Why do psychopaths become parents? A study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science suggests that people high in psychopathy focus primarily on mating, but often avoid parental or somatic investment (meaning the growth and maintenance of oneself).
Psychopathy consists of traits such as selfishness, grandiosity, callousness, and impulsivity. People who are high on these antisocial traits can be very harmful to the people around them. This can oftentimes include short-term mating and less parental investment. Somatic investment is another key part of mating that has not been heavily explored when it comes to people high in psychopathy. This study seeks to bridge that research gap and examine investment patterns when somatic investment is included.
“We were interested in this study to expand on how psychopathic personality traits in men can be understood from an evolutionary perspective,” said study author Kristopher Brazil (@brazkris). “From a broad evolutionary perspective, individuals spend time and energy investing in survival and reproduction. Reproduction is typically partitioned into mating effort (i.e., seeking out mates) and parental effort (i.e., taking care of offspring).”
“Ensuring one’s own survival, on the other hand, is typically described as somatic effort. Although past studies have shown that men higher in psychopathic traits seem to invest a lot in mating effort and very little in parental effort, no studies had examined the role of somatic effort alongside these other two evolutionarily relevant investment domains.”
“Our first goal then was to examine how psychopathic men invest across mating, parental, and somatic domains. Our second goal was to assess whether psychopathic men’s perceptions of stimuli associated with each of these domains (e.g., attractive women, cute babies, different somatic activities) would line up with their actual behavior, such as the time spent engaging in these domains.”
For their study, Brazil and his co-author Anthony A. Volk surveyed a sample of 255 American and Canadian men between the ages of 25 and 35, who were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants answered demographic questions and an assessment of psychopathic traits. They also completed questionnaires regarding somatic investment, their sexual behaviors, and parental behavioral attitudes.
The researchers found that that psychopathic traits were associated with stronger mating attitudes and weaker parental and somatic investment attitudes. These effects also differed by relationship status, with men who were in relationships showing higher levels of somatic investment, with average mating and parental investment.
Participants who were already fathers showed higher levels of parental investment and lower levels of mating investment. This suggests that though people high in psychopathy are often fathers, the typical investment pattern of a non-psychopathic father is the opposite of the typical investment pattern of someone high on psychopathy.
“Compared to men lower on psychopathic traits, men who were higher in psychopathic traits reported that they spent more time and energy on mating and less time and energy on parenting and somatic effort,” Brazil told PsyPost.
“Because of this combination, psychopathic men might be said to have an extreme focus on mating at the expense of both parental and somatic domains. Thus, our findings are consistent with psychopathy involving adaptive trade-offs. Specifically, psychopathic men may trade off having increased mating effort while compromising their investment in parental and somatic domains.
“Additionally, we found that men higher in psychopathic traits were more likely to be fathers, even despite their lower time and energy spent with their children. Thus, psychopathic men might be parasitic fathers who have lots of children but export the care of those children onto the mothers and/or others,” Brazil explained.
The participants were also shown images related to mating, parenting, and somatic investment. For the mating stimuli, researchers used pictures of 10 very attractive women, for parenting stimuli, they used pictures of 10 of the cutest infants. For somatic stimuli, they used pictures related to somatic investment, such a working out, eating healthy, studying, and making money.
The participants reported how likely they would be to hypothetically hook-up with the women if they were single, how likely they would be to hypothetically adopt the infants, and how appealing the somatic investment activities were to them.
“The findings on perceptions might also help us understand what the minds of men higher in psychopathic traits are like and the impact on the three evolutionarily relevant domains,” Brazil said. “For example, when examining the perceptions of psychopathic men for the stimuli associated with each investment domain, we found that psychopathic men had a positive preference for attractive women and had a less positive preference for somatic activities.”
“This lines up with their reported levels of behavior for each of those domains. They like stimuli associated with mating and dislike stimuli associated with somatic effort such as working or saving money. But they did not show a reduced preference for cute babies as their lower parental effort might suggest. One explanation of this finding is that psychopathic men show the same response as other men do to cute babies to improve their chances of seeming like an appealing mate to women who might be assessing them for parental qualities.”
“Perhaps psychopathic men know that disliking children might not help them attract more mates, so they view stimuli associated with children at least neutrally,” Brazil told PsyPost. “Or perhaps they are self-deceived: thinking they like children and would like to have them, and thus do find them as appealing as other men, but when they become fathers, they just don’t have it in them to provide parental care.”
This study added an important piece to the literature on psychopathy and parental investment by including somatic factors. Despite this, it has some limitations to note. One such limitation is that a community sample recruited through internet databases has limited psychopathy; future research could utilize an offender sample to bridge that gap. Additionally, this study relied heavily on self-report, which is vulnerable to bias. Future research could include physiological measures as well.
“We need more studies on the people who are involved with men who are high on psychopathic traits. For instance, it’s important to get the perspective of partners, family members, and children toward these men,” Brazil noted.
“It would also be important to examine the three investment domains using different measures other than self-report measures. One way could be to examine other-report, as mentioned above, with partners, children, etc. Other measures could be physiological measures and official records (e.g., births, marriages, age of death). It would also be important to compare measures, such as physiological and self-report measures, to look for discrepancies that might help clarify how this deceptive personality style can evade detection when being assessed and chosen in the mating domain.”
The findings are in line with another study, published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, which found that psychopathic traits were positively related to the number of children a person had. In other words, more psychopathic men tended to have more offspring than less psychopathic men.
“Men with psychopathic traits don’t seem to have an issue finding partners and having children. This is not just shown in our study, but many others as well, including studies examining offenders,” Brazil said.
“Yet despite attracting partners and having children, they are supportive of neither, but instead seem driven to move on to the next romantic thrill, only to repeat the pattern again. Thus, we find at least two insights relevant to consider with this research.”
“First, we need to use every tool in our collective belts to better understand this phenomenon, including an evolutionary perspective,” Brazil explained. “Identifying the adaptive elements of psychopathy doesn’t mean we condone it or suggest it only has benefits. In fact, our study showed there are several costs as well, including affecting less investment in parenting abilities and one’s own survival.”
“Second, we need to identify the developmental causes of psychopathy and what gives rise to boys and young men coming to adopt this type of relational pattern in the first place. One possibility is that boys and young men decide (gradually and unconsciously) that psychopathy is a good-enough male reproductive strategy where no other male reproductive strategy seems viable given their circumstances — including the ones that involve investing more in parental and somatic effort.”
The study, “Cads in Dads’ Clothing? Psychopathic Traits and Men’s Preferences for Mating, Parental, and Somatic Investment“, was authored by Kristopher J. Brazil and Anthony A. Volk.
With additional reporting by Eric W. Dolan