Lessons That the Depp v. Heard Trial Teaches About Psychological Testing
Published on August 4, 2022 · Updated on August 4, 2022
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Even those who steer clear of pop culture had difficulty avoiding the spectacle of the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial. But the case stands out for reasons beyond the fact that two celebrities were at the center of the dispute.
In criminal cases, forensic psychologists are often hired to assess the mental state of the defendent – such as a murder trial in which the defendent seeks to use an insanity defenese.
However, in a lawsuit, it's usually the plaintiff who undergoes an evaluation, which can be used to support their claim of personal injury, discrimination, or sexual misconduct.
But in the Depp v. Heard case, the plaintiff didn't seek to prove psychological damage. In fact, Depp's mental state wasn't formally evaluated by psychologists at any point in the trial.
Instead, the defendant, Heard, was the sole focus. And the psychologists who evaluated her, Dawn Hughes, Ph.D., and Shannon Curry, Psy.D., came to two very different conclusions.
Hughes, who was hired by Heard's team, diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Curry, hired by the opposing counsel, disagreed. She said Heard was likely faking symptoms of PTSD and instead diagnosed Heard with two different personality disorders.
Since the key question of the case was whether or not Heard was abused by Depp – not whether or not she had other mental health issues – there's reason to question the relevance of some of the mental assessments performed in this case.
Forensic psychologist John Delatorre, Psy.D., covered the case on Court TV and Law & Crime Trial Network. He disagreed with both Hughes' and Curry's evaluations. Discover the three mistakes made by the psychologists, as Delatorre points out, and how they can be avoided.
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Delatorre is a licensed psychologist in Arizona, Texas, and New York. He has advanced training in forensic psychology and treats patients with severe mental illness, significant trauma histories, and personality disorders. He is experienced in administering and analyzing psychological tests and courtroom testimony for criminal cases.
We all know the feeling of going into "autopilot" mode while performing a familiar task, like making coffee in the morning or answering emails. Psychologists are not immune to this phenomenon and can develop a kind of modus operandi in their work too.
While routines can make you more efficient, they don't necessarily encourage critical thinking. And this can be a problem for psychologists who work with exclusively a specific demographic.
Specializing can improve your understanding of a population, but it can also raise the chances of developing a rigid mindset that hinders your ability to evaluate individuals outside of that group.
For example, if you mainly specialize in working with men who experience addiction, you may have a mental set geared toward this group.
But if one day you evaluate a young woman experiencing addiction, she may not present the same thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that you typically observe when evaluating middle-aged men experiencing the same disorder.
This doesn't necessarily mean the patient's experience is invalid or made up. More likely, it means that your mental set is distorting your evaluation.
According to Delatorre, both Curry and Hughes appeared to be operating with a mental set throughout the trial.
"When it comes to who Curry is generally interacting with, she has a contract with the military, so she may be approaching a referral question of PTSD the same way each time. That's a mental set," Delatorre says.
Hughes also stated that she uses a "standard methodology," which is a red flag for presence of a mental set.
"Based on our specialty guidelines as forensic psychologists, we do not conduct standardized assessments...We are presented with a psycholegal question to answer and base [evaluations] on clinical interview documents that we've obtained and collateral interviews that we've conducted," Delatorre says. "We don't use a standardized methodology."
In the Depp v. Heard case, it's likely that Hughes' and Curry's mental sets undermined their evaluations of Heard. This contributed to discrepancies in their testimonies about Heard's mental state.
The Myth of the 'Gold Standard'
Throughout the trial, there was a general consensus among the legal teams and psychologists that the CAPS-5 – a 30-item questionnaire used to measure symptoms of PTSD – is the "gold standard" for diagnosing the disorder. But this way of thinking is a major fallacy.
"As a forensic psychologist, you don't use a test simply because it's considered the 'gold standard.' You use a test because it is relevant to the person that you are evaluating," Delatorre says.
While the CAPS-5 is a well-regarded test, it wasn't well-suited for someone like Heard. First, the military veterans made up the normative sample that helped establish the CAPS-5.
"Of course [Heard's] PTSD is going to look different because she's being given a test that was established as reliable and valid on a population that is completely different than her," Delatorre says. "Unless Amber Heard fought a war that none of us know about, the results obtained from the CAPS-5 are not relevant."
Second, the fact that Hughes and Curry didn't examine Heard until years after her marriage further calls the validity of her CAPS-5 results into question. This is because the CAPS-5 is mainly meant to test those who are still experiencing symptoms of PTSD – not those who experienced it in the past.
PTSD symptoms do sometimes remain years after a traumatizing incident, but not necessarily. In fact, to meet the criteria for PTSD, symptoms only need to last about one month.
"It's certainly possible that given the number of years that have passed, she may have had PTSD previously, but doesn't have it now," Delatorre says.
For these reasons, the results of the CAPS-5 would be questionable, if not entirely compromised.
Compared to other types of psychologists, forensic psychologists face unique ethical challenges because "unlike in clinical settings, the person being evaluated in a forensic evaluation is not the client." Instead, the client is usually an attorney.
This can pressure forensic psychologists to ignore or distort information that doesn't support their client's agenda. They might, for instance, choose tests they know will generate their desired result. These actions are known as belief perseverance.
Most forensic psychologists take their role in court cases seriously. But even if you aim to stay unbiased, the pressure to please clients or your preconceived notions can seep in.
One way to recognize belief perseverance is excessive testing. When too many psychological tests are being performed, it could mean that the evaluator is picking and choosing which information they want to present.
According to Delatorre, the amount of time Curry and Hughes spent with Heard and the number of tests they administered was excessive. (Curry spent 12 hours over the course of two days with Heard; Hughes spent 29 hours with her.)
While diagnosing certain serious mental disorders must be done over a longer period of time, determining if someone has experienced trauma doesn't require several assessments. It can actually be done in one extensive clinical interview.
Even professional forensic psychologists with years of experience can make lapses in judgment. But your credibility as an evaluator and clinician can be damaged if you gain a reputation for letting ego, apathy, or bias compromise your work.
As a forensic psychologist, you have the opportunity to offer insight into the minds of individuals who are likely going through one of the most significant challenges of their lives. To make sure justice is being served, always keep these ethical obligations at the forefront of your practices.
- Clinician administered PTSD scale (CAPS-5). (2022). https://istss.org/clinical-resources/assessing-trauma/clinician-administered-ptsd-scale-(caps-5)
- Martinez MA. (2014). Good habits start early: Identifying and managing potential bias in forensic evaluations as an early career forensic psychologist. https://www.apadivisions.org/division-41/publications/newsletters/news/2014/10/expert-opinion
- Testing and assessment. (2022). https://www.apa.org/science/programs/testing
- Rocchio LM. (2020). Ethical and professional considerations in the forensic assessment of complex trauma and dissociation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7278774/
- Weathers FW, et al. (2017). The clinician-administered PTSD scale for DSM–5 (CAPS-5): Development and initial psychometric evaluation in military veterans. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5805662/
Page last reviewed July 22, 2022