Different aspects of psychopathy are associated with different forms of aggression, according to new research published in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. The study also found that desiring power is associated with more physical aggression. The findings provide insights into the complex relationships between psychopathy, power, and aggression, highlighting the unique contributions of different psychopathy facets and power orientations to specific forms of aggression.
While previous research has established a link between psychopathy and aggression, the focus has been primarily on physical violence or violent recidivism. The authors of current study aimed to expand this knowledge by exploring how psychopathic traits and power relate to various forms of aggression.
“We conducted this study to examine whether specific psychopathic traits and feeling powerful or desiring power show unique relationships with the distinct ways in which individuals manifest aggressive behavior (physical, verbal, indirect),” said study author Edelyn Verona, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for Justice Research & Policy at the University of South Florida.
“A desire to wield or obtain power over others is often a motivation for aggression. Several studies have linked dominance and a need for power to aggressive tendencies, and to psychopathic traits; however, research has not attempted to understand the nature of these interrelationships. Additionally, research tends not to distinguish between feeling powerful (low or high) and desiring power, or the ‘having’ versus ‘wanting’ experiences of power.
“Persons who desire power, regardless of feeling powerful, are hypothesized to see others as potentially threatening, which would compel such persons to gain influence through competition or aggression,” Verona said. “In contrast, definitions of power in the literature suggest that experiencing power can preclude the need to resort to physical coercion to achieve goals. This study worked to understand whether desiring power may explain the relationships between the impulsive traits of psychopathy with overt/physical aggression and between the interpersonal facet of psychopathy and more covert/indirect aggression.”
To conduct the study, the researchers utilized four independent samples. Sample 1 consisted of 275 male undergraduate students from a Southeastern public university, who were recruited through the psychology department participant pool and campus-wide outreach efforts.
Sample 2 involved 388 participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk. Sample 3 included 151 individuals recruited from a Southeastern medium-sized city via online advertisements and flyers. Sample 4 comprised 318 participants recruited from a Midwestern urban area, including individuals with histories of aggression and/or severe substance use.
Different measures were used to assess psychopathy, having/wanting power, and aggression in each sample. The researchers performed a meta-analysis in which they combined the results from all the samples to get a more accurate and reliable estimate of the relationships between psychopathic traits, power variables, and aggression. By pooling the data together, they could find patterns and trends that were consistent across the different samples, providing a more comprehensive understanding of how these factors are related to each other.
The researchers discovered that different aspects of psychopathy were connected to specific types of aggression. “The first set of findings, reinforced by the meta-analysis results, indicated that relationships between the psychopathy facets and forms of aggression are specialized to some extent,” Verona told PsyPost.
The impulsive facet of psychopathy was linked to physical, verbal, and indirect aggression. “Consistent with our hypothesis, the unique variance in impulsive psychopathic features showed relationships with all forms of aggression, emphasizing the broad role of disinhibition and impulse control in manifestations of all types of aggression,” Verona explained.
The affective facet, which involves a lack of empathy and concern for others, was primarily associated with physical and verbal forms of aggression. This is “an indication that lack of empathy and callousness seem to uniquely relate to more injurious and socially undesirable forms of aggression,” Verona said.
The interpersonal facet of psychopathy, which includes manipulative and deceitful tendencies, was related to all forms of aggression but had stronger connections with indirect aggression (such as spreading gossip or using malicious humor).
“The bivariate correlations showed robust relationships between the three facets of psychopathy and all forms of aggression,” Verona noted. “The fact that all psychopathy facets correlated with aggression is consistent with the idea that antagonism explains interrelationships between different features of psychopathy.”
“The second set of findings, particularly novel in this literature, surround the unique contributions of self-reported experiences of having or wanting power in aggression, above and beyond psychopathy factors,” Verona told PsyPost. “The meta-analytic results supported that desiring power was generally positively related to aggression across its different forms.”
“In contrast, feeling powerful showed small and/or negative relationships with aggression across the samples, also confirmed by the meta-analytic results. The results indicate that, more so than how powerful or powerless one feels, the desire to be in control is likely to influence the intentional engagement in behaviors that harm others.”
In other words, when people have a strong desire to be in control and dominate others, they are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior. On the other hand, feeling powerful itself was not strongly associated with aggression. This suggests that it is not just the experience of power, but rather the desire for power, that drives aggressive actions.
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations.
“This study relied primarily on self-report measures to capture the constructs of aggression, psychopathy, and power; these are subject to inconsistent and defensive responding,” Verona explained. “Further, we did not distinguish between instrumental and reactive aggression, which may obscure relationships between psychopathy and aggression that are likely stronger when motivated by instrumental or less emotional reasons. Another limitation is that we could not measure different types of indirect aggression separately (e.g., relational, passive aggression), especially since relational aggression is particularly linked to higher popularity and social manipulation.”
“We encourage the further exploration of the role of power in psychopathy and aggression,” Verona added. “For example, future studies can experimentally manipulate status challenges or dominance situations to elaborate on relationships between personality dispositions (i.e., psychopathic traits), dynamic social/ contextual situations, and aggression outcomes.”
The study, “Psychopathy Facets, Perceived Power, and Forms of Aggression“, was authored by Edelyn Verona, Sean J. McKinley, Amy Hoffmann, Brett A. Murphy, and Ashley L. Watts.