This Q&A is part of an ongoing series with Arts and Letters graduate students. Read more Q&As with graduate students and faculty members here.
Claire Scott-Bacon is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology’s clinical program and was recently awarded a Distinguished Graduate Fellowship from the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. Her research focuses on issues related to the structure and assessment of criminal personality in clinical, forensic, and legal settings. She began attending college for the first time at 48 years old and received a bachelor of science degree and a bachelor of arts degree with honors from Florida International University.
What are your research interests?
My research interests focus on the expression and assessment of psychopathy and criminal behavior. This interest also includes the overlap of psychopathy with other disorders, like autism spectrum disorders, emotion regulation, and gender differences.
My masters project examined items on self-report psychopathic personality scales using item response theory (IRT) methods. IRT is a family of psychometric or statistical methods of assessing the ability of questions on personality assessment scales to accurately detect and explain latent traits (i.e., psychopathic traits) responses. My goal is to improve these assessment scales to enable the criminal justice system to make better decisions about a person’s competency to stand trial, sanity, sentencing outcome, and mental health treatment.
My dissertation project involves examining the size and specificity of psychopathic traits, characteristics, and behaviors in people with autism spectrum disorders. This involves examining a callous lack of emotion, emotional regulation, and intelligence in people with psychopathic personality and autism using latent trait modeling, factor analysis, and hierarchical regression models and methods of psychometric analysis. The aim of this study is to identify an autistic psychopath sub-type and to understand their level of criminal responsibility.
What inspired you to explore these topics?
I was inspired to do this research while working as an undergraduate intern at FIU Law School’s Death Penalty Clinic, under the supervision of Stephen Harper. My role included communicating with inmates on death row seeking re-evaluation of the evidence and testimony used against them.
While gathering documents and evidence, analysis of court transcripts, legal research, and assisting in the evaluation of requests for post-conviction assistance on a case-by-case basis, I observed a pattern of psychological and intellectual disabilities and disparities in the people on death row. With the high rate of wrongful convictions and criminalization of mental health-related crimes in the United States, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of personality assessment tools and their accuracy when making decisions about sentencing.
“I observed a pattern of psychological and intellectual disabilities and disparities in the people on death row. With the high rate of wrongful convictions and criminalization of mental health-related crimes in the United States, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of personality assessment tools and their accuracy when making decisions about sentencing.”
Why is this research especially important in the context of the criminal justice system?
Adults and juveniles with mental illness and intellectual difficulties are overrepresented in the U.S. criminal justice system. Various social factors including gender, intellect, and emotion regulation influence the expression of mental illness/disorders and externalizing behaviors. For example, the consequence of not understanding the overlap between the externalizing behaviors of people on the autism spectrum and the externalizing behaviors and traits of psychopathy may lead to adults and juveniles being incorrectly assessed as having antisocial personality disorders (as an adult) or oppositional defiant disorders (as a youth).
My research is particularly important and relevant today because improving outdated assessment tools may prevent people with ASD from receiving an invalid assessment of an antisocial disorder when being sentenced for a crime.
How did you choose Notre Dame?
In early 2016, I was introduced to Notre Dame’s graduate school Summer Research Opportunity Program at my undergraduate institution, during the application process for an undergraduate fellowship. After spending approximately three months at Notre Dame during the summer of 2016, I was lucky enough to take part in an SROP grant and fellowship writing workshop in 2017. As a result, I was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
I chose to attend Notre Dame because of that summer research experience that led to my NSF award and because of the work in psychopathic personality disorder I had already begun with my advisor, David Watson.
What makes the Ph.D. in Psychology program distinctive?
For me, Notre Dame’s Ph.D. in Psychology program is distinctive because of the opportunities it provides for collaboration with other institutions in addition to clinical training in forensic and psychological assessment to assist with legal and courtroom decision-making.
The program also provides excellent quantitative training, professional development, and faculty advisement. I appreciate the open-door policy of faculty members with similar interests who, in turn, create an excellent relationship between psychology and clinical research pedagogy.
I appreciate many things about my department, but most of all, I appreciate the support from faculty members like Scott Maxwell, Alison Ying, Zhiyong (Johnny) Zhang, and Guangjian Zhang who, without any doubt, have aided and positively influenced my quantitative statistical learning process. Together, these professors, along with Tom Merluzzi, Lee Anna Clark, Daniel Lapsley, and my advisor, put me in a better position — physically, emotionally, and mentally — to conduct qualitative and quantitative, empirically sound research projects. In turn, their support has propelled me to become an example to others who struggle with statistical analysis in the early stages of their graduate studies, and the undergraduate students whom I mentor as they pursue an honors thesis.
“I appreciate many things about my department, but most of all, I appreciate the support from faculty members ... who put me in a better position — physically, emotionally, and mentally — to conduct qualitative and quantitative, empirically sound research projects. In turn, their support has propelled me to become an example to others.”
What do you hope to do after Notre Dame — and how do you feel the program is preparing you for the job market?
I hope to work as a clinical psychologist in private practice conducting psychological assessments for the community. I also hope to work as a professor in a psychology department and law school teaching forensic and legal psychology. My goal, through professorship, leadership, and mentorship — with a focus on diversity and inclusivity — is to encourage and support the research of women, people with disabilities, and members of racial and sexual and gender minority communities.
The Notre Dame Graduate School provides an abundance of professional development resources; grants and fellowships; and teaching, mentorship, and leadership programs that have helped me through the clinical program. These resources have better prepared me for the teaching job market and professorship, making me a better mentor, leader, practicing clinician, and instructor.