UBC researcher Robert Hare reflects on 30-year odyssey into the minds of psychopaths
By Charlie Smith
UBC psychology professor Bob Hare will never forget the time he was almost killed by a psychopath. It was a cold, windy day in early September 1960, and he had just quit his job as a prison psychologist at the old B.C. Penitentiary.
He was driving along the Hope-Princeton Highway, just past the town of Hope, on his way to the University of Western Ontario to study for his PhD. Hare was at the wheel of a 10-year-old Morris Minor, which he had just obtained in an exchange of vehicles with warden John Moloney.
To Hare’s dismay, the brakes gradually become spongy before finally failing altogether while he was driving down a long hill. He was barely able to keep the car under control before he made it to a service station.
Only after the car was inspected did he learn that the brake line had been cut so a slow leak would occur.
Earlier, Hare’s car had been repaired in the prison auto shop, where a psychopathic patient, whom he calls “Ray”, was putting in time. Hare had previously refused to get Ray a job as a roofing contractor with his father’s firm, which would have helped the inmate at an upcoming parole hearing.
To this day, Hare is convinced that the man retaliated by sabotaging his car.
“Ray was a tall, slim fellow with burning eyes. I’ll never forget those eyes,” he said.
Hare, a stocky man with a deliberate manner, doesn’t seem the type to scare easily. But even he sounded a little shaken as he recalled how Ray’s easygoing charm masked his particularly brutal nature.
Since then, Hare has been on a 30-year odyssey to try to determine why people like Ray can have such callous disregard for the people they come in contact with. For most of the early years, Hare did his detective work in the prisons, interviewing scores of inmates and meticulously noting the differences between offenders who genuinely seemed to lack a conscience and those who turned to crime because they had poor role models or were merely troubled, desperate, or too lazy to work.
It wasn’t always easy to persuade murderers, rapists, and other hardened criminals to consent to undergoing a battery of psychological assessments.
Along the way, Hare also faced opposition from criminologists and sociologists who felt uncomfortable with the idea of investigating individual differences between criminals. Often he didn’t receive much help from senior correctional officials back in Ottawa or from agencies that fund scientific research.
He has said that if it weren’t for the cooperation of prison officials in the Fraser Valley and many of the inmates themselves, he would have given up long ago.
Charming and charismatic social predators
Hare’s single-minded obsession to unlock the mysteries of psychopathic behaviour has produced an immense body of research. He has written and edited three books and published more than 70 papers on the personality disorder known as psychopathy.
Along with former research assistant Janice Frazelle, he has created an extremely effective test that is being applied around the world to identify which inmates are psychopaths—remorseless people who lie, cheat, steal, and even murder to get their way—and which ones are not.
Psychopaths often come across as charming and charismatic, but peel back the smile and you’ll find a ruthless, domineering, manipulative social predator who spreads havoc wherever he or she goes.
The worst examples include serial killers like Clifford Olsen, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer. But as Hare pointed out in his 1993 book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, there are also thousands of other, nonmurderous psychopaths who regularly engage in ruinous behaviour.
This can include everything from emptying pensioners’ bank accounts to running bogus charities—even to faking medical credentials and walking into hospital operating rooms to perform surgery on unsuspecting patients.
A 1992 study by UBC psychologist Don Dutton also revealed that 30 percent of all wife batterers in volunteer and court-mandated treatment programs were, according to the Hare checklist, classifiable as psychopaths.
“These are people with a stunning lack of conscience,” Hare said. “The inner voice that says ‘I should not do this’ is not there.”
Hare, with the help of more than three dozen graduate students over the years, has registered one breakthrough after another in understanding why criminal psychopaths are capable of committing such acts.
Hare has also gained great insight into cold-blooded predatory behaviour in noncriminal populations, insight that suggests the disorder called psychopathy is present in one in every 100 people.
In his lectures, he says there appear to be higher-than-normal percentages of psychopaths working in certain areas—such as law, politics, psychiatry, stock-market promotion, and even professional wrestling—where a gift of the gab and an ability to camouflage one’s true intentions can yield tremendous rewards.
“If you do catch them out in a colossal lie, they’re not going to be particularly upset by it. They’ll have a ready explanation,” Hare said. “If things get too tricky, they’ll simply pack up and move on.”
Hare's attracting international acclaim
Now at the pinnacle of his career, Hare is frequently invited to address large groups of forensic and mental-health experts.
This April, he’ll be the keynote speaker at the 15th annual Congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Psychiatry, Psychology and the Law.
In November, he’s off to Portugal as the scientific director at a NATO conference on psychopathy.
Dr. Jim Breiling, head of the perpetrator and interpersonal violence program at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland, said there are major research projects that have had to be adjusted because of the potential usefulness of Hare’s psychopathy test.
“If you’re doing a major longitudinal study involving, very clearly, antisocial, delinquent, or criminal sex-offending behaviour these days and [you] don’t use his measure, you are missing something that would be important,” Breiling told the Georgia Straight.
Friend and former graduate student Dr. Steven Hart said Hare is the only researcher in the world who has devoted his entire career to studying psychopaths, and this research is now offering tremendous benefits for society.
The latest brain-imaging work is beginning to confirm what Hare has long suspected: that people with high scores on the psychopathy checklist are indeed wired differently and thus have a separate and distinct category of mental disorder.
“If there was a Nobel Prize in psychology, Bob would be a shoo-in,” claimed Hart, a clinical psychologist at Simon Fraser University.
Despite Hare’s endorsements from people in the mental-health field, the political elite and top officials with the Correctional Service of Canada have been slow to accept the significance of his findings.
Even today, the National Parole Board only uses his checklist sporadically in the assessment of offenders who might be eligible for parole, even though 15 to 20 percent of all federal inmates are psychopaths, according to Hare’s research.
“I do find it deeply ironic and almost shameful that the Correctional Service of Canada has known about Bob’s work for the last 30 years....This could have been used for the last 10 years,” Hart said.
Hare might be an international celebrity among forensic psychologists, but he still has a relatively low profile in Vancouver. He has lived and worked in the city for more than three decades, but apart from the occasional speaking engagement in front of groups of prosecutors or mental-health workers, he rarely ventures out into the community.
Hart noted that his friend is actually quite shy, although you wouldn’t know it when he gets into one of his rapid-fire discussions about psychopathy.
“He’s an extremely conscientious researcher—much more cautious than most academics—and for years he deliberately underplayed his research,” Hart said.
Checklist spots psychopaths
After many moments of self-doubt about its impact, Hare can now rest assured that his life’s work hasn’t been in vain. In fact, during the past 12 months word of his research on psychopaths has swept across North America and is now on the verge of transforming the way violent offenders are dealt with around the world.
The key to it all is the psychopathy checklist, an extensive assessment that must be administered by a trained clinician and takes up to three hours to complete.
It includes a range of questions—such as “Have you ever hurt anyone physically, but not in a fight?”—and the answers are checked extremely carefully with the offender’s life history.
“We’re trying to get at attitudes, feelings, and responses to a variety of different things in the person’s life span,” Hare said. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to tell the truth. They don’t realize that what they’re saying is not consistent with what they’ve said before.”
The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised was published in 1991 by Toronto-based Multi-Health Systems.
The company’s president, psychologist Steven Stein, told the Georgia Straight that it can only be purchased by people with the appropriate qualifications. Thousands of copies have been sold worldwide, including in Sweden, Denmark, England, Scotland, France, and across the United States.
Stein said he expected it will soon be translated into German and Spanish. Most of the royalties from sales of the checklist are used to finance Hare’s lab.
“This is so important right now, because we’re letting all sorts of guys out who are high risk for committing another offence, and we’re keeping people in who are not at risk,” Hare said.
He won’t discuss individual cases, but one has to wonder how Fernand Auger, the suspected murderer of Melanie Carpenter, or rapist Danny Perrault would have scored on the psychopathy checklist—or if, perhaps, they were actually tested.
It’s likely that the checklist will be used much more frequently in the United States.
“A couple of months ago, I was the keynote speaker at the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law meeting in Hawaii,” Hare said. “It’s an indication that this whole construct—psychopathy—is becoming so important among forensic psychiatrists.”
Hare is, in many ways, still the absent-minded professor who derives his greatest pleasure from spending long hours in the lab.
Ask him any question about psychopaths—such as how their brain functions differ from nonpsychopaths’—and he’ll lean forward in his chair and rattle off all the latest research. Or he’ll jump up to the blackboard with the zest of a man half his age to demonstrate another aspect of the disorder.
“It’s so nice to see someone, after all these years, still so interested in what he’s doing,” said Judy Zaparniuk, a PhD student who plans to follow in Hare’s footsteps as a researcher.
Public's views shaped by Hollywood
At times, Hare seems a little bewildered by some of the attention he has received in recent years, especially since the publication of Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us.
Written for the general public, it’s full of stories about psychopaths he has encountered over the years, including a lengthy segment on Ray, the man who probably cut the brake line in his automobile.
Now Hare gets calls from producers working for Connie Chung, Oprah Winfrey, and 60 Minutes, all wanting him to appear on U.S. television with psychopaths so he can explain how they differ from the general population.
The public’s view of psychopathy has been partially shaped by the image of Hannibal Lector in the movie The Silence of the Lambs. Hare said that contrary to the film’s message, it’s not unusual to capture psychopaths alive, and most of them look perfectly normal.
On occasion, he’ll receive a call from Hollywood directors who want advice on how to represent psychopathic behaviour on the screen more accurately.
Once, he was contacted by a Wall Street lawyer representing someone charged with major insider-trading offences. The lawyer wanted Hare to testify that his client’s chief accuser was a psychopath and said that money was no object, but the UBC researcher turned down the opportunity.
That’s the glamorous side of his work. In the early days, the reality more often consisted of staring cold-blooded killers in the face within the walls of a maximum-security prison.
He chuckled when he recalled the first time he tried to persuade inmates at the B.C. Pen to consent to becoming subjects in his research. Tom Taylor, then a classification officer in the prison, talked initially to one of the senior criminals in the joint, Frank Schlosser, about the potential value of Hare’s research for younger inmates. Then Hare came in to try to convince everyone to participate.
“There would be a big platform and they’d all be there,” he recalled. “I’d make my pitch and there would be dead silence. Then Frank would say, ‘I think it looks okay to me, boys.’ ”
Hare originally used psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley’s classic 1960 book The Mask of Sanity as the basis for trying to diagnose which inmates were psychopathic and which ones weren’t. Cleckley believed that psychopaths were severely disturbed, despite appearing normal.
Hare and other investigators have since concluded that psychopaths do not meet the test of insanity because they are perfectly aware of what they are doing and deliberately inflict harm on people who get in their way.
“These are people who see nothing wrong with themselves. They don’t suffer from subjective or personal distress,” he said.
Glib, superficial, and grandiose liars
At a time when it was unfashionable to examine individual characteristics of criminals, Hare began noticing that psychopaths, who were a minority in the general prison population, differed significantly from the nonpsychopaths.
With the help of former graduate student Tim Harpur and others, Hare eventually narrowed his search down to a list of 20 personality and behavioural traits, dividing them into two broad categories, which he called Factor I and Factor II.
In Hare’s psychopathy checklist, Factor I traits include glibness and superficial charm, pathological lying, no remorse, excessive grandiosity, failure to accept responsibility, shallow emotions, and callousness.
Factor II focuses on socially deviant behaviours such as a parasitic lifestyle, impulsivity, juvenile delinquency, lack of realistic long-term goals, poor behaviour controls as a child and as an adult, and a constant need for stimulation.
Some psychopaths register higher in one or the other category, but on balance, Hare concludes that anyone who scores 30 or more points out of 40 on the test is definitely a psychopath.
He said that where the parole system can break down is when people make decisions about release based upon social deviance, often missing the crucial element that personality can play in predicting future criminal behaviour.
“The psychopathy checklist was never designed to make predictions, for parole or any other reason. It was designed as a tool for the measurement of this construct called psychopathy,” Hare said. “But in every single context or setting where psychopathy is important, this instrument is important. It turns out that predictions of recidivism, responses to treatment in the correctional system, violence—all these things have to do with psychopathy.”
In December 1991, after Vancouver Sun reporter Margaret Munro wrote a story about Hare’s research, the inmates complained that it would be used to keep them in prison longer. Hare said that nothing could be further from the truth.
He noted that using the current psychiatric bible, the DSM-IV, 80 percent of all federal inmates would be classified as having antisocial personality disorder, which is regularly used as grounds for denying parole.
Hare said that by using the psychopathy checklist, only 15 to 20 percent of offenders would be assessed as having a type of personality disorder that would make them an extremely high risk to reoffend.
Hare added that it would be unethical for him or his students to share information about individual inmates with the authorities. All of his students sign declarations promising absolute confidentiality with their research, and he said he has never betrayed this rule in more than 30 years.
“There have been times when people within the criminal justice system have phoned me about a specific individual and said, ‘Have you studied him? Can you tell us something?’ I’ve said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”
Recidivism rates differ
Even though the psychopathy checklist is not routinely referred to by members of the National Parole Board, corrections officials ensure that it is applied to all inmates coming into the federal prison system.
According to Dr. Vern Quinsey, a forensic psychologist at Queen’s University, it’s the best instrument available for predicting the likelihood of a violent inmate reoffending upon release.
At a recent conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sex Abusers in San Francisco, Quinsey went through a number of variables for predicting recidivism, including the individual’s criminal history, family history, and deviant sexual preferences. At the top of the list was Hare’s psychopathy checklist.
“We’re bloody lucky that we’ve got Hare and the kind of work he’s done,” Quinsey told the Straight. “Canada quite clearly is in the forefront of work on psychopathy, and it’s very largely due to him.”
Steven Hart recalled the first time, in 1985, that he went to a conference with Hare to discuss their original study on the prediction of criminal behaviour using the psychopathy checklist.
Hart said it found that the recidivism rate among psychopaths was three to four times higher than that of nonpsychopaths, a finding that has since been replicated a dozen times.
The director of the New York state department of forensic health, Joel Dvoskin, approached Hare at the conference to see if he would accept a job that would pay much more money than he was making at UBC.
“He was offering him more than $100,000 a year, U.S., to go down and do the same thing he was doing here,” Hart said. “Bob has always resisted the temptation to go for the money or split for the United States.”
Today, Hare regularly takes his “slide show” on the road to the U.S., encapsulating the most important empirical research on psychopathy during the past 20 years in a three-hour presentation. He estimated that he has given his presentation in 25 states.
It’s really a rundown of virtually every aspect of the disorder. He mentions one Ontario study that showed 37.5 percent of psychopaths violated the terms of unescorted temporary absences from prison, compared to zero percent for nonpsychopaths.
Another Ontario study of 299 male offenders released from federal prison reported that within three years, 40 percent of psychopaths had committed another violent crime, compared to less than 10 percent of nonpsychopaths.
Here in B.C., a study of 265 young sex offenders between the ages of 13 and 18 showed similarly chilling results. Coordinated by Dr. Roy O'Shaughnessy, clinical director of youth forensic services in the Ministry of the Attorney General, it showed that the recidivism rate for sexual crimes was well below 10 percent, which suggested that treatment programs were having an effect.
However, Hare pointed out that after the sample was divided into those with high scores for psychopathy and those with middle or low scores—and taking into consideration all crimes of violence—a different story emerged.
“All the other offenders are violently recidivating in the first year at a very low rate, maybe below 10 percent, on average. But the psychopathic offenders are violently recidivating at a very high rate—45 to 50 percent,” he said. “The psychopath who is a sex offender is not primarily a sex offender. He’s an offender.”
Hare said this finding has enormous implications for the treatment of sex offenders. Traditionally, they’ve all been lumped into the same programs. Now he believes that sex offenders who are not psychopaths should continue receiving specialized treatment but that psychopathic sex offenders must be dealt with differently, because that is just one of many areas where they’re prone to break the law.
“People like Bob,” said O’Shaughnessy, “and, hopefully, myself, really focus less on the politics and more on the clinical data and the hard research. That’s really the kind of thing that I think should be guiding our thinking. Not emotion or politics, but hard science.”
Cognitive research provides insights
Hare has just completed an article for the 20th-anniversary issue of Criminal Justice and Behavior that notes that psychopaths appear to process language differently than nonpsychopaths, possibly reflecting structural or functional anomalies within the brain’s circuits.
The only brain-imaging study conducted on psychopaths showed that their relative cerebral blood flows differed markedly from nonpsychopaths when they performed certain functions. Hare said that much more work in this area is about to be done in Sweden.
If it turns out that the brains of psychopaths have faulty neurotransmitters, Hare said it’s conceivable that at some point in the future they could be given medication to modify the symptoms of the disorder—especially if the disorder is diagnosed at a young age.
To date, no treatment program has ever proven effective with psychopaths, because they appear to be incapable of feeling guilty about anything they’ve done.
Despite the importance of his research and its widespread application to the criminal justice system, Hare has had a difficult time obtaining funding in Canada.
Four years ago, the Medical Research Council of Canada cut him off, just as his lab was making some of its greatest breakthroughs. The Correctional Service of Canada has given him a minuscule amount of funding, most of which was for a model treatment program for psychopaths that was subsequently put on the shelf.
It’s gotten to the point where one of Hare’s graduate students, Becky Mills, recently had to borrow electroencephalograph equipment from BCIT to research how the brains of psychopaths process information differently. That’s because the machine in the lab had worn out from overuse.
Hare said if it weren’t for the support of the B.C. Health Research Foundation, which provided grants of $160,291 from the spring of 1991 to 1994, he might have had to close the lab altogether.
This lack of funding frustrates Steven Hart. “It’s arguably the most destructive and costly mental disorder that we know of in terms of economic and emotional harm,” Hart complained.
Hare, who has never approached politicians or victims’-rights groups to ask for assistance, might get help from a wealthy woman in Washington state who has herself felt the sting of a psychopath.
He wouldn’t divulge her identity or the details, except to say that she has seriously explored the possibility of creating a private foundation to fund his research.
Ordinarily, one would think that the Correctional Service of Canada would support this kind of research, considering all the international attention it has received. But Hare was incensed in 1993 when Larry Motiuk, the department’s senior manager of the research and statistics branch, claimed in an in-house publication that the psychopathy checklist and other assessment instruments had “been met with disdain and uneven implementation” and that “as soon as the crafters of assessment tools depart...the tools run the risk of being placed on the shelf.”
Ironically, another article in the same issue by Ralph Serin, a corrections official in the Ontario region, described the psychopathy checklist “as a good predictor of recidivism”.
Hare fired off a letter to the editor saying that with his 25-year commitment to research on psychopathy, it was ludicrous for Motiuk to suggest that he was the type of person who might depart from the field.
“If Motiuk cannot justify his comments concerning the PCL (and the other tools he maligns), I expect him to publish a retraction and an apology,” Hare wrote. He never received a response.
Despite the cold shoulder he has received from back East, Hare spoke warmly about prison officials on the West Coast, offering special praise for Matsqui warden Roger Brock and Dr. Johann Brink, medical director at the Regional Psychiatric Centre.
Hare’s work has also attracted the attention of some law-enforcement officers, lawyers, and journalists, including Province romance columnist Kathy Tait. She regularly counsels readers to beware of predatory psychopaths—the so-called Don Juan cons—who might be lurking in singles bars.
One of Hare’s biggest admirers is freelance stock-market investigator Adrian du Plessis.
“My introduction to Robert Hare’s work has proven invaluable in coming to grips with Howe Street criminality,” he said. “The future of explaining white-collar crime lies in coming to a recognition that investigators, society, et al are dealing with psychopathic characters in Armani suits.”
During his brief stint as a B.C. Securities Commission investigator, du Plessis talked at length with fellow investigators about Hare’s book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. Du Plessis also ensured that a copy was put in the commission’s library for future reference.
Lawyer Jim Matkin, who headed a government inquiry into the VSE and the B.C. Securities Commission, also mentioned Hare’s book as a reference in his final report.
In the book, Hare wrote that if he were unable to study psychopaths in prison, his next choice would very likely be a place like the Vancouver Stock Exchange.
Perhaps it isn’t too great a leap to suggest that he might also consider checking out the corridors of power in Victoria. In a 1993 interview with Vaughn Palmer, who was then hosting The Early Edition on CBC Radio, Hare suggested that there are a fair share of psychopaths in the political arena.
“There’s a need to dominate and control other people, and also a bending of the rules,” Hare said.
He added, however, that it would be very difficult for a real psychopath to operate in a political arena for a very long period of time without breaking the rules or even the law.
These are remarkable charges to make, but Hare has an equally remarkable body of data to support what he says. And after training a generation of researchers in the field, he’s confident that his work will carry on long after he departs from the scene.
Back in the lab, however, three of his students sitting around a table say they doubt Hare will ever really retire, because he’s having too much fun. Besides, his work is finally having an impact all around the world, especially now that violence is being seen as a major public-health issue.
The psychopathy checklist is about to be used on every forensic psychiatric patient in Sweden. In Minnesota, there’s a “sexual psychopath” law designed to keep these types of predators off the street.
“One of the problems with the concept of psychopathy is that it’s hard to measure without Dr. Hare’s checklist,” said Dr. Michael Millard, a Minnesota forensic psychologist who has used Hare’s test to keep more than a dozen violent offenders behind bars indefinitely.
Hare, a remarkably modest man, is always quick to offer credit to all of his graduate students, suggesting that he is just the “PR man” for the lab.
It’s a questionable claim, considering that he scrupulously avoided media attention until the early 1990s for fear that it would undermine his students’ work in the prisons.
He confessed that there was a point in the early 1980s when he felt like giving it all up and studying archaeology. At the time, there wasn’t much interest in psychopathy among criminologists and psychologists, and he feared that he might be wasting his energy on the topic.
But it was the enthusiasm of his graduate students at the time—Hart, Harpur, Carleton University professor Adelle Forth, Surrey mental-health worker Brenda Gillstrom, and Wisconsin neuropsychologist Sherrie Williamson—who kept him going. And he says subsequent groups of graduate students have been doing it ever since.
“They provide the spark and the inspiration. They have all the good ideas,” he said. “I’m not telling them what to do. What happens is they drive me.”