sit on his balcony drinking cappuccino. “There’s some dramatic new stuff showing there might be anomalies in the cells between the frontal cortex and the limbic system, referred to as ‘potholes’ along the neural tracks. It’s interpreted as evidence of some sort of disconnection between frontal and limbic regions.”
This biological adaptation theory qualifies psychopathy as an advantageous, albeit deplorable, method of genetic reproduction, not as a neurological disorder.Both etiology theories could have serious real world implications. Could children be vilified as bad seeds or given special resources or medical treatment? Could workers be tested for psychopathic tendencies by employers? Could criminals be imprisoned for life based solely on brain scans?
The Hare’s Breadth
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