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The Relationship between Child Abuse and Adult Psychopathy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 3838 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 Psychopathy has been a topic of interest for me for a long time. It may seem strange that I am only a Junior in college and have had this interest for quite a while, but here I am. Psychopathy is basically seen as a person having a lack of empathy and a reduced attachment to society and others (Viding & Kimonis, 2018). It is a personality disorder that is characterized by an assembly of distinct interpersonal and affective traits, such as manipulativeness and callousness, and a disinhibited, reckless lifestyle, such as impulsivity and irresponsibility (Dargis & Koenigs, 2018). I have always wondered how a person could be like that. I have been intrigued as to what differences there are between a psychopath and your average non-psychopath. What I am really interested in is their life as a whole. I plan to research psychopaths and the history of their lives but with a focus on their childhood. In addition, I would like to examine whether during their childhood they have experienced any traumatic events including abuse.

Two Subtypes of Psychopathy and Childhood Abuse

The topic of this article is to prove that there are two subtypes to psychopathy. They want to determine what they actually are and prove that differences in childhood abuse can determine which subtype of psychopathy they are experiencing. They want to do this by comparing childhood maltreatment of a psychopathic group with a non-psychopathic group. The research was guided by the interest in wanting to investigate whether a certain subtype of psychopathy is associated with a specific type of childhood abuse. In order to do this, they found an independent and dependent variable. The independent variable of this study was the type of abuse the child received. The dependent variable was the type of symptoms the adult psychopath is suffering from.

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The participants in this study were 222 adult males that were incarcerated at medium-security prisons in Wisconsin (Dargis & Koenigs, 2018). Each participant had completed many assessments and have been doing this for years. One group, of 110 males met the criteria for psychopathy and had PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised), MPQ (Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire- Brief Form), and CTQ (Childhood Trauma Questionnaire) data readily available (Dargis & Koenigs, 2018). The other 112 male participants were randomized but all had CTQ and MPQ data available but did not meet the criteria for psychopathy, leading this to be the control group. In addition to that, the control group had to be between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five, had no history of psychotic disorder or PTSD, and were not currently taking psychotropic medication. The participants also had to have a reading level of fourth grade or above and to have scored at least a 70 on a standardized measure of intelligence.

The participants completed two interview sessions and a packet of questionnaires. This was done to asses each participants personality, childhood maltreatment, substance use, and psychological functioning. The personality assessment (MPQ) is a self-report measure of personality traits that consists of 155 questions. The childhood maltreatment assessment (CTQ) consists of a 28-item scale that had five subscales which tested the different types of trauma. These traumas were broken into physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, and sexual abuse (Dargis & Koenigs, 2018).

The independent variable, the type of abuse the child received, was operationalized by the researcher giving an assessment asking many questions about their maltreatment history. The questions addressed the topic in a straight forward and serious way, leaving no room for confusion or error. They answered each question with a score of 1-5 depending on the severity of the abuse. Some of these scores were reversed scored in order to get Cronbach’s alpha. So, the researchers collected numerical data on this variable to operationalize it. The dependent variable, the type of symptoms the adult psychopath is suffering from, was operationalized by the researcher using The Psychopathy Checklist- Revised (PCL-R). This checklist is used to help determine if someone is considered a psychopath by asking questions about their symptoms, feelings, and the actual symptoms of psychopathy. This scale is measured using a rating of 0-2 based on the presence of the trait and degree of the trait.

This study concluded that the two-subtype model of psychopathy is real and that the subgroups differ in a substantial way when it comes to the degree of negative affect. They found that one of the subgroups is characterized by a more extensive history of childhood maltreatment. One subgroup had higher levels of negative affect (high-NA) and the other group had low levels of negative affect (low-NA). The participants in the high-NA group had scored significantly higher on the measures of childhood maltreatment while the low-NA group had significantly higher levels of positive affect subscales. The researchers found that both psychopathic subgroups scored higher on the PCL-R than the control group (non-psychopaths). The high-NA psychopathic group scored higher than the control group on the negative affect scales and lower on the constraint scales. They also scored higher on the CTQ total scores of physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, and emotional neglect. However, they did not have differing scores when it came to sexual abuse. The low-NA psychopathic group scored significantly higher than the control group on the positive affect scales. They also scored higher than the control group on physical abuse and physical neglect. When compared to both of the psychopathic groups, the control group did not differ than them on race, age, or IQ. 

I found this research to be informative and understandable. The study made sense and was not too hard to follow. The results answered the researcher’s hypothesis and I feel that the study was a good implementation of their thoughts and ideas. Dargis & Koenigs (2018) wanted to know if the two subtypes of psychopathy were real and if they different types of maltreatment caused either one. They ultimately got the response they wanted, that there are two subtypes and the different types of maltreatment do matter. Even though I think this article was written well and the study was interesting, I do think there could be some improvements. First, this study only deals with males incarcerated in a prison. Women can be psychopaths as well, it is not as common, but it is a possibility. Having their input to some of these questionnaires and assessments may have changed the results slightly based on their childhood experiences. Another thing I was concerned about was confounding variables. The researchers do not know the family history of these inmates, so they do not know the genetics of each person. Genetics plays a role in psychopathy and so having the family history of a participant may change the results as well. They may still have been abused as a child, but they also could have been predisposed to the gene, in that case what would be the cause of the psychopathy? This article helped me realize that there is more to psychopathy than just a simple definition and that it is true that childhood abuse can definitely play a large role in becoming a psychopath.

Childhood Factors and Psychopathic Traits

This article looks at the idea of gender, the behaviors of parents, and child maltreatment playing a part in adult psychopathic traits. The researchers are looking for specific parenting behaviors that could have played a role in their child ending up with psychopathic traits. They are also looking for gender differences in the adults that have psychopathic traits and what they have experienced as children, if they experienced different things due to their gender. These researchers realized that there is a limited amount of research out there on parenting behaviors and adult psychopathic traits. They saw that as intriguing and wanted to know if those behaviors of the parents and childhood maltreatment were identifiers of adult psychopathic traits. With those thoughts and questions in mind they created a study, but every study needs independent and dependent variables. The independent variable in this study would be the behaviors of the parents. The dependent variable in this study would be the psychopathic traits of the adult. 

In this study, here were 400 participants who were found through an online website dedicated to psychological studies. Each participant agreed to the informed consent and their identities remained anonymous throughout the study. They had to be over 18 years of age and fluent in English. 279 of the participants were female, leaving the other 121 to be Males. The age range wound up being from 18 to 56 years old. Each Participant was to fill out a Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ), which is a self-report assessment to determine childhood maltreatment. It is a 28-item scale with 5 subscales that include; emotional abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, and sexual abuse. Each question is rated by the participant with either 1-4, which is none (1) all the way to severe (4). The participants must also take the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure (TriPM) that is also a self-reported questionnaire assessment but contains 58 items and is used to assess psychopathic traits. These items are rated on a 4-point Likert scale, 1 (True) to 4 (False). Finally, the participants had to fill out the Short-EMBU questionnaire (s-EMBU). This was a 23-item questionnaire that is used to assess their parent’s behavior on a 4-point Likert scale. They had to fill this questionnaire out twice, once for their father’s behavior and once for their mothers’ behaviors. The s-EMBU is divided into three factors which include; rejection, overprotection, and emotional warmth.  

The independent variable, behaviors of the parents, were operationalized by the researchers having the child fill out a questionnaire. This questionnaire was filled with questions that related to the following topics; rejection, overprotection, and emotional warmth. They answered the questionnaire using a 4-point Likert scale in order to find Cronbach’s alpha for the answers involving each parent. For the responses toward the mother, the Cronbach’s alpha ranged from 0.88 to 0.93. For the responses toward the father, the Cronbach’s alpha ranged from 0.86 and 0.92. The dependent variable, psychopathic traits of the adult, were operationalized by the researchers taking all of the research answers from each questionnaire and comparing the results. They placed all of the data in tables and compared each situation: female and mother, female and father, male and mother, and male and father.

The researchers found that there were gender differences when it came to psychopathic traits. For example, males scored higher than females in all aspects of psychopathy except for disinhibition and females scored higher on emotional and sexual abuse (Durand & Velozo, 2018). They found that emotional and physical abuse were significantly related to all components of parenting behavior; there was a negative relationship between maternal and paternal warmth, and emotional and physical neglect were associated with most aspects of parenting behavior. It was found that meanness was positively related to emotional neglect and maternal overprotection, and negatively related to maternal and paternal emotional warmth. Boldness was negatively related to both emotional abuse and physical neglect. Overall, childhood maltreatment is found to be highly prevalent with the most common type being physical neglect. Including both genders, about half of the participants reported physical neglect in their childhood while emotional neglect was reported by 2/3 of the participants and physical abuse was reported by 1/3 of the participants. It was also found that females were twice as likely than males to report sexual abuse. Males were found to score significantly higher in all aspects of psychopathy than females, but with the exception of disinhibition. It was found that Parenting behavior and childhood maltreatment can be responsible for adult psychopathic traits.    

I was very intrigued when I saw this article because it included gender, parental behaviors, child maltreatment, and psychopathic traits. I was a little worried though because it had so many variables in just the title. The article wound up having a lot of useful information that I could use to help formulate my own topic, but it was a little tricky to get through. One problem that I thought about was that the study was based on self-reported data. Having this type of data can lead to response bias and skewed results. If the participant lies on an answer or even accidentally answers in a wrong way, it can lead to different results. Like I said, I was worried about having so many variables in just the title and I was right to think that. When I was trying to find the independent and dependent variables it was a little tricky since there were three variables that were being related to psychopathic traits. I just tried my best and hope it is correct. Also, when I was trying to summarize every part of the methods it became a little hard to get through. I am glad I did get through it because I found this article to be really informative since it actually talked about gender differences. This will definitely help me formulate my topic in a more complete and informative way.  

Psychosocial Consequences of Child Abuse

This article looks at the examination of Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN) profiles among adult offender populations. The researchers wanted to look at those who have been incarcerated and learn more about their past and if they have experienced abuse and or neglect. They wanted to know if those experiences have led them to where they are and if that is one of the causes of their callous or psychopathic traits. Their interest in the inmates past lives caused them to question why and how they ended up where that are. It is known that many inmates and psychopaths are the way they are because of traumatic events during their younger years, so they wanted to create a study about it. Every study needs an independent and dependent variable, so in this study they are as follows. The independent variable of this study would be the experience of child abuse or neglect. The dependent variable of this study would be adult psychopathic traits.

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The participants in this study were 1261 adult male inmates. They were all prisoners in Poland who had completed a full survey and were included in the analysis. About half of the participants were from maximum security and a little less than half (about 44%) were from medium security prisons. About 49% of the participants were convicted of violent crimes and the other 51% were sentenced for non-violent crimes (Debowska & Boduszek, 2017). The amount of time each prisoner spent in prison ranged from one to four hundred and sixty-eight months. 67.8% of the participants were raised by both parents, 2.9% by father only, 4.1% by relatives, 18.6% by mother only, 2.1% by foster parents, and 4.5% in a child care home. About half of the inmates stated that they were now parents themselves.

The participants had to complete a Psychopathic Personality Traits Scale (PPTS) where they had to do self-report on a 20-item scale that measured psychopathic traits. This assessment consists of four subscales that are affective responsiveness, cognitive responsiveness, interpersonal manipulation, and egocentricity (Debowska & Boduszek, 2017). It is measured using agree (1) and disagree (0) format. The prisoners then completed a Self-esteem Measure for Prisoners (SEM-P), which is an 8-item self-report measure that consists of two subscales: prison-specific self-esteem, looking at self-esteem in a specific context, and personal self-esteem (Debowska & Boduszek, 2017). After this they completed The Child Sexual Abuse Myth Scale (CSAMS) that is a 15-item self-report scale that measures the level of child sexual abuse myth acceptance. This scale is composed of three subscales: blame diffusion subscale (consisting of 6 items), denial of abusiveness subscale (consisting of 5 items), and restrictive abuse stereotypes (consisting of 5 items). These responses were answered using a 4-item Likert Scale 1 (disagree) to 4 (agree). Next was the Attitudes Towards Male Sexual Dating Violence (AMDV-Sex). This is a 12-item scale that is used to see the views of the inmates on how supportive they were of sexual violence against women in dating relationships. This was also measured on a 4-point Likert scale. After this the inmates then took the Child Abuse and Neglect Questionnaire. This questionnaire is composed of five items: physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, contact sexual abuse, and penetrative sexual abuse. The scoring used for this was 0 (no) and 1(yes). Finally, they then answered some questions having to do with a lie scale, which is a 6-item subscale of the EPQR-A (Eysenck Personality Questionnaire Revised- Abbreviated), that was scored as 0 (no) or 1 (yes).     

The independent variable, experience of child abuse or neglect, was operationalized by the Child Abuse and Neglect Questionnaire. The researchers handed the inmates this questionnaire and scored it in a dichotomous way, 0 (no) and 1 (yes). The inmates had to answer each question honestly in order to help the researchers put together the data. The dependent variable, adult psychopathic traits, was operationalized by the PPTS or Psychopathic Personality Traits Scale. Each inmate hade to answer the questions on the 20-item scale using either 1 (agree) or 0 (disagree). This was used to help the researchers put the data together for the end result of the study. It was a measure to help determine if the inmates could sufficiently self-report any psychopathic traits.

After all the data was sorted and put into tables, the researchers were able to make conclusions. They found that there were no significant differences between inmates that were in medium- and maximum-security prisons when talking about psychological variables. 61.7% of the inmates had reported that they had experienced emotional abuse and 54.3% had experienced physical abuse as a child. 39.6% of the inmates had experienced neglect during their childhood, 4.8% experienced contact sexual abuse, and 4.4% experienced penetrative sexual abuse. This study led to the results that there are 3 types of CAN (Child Abuse and Neglect): a poly-victimized group, a high physical and emotional abuse group, and a low abuse group. These findings relate to the hypothesis because the researchers were hypothesizing that there were different groups of prisoners who have been abused and/or neglected as a child. After all of the questionnaires and putting data together it was found that child abuse and neglect can lead to psychotic attributes as an adult and that it can cause people to react differently depending on what happened to them as a child.  

This article was very informative and can help me formulate more areas for my own topic. The researchers themselves talk about possible limitations of their study and how they could not change some of the aspects that could be seen as a confound.  Looking at their criticisms and changes they would make in the future could help me make my study even better. One problem I see with this article is that it takes place in Poland. I see this as a problem because we have two very different societies which could cause some differences in answers due to differences in economies and family life. Overall, the study found the results that Debowska & Boduszek (2017) were looking for and was a success.


The idea of the history an adult who has psychopathic traits has intrigued me for years. Now, I can finally say that these articles have helped me face my curiosity and actually give my thoughts meaning. Each of the three articles found similar results that the abuse or neglect that a child endures, leads to an adult having psychopathic traits. Durand & Velozo (2018) even looked at parental behaviors in relation to maltreatment and psychopathy. All of these findings helped me form ideas for my own research.

For my research proposal I plan to look at child abuse and psychopathy. I would like to interview adult psychopaths and have them also fill out questionnaires. I would also like to interview the parents or legal guardians of the psychopaths if they are still around. I want to look at the two independent variables of childhood abuse and parenting behaviors while the dependent variable would be psychopathic traits as an adult. My hypothesis would be; if a child endures abuse or neglect of any kind then they will have psychopathic traits as an adult. Or I would hypothesize that if a child was abused by their parents or did not have a good relationship then they will have psychopathic traits as an adult.


  • Dargis, M., & Koenigs, M. (2018). Two subtypes of psychopathic criminals differ in negative affect and history of childhood abuse. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(4), 444-451. http://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000328
  • Debowska, A., & Boduszek, D. (2017). Child abuse and neglect profiles and their psychosocial consequences in a large sample of incarcerated males. Child Abuse & Neglect, 65, 266 277. http://doi.org /10.1016/j.chiabu.2016.12.003
  • Durand, G., & Velozo, J. D. (2018). The interplay of gender, parental behaviors, and child maltreatment in relation to psychopathic traits. Child Abuse & Neglect, 83, 120-128. http://doi.org /10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.07.013
  • Viding, E., & Kimonis, E. R. (2018). Callous–unemotional traits. In C. J. Patrick (Ed.), 2nd ed.; handbook of psychopathy (2nd ed.) (2nd ed. ed., pp. 144-164, Chapter xx, 828 Pages) Guilford Press, New York, NY. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquestcom.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/2056718020?accountid=13158


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