A new study has found that people who reported suffering betrayal trauma in childhood were more likely to exhibit psychopathic and callous traits in adulthood. Dissociative experiences were found to mediate this association. The study was published in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation.
Psychopathy consists of a set of behavioral traits that are often observed together in individuals. These are serious, chronic antisocial behavior, lack of empathy, bold, and disinhibited behavior that is paired with charming, but exploitative behavior. Scientific studies of psychopathy have, so far, mostly focused on antisocial behavior that is characteristic of psychopathy. It was typically studied in samples of convicts and individuals registered or processed by the criminal justice system. However, psychopathic personality traits exist to a different degree throughout the population.
Recently, research focus has shifted to successful individuals displaying psychopathic traits, the so-called “successful psychopaths.” Researchers have proposed that individuals with psychopathic traits who are able to effectively adapt to social norms and can better control their antisocial impulses and overall behavior can avoid incarceration and be highly successful in their careers.
More recent contributions also made a distinction between primary psychopathy, thought to be primarily influenced by biological and genetic factors, and secondary psychopathy, thought to be a consequence of unresolved emotional conflicts and trauma. While the primary characteristic of primary psychopathy is callousness, secondary psychopathy is primarily characterized by impulsive, antisocial behavior.
Study authors Aleksandria Grabowa and Kathy Becker-Blease wanted to explore the childhood factors that led to secondary psychopathy in adulthood. They proposed that betrayal trauma in childhood might lead to emotional numbing and dissociation, which, in time, lead to the development of secondary psychopathic traits.
“The topic actually came out of a conversation I had when I first met my co-author, Dr. Kathy Becker-Blease,” explained Grabowa, an assistant professor at California State University San Marcos. “I was completing an externship as a counselor at Oregon State University and reached out to Dr. Becker-Blease to meet up for some coffee and chat about our mutual interest area in psychological trauma, and the opportunity to use the Eugene-Springfield Community Sample data set came up in our conversation.”
“At the time, I was also taking a seminar at the University of Oregon with Dr. Jennifer Freyd and was under the clinical supervision of Dr. Pamela Birrell, the amazing women who coined the terms ‘betrayal trauma’ and ‘betrayal blindness,’ so the chance to contribute to the research in this area was beyond exciting.”
Betrayal trauma refers to traumatic experiences where the harm was caused by a caregiver or a close other. This type of trauma is specific, because survival instincts predispose individuals to discontinue interaction and move away from individuals that cause them harm. However, in betrayal trauma, children are unable to discontinue these interactions because they depend on the caregiver for their basic needs and very survival.
Children can thus respond to such events by becoming emotionally numb and by losing memory (amnesia) of traumatic events. Such responses allow them to withstand the trauma, while still maintaining the relationship with the caregiver (who harms them) that they depend on.
“Many experiences and behaviors that we are quick to pathologize in adults – including dissociation and callousness – may in fact be the reason these individuals were able to survive from early childhood experiences of betrayal trauma,” Grabowa explained.
“Based on Dr. Becker-Blease’s earlier work in the area of trauma and psychopathy, we sought to understand if using dissociation as a potential survival mechanism helped explain the relationship between early trauma and psychopathy traits in adulthood,” she continued. “Because a lot of the studies on trauma and psychopathy have focused on individuals involved in the criminal justice system, we also wanted to see if these same links were present in a community sample.”
These researchers analyzed data from the Eugene-Springfield Community Sample, a longitudinal study designed to measure personality characteristics and symptoms of various mental disorders, along with other factors. Data were collected from a total of 746 participants at three time points between 1997 and 2006. Participants completed assessments of childhood betrayal trauma (the Brief Betrayal Trauma Survey), dissociation (the Curious experiences Scale), and psychopathy and callous affect traits (Hare Self-Report Psychopathy Scale).
Researchers tested a statistical model in which childhood betrayal trauma affected psychopathy in adulthood directly, but also indirectly by causing dissociation, that in turn leads to psychopathy. Dissociation, in this situation, refers to disengaging from the processing of emotional information, leading to emotional numbing and the development of callous-unemotional traits.
It is proposed as a mechanism that helps the child protect its psychological integrity from the harm caused by a person the child depends on (caregiver/close other). The dissociation assessment also includes a measure of amnesia.
Results showed that such model of relations between these factors is indeed possible, but with the link between childhood behavior trauma and psychopathy being only indirect, achieved through dissociation.
Researchers additionally tested another statistical model in which they proposed that childhood betrayal trauma leads to the formation of callous-unemotional traits in adulthood both directly and through dissociation. Results supported the possibility of both direct influence of childhood trauma on the formation of callous-unemotional traits in adulthood and an indirect influence through dissociation.
“In our study, we found that early childhood experiences of betrayal trauma do tend to predict the development of certain traits related to psychopathy, including callousness and interpersonal manipulation,” Grabowa told PsyPost. “We also found that adult experiences of dissociation help explain why folks with a history of childhood betrayal trauma may go on to develop these traits.
“My hope is that people understand that just because someone has experienced childhood betrayal trauma doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically go on to develop traits related to psychopathy, nor that they should be demonized if they do. The same goes with dissociation. Rather, as a society, we should try to understand that these coping mechanisms have likely helped these individuals survive and get by, and collectively find ways to intervene as early as possible to support these survivors in finding other ways to heal and move forward.”
There were somewhat more females (58%) than males in the sample. Most of the participants had university education (84%) and almost all of them were Caucasian (98.4%).
“I think the idea of privilege was an untold narrative in the study,” Grabowa said. “Again, a lot of the studies on psychopathy have focused on participants involved in the criminal justice system, but our sample mostly consisted of White, middle-class homeowners.”
“Although we don’t know if these individuals had a previous history with the criminal justice system, a portion of our sample endorsed previous criminal behavior (previous arrest, shoplifting, theft, assault). Research suggests the existence of ‘successful psychopathy’ characterized by individuals that are charming and charismatic while also deceitful and lacking empathy; it’s possible that folks from more privileged backgrounds who develop these more prosocial behaviors are able to better camouflage the less socially acceptable behaviors to avoid involvement in the criminal justice system. Something to consider.”
The study sheds light on the link between adverse childhood experiences and psychopathic traits in adulthood. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all assessments were based on self-reports. Additionally, assessments of childhood betrayal trauma were obtained retrospectively i.e., adult participants provided them based on recalled memories of their childhood. These memories may not always be accurate representations of childhood events.
“We also want readers to understand that the levels of psychopathic traits in this study were relatively low, so our findings may not translate to folks with diagnosed psychopathy-related disorders,” Grabowa added.
“One of the concepts that we indirectly examined in the study was the idea of ‘primary’ vs. ‘secondary’ psychopathy – primary being influenced by biological/heritability factors (you’re born with it), and secondary produced by exposure to environmental factors such as trauma. Because the study looked primarily at secondary psychopathy (trauma influencing psychopathy traits), it would be interesting to ask if and how genetic risk plays a factor in this equation.”
The study, ”Acquiring Psychopathy and Callousness Traits: Examining the Influence of Childhood Betrayal Trauma and Adult Dissociative Experiences in a Community Sample”, was authored by Aleksandria Grabowa and Kathy Becker-Blease.