Psychology and the Sandusky trial: Assessing Histrionic Personality Disorder

A short news article (found here) tells that Jerry Sandusky is to be evaluated for a personality disorder today by a prosecution psychologist. Jerry is on trial for some 50 counts of child sexual abuse. The article says that the defense team plans to argue that Jerry has Histrionic Personality Disorder and that explains his verbal and written behavior with the boys who are accusing him of abuse–rather than see those same behaviors as attempts to groom the boys.

Just how will a psychologist go about determining the presence of HPD? In a non-forensic setting, a psychologist would attempt to determine the presence of a personality disorder by gathering several kinds of data

However, there is a problem with the forensic (criminal court) setting. The problem is this: if the defense believes such a diagnosis will help their case, it stands to reason that they could easily coach their client to answer questions (whether interview or objective testing) in such a way as to ensure a positive diagnosis. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to present or which questions need to be answered in a particular way to meet the criteria for HPD, or any other diagnosis.

So, what is a forensic psychologist to do? Check for malingering. Some who try to fake a particular diagnosis tend to overdo the fake. The MMPI-II, for example, has some capacity to assess for those who answer in a particular way in an attempt to fake mental illness. There are a few other tests that work very hard in assessing malingering. Even so, it will be one psychologist’s clinical judgment against another’s.

Does it matter?

Not really. What is on trial is whether Sandusky committed acts of child sexual abuse. Either he did or didn’t. The only way the HPD diagnosis will work is if the jurors believe that Sandusky is only misunderstood–that he never touched a child in a sexual way but was over-emotional in his attempts to garner the kids attention. It is possible that Sandusky does meet criteria for HPD and abused the boys. The diagnosis will not protect him from the consequences of crimes he may have committed.

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Filed under Abuse, Psychology

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