Psychopathic Predators? Relation Between Psychopathy and Violence

Author: Nicole Porter, N.A. PORTER AND ASSOCIATES

The Psychopathy Checklist–Revised (PCL–R; Hare, 1991, 2003) is often used to assess risk of violence, perhaps based on the assumption that it captures individuals who both emotionally detached and who are driven to prey upon others.

Psychopathy is a condition primarily characterized by the absence of empathy. Experts will agree that other affective states also play a role; callousness, detachment and a lack of empathy for example, which enable psychopaths to be highly manipulative. Nevertheless, psychopathy tends to remain among the most difficult disorders to spot.

Psychopaths can actually appear very normal, even quite charming at times. However, underneath the facade, they lack any semblance of conscience. Their antisocial nature inclines them often (but by no means always) to criminality.

Although psychopathy is a widely discussed topic of debate, what remains clear for any clinician is that studying this diagnosis has often been described as anguish, since adult psychopathy is largely resistant to treatment. Programs do exist, however, to treat callous, unemotional youth in hopes of essentially preventing them from maturing into psychopaths.

One particular study, conducted by the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, was designed to assess the relation between (A) core interpersonal and affective traits of psychopathy and impulsive antisociality on the one hand and (B) the risk of future violence and patterns of motivation for past violence on the other.

How was this accomplished?

A research team reliably assessed a sample of 158 male offenders for psychopathy, using both the interview-based PCL–R and the self-report Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI: Lilienfeld & Andrews, 1996). Then, a second independent research team assessed offenders’ lifetime patterns of violence and their motivation behind said violence. After these baseline assessments, offenders were followed in prison or in the community for up to 1 year in order to assess their involvement in three different forms of violence. Baseline and follow-up assessments included both  interviews and reviews of official records.

The results were twofold.

First, the PPI manifested incremental validity in predicting future violence over the PCL–R (but not vice versa)—and research found that MOST of its predictive power derived solely from impulsive antisociality. Second, impulsive antisociality—not interpersonal and affective traits specific to psychopathy—were uniquely associated with instrumental lifetime patterns of past violence. The latter psychopathic traits are narrowly associated with deficits in motivation for violence (for example, lack of fear or provocation).

In short, their conclusions led to the following:

Findings and their consistency with some past research led researchers to advise against making broad generalizations about the relation between psychopathy and violence. Because criminal behavior in general, and violence in particular, are most likely the product of multiple interacting factors (for example, disinhibition, social disadvantage, and social learning), clinicians and researchers should avoid conveying the impression that psychopathy-specific traits cause “predatory” violence. Moving beyond studying the predictive utility of measures of psychopathy to test competing hypotheses from alternative
perspectives (e.g., psychological, sociological) will essentially help researchers to more precisely explain violence and inform useful intervention and prevention strategies.

To view full study and findings, please visit: