Studies of antisocial personality primarily focus on men, but women antisocials have distinct features. Can the same be true of psychopathy, increasingly distinguished from even those with antisocial personality as the emerging "baddest" of characters?

Researchers examined the construct and predictive validity of psychopathy as applied to 103 jailed female offenders diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (APD) (J Abnormal Psychology 106:4 pp. 576-585). The construct of psychopathy, generated largely on male offender populations, appeared applicable to female offenders; however, their absolute rates of symptoms and severity of symptoms were lower.

Three main instruments were used: (1) PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist - Revised), a 20-item semistructured interview intended to assess the extent to which an individual is judged to be a prototypical psychopathic individual; (2) PAL (Antisocial Scale of the Personality Assessment Inventory) a scale which measures psychopathy, setting it apart from other self-report measures because of its contemporary theoretical base; (3) PDE (Antisocial Scale of the Personality Disorder Examination), an extensive semistructured interview for the assessment of personality disorders. The investigation used concurrent data from these three measures to address hypotheses regarding the connection of different measures of psychopathy and their divergence from different but related traits.

Of the 103 women tested, only 16(16%) scored above the traditional threshold score of 29 designated as a psychopathic individual, as compared with 25% to 30% typically found in male correctional samples. In contrast to the PCL-R, the PAI yielded a substantially larger proportion of persons with psychopathic traits. However, when the PAI cutoff score was raised by 10, the two measures' prevalence rates for psychopathy were highly similar.

The PCL score encompasses measures of interpersonal traits and socially deviant behaviors. Analysis of the PCL-R scores in this female sample identified a substantially different factor structure for women than has been previously found for male psychopaths. For women, interpersonal traits were notable for lack of empathy or guilt, interpersonal deception, proneness to boredom, and sensation seeking. Antisocial factors of strongest link were early behavioral problems, promiscuity, and adult antisocial behavior. Female offenders manifested substantial loadings on two items not found in male populations: promiscuous sexual behavior and lack of realistic long-term goals.

Consistent with other study results, the researchers found psychopathy and histrionic personality disorder to be related in their female sample. Their patterns of results strongly supported the relationship between psychopathy and aggression. But the study also clearly demonstrates that any equation of female psychopathy with acts of aggression or other problematic behaviors is facile and unwarranted. In one surprising finding, the results also suggest that psychopathy among female inmates does not indicate less willingness to receive treatment.

Forensic mental health is in the dawn of a fascination with psychopathy. Some forensic hospitals have already gone so far as to routinely administer psychopathy checklists. Efforts to refine our understanding of psychopathy are timely and needed in light of what may be inappropriate use of PCL-R scores to predict future dangerousness.