Psychopathic personality traits in adolescents are associated with delinquency and delinquency can contribute to future dating success for boys, according to new research published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.
Psychopathy is considered as a personality disorder and is associated with a number of negative outcomes. But some scientists have argued that the reproductive tactics associated with psychopathy indicate that the condition is an evolutionary adaptation. For example, a study from Serbia found that inmates who scored higher on a test of psychopathy tended to have more children.
“We were interested in this topic because we wanted to gather more insight into the evolutionary roots of psychopathy,” said study authors Adam C. Davis (@AdamDavisEvoPsy) and Tracy Vaillancourt (@vaillancourt_dr), a postdoctoral fellow at Nipissing University and a professor at the University of Ottawa, respectively.
“Psychopathy varies from person-to-person in the general population, and by studying the benefits afforded to those higher in this ‘dark’ dimension of personality, we believe that we can better understand why it has evolved and why it has been conserved in human beings. One benefit enjoyed by those higher in psychopathy is heightened mating success — they have more sexual and casual dating partners.”
“But there is ambiguity revolving around why this is the case, particularly among adolescents. Do psychopathic youth exploit and prey on mates who are vulnerable? Do they devote more time and energy to pursuing casual sex and dating relationships? Are they more opportunistic and willing to take advantage of mating opportunities as they arise? Are they more attractive because of their brazen and dominant demeanor?”
“One consistent predictor of psychopathy, dating, and sexual risk-taking in adolescents is delinquency,” the researchers said. “Thus, we considered whether this kind of rule-breaking behavior might help to solve the puzzle. Perhaps delinquent youth manage to impress their peers and charm dating partners by flaunting their disregard for authority and by signaling their willingness to have sex.”
For their study, the researchers analyzed three waves of data from the McMaster Teen Study, an ongoing longitudinal cohort study that started in 2008. The sample included 514 Canadian adolescents who completed assessments of psychopathy, delinquency, and dating status from Grades 10 to 12.
“Most of what we know about psychopathy comes from ‘one-shot’ survey research on undergraduate students, who do not represent the population,” the researchers told PsyPost.
The psychological assessments included measures of both primary and secondary psychopathy. Primary psychopathy is characterized by callousness and a lack of remorse, while secondary psychopathy is characterized by impulsivity, irresponsibility, and antisocial behavior.
“Most researchers look at psychopathy as a single personality characteristic, but it encompasses different lower-level factors that are often weakly related, like callousness and impulsivity,” Davis and Vaillancourt explained. “We wanted to study these lower-level factors of psychopathy across time during one of the most important periods of adolescent development—high school. Specifically, we wanted to test whether delinquency might help to explain how youth higher in psychopathic traits manage to secure dating relationships.”
In line with previous studies, the researchers found that primary and secondary psychopathy were both predictors of delinquent behavior across time. They found no significant relationship between primary psychopathy and dating involvement, but secondary psychopathy was indirectly related to subsequent dating involvement through greater delinquency.
“Higher impulsivity in Grade 10 predicted more delinquent behavior in Grade 11, which then predicted being in a dating relationship in Grade 12,” Davis and Vaillancourt told PsyPost. “However, the results seemed to apply specifically to boys and not to girls. These findings seem to provide some support for the popular idea that impulsive and delinquent ‘bad boys’ are attractive dating partners in adolescence.”
The researchers used a statistical technique known as a cross-lagged panel modeling, which allowed them to separate stable between-person differences from within-person fluctuations. But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“A caveat of our research is that we did not assess psychopathy before Grade 10,” the researchers said. “But evidence shows that psychopathic traits are expressed at an earlier point in adolescent development. Another limitation of our work is that we simply asked adolescents whether they were in a current dating relationship or not. So, there was a low level of granularity in our measurement of dating behavior in youth. The next step for this research involves studying these variables across a longer period of adolescent development and measuring dating in a more detailed manner.”
“If we want to curb malevolent dispositions among youth, we need a better idea of the benefits that are afforded to individuals expressing these personality characteristics,” Davis and Vaillancourt added. “This involves asking what reinforces and perpetuates psychopathic tendencies and delinquent behavior. Evidence shows how psychopathy is cross-culturally ubiquitous and that it extends deep into the history of human civilization. To dissuade the expression of psychopathy, we need to provide youth with ways of obtaining desired social (e.g., popularity) and reproductive resources (e.g., dating partners) that do not involve the use of antisocial behavior.”
The study, “Longitudinal Associations Between Primary and Secondary Psychopathic Traits, Delinquency, and Current Dating Status in Adolescence“, was authored by Adam C. Davis, Heather Brittain, Steven Arnocky, and Tracy Vaillancourt.