In adolescents with high levels of psychopathic traits, a strong desire for social dominance is linked to increased externalizing problems (such as aggressive behavior) and reduced prosocial behavior (like helping others), according to new research published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine. The findings suggest that addressing social dominance orientation in therapy may help improve interpersonal behaviors in these adolescents.
Psychopathic traits, traditionally linked to adults, have also been identified in children and adolescents. These traits encompass dimensions like grandiose-manipulative, callous-unemotional, and daring-impulsive traits. Research has shown that these traits can be observed early in life and remain relatively stable throughout childhood and into adulthood. Moreover, they are associated with cognitive, affective, and behavioral characteristics.
Previous studies have established a connection between psychopathic traits in youth and externalizing problems, which include aggressive and antisocial behavior. Adolescents with high psychopathic traits often exhibit more severe externalizing problems than their peers. Furthermore, youth with psychopathic traits tend to demonstrate lower levels of prosocial behavior, which involves helping others and engaging in cooperative activities.
Social dominance orientation is a concept that measures an individual’s inclination toward unequal and dominant-subordinate relationships. People with a high social dominance orientation tend to desire social dominance and superiority, often believing that some groups are inherently superior or inferior to others. This competitive worldview can influence interpersonal behavior and attitudes.
In their new study, lead author Giuseppe Grossi and his colleagues aimed to explore how psychopathic traits, social dominance orientation, externalizing problems, and prosocial behavior intersect in Italian adolescents. They hypothesized that social dominance orientation would mediate the relationship between psychopathic traits and externalizing problems, as well as prosocial behavior. In other words, they expected that psychopathic traits would lead to higher social dominance orientation, which would, in turn, be associated with more significant externalizing problems and reduced prosocial behavior.
The study involved two groups of participants: a community sample of 92 adolescents (average age of 12.53) from a secondary school in Central Italy and a clinical sample of 29 adolescents (average age of 12.57) referred to a specialized service for behavioral problems. Among the clinical sample, 25 participants were diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and five with Conduct Disorder.
Psychopathic traits were positively correlated with externalizing problems, negatively correlated with prosocial behavior, and positively correlated with social dominance orientation. These correlations supported the study’s hypotheses and demonstrated that the clinical sample exhibited more significant psychopathic traits, externalizing problems, and social dominance orientation.
Mediation analyses were conducted to explore the relationships between psychopathic traits, social dominance orientation, externalizing problems, and prosocial behavior. Mediation analysis is a statistical technique used in research to explore and understand the process through which one variable (the independent variable) affects another variable (the dependent variable) by identifying and examining the role of an intermediate variable called the mediator. In other words, mediation analysis helps researchers investigate the mechanism or pathway through which a relationship between two variables occurs.
The community sample, which exhibited lower levels of psychopathic traits, did not fully support the mediation model. In this group, there was a direct relationship between psychopathic traits and externalizing problems, but social dominance orientation did not mediate this relationship. Additionally, psychopathic traits were not directly or indirectly associated with prosocial behavior in this sample.
Importantly, however, in the clinical sample, where psychopathic traits were more pronounced, the study found that a stronger orientation toward social dominance contributed to increased externalizing problems and decreased prosocial behavior. This suggests that adolescents with high psychopathic traits may view dominance and power as essential goals and may employ aggressive and antisocial behavior to achieve them. The study underscores the importance of addressing dominance orientation in therapeutic interventions for adolescents with behavioral problems and psychopathic traits.
The findings have important implications for understanding and addressing the challenges associated with psychopathic traits in adolescents.
“This evidence suggests, consistent with previous studies, that dominance orientation/motivation should represent a target of treatment interventions,” the researchers concluded. “Indeed, reshaping youths’ view of the world as an unhealthy competitive environment in which some individuals are superior to others and, therefore, should dominate others might influence their interpersonal behavior. Therefore, reducing the feeling of superiority and the need to dominate others may reduce the emission of aggressive and hostile behavior in dealing with other people and allow for more cooperative efforts to obtain goals.”
“Taken from a different perspective, and as emphasized by Johnson et al., ‘heightened dominance motivation could be channeled in a positive way that supports interpersonal connectedness.’ Different strategies may be used to establish cooperative behaviors and reduce aggression toward others. Efforts toward social dominance usually come with a cost and have negative long-term consequences. Instead, prosocial and altruistic behaviors can serve this same goal while also leading to strong bonds and friendships with others, fostering positive developmental outcomes. In order to promote this shift from coercive to more affiliative strategies to rise in rank, therapies should address youths’ social and self-regulation skills, which are the underpinnings of cooperation, prosociality, and helping behaviors.”
The study’s limitations include small sample sizes, which may have affected the power of statistical analyses, and the need for further exploration of additional variables that could influence the observed relationships. Future research may delve into the impact of parenting styles and parental characteristics on dominance orientation and psychopathic traits in adolescents.
The study, “Psychopathic Traits, Externalizing Problems, and Prosocial Behavior: The Role of Social Dominance Orientation“, was authored by Giuseppe Grossi, Francesca Strappini, Enrico Iuliano, Ylenia Passiatore, Francesco Mancini, Valentina Levantini, Gabriele Masi, Annarita Milone, Erica Santaguida, Randall T. Salekin, Pietro Muratori, and Carlo Buonanno.