Comprehending the con

Psychopath expert Prof. Robert Hare is a wanted man worldwide

by Bruce Mason staff writer


Gunfire punctuates the screams of schoolchildren, a shackled, serial rapist grins into the limelight, scam artists set up shop and we ask, "Who are these people?"

The question leads many to Robert Hare, who has become recognized as the foremost authority on psychopaths over 35 years of research at UBC.

Technically retired and no longer teaching, the professor emeritus of Psychology is busier than ever.

"I'm certainly not fading into the sunset," he says, pushing aside appointment notes and airline tickets, putting the phone on call-forward and listing some of his current projects.

U.S. justice officials seek his advice on school shootings and the potential release of some 100 serial killers that plea-bargained or otherwise "slipped through the cracks." In the U.K. he is a key member of the advisory panel developing programs for the treatment of psychopaths.

As he unwraps a cafeteria sandwich Hare recalls, "A lot of my friends thought I must be somebody after all when my picture graced the front page of the Georgia Straight several years ago."

Since then the seemingly inexplicable acts of human predators--drug dealers, abusers, swindlers, terrorists, cult leaders, gang members and others--have made the media hungry to know more, much more.

Recently a British camera crew spent several days at UBC filming Hare for a documentary. Journalists such as Stone Philips of NBC's Dateline line up for interviews. CBC Radio has just produced a national profile for a series on academics that have had a profound impact on society.

Hare's research has provided much of the basis for the current view that psychopathy is the most socially destructive personality disorder and the single most important clinical construct underlying persistent crime and violence.

His accomplishments include developing and refining the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). The standard for diagnosis and assessment in clinical and applied settings, it is used in criminal justice and mental health systems worldwide.

"We had an academic and clinical Tower of Babel," recalls Hare, who became dissatisfied with psychopathy assessments more than 20 years ago. "Researchers couldn't replicate others' findings and there was general chaos in the field--a real mess."

Commonly know as "the Hare," the PCL-R dramatically increased the understanding of the nature and manifestations of psychopathy. It has been used in more than 500 studies and is the single, most consistent predictor of violence, not only with criminals, but also with mentally disordered offenders and psychiatric patients.

"We love him here," says Mary-Ellen O'Toole, a special supervisory agent and profiler with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Centre for the Analysis of Violent Crime. "I think it is unconscionable for anyone in law enforcement not to use his findings. He has helped us demystify psychopaths and develop a strategy for dealing with them."

About one per cent of the general population is psychopathic--that's 300,000 in Canada alone. "They seem to lack the ability to feel genuine empathy, guilt, or remorse, or to form deep emotional attachments or connections with other people," he says.

They also make up between 10 and 25 per cent of inmate populations and are four times more likely to re-offend than other inmates. "Psychopaths often con the system, including the therapists and, ironically, may be more likely to re-offend after receiving current prison treatment programs," says Hare, who worries that Canada has one treatment for all.

In his best-selling book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, he coined the phrase "subcriminal psychopath" to describe the successful and dangerous egos with an uncanny knack for office politics.

He will share his insights into white-collar crime in two upcoming keynote addresses at major conferences on fraud: one at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Academy for 200 agents, another in Las Vegas for 500 certified accountants.

In spite of many requests to appear as an expert witness, Hare has testified only at the request of the court about the general nature, assessment, and implications of psychopathy and always without a fee. He consults with law enforcement officers, including homicide investigators, but does not charge for his services.

Last month the Canadian Psychological Association presented him with an award for distinguished contributions in the application of psychology. Recently the Queen Sophia Silver Medal was awarded to him in Spain and he was given citations from the director of the FBI for "exceptional service in the public interest" and for "outstanding assistance in investigative efforts."

Prof. Richard Tees, head of Psychology at UBC, says Hare represents the ideal academic.

"Bob has paid his dues, working at his bench and in the field, carefully collecting data, competing for funding and publishing his clever analyses in top peer-reviewed journals. Former students excel in the field and continue to work with him and seek his advice.

"Decades of hard work and thoughtful insights led to the depth of his knowledge and wisdom which is now clearly evident and resonates with a great many people," he adds.

Hare and his wife of 40 years were honoured at an international conference in Vancouver last October.

"My wife, Averil, richly deserved the recognition for her outstanding and influential work in child abuse and child welfare," says Hare. He credits the support and counsel of his wife, who is a prominent social worker, his students and colleagues for most of his success.

"I've been extremely fortunate to have had many outstanding students and, more recently, to be part of a UBC research team from Psychology, Psychiatry, and Radiology." The group is doing groundbreaking research in brain mapping and functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine the neurobiology of psychopathy.

He is delighted that the fruits of his academic labour have significant practical value, but the demands on his time and expertise, while rewarding, are also tiring and not without personal cost.

"I'm on a treadmill of my own making and now have to cut down on work to devote more time to my family," says Hare. "Our daughter, Cheryl, a UBC admissions officer until she was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis, has put a lot of things into proper perspective."