This survey is investigating how participants think, feel and behave in close interpersonal relationships and how this influences aspects of their personality. The personality trait of primary interest in this study is psychopathy, which is defined by characteristics such as callousness, disagreeableness, disinhibition, egocentricity, manipulativeness and a lack of concern for others. While psychopathy may be commonly thought of as a mental disorder, where the individual is a 'psychopath', recent research has suggested that psychopathy is actually continuous trait, which means that everybody will score somewhere on the continuum of psychopathy. Some people will score lower, others will score higher, and most people will score around the average. The vast majority of people will not score within the clinical range or even close to it. Our interest in conducting this research is in the continuum of sub-clinical psychopathy on which normal people score and how this continuum is related to how we think, feel and behave in close interpersonal relationships.
Currently, there is a relatively poor understanding of the development of psychopathy. Most research to date has focused on biologically based explanations of psychopathy. However, little research has been done on the influence of social factors in the development of psychopathy, such as close interpersonal relationships, which was the aim in this research. Attachment theory, which is a theory explaining close interpersonal relationships, predicts that through the formation close interpersonal relationships, we develop beliefs and expectations about ourselves and others, which then influence how we behave in interpersonal interactions. We believe that subtle differences in the formation of interpersonal attachments may be related to an individual’s level of psychopathy. We tested this in two ways.
The first way we test this is to ask people to how they think, feel and behave in specific interpersonal relationships (ie. mothers, fathers, romantic partners, friends and siblings) and to look at how this is related to their level of psychopathy. This idea builds on previous research which found that an individual’s level of psychopathy is related to how people generally feel in close interpersonal attachments (Mack, Hackney, & Pyle, 2011; Frodi, Dernevik, Sepa, Philipson & Bragesj, 2001). Recent research has suggested that these specific attachment relationships could be better predictors then general attachment representations (Ross & Spinner, 2001; Sibley & Overall, 2008).
The second way we test this is to ask people about their attachment hierarchies and see if this is related to an individual’s level of psychopathy. Attachment hierarchies refer to the preferred order that we seek attachment figures when we are distress and looking for support. For example, if a person has a bad day at work they may call their romantic partner; if they can’t reach them they may call a friend; if they can’t reach them they may call their mother and so on. This would be their attachment hierarchy. In the current study this was tested by asking participants to nominate individuals close to them. We then asked questions about how likely they would be to use these people for emotional support and ranking these individuals from most to least preferred.
It is anticipated that this research will provide valuable insights into the development of psychopathy, providing a more comprehensive understanding of psychopathic trait development. We hope that it will lead to future research on attachment relationships and psychopathy, as well as the broader social factors that may contribute to psychopathy. We also hope that our study of a normal population may help research looking at clinical levels of psychopathy, which can be devastating at a community and societal level, and perhaps clinicians trying to treat and manage individuals scoring within the clinical spectrum of psychopathy.