Children who witness domestic violence may be more likely to have psychopathic traits in adulthood, according to a new study.
In the study, the researchers looked at psychopathic traits among nearly 130 male prisoners and asked the men whether they had witnessed domestic violence in childhood. Although the term "psychopath" is sometimes incorrectly used by non-experts to describe someone who is brutish or cruel, in psychology, the term has a specific meaning. The traits of a psychopath include an unrealistic sense of superiority to other people, a tendency to manipulate others, a lack of empathy and a tendency to commit antisocial actions such as crimes.
Previous research had found a link between experiencing abuse in childhood and a higher risk of developing psychopathic traits. However, the new study is the first to show that even witnessing the abuse of one's family members in childhood is related to psychopathic traits among adults who have committed crimes, study co-author Michael Koenigs, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said in a statement. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]
In the new study, the researchers looked at psychopathic traits among 127 prisoners in Wisconsin. The researchers chose to study prisoners because psychopathy is much more common in this population compared with the general population, said lead study author Monika Dargis, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition, the researchers focused on the prison population to better understand more severe presentations of the disorder, she said.
The scientists evaluated those prisoners' levels of psychopathic traits using a scale that ranges from zero to 40, with a score of 30 or more indicating that a person is a psychopath.
Results identified 51 prisoners (about 40 percent) as psychopaths, the study said. The researchers found that the prisoners who had seen parents or siblings abused at home during childhood were more likely to score highly on the scale of psychopathic traits than those who did not witness domestic violence in childhood, said the study, published in February in the journal Law and Human Behavior.
However, although the study shows that there is a link between witnessing domestic violence in childhood and psychopathy, the results do not prove that witnessing domestic violence in childhood is a cause of psychopathy, Dargis said.
The exact mechanisms behind the potential link are unclear, the researchers said. However, it is possible that children who observe the manipulative and coercive behaviors displayed by the perpetrators of domestic violence may eventually develop these behaviors too, Dargis said.
But it is also possible that kids learn to manipulate and lie to avoid being victimized by the perpetrators of domestic violence at home, Dargis told Live Science. In other words, these children develop psychopathic behaviors to avoid becoming targets of the abuse that has affected their other family members.
One limitation of the study was that the researchers collected their data at a single point in time, and therefore the researchers were not able to examine a potential causal relationship between witnessing domestic violence and the development of psychopathic traits, the scientists said. Future research, conducted over longer periods of time, should examine how witnessing domestic violence in childhood may contribute to, or aggravate, the development pf psychopathic traits, the researchers said.
Originally published on Live Science.