Investigating the Legitimacy of Juvenile Psychopathy Assessments: Contributions of Item Response Theory

Gina M. Vincent, Simon Fraser University
Steve Hart, Simon Fraser University
Raymond R. Corrado, Simon Fraser University

The ability to identify psychopathy during adolescence is increasingly becoming a focal point of forensic research. Though results of the Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL:YV; Forth, Kosson, Hare, in press), the primary assessment tool, appear promising, it is still unclear as to what extent personality disorder exists or can be measured reliably prior to early adulthood (e.g., Edens, Skeem, Cruise, & Cauffman, 2001; Vincent & Hart, 2002). A key criticism in this debate has been whether symptoms of psychopathy are manifested in youth as they are in adults. More specifically, adult psychopathic traits such as irresponsibility, impulsivity, and shallow affect have a different meaning during adolescence where these characteristics may be developmentally appropriate rather than pathological. To date, studies using the PCL:YV have adhered to classical test theory methodology to investigate the reliability and validity of psychopathy assessments in youth. However, modern test theory approaches are more appropriate for evaluating the extent of measurement bias (see Cooke & Michie, 1997; Nunnally & Bernstein, 1994) across age groups. This presentation employs item response theory to evaluate potential age bias in the measurement of psychopathy. Young offender PCL:YV assessments (n = 269; ICC = .92) are compared to adult offender PCL-R assessments (n = 400) to investigate whether test items appear to measure the same underlying trait across age groups. Preliminary findings suggest that most interpersonal and affective psychopathy symptoms are similar across age groups, whereas behavioral symptoms are over-represented in adolescents. Implications for the assessment of psychopathy in juveniles are discussed.

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Updated 05/20/2006