Assessment in absentia: New directions in the psychological autopsy

J. W. Shaffer, S. Perlin, C. W. Schmidt, M. Himelfarb

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An obvious but rarely considered aspect of nearly all assessment procedures is the fact that they require the physical presence, and usually the active cooperation, of the person being evaluated. There are, however, a number of circumstances in which the physical presence of the subject is precluded. Perhaps the most important of these involve attempts to reconstruct and assess the psychological characteristics of the recently deceased. Two such groups of considerable theoretical interest are traffic accident fatalities and suicides. The present paper is a report of the authors' experiences in attempting to quantify both the personality structure and the level of personal adjustment of deceased persons in the above categories. Within the framework of the psychological autopsy, they sought to adapt existing evaluation procedures in an effort to secure more reliable, valid and quantitative personality descriptions. The most successful of these attempts to date has involved the use of the Katz Adjustment Scales R Forms (KAS), a device whereby a close friend or relative describes the deceased subject in terms of 205 behavioral items covering five general areas of social and personal adjustment. 18 separate scales have thus far been derived using cluster analytic techniques, and normative data from samples of the general population are also available for comparative purposes. Preliminary data from a sample of 25 male suicides and 16 male driver fatalities have revealed that both groups, on the average, are considerably more deviant than the general population. Male suicides obtained significantly higher mean scores on measures of belligerence, verbal expansiveness, negativism, helplessness, anxiety, psychopathological symptoms, nervousness, bizarreness and hyperactivity. The male driver fatalities on the other hand, although not quite so deviant as the male suicides, were significantly higher than normative samples on measures of belligerence, negativism, psychopathological manifestations and hyperactivity. In addition, they were significantly less withdrawn. A comparison of the two groups revealed a number of reliable mean differences, all reflecting the greater deviance of the suicide sample. The overall agreement of these findings with theoretical expectations is noteworthy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)308-316
Number of pages9
JournalJohns Hopkins Medical Journal
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 1 1972

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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