Interview Strategies for Assessing Psychopathic Personality Disturbance in Adolescents

Interview Strategies for Assessing Psychopathic Personality Disturbance in Adolescents

This article provided recommendations for improving interview protocols for the assessment of psychopathic personality disturbance (PPD) among adolescent offenders. These recommendations were based on experiences interviewing adolescents from the Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offender Study and related to areas such as establishing and improving rapport, responding to dishonesty, and the importance of follow up questions. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health | 2019, Vol. 18, No. 1, 35-49

The Assessment of Psychopathic Personality Disturbance Among Adolescent Male Offenders: Interview Strategies and Recommendations


Evan C. McCuish, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University, Bumaby, Canada
Katherine B. Hanniball, Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University, Bumaby, Canada
Raymond Corrado, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University, Bumaby, Canada


Although it is relatively common for some practitioners to assess psychopathic personality disturbance (PPD) among adolescent offenders, little has been said about interview skills and strategies that are helpful for an accurate assessment. Thus, this article provided recommendations for improving interview protocols for the assessment of PPD among incarcerated adolescent offenders. These recommendations were based on experiences interviewing adolescents from the Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offender Study and related to: (1) establishing and improving rapport, (2) responding to dishonesty, (3) tailoring the interview for adolescents as opposed to adults, (4) the importance of follow-up questions, and (5) recognizing and responding to symptoms of PPD that emerge during the interview. Vignettes of interviews with incarcerated adolescent males were used to help illustrate recommendations and strategies. Future research should systematically measure what works and what does not work when implementing interview strategies, including whether such strategies generalize across gender and culture.


Interview skills, adolescence, psychopathy

Summary of the Research

“…Developing interview skills for the assessment of psychopathy is especially important given that individuals characterized by strong symptoms of the disorder are at an increased likelihood of attempting to manipulate, antagonize, and deceive the interviewer, even in the absence of any motivation for such behavior…Moreover, strong interview skills have become increasingly important given the recent emphasis on a more personality-based assessment of psychopathy…Interview protocols should also be adapted given that features of adult psychopathy can resemble normative adolescent traits. For example, compared to adults, adolescents are characterized by lower levels of psychosocial maturity…display less sophisticated demonstrations of empathy…and remorse…Failure to distinguish adolescents based on the strength of these traits may result in overestimating the prevalence of symptoms of PPD” (p.35-36).

“The purpose of this article was to provide recommendations and guidelines that help facilitate interviews that lead to a more accurate assessment of PPD among adolescents. Increases in interview accuracy may lead to, for example, more well-informed decision making regarding risk for future offending. Strategies for interviewing adolescents with strong symptoms of PPD were primarily in mind when making these recommendations; however, some recommendations may be beneficial for all adolescents…Guidelines were based on experiences conducting interviews as part of the Incarcerated Serious and violent Young Offender Study (ISVYOS)” (p.36).

Translating Research into Practice

“Interview preparation and interview introduction are two important stages preceding the actual interview that help provide a foundation from which improvements in rapport can be built upon. Interview preparation helps facilitate building rapport during the interview by making the interviewer aware of sensitive topics such as the youth’s family history…Also prior to the interview, personal introductions and interview orientation provide opportunities to build rapport by establishing the interviewer’s appreciation for the youth’s willingness to participate and that the interviewer was not there simply to collect information…” (p.38).

“An interviewee’s withholding of certain attitudes or past actions/life experiences may be inconsequential to the accuracy of the assessment. Challenging an interviewee’s statement may diminish rapport. Thus, consideration should be given to whether the perceived deceit impacted the interviewer’s ability to make an accurate assessment…The interviewer must consider the appropriate intensity of the challenge…which should vary according to, for example, whether the interviewer thinks that the youth is simply misremembering an event or feels embarrassed about disclosing a specific life event, vs. a youth that is lying for their own entertainment…In the former scenario, suggesting to the youth that the interviewer believes that they are being dishonest (e.g., a high-intensity challenge) may alienate the interviewee, threaten rapport, and result in them being less open. In the latter scenario, interviewers should be aware that youth are often bored in custody and will lie for fun. This may be especially true among individuals with strong symptoms of PPD, given they tend to lie with greater ease and are more sensation seeking and antagonistic…Frequent and unchallenged lies potentially reinforce the interviewee’s desire to see how many lies they can get away with. A low-intensity challenge at the beginning of the interview may help to ensure that the youth does not treat the interview as a game…” (p.39).

“Adolescents are more likely than adults to change their answer in response to negative feedback…The way follow-up questions are phrased (e.g., ‘your answer is different from other youth, why is this?’) may give youth the impression that they are not ‘normal,’ which may result in altering their answer to correspond with their perception of the interviewer’s expectation…Due to their lower level of functioning, youth are at a greater risk of misunderstanding interview questions, and this is especially likely among incarcerated offenders given their tendency to be characterized by learning disorders…Altering colloquial phrases can help to avoid misunderstandings that arise when interviewees have a literal interpretation of question…” (p.40).

“Although adults with strong symptoms of psychopathy engage in impression management by underreporting criminal behavior…youth may exaggerate negative qualities (e.g., criminal behavior) to illustrate their opposition to authority…Although youth may take pride in their aggression more generally, they may also minimize how this behavior results in functional impairment in their day-to-day life…As such, asking youth about whether their aggression resulted in difficulties with police or other agents of the justice system may result in an attempt to conceal the degree to which it caused functional impairment. Instead, interviewers should ask youth to describe times that they have been aggressive and allow the details of such incidents to unfold through natural conversation” (p.42).

“Follow-up questions are especially important when interviewing adolescents to avoid conflating symptoms of PPD with psychosocial maturity. Facets such as temperance (the ability to control one’s impulses), social perspective (the ability to take others’ views into account), and responsibility all exhibit overlap with features of PPD…and therefore are not consistent with stable, non-context-specific symptoms of PPD. Follow-up questions can clarify whether this symptom manifests across different contexts/areas of functioning, which is essential for evaluating the strength with which a symptom is present. Failure to make distinctions will result in false positives…” (p.42-43).

“Probing questions that are only tangentially related to the topic in question sometimes may be more effective in gaining insight into the magnitude of specific features of PPD…Interviewers must be familiar with interview questions and the general structure of the interview to avoid looking down at the interview questions. This is important because observing nonverbal responses from the interviewee can provide insight into PPD symptoms. For example, symptoms associated with restlessness and other behavioral features of PPD are often evident in interview settings…Interpersonal features of PPD can also be communicated throughout the interview…Youth with strong symptoms of PPD may invade the interviewer’s personal space, manipulate objects in the room, attempt to complete the interview on their own…Bringing items to the interview that the youth can use without being a security concern (e.g., a deck of cards) can provide them with a sense of control without disrupting the course of the interview…” (p.44-45).

“Garrulousness…can also be identified through the interviewee’s use of inappropriate technical jargon, especially in response to simple questions…Challenges can result if the youth chooses to use their garrulousness to antagonize interviewers…A defensive response…might encourage continued attempts at antagonization. Changing the topic of conversation might signal to the youth that the interviewer is uncomfortable with the topic, which might also encourage continued antagonization. It is important to keep in mind that the goal of such behavior is to receive a reaction. An approach that may be more helpful…involves ignoring the behavior (i.e., remaining affectively neutral…) while redirecting the youth’s focus away from the interviewer without changing the topic of conversation…” (p.46).

“Youth with strong symptoms of PPD may also attempt to antagonize interviewers or take control of the interview through persistent use of intrusive questions…Answering such questions is not recommended because individuals with strong symptoms of PPD may try to use this information against the interviewer…When such questions are raised, interviewers can play to the egocentricity that is…especially characteristic of individuals with strong symptoms of PPD…by reiterating that they are interested in the youth’s own opinions about these topics. Doing so appeals to their self-centeredness and allows interviewers to maintain control of the interview by providing a neutral rather than defensive response…Allowing youth with strong symptoms of PPD to engage in certain types of deceit without being challenged can provide insight into how they want to portray themselves” (p.46).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“As part of offender subculture in custody, individuals that are not loyal are not respected…Interviewers can build rapport by illustrating that they highly value the rules surrounding confidentiality, which resembles the importance of not being a rat within inmate subculture…doing so establishes shared values between interviewer and interviewee regarding the importance of keeping your word…Another aspect of custody center culture involves ‘not naming names.’ When asking about family or friends, interviewers went out of their way to let youth know that it was not necessary to provide the names of these individuals. This was thought to establish a greater level of comfort by easing concerns that interview information would be relayed to custody staff or police” (p.38).

“Peer relationships are particularly important in adolescence…asking youth to talk about how they are different from specific peers can be helpful in getting them to open-up regarding a variety of topics…Compared to adults, poor organization is a relatively normative feature of adolescence…and so interviewers must differentiate adolescents based on the extent to which their lack of planning causes functional impairment…Using follow-up questions is especially important when examining interpersonal dynamics, including the youth’s attachment to various others (e.g., family, friends, partners)…If youth indicate that they are uncommitted to family members or do not actively do things to help family, follow-up questions are needed to establish whether this detachment stems from PPD symptoms or whether it is a defense mechanism…” (p.42-43).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Amber Lin

Amber Lin graduated from New York University in 2013 with a B.A. (honors) and is a second year Masters student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her research interests include forensic assessment, competency to stand trial, and the refinement of instruments used to assess the psychological states of criminal defendants.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.