Psychopathic Traits and Reactive and Instrumental Violence among Young Female Offenders


Despite the increased representation of female youth in the forensic system they are a strikingly under-studied population. To better understand this population 145 young female offenders who had committed a violent offense were assessed for psychopathic traits, specific motivations (instrumental vs. reactive) for the crime, and offense characteristics (such as information about their victims, use of weapons, use of substances, and the extent of victim injury). In particular, Hutton and Woodworth examined the relationship between psychopathic traits and instrumental violence.

Researchers (Berkowitz, 1993) have proposed that there are two primary types of violence: reactive and instrumental. Reactive violence is typically described as violence that occurs when individuals fail to inhibit their initial response to an emotional stimulus, such as a perceived insult or an imminent physical danger (i.e., they react with violence). Acts of reactive violence do not have a secondary goal beyond the aggression itself. In contrast, instrumental violence is most commonly defined as violence that involves planning and does not have a strong emotional component. Instrumentally violent acts are goal-driven behavior sequences (often quite coherent and organized) that are usually carried out in order to obtain an external reward or to achieve some kind of goal other than the aggressive act.   It has been noted that these two types of violence can be related and that an aggressive act may contain elements of both (e.g., Bushman & Anderson, 2001).

To deal with this issue, Hutton and Woodworth used a four-category approach to classifying aggressive acts that had been introduced by Woodworth and Porter (2002). More concretely, Woodworth and Porter had suggested classifying violent offenses into one of four categories: purely reactive, reactive/instrumental, instrumental/reactive, or purely instrumental. In short, in addition to recognizing purely reactive violence and purely instrumental violence, they identified some acts as reactive/instrumental, to indicate that the violent acts were primarily reactive, as previously described, but also contained evidence of instrumental behaviour, meaning the acts involved some planning even though the violence was primarily driven by a lack of appropriate regulation of aggressive impulses. By contrast, the instrumental/reactive acts were primarily instrumental, as described earlier, but also contained evidence of anger or rage that is not genuine or is not actually driving the violent behavior but is being consciously employed or included in an act as part of a manipulation.


All files were thoroughly reviewed by two extensively trained graduate-level students and coded for Psychopathy and into the four categories of violence.


Victim Characteristics

The 145 female young offenders in this study ranged in age at the time of the violent index offense from 12.2 to 17.9 years (M = 15.5, SD = 1.3). Two-thirds (66.2%) of the sample were non-Aboriginal, 31.5% of the sample were Aboriginal, and, for the rest, the ethnicity was not specified (2.3%). About three-quarters of the cases involved female victims (75.8%), 14.5% of the victims were male, and, in 9.7% of the offenses, there was both a male and a female victim. When looking at the relationship to the offender, there was an equal percentage of both stranger victims (27.6%) and specific relationship victims (e.g., teacher, babysitter; 27.6%), followed by acquaintance victims (21.1%), victims in a close relationship with the offender (e.g., friend, relative, dating partner; 12.2%), and victims who were very close to the offender (e.g., immediate family member, romantic partner; 11.4%).


Most of the offenses occurred in public places (56.9%), but there were also a substantial percentage of offenses that occurred in the youth’s home (19.5%), in another residence (13.0%), or at school or work (8.9%).

Weapon use

86.3% of all the offences coded involved physical violence. Verbal threats were used in 44.9% of offenses. Over half of the offenses (58.1%) involved physical violence with no weapon use, 28.2% involved physical violence with weapon use, and 13.7% involved no physical violence and no weapon use. When a weapon was involved, an object (e.g., bottle of alcohol) was the most common (53.5%) followed by a knife (41.9%).

Substance use

Information on alcohol or drug involvement prior to or during the index offense was available for 73% (n = 106) of the sample. In over half of the offenses (62.3%), there was no alcohol or drug involvement on the part of the offender.


Psychopathy ratings ranged from 4.20 to 34.00 (M = 18.83, SD = 7.04). The vast majority of offenders (93.0%) scored below 30; 7.0% scored 30 or higher.

Motives (instrumental vs reactive)

The four category measure of instrumentality and reactivity was used to examine 122 violent index offenses. Of these, 44.3% were purely reactive, 18.9% were reactive/instrumental, 19.7% were instrumental/reactive, and 17.2% were purely instrumental.

Psychopathy and Instrumentality

In this sample of young women offenders, psychopathy scores were not related to instrumentality. Neither the psychopathy total scores nor any of the factor scores or facet scores were related to the use of instrumental versus reactive aggression.


Nearly 40% of the offenses included a combination of instrumental and reactive motivations. 44.3% of the offenses were considered to be purely reactive in nature suggesting that many of these female young offenders were committing more impulsive and spontaneous types of crime.

Looking at the motivations for those offenses that contained some instrumental component, violence was most frequently employed for the purpose of revenge or retribution.

In this sample the offenders were equally likely to victimize strangers as those having a specific relationship to the offender. For most of the women in the sample, drugs and alcohol were not used prior to or during the offense. However, the use of substances was associated with both greater victim injury and being more likely to commit physical violence.  Weapons were used to harm the victim in 27.0% of offenses. In the current sample, when a weapon was used, an object (e.g., bottle of alcohol) was the most common (48.9%), followed by a knife (38.3%).

As found in other studies, the prevalence of psychopathic traits among the current sample of female youth offenders was smaller in comparison to studies on male offenders (e.g., Forth et al., 2003; Kosson et al., 2002). Results revealed that female youths with high levels of psychopathic traits did not use significantly more instrumental violence than those with low levels of psychopathic traits. This study adds to a growing body of evidence that girls and women with psychopathic traits appear to differ in important ways from boys and men with psychopathic traits.

Hutton, E. L., & Woodworth, M. (2014). Violent female youth: An examination of instrumental violence, psychopathy, and
offense characteristics. Behavioral Sciences and the Law32, 121–134.

Also referenced:

Woodworth, M., and Porter, S. (2002). In cold blood: Characteristics of criminal homicides as a function of psychopathy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology111, 436-435.


Written by Alicia Spidel and the Research Committee

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