Psychopathic Traits and Emotional Regulation and Aggression

Individuals who have more psychopathic traits are more likely than nonpsychopathic individuals to engage in aggressive behavior (e.g., Porter & Woodworth, 2006). This aggressive behavior can be split into two subcategories. The first is impulsive aggression, which typically occurs when the aggressor reacts violently in the midst of a situation involving anger, in the absence of any external goal. On the other hand, premeditated aggression occurs when the aggressor engages in violent behavior in order to obtain some external goal. Past research has found a relatively strong link between psychopathy and premeditated aggression (e.g., Woodworth & Porter, 2002), however the relationship between psychopathy and impulsive aggression is not so clear.

Long, Felton, Lilienfeld, and Lejuez (2014) sought to further understand the relationship between psychopathic traits and impulsive and premeditated aggression. They also examined whether the ability to regulate one’s emotions would influence this relationship. This study involved participants in a substance abuse treatment facility whose psychopathic traits were assessed using the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI; Lilienfeld & Andrews, 1996). After the participants were assessed, they were given two self-report questionnaires. The first was the Impulsive and Premeditated Aggression Scale (IPAS; Stanford et al., 2003), which was used to assess their aggressive behavior, and the second was the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS; Gratz & Roemer, 2004), which was used to assess their ability to regulate emotion.

The researchers reported different results for three subscales of the PPI. They found that those who scored high in Fearless Dominance (i.e., boldness, fearlessness, and immunity to stress) also tended to engage in more premeditated aggression, but no relationship was found between this trait and impulsive aggression. Those who scored high in Self-Centered Impulsivity (i.e., a willingness to externalize blame and take advantage of others) tended to engage more often in both premeditated and impulsive aggression. Interestingly, scores in Coldheartedness (i.e., a lack of empathy for others) did not relate to either type of aggression. In terms of emotion regulation, the researchers found that those with high scores in Fearless Dominance and Coldheartedness were better able to regulate their emotions. The researchers note that this ability to regulate emotion may be protective against impulsive aggression. On the other hand, those who scored high in Self-Centered Impulsivity had more difficulty with emotion regulation. The researchers propose that these individuals may engage in more impulsive aggression as a consequence of this difficulty with emotion regulation.

The researchers suggest that interventions targeted towards reducing aggression may benefit from focusing on emotion regulation, as this skill may reduce impulsive aggression. Additionally, this study further supports the notion that certain psychopathic traits (i.e., Fearless Dominance and Self-Centered Impulsivity) are associated with an increase in premeditated aggression. Understanding the links between psychopathic traits and aggression will aid in designing interventions to reduce aggression among these individuals.


Long, K., Felton, J. W., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Lejuez, C. W. (2014). The role of emotion regulation in the relations between psychopathy factors and impulsive and premeditated aggression. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 5(4), 390-396. doi: 10.1037/per0000085

Also referenced:

Gratz, K. L., & Roemer, L. (2004). Multidimensional assessment of emotion regulation and dysregulation: Development, factor structure, and initial validation of the difficulties in emotion regulation scale. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioural Assessment, 26, 41-54. doi: 10.1023/B:JOBA.0000007455.08539.94

Lilienfeld, S. O., & Andrews, B. P. (1996). Development and preliminary validation of a self-report measure of psychopathic personality traits in noncriminal population. Journal of Personality Assessment, 66, 488-524. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa6603_3

Porter, S., & Woodworth, M. (2006). Psychopathy and aggression. In C. J. Patrick (Ed.), Handbook of psychopathy (pp. 481-494). New York, NY: Guildford.

Stanford, M. S., Houston, R. J., Mathias, C. W., Villemarette-Pittman, N. R., Helfritz, L. E., & Conklin, S. M. (2003). Characterizing aggressive behavior. Assessment, 10, 183-190. doi: 10.1177/1073191103010002009

Woodworth, M., & Porter, S. (2002). In cold blood: Characteristics of criminal homicides as a function of psychopathy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111, 436-445. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.111.3.436


Written by Ellen Tansony and the Research Committee

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