Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Misuse of Psychological Tests in Forensic Settings: Some Horrible Examples

As seen on We have not quoted the entire paper, but only the introductory section with a few of the smaller examples.

The original post has many fine examples, plenty of detailed references, and is oriented to situations where parents are separated. Unfortunately, given other news reports of recent years, this paper is still quite relevant

Misuse of Psychological Tests in Forensic Settings: Some Horrible Examples

Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield

American Journal of Forensic Psychology, Volume 11, Issue 1

Psychological tests are often used inappropriately and are misinterpreted and overinterpreted in the forensic setting. This harms the person being evaluated and interferes with the cause of justice. It also does a disservice to the reputation of psychologists and the science of psychology. Actual examples of misuse of particular techniques and tests and misinterpretation illustrate what has been done in forensic settings.

A forensic evaluation is different from a clinical evaluation. When an evaluation is done in the clinical setting, the conclusions are used to develop a treatment plan. These conclusions form working hypotheses which can be confirmed or rejected during treatment. However, in the forensic setting, a one-time decision is made about the individual — a decision which can markedly affect the person's life.

If tests are misinterpreted in the clinical setting, the treatment plan developed from the evaluation may not be the most effective for the client. However, since treatment plans are generally modified and revised throughout the course of treatment, the mistaken conclusions can be corrected. But, an erroneous decision in the forensic setting can result in immediate and severe consequences, such as losing custody of a child or being jailed. If decisions and recommendations by the psychologist are not based on adequate data, the psychologist is acting both incompetently and unethically.

In addition, conclusions drawn by the psychologist are subject to cross-examination in the adversarial setting. If the conclusions are not based upon adequate data, the psychologist's testimony will be discredited or impeached by a skillful opposing attorney. Therefore, the psychologist should only present conclusions in reports and testimony which can be defended when challenged in cross-examination.

In the course of examining hundreds of reports, we have seen many examples of tests that are misadministered, misinterpreted, overinterpreted, or should never have been given in the particular setting. We are presenting a sample of these to illustrate what should be avoided by any psychologist who does forensic evaluations.


Tests such as the House-Tree-Person (HTP) and Kinetic Family Drawings are often overinterpreted and misinterpreted. There is a lack of validity and reliability in the use of drawings as projective assessment devices. In a review of the Draw-A-Person test in the Seventh Mental Measurements Yearbook, Harris (1) notes that there is very little evidence for the use of "signs" as valid indicators of personality characteristics. With children's drawings there is so much variability from drawing to drawing that particular features of any one drawing are too unreliable to say anything about them. The Tenth Mental Measurements Yearbook (2), in reviews by Cundick and Weinberg (p.422-425) continues the consistent finding since the first edition, 1938, that interpretations of drawings (as are often done in forensic evaluations) are unsupported by empirical evidence. Both reviewers note that there are no normative data establishing reliability and validity of the Kinetic Drawing System.

Here are some of the examples as given:

Example 2
A four-year-old girl was asked to draw a picture of herself and the family doing something. She instead, according to the school psychologist who was evaluating her, "seemed to be preoccupied with drawing circles within circles which she called 'caves.' Her second representation bore a significant resemblance to male genitalia (when asked what it represented, she reported that it was a ball rolling into a lion's cave)." This was interpreted as being suggestive of sexual abuse and the fact that the child has been subjected to some type of traumatic experience.

When we saw the child, now age five, we tested her and found borderline to low-average intelligence and no ability to draw anything other than scribbled circles. The child clearly had difficulties with visual motor perception and indeed, could not draw, a fact which was ignored by the other evaluator. This example, therefore, illustrates the importance of recognizing the child's developmental level.

Example 5
A four-year-old girl's drawing of a tree in the HTP was considered significant because the child, when asked to draw a tree, also drew a cactus. This was interpreted in terms of "unconscious expression of danger and fearfulness." However, the child was not asked if she had a cactus in her yard (this was in Texas).

The child also brought a drawing of a clown's face to the therapist which she had ostensibly drawn while in the waiting room with her parents. The clown was interpreted as being significant because "there is an element of sadness in the clown's eyes." This clown is of much greater sophistication and detail than the child's other drawings. When pressed about this in his deposition, the psychologist acknowledged that the parents probably drew it and she colored it. This example illustrates both problems in administration and in interpretation.

Example 20
A baby was returned to the foster mother following a visit with the parents and was described as having the "smell of sex." An emergency hearing was held in which social services attempted to cut off visits because this "smell of sex" triggered the suspicion that the parents were having sex with their baby. A psychologist agreed that the sex smell was significant and indicated probable abuse on the part of the parents. Fortunately, the parents had been at a church potluck dinner during the entire visit so they were able to disprove, the accusations.

We can just imagine the horror that happens when this gets involved with separation and divorce proceedings.

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