Links Between Psychopathic Traits and Social Motivations

Past research has reported that individuals high in psychopathic traits tend to form atypical social relationships with others. Those high in psychopathic traits tend to have shorter relationships with friends and significant others, and have placed less value on long-term relationships. Despite these findings, little research has examined what these individuals do value in their relationships with others, and what types of social relationships they seek.

Foulkes, Seara-Cardoso, Neumann, Rogers, and Viding (2014) recruited a sample of 101 adult male community members to participate in a study examining the relationships between social motivation, social functioning, and psychopathic traits. Psychopathic traits were measured using the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, Fourth Edition, Short Form. In addition, participants completed self-report scales that assessed the importance they place on life goals such as conformity, monetary gain, popularity, their perceived social standing, their tendency to participate in meaningful relationships, and their desire to be accepted by their peers. The researchers were also interested in the social characteristics deemed desirable in others. In order to assess this, they created a series of vignettes depicting different social situations, such as working on a group project. Each of these social situations included a description of one of four different characters with a different personality type. Characters were presented as either dominant and warm, dominant and cold, submissive and warm, or submissive and cold. Participants reported the degree to which they liked the character, the degree to which the character’s personality was similar to their own, and the desirability of the character’s personality traits.

In order to parse the relationships between the variables measured and psychopathic traits, the researchers separately examined two different factors of psychopathy: the affective/interpersonal (AI) factor, which includes traits such as manipulativeness and lack of empathy, and the lifestyle/antisocial (LA) factor, which includes traits such as impulsivity and social deviance. The results of the study demonstrated that individuals high in the AI traits of psychopathy tended to value life goals involving money and their own image, and placed less value on life goals involving their community and forming close bonds. These individuals were also more likely to report that submissive and cold characters from the social situation vignettes were similar to their own personality. In addition, they were more likely to report that dominant and cold characters were likeable, had desirable personality traits, and were similar to them. On the other hand, individuals high in the LA traits tended to value life goals involving community, forming close bonds, and self-indulgence, and placed less value on life goals involving money and conformity. There were no significant relationships found between LA traits and the character/social situation vignette task.

These results suggest that it is the AI factor of psychopathy that is most related to atypical social relationships. Additionally, those high in AI traits tended to place more value on life goals involving a positive depiction of their own image, yet there were no relationships found between psychopathy and participants’ ratings of their own popularity or self-reported desire to be accepted by peers. The researchers hypothesize that perhaps these findings mean that those high in AI traits want to appear positively to others but for reasons other than social acceptance, such as instrumental gain. Additionally, those high in LA traits placed value on self-indulgence, and the researchers believe that perhaps this motivation in conjunction with the low value placed on forming close bonds by those high in AI traits may aid in explaining the short-term relationships seen in psychopathic individuals. In conclusion, the study conducted by Foulkes et al. (2014) helps to build a more complete picture of the social relationships and motivations of those with psychopathic traits.


Written by Ellen Tansony and the Research Committee

Foulkes, L., Seara-Cardoso, A., Neumann, C. S., Rogers, J. S. C., & Viding, E. (2014). Looking after number one: Associations between psychopathic traits and measures of social motivation and functioning in a community sample of males. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 36, 22-29. doi: 10.1007/s10862-013-9381-2

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