Psychopathic tendencies tend to be associated with reduced levels of emotional awareness, according to a new study published in PLOS One. However, this negative relationship is strongest among individuals who experienced heightened adversity in early life. Adding another wrinkle to the findings, the new research indicates that a subset of individuals exhibit both high psychopathy and high levels of emotional awareness.
Understanding the psychological mechanisms behind psychopathy can lead to improved diagnosis and treatment, as well as inform public safety strategies to prevent criminal and violent behavior associated with psychopathic traits. One area that remains unclear is the relationship between psychopathy and socio-emotional abilities.
“You often hear two different descriptions of individuals with psychopathy,” explained study author Ryan Smith (@RyanSmith_LIBR), a research associate professor at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research & University of Tulsa.
“On the one hand, they are portrayed as charming and manipulative, which seems to require a kind of methodical, reflective awareness of people’s thoughts and feelings and how to exploit them. On the other hand, they are also described as impulsive, self-focused, and insensitive to the emotions of others.”
“When you put these two descriptions together, they seem a bit inconsistent, and it’s not obvious whether to expect that they have high or low awareness of the emotions of others. You might also think childhood experiences could influence these different traits. So our study was designed to help answer these questions.”
For the study, Smith and his colleagues had 177 undergraduate students complete the Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale and the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure.
The Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale is a commonly used evaluation tool for emotional awareness. It assesses an individual’s ability to understand and describe their own emotions and those of others. Participants are presented with 10 scenarios involving two people and asked to describe the feelings involved. The score is determined based on the type of words used to describe emotions.
The Triarchic Psychopathy Measure is a self-report questionnaire that asks individuals to rate their agreement with a series of statements that are related to three dimensions of psychopathy: boldness, which is characterized by low anxiety, high self-confidence, and a willingness to take risks; meanness, which is characterized by a lack of empathy and guilt, as well as a tendency to exploit others for personal gain; and disinhibition, which is characterized by poor behavioral control and a lack of planning for the future.
The participants also completed assessments of adverse childhood experiences, such as neglect and abuse during early life.
The researchers found a connection between high levels of psychopathic traits and lower emotional awareness. However, this relationship was stronger in individuals who experienced childhood adversity, while in some cases, the relationship was absent in those without adversity. About half of individuals with high psychopathy scores had high levels of emotional awareness, indicating that high psychopathy is not necessarily accompanied by low emotional awareness.
When examining the specific dimensions of psychopathy, Smith and his colleagues found that emotional awareness scores were correlated with meanness and disinhibition but not boldness.
Meanness and disinhibition are associated with secondary psychopathy, which involves traits such as aggression, impulsivity, irresponsibility, and oppositionality. On the other hand, boldness is associated with primary psychopathy, which is characterized by dominance, persuasiveness, social assurance, resiliency, and intrepidness.
“The main takeaway is that there is more than one type of psychopathic individual,” Smith told PsyPost. “Some individuals with psychopathic personalities appear to develop these traits in childhood due to early trauma, such as abuse and neglect – often called having ‘secondary psychopathy.’ In our study, greater psychopathic tendencies in these individuals were linked to lower emotional awareness. These individuals also tended to show the more impulsive, non-reflective components of psychopathy.”
“But there was also another set of individuals with psychopathic traits who never experienced early abuse or neglect – often called “primary psychopathy” – and many of these individuals still had high scores on emotional awareness measures. In other words, higher psychopathy scores were not related to lower emotional awareness in this group.”
“So, it’s probably better not to think of all psychopaths as the same,” Smith said. “Some can have high awareness and often function successfully in life, while others show lower awareness, and it is these individuals that you may more likely find in prison populations. Our study sheds a bit more light onto the nature of this difference.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. For one, the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure is commonly used to assess psychopathic tendencies but is not a diagnostic tool. It is possible that results might different among clinical psychopaths.
“The most important caveat to keep in mind about our study is that participants were recruited from around a university,” Smith explained. “While several scored high on psychopathy measures, we don’t yet know if we’d see the same results in other groups, such as prisoners or cut-throat corporate leadership positions, which might also contain individuals with high levels of psychopathy. Future studies will need to repeat what we did in these other groups to figure this out.”
The study, “Psychopathic tendencies are selectively associated with reduced emotional awareness in the context of early adversity“, was authored by Ryan Smith, Anne E. Chuning, Colin A. Tidwell, John J. B. Allen, and Richard D. Lane.