psychopathic traits make an individual more likely to commit a crime?
This project aims to fill the gap within the psychopathy
literature by aiming to deliver answers to unanswered questions within the
field. The majority of published research that has been conducted in this field
has mainly focused on the male psychopath and there appears to be a lack of
research in to the female psychopath. Therefore, this research will aim to fill
that gap. In addition, there is a lack of research in to which specific
psychopathic traits are more common among serious offenders and therefore, this
research will aim to determine these traits. In doing so, researchers can
determine whether an individual is more likely to be dangerous due to a certain
trait they might hold and whether a specific trait could be focused on in the
future in regard to rehabilitation and avoiding recidivism.
Psychopathy has been
defined as one of the most important psychological constructs within the
criminal justice system (Hare et al., 2007). The term ‘psychopathy’ refers to
an individual suffering from a severe disorder of personality that is strongly
linked with antisocial behaviour (Davies and Beech, 2012). The features of
psychopathy are said to begin to manifest in childhood and are relatively
stable over time (Larsson et al., 2007). Psychologists have found that there is
a conclusive link between psychopathy and criminal behaviour (Hare, 1996;
Hart, 1998; Hemphill et al., 1998). In addition, a psychopathic personality is a personality disorder associated with a
collection of social and behavioural problems including violence, criminal
activities and failure to conform to social standards (Stone, 2008).
Psychopathy is not used as a clinical diagnosis but it is considered as a
developmental disorder (Blair, 2006). Cleckley (1976) narrowed the definition
of psychopathy by defining the disorder through a list of specific traits which
then went on to aid in the construct of Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist.
Psychopaths make up approximately 20% of
the prison population and 1% of the general population that is not incarcerated
(Hare, 1993). In comparison to non-psychopathic offenders, psychopathic
offenders commit a greater number of crimes, commit more types of crimes and
are more violent in their crimes (Lynam, 1996). However, psychopathy and
criminality are not the same construct (Hart and Hare, 1997) and the
characteristics that make up psychopathy do not necessarily imply criminal behaviour
(Hare, 1991). That being said, there are certain psychopathic traits including
lack of empathy, impulsivity and grandiosity that increase the likelihood of an
individual behaving in a criminal manner, as well as decreasing the likelihood
that the decision to act will be inhibited (Hart and Hare, 1997).
The most widely recognised instrument used
to determine whether an individual can be diagnosed as a psychopath is the
Psychopathy Checklist- Revised (Hare, 1991, 2003), as stated previously. The specific
traits that are defined by Hare in the psychopathy checklist are; glib and
superficial charm, grandiose estimation of oneself, need for stimulation,
pathological lying, cunning and manipulating, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow
affect, callousness and lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle, poor behaviour
controls, sexual promiscuity, early behaviour problems, lack of realistic
long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept
responsibility for own actions, many short-term marital relationships, juvenile
delinquency, revocation of conditional release and criminal versatility (Hare,
2003). Researchers use this scale, in addition to extensive interviews and
gather information from an individual’s criminal background in order to rate
the 20 items. In addition, these 20 items make up 2 different factors; the
first being social deviance and the second being interpersonal and affective. According
to the manual of the checklist, the cut off point for diagnosing an individual
as a ‘psychopath’ is 30 or higher (Porter & Woodworth, 2007).
Psychopathy is not only linked to crime in general but also to certain
types of crime. The association between psychopathy and violent offending has
been well established by an extensive body of research (Hare, 1991). Experiments
have been conducted for more than half a century, indicating that people who
commit crimes and behave in a violent manner are more likely to suffer from a
major mental disorder than to be non-disordered (Michie, Hart, and Clark, 2005), indicating
a link between psychopathy and crime. Cleckley (1976), stated that violence
which is perpetrated by psychopaths is more instrumental than that perpetrated
by other offenders, which is typically more reactive. Instrumental violence,
which is also referred to as predatory violence, is both controlled and
purposeful and is normally used to attain a desired goal such as money, drugs
and power. Researchers have found that this instrumental violence used by
psychopaths is commonly associated with a self-reported lack of emotional
arousal during the violent act. It has been found that psychopaths are more
likely to engage in institutional misbehavior (Guy et al., 2005), and express
greater criminal sentiments and pride in antisocial behaviour when compared to
other offenders (Simourd and Hoge, 2000).
In addition to violent offences, psychopathy is also related to sexual
offences, however this type of crime is more complex (Hare et al., 2000). It
has been suggested that offenders with more psychopathic traits do not
necessarily focus on a specific victim type but instead, sexually assault
victims opportunistically (Porter et al., 2000). In addition, they may change
their victim preferences over time in line with their thrill-seeking
motivation. It has been suggested that this relationship between psychopathy
and sexual offending is due to the instrumental use of sex and associated with
a lack of victim empathy (Knight and Sims-Knight, 2003).
It has been found that psychopathy is an important risk factor for
recidivism and more specifically, violence. In addition, Hemphill, Hare and
Wong (1998), identified significant correlations of PCL-R scores with general
recidivism, violent recidivism and sexual recidivism. It has been stated that psychopathic
offenders are 5 times more likely than other offenders to reoffend violently
within 5 years of release (Serin and Amos, 1995).
Lastly, the most common observation made about psychopaths is that
they lack empathy (this being one of the psychopathic traits in Hare’s
Checklist) (Mattiuzzi, 2016). When conducting this literature review, this
trait of ‘lack of empathy’ is commented on frequently when talking about
psychopaths, indicating that it might be one of the most important traits when
investigating psychopaths’ behaviour.
Research Question 1)
Does having psychopathic traits make an
individual more likely to commit a crime?
It is predicted that having psychopathic
traits are linked to committing a crime.
Research Question 2)
Which psychopathic traits are most common
amongst serious offenders?
There has been limited research into which
psychopathic traits are most common amongst serious offenders; therefore, it is
difficult to hypothesise which are most common. However, the traits that have
been mentioned in most previous research are lack of remorse/guilt and lack of
Research Question 3)
Are psychopathic traits linked to any
It is predicted that psychopathic
offenders are most likely to commit violent crimes; i.e. murder, assault and sexual
Research Question 4)
To what extent are certain demographics
(age, gender and ethnicity) linked to psychopathic traits?
The majority of research performed on
psychopaths has been middle-aged, white, male prisoners showing a strong link
between this group of people and crime committing. However, there has been a
lack of research amongst other demographics and psychopathy.
Design and Methodology
This type of research is a quasi-experiment.
Participants will consist of 50 male and
50 female prisoners being held in Category A prisons across England and Wales. Participants
will be recruited via telephone and will be selected using random sampling. However,
participants with a known mental disorder will be eliminated from the sampling
procedure. In addition, participants must be competent in English as
demonstrated via conversation as well as reading aloud a text description of
The instrument that will be used is Hare’s
PCL-R Checklist. This contains two-parts; the first being a semi-structured
interview which is a comprehensive interview extracting details of school
adjustment, work history, career goals, finances, health, family life,
sex/relationships, drug use, childhood/adolescent antisocial behaviour, and
other general questions. And the second is the evaluation part where
individuals are scored on a 20-item checklist to determine whether they have a
psychopathic character. After completion, the PCL-R provides a total score that
indicates how closely the individual matches a score that a classic
prototypical would rate. Each of the items is given a score of 0,1 or 2; 0
being if it does not apply at all, 1 if there is a partial match or mixed
information and 2 if there is a good match. The maximum score is 40 and if an
individual scores 30 or above, they qualify for a diagnosis of psychopathy.
Firstly, participants will be invited to
take part via phone call. Before taking part in the research, participants will
be given a brief description of what the research includes and why it is being
conducted. In addition, they will be informed that they would be provided with
a small monetary payment (£5-£10) for their participation. If they agree to
take part, they will then be sent a consent form to complete. The participants
will then be invited to take part in a semi-structured interview in order to
determine the individual’s background including their criminal history. Whilst
conducting the interviews, the participants’ demographic information will be
gathered. It is estimated that the interviews will take around 2 hours per
individual. The semi-structured interviews will be carried out over a period of
about two months due to the duration of each individual interview. In addition,
the interviews will be carried out in a maximum secure setting with safety
measures in place such as support from guards. The individuals will then be
scored on Hare’s PCL-R checklist in order to determine whether they meet the
criterion for a psychopath. After the interview has been conducted, the participants
will be given a debrief. Participants will be informed on what they score on
the PCL-R if they wish to do so. Participants will also be told that if they
wish to withdraw from the research procedure at any point, then they are free
to do so. In addition, participants will remain anonymous throughout the study.
For the PCL-R, total scores and
descriptive analyses of demographic characteristics will be derived. In doing
so, the percentage of prisoners who can be diagnosed as a ‘psychopath’ can be
shown, indicating the percentage of male and percentage of female prisoners who
have been diagnosed with psychopathy. Pearson’s correlation coefficient will
also be used in order to assess the reliability of the study. Cronbach’s Alpha
Coefficient will be calculated for overall internal consistency among the 20
items of PCL-R. Lastly, regression analysis will then be applied to investigate
the association between the PCL-R total scores and demographic characteristics
of the participants. The most prevalent trait amongst those diagnosed as a
psychopath will be determined as well as the distribution of psychopathic traits.
By identifying traits among those diagnosed with psychopathy, the researcher
will be able to determine whether a specific trait correlates to a certain type
When conducting this research, it is
important to take ethical considerations in to account. The first being the
fact that it is involving people who have a potential diagnosis of psychopathy
which, in turn, makes then a potentially vulnerable group of people as they
have a mental illness. Also, during the interview process, there are personal
questions being asked about the participants’ background and history and
therefore, the participant might feel uncomfortable when answering some of these
questions. Lastly, as it is known that psychopaths are a high-risk group of
individuals, the researcher is being exposed to a potentially dangerous
situation. In regards to this, safety measures will be put in place in order to
keep the researcher safe.
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