Lessons That the Depp v. Heard Trial Teaches About Psychological Testing


Published August 4, 2022

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The Depp v. Heard case caused a stir on social media. But more than a pop culture phenomenon, it offers some real lessons for forensic psychologists. Check out what one forensic psychologist thought of the psychological evaluations presented in this case.

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Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI | AFP | Getty Images

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.

1 Mental Sets

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 Solution

If you believe you have a mental set – and even if you don't – a good way to combat it is to structure your evaluation around the referral question of the case. A referral question is given to psychologists to help them focus their evaluations.

Delatorre says that in this case, the referral question was something similar to, "Did Amber Heard suffer from emotional distress as a result of an alleged trauma experience in her relationship with Johnny Depp?"

Creating your strategy based on the referral question prevents you from defaulting to an "autopilot" approach throughout the evaluation, such as in selecting tests, creating a hypothesis, and interpreting results. This may seem obvious, but it's easy to get overwhelmed and distracted by other details of the case, especially in a high profile one, and stray away from the objective.

Ultimately, this seems to be what happened in the Depp v. Heard trial. Instead of answering the referral question, a significant portion of the psychologists' time on the stand was dedicated to speculating over whether or not Heard had a personality disorder.

But whether or not Heard has a personality disorder is irrelevant to whether or not Heard suffered abuse in her marriage to Depp.

2 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.

The Solution

When considering using a certain test in an evaluation, don't choose it just because it's popular or generally respected. You should also consider the demographic of its normative sample, when the test was created, and who it was designed for.

According to the American Psychological Association's guidelines for forensic psychologists, evaluators should be "knowledgeable about and account for the impact of test results in diverse populations and across different settings, as well as the limitations of measures even when guidelines are followed for test selection."

"Every test has reliability and validity issues that can make the test's use suspect in certain cases," Delatorre says.

In some cases, it may be better to select a test that you use less often but is more appropriate for the patient. In other cases, it may be best not to use tests and take a different approach entirely.

In the Depp v. Heard case, Delatorre says that instead of using the CAPS-5, he would have performed a lengthy clinical interview asking specific questions about Heard's experience during the marriage.

This would have allowed him to more directly address the referral question – whether or not Heard was abused – without results being distorted by an ill-suited test like the CAPS-5.

3 Belief Perseverance

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.

The Solution

There are a few steps you can take to avoid belief perseverance from undermining the validity of your evaluation.

First, the American Psychology-Law Society suggests avoiding lengthy meetings with the legal team who hired you. This prevents you from subconsciously developing any feelings of loyalty or bias toward or against the subject of the evaluation.

It also prevents your credibility from being questioned by opposing counsel, like Curry's was in the Depp v. Heard case for having dinner and drinks at Depp's residence.

Before coming to a final opinion or diagnosis, Delatorre also advises to thoroughly consider how the opposition will critique your report.

"If you understand how someone can combat your opinions, then you're more likely to...mitigate against that," he says.

This exercise may even dissuade you from continuing with your current approach, and potentially, lead you in a direction that is more appropriate for the subject.

If you still feel confident in your opinion after considering its potential criticisms, include the critiques you considered in your written report and explain why you disagree with them. "[Then], you have reduced your bias and you have increased your objectivity," Delatorre says.

Key Takeaway

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.


Page last reviewed July 22, 2022

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