Psychopathic traits are personality traits centered on such things as disregard for other people’s feelings, impulsive actions, recurring use of manipulation or deception, and an unusually narrow emotional range. In a study published in September 2013 in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, an international research team tracked the presence of psychopathic traits in teenagers, and also sought to identify some of these traits’ contributing factors. The researchers concluded that increased levels of psychopathic traits in teens are linked to an unusual lack of two kinds of empathy.
How To Identify A Psychopathic Trait
The presence of psychopathic personality traits is known as psychopathy. While references to psychopaths and sociopaths (another term for people with the same set of personality traits) are quite common in popular culture, it’s important to note that mental health professionals in the U.S. don’t officially use these terms when diagnosing their patients. Instead, they note the presence of psychopathic behavior in the context of an adult mental disorder called antisocial personality disorder or two disorders of childhood called oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.
The U.S. criminal justice system does use psychopathy as an everyday working term. Within this setting (and in mental health research), psychopathic personality traits are commonly measured with the help of a test called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R. This test measures four distinct groups of traits, called interpersonal, antisocial, lifestyle and affective traits. Interpersonal psychopathic traits identified by the PCL-R include a highly inflated sense of self, a compulsive use of lying and the use of charm to manipulate others. Antisocial traits include behavior problems in childhood and the commission of juvenile crime. Lifestyle-related psychopathic traits include poor impulse control, disregard for notions of responsibility and a need for highly stimulating experiences. Affective traits include a shallow emotional range and a reduced or absent ability to feel guilt or empathy.
What Role Does Empathy Play?
Empathy is the ability to shift your personal perspective and see situations or events from other people’s points of view. Mental health professionals and researchers break this ability down into two basic components, called affective (emotional) empathy and cognitive empathy. In the context of psychopathy, the most critical factor in affective empathy is empathic concern, a term that refers to the capacity to correctly interpret other people’s emotions and use that interpretation to generate a sense of compassion. Cognitive empathy provides a more intellectual or logical understanding of the motivations and actions of others.
New Findings On Psychopathic Traits
In the study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, a team of Dutch and British researchers measured the number of psychopathic personality traits in a group of 233 teenagers, split roughly equally between boys and girls. These measurements began when the teens were 16 and were then repeated annually for the next three years. The researchers also compared the psychopathic traits found within each gender and specifically assessed the psychopathy-related impact of a lack of affective empathy and a lack of cognitive empathy.
After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that some of the teens in the study had only low levels of psychopathic personality traits, while others had moderate levels of these traits. In both boys and girls, moderate levels of psychopathy were clearly associated with a relative lack of affective or emotional empathy, while low levels of psychopathy were associated with normal or near-normal amounts of emotional empathy. The researchers also concluded that the girls in the study with moderate levels of psychopathy had unusually low amounts of cognitive empathy. The boys in the study with moderate levels of psychopathy had a similar, but smaller tendency toward a decline in cognitive empathy.
The authors of the study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry note that the participants affected by moderate psychopathy continued to display psychopathic personality traits and low amounts of emotional and cognitive empathy at each annual follow-up. They believe that they are the first researchers to demonstrate the continuing presence of these personality factors in teenagers over an extended period of time. However, they also specifically note that the teens in the study did not completely lack empathy; instead, the teens merely displayed an unusual empathy deficiency. In addition, while empathy levels in the affected teenagers remained relatively low throughout the study, they increased fairly steadily as the participants grew older.
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