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Trouble with Psychopathy as a General Theory of Crime

NCJ Number
International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology Volume: 48 Issue: 2 Dated: April 2004 Pages: 133-148
Glenn D. Walters
Date Published
April 2004
This article analyzes whether Robert Hare’s concept of psychopathy provides a general theory of crime.
According to psychologist Robert Hare, psychopathy provides an explanation for most criminal behavior. Hare employs a dimensional approach that divides peoples into two categories, psychopaths and nonpsychopaths. He asserts that the psychopathic minority commit most of the crime in society. Such an assertion requires a thorough review of the evidence, beginning with an examination of the philosophical origins of Hare’s position, which is found in the medical pathology model and personality trait theory. The three components of the medical model (diagnosis, disorder, and taxon) are discussed in regard to the concept of psychopathy and its merits for the criminal justice community. Next, the three key assumptions of personality trait theory are analyzed in light of what they reveal about the concept of psychopathy and its implications for crime. Personality trait theory identifies environmental factors as the cause of human behavior; it holds that traits are reasonably consistent across situations; and it asserts that traits remain stable over time. The author reviews previous research that refutes or supports each assumption in terms of psychopathic personalities. The concluding section analyzes the value of the psychopathy model as a comprehensive theory of crime. According to the analysis, the psychopathy concept is problematic in two ways when applied as a general theory of crime. First, it is questionable whether psychopathy meets its own criteria of a good theory because of the lack of evidence that psychopathy can be diagnosed, studied, and applied in the same fashion as the medical diseases that serve as its standard of comparison. Second, the internality, consistency, and stability of the psychopathy concept are debatable. Psychopathy only did well on two of the six criteria of a good model (parsimony and fruitfulness); it did fair on one criterion (precision), but performed poorly on three other criteria (comprehensiveness, internal consistency, and empirical validity). As such, the author contends that the concept of psychopathy holds only minimal relevance for criminological theory. Although it is lacking as a general theory of crime, the concept of psychopathy may have a role to play in the development of an effective theory of crime. Notes, references