A recent study published in the journal Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology sheds light on the complex interplay between psychopathic traits, anxiety, and exposure to violence among young individuals involved in the legal system. The research identified four distinct trajectories of psychopathic traits within this population.
Psychopathic traits refer to personality characteristics often associated with a lack of empathy, manipulative behavior, and impulsivity. These traits can exist on a spectrum, and they’re not inherently indicative of criminal behavior. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a common emotional state characterized by feelings of unease, worry, and fear. Exposure to violence can range from witnessing violent incidents to experiencing violence directly.
Previous research has explored the links between these factors and antisocial behavior. Still, this study aimed to go beyond by investigating how these traits change over time during youth development and how they collectively contribute to future antisocial behavior.
“Though there is an assumption that personality traits, like psychopathy/psychopathic traits, don’t change across the lifespan, there is evidence that psychopathic personality traits do change across adolescence and early adulthood,” explained study author Suzanne Estrada, a postdoctoral fellow at both the West Haven VA Medical Center and Yale University.
“We also wanted to understand how factors associated with psychopathic traits, including anxiety and violence exposure, change with psychopathic traits across adolescence. We chose to study anxiety and violence exposure because there are different variants of psychopathy that associate differently with anxiety and violence exposure, with one variant characterized by high psychopathic traits but low anxiety and violence exposure and another variant characterized by high psychopathic traits with high anxiety and violence exposure.
“Finally, we wanted to understand if the combination of psychopathic traits, anxiety, and violence exposure across adolescence meaningfully predicted engagement in externalizing behaviors (e.g., crime, substance use) in the future. There is debate about whether the variants of psychopathy associate differently with engagement in externalizing behaviors, so we wanted to explore whether these trajectories meaningfully differentiated people in terms of their engagement in future externalizing behaviors.”
To investigate this, the researchers gathered data from a group of young individuals involved with the legal system, totaling 809 participants. They collected data on psychopathic traits, anxiety levels, and violence exposure at multiple time points during adolescence. This longitudinal approach enabled them to track changes in these factors over time.
The researchers employed sophisticated statistical models to identify four distinct trajectories or patterns of change in psychopathic traits, anxiety, and violence exposure. They also examined how these trajectories related to subsequent antisocial behavior.
Trajectory 1 – Low: This group included youth with consistently low levels of psychopathic traits, anxiety, and violence exposure. They displayed a stable and low risk of antisocial behavior.
Trajectory 2 – Moderate Psychopathic Traits/High Negative Emotions and Experiences: In this group, youth had moderate levels of psychopathic traits but experienced decreasing anxiety and violence exposure. Their risk of antisocial behavior decreased over time.
Trajectory 3 – Potential Primary Psychopathic Traits: Youth in this group showed elevated psychopathic traits but moderate anxiety and violence exposure. They displayed a risk profile consistent with primary psychopathic traits, although not as extreme.
Trajectory 4 – High/Secondary Psychopathic Traits: The final group consisted of youth with high and stable psychopathic traits, along with elevated and stable anxiety and decreasing violence exposure. They exhibited the highest risk of antisocial behavior among all groups.
The study’s findings highlight the importance of considering the interplay between psychopathic traits, anxiety, and violence exposure during youth development. Importantly, they challenge the idea that psychopathic traits are entirely stable.
“We found evidence of four different groups of people, where, within each group, they were approximately the same on their fluctuations in psychopathic traits, anxiety, and violence exposure across adolescence,” Estrada said. “Interestingly, we found that psychopathic traits decreased across adolescence for all groups, which provides additional evidence that psychopathic traits are not immutable.”
The researchers tracked the participants for three and four years after identifying their trajectories. They discovered that membership in Trajectories 2, 3, and 4 predicted higher levels of violent crime, substance use, and substance dependence. Importantly, Trajectory 4 (High/Secondary Psychopathic Traits) showed the most persistent antisocial behavior, with more substance use and arrests compared to other trajectories.
“We found that the group characterized by the highest levels of psychopathic traits, anxiety, and violence exposure engaged in the most widespread externalizing behaviors,” Estrada explained. “This suggests that crime/externalizing behavior prevention efforts should really focus on the groups of individuals with high psychopathic traits, anxiety, and violence exposure.”
However, there are some limitations to this research. For example, the study does not establish causation but rather identifies associations between these factors and antisocial behavior. Additionally, the data collected focused on mid-to-late adolescence, so it’s unclear how these trajectories might change in earlier developmental stages.
Nevertheless, the study contributes valuable insights into the complexity of youth development and its relationship to antisocial behavior. By identifying distinct trajectories of psychopathic traits, anxiety, and violence exposure, it offers a more nuanced understanding of the factors contributing to antisocial behavior among youth. This knowledge can inform more targeted and effective prevention and intervention efforts to support at-risk youth on a path toward positive outcomes.
The study, “Trajectories of Psychopathic Traits, Anxiety, and Violence Exposure Differentially Predict Antisociality in Legal System‑Involved Youth“, was authored by Suzanne Estrada, Cortney Simmons, and Arielle Baskin‑Sommers.