A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology explored the connection between psychopathic traits, driving behavior, and anger expression while behind the wheel. The results revealed that individuals with psychopathic traits had higher rates of traffic violations and more aggressive driving behavior. In addition, those with lower levels of empathy, greater impulsiveness, and sensation-seeking were more likely to act out aggressively. Furthermore, those with psychopathic traits were less likely to engage in prosocial driving behavior.
Breaking traffic rules and driving aggressively can be dangerous. Those that habitually engage in rule-breaking aggressive behavior on the road are more likely to hurt themselves and others. Marion Karras of Université Paris Nanterre and colleagues were curious if there was a relationship between psychopathic traits, aggression while driving, and whether traffic violations are interrelated. They also associated specific elements of psychopathology and risky driving. These results could lead to developments in driving training and safety education.
The study focused on drivers from France convicted of driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, habitual speeding, or some other significant violation of traffic laws. As a result of their driving behavior, the 1,686 participants were enrolled in a court-ordered driver rehabilitation course. During their rehabilitation course, participants completed several assessments, including a self‐report psychopathy scale, empathy questionnaire, impulsive behavior scale, driving‐related sensation-seeking scale, driver behavior questionnaire, and driving aggression questionnaire. The data from these assessments were analyzed, searching for correlations between the variables in question.
Positive correlations were found between aggressive/risky driving and psychopathic traits. In other words, participants who scored higher in psychopathic traits reported more risky or aggressive driving. Those with psychopathic traits were also more likely to commit traffic violations, be angry while driving and more likely to turn that anger into aggression while driving. In addition, negative correlations were found between psychopathic traits, empathy, and self-control. This result indicates that as individuals score higher on measures of psychopathic traits, they will demonstrate less empathy and self-control.
Karras and colleagues state, “the present findings suggest that having elevated primary psychopathic traits as well as reduced empathic tendencies, high impulsiveness and high driving related sensation seeking, can increase driving offenders risk for dangerous driving outcomes.”
The cross-sectional design of this study prevents any claims of cause and effect. Future longitudinal research, or following the same people over many years, may make results more reliable. The research team recognizes that collecting self-report data from those with psychopathic traits like deceitfulness runs the risk of biased data. But previous research has found that psychopathic individuals are not likely to respond to social desirability. For this reason, Karras and the team have confidence in their data. Finally, the participants were 100% French, and in other cultures, there could be different motivations for risky or aggressive behavior.
This study provides clues to the origins of habitual risky or aggressive driving. In the future, this research may lead to structured training or rehabilitation programs to support drivers with tendencies toward risk or aggression.
The study, “Empathy, impulsiveness, and sensation seeking as mediators between primary psychopathic traits and driving behaviors in French driving offenders“, was authored by Marion Karras, Antonia Csillik, and Patricia Delhomme.