A Behavioral Genetic Analysis of the Cooccurrence Between Psychopathic Personality Traits and Criminal Behavior

Date01 February 2019
Published date01 February 2019
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17Iif1hGh1gC1b/input 817009CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218817009Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeLewis et al.
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2019, Vol. 35(1) 52 –68
A Behavioral Genetic
© The Author(s) 2018
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Analysis of the Cooccurrence
DOI: 10.1177/1043986218817009
Between Psychopathic
Personality Traits and
Criminal Behavior
Richard H. Lewis1, Eric J. Connolly1,
Danielle L. Boisvert1, and Brian B. Boutwell2
A developed line of research has found that psychopathic personality traits and
criminal behavior are correlated with one another. Although there is little question
about the association between psychopathic personality traits and criminal behavior,
what remains less clear is whether psychopathic traits exert a direct effect on
criminal behavior. An alternative possibility is that previously unmeasured genetic
and shared environmental factors account for much of the association between the
two. Understanding the extent to which genetic and environmental factors influence
the covariance between psychopathic personality traits and criminal behavior
can further our understanding of individual differences in propensity to engage in
antisocial behavior. The current study analyzes 872 twins (MZ twins = 352, DZ
twins = 520) from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health
(Add Health) to examine the magnitude of genetic and environmental effects on
the covariation between psychopathic personality and criminal behavior. Results
from bivariate behavioral genetic analyses revealed that the correlation between
psychopathic personality traits and criminal behavior was accounted for by common
additive genetic (58%) and nonshared environmental (42%) influences. Fixed-effect
linear regression models, however, suggested that psychopathic personality traits
were not significantly associated with criminal behavior once common genetic and
environmental influences were taken into account.
1Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA
2Saint Louis University, MO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Richard H. Lewis, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, AR
72204, USA.
Email: rhlewis@ualr.edu

Lewis et al.
psychopathic personality, criminal behavior, genetics, environment, Add Health
After a century of criminological research, several factors continue to emerge as cor-
relates of criminal behavior. For example, low levels of self-control, low levels of
intelligence, substance use, being male, and being an adolescent are all characteristics
that have been shown to increase risk of criminal behavior (Beaver & Wright, 2011;
Gordon, Kinlock, & Battjes, 2004; Lagrange & Silverman, 1999; Sweeten, Piquero, &
Steinberg, 2013). Among these traits, consistently correlated with criminal behavior is
also psychopathy. Compared to the general population, individuals incarcerated for
serious offenses demonstrate higher levels of psychopathy and are at higher risk of
recidivism than individuals with relatively lower levels of psychopathy (Harris, Rice,
& Cormier, 1991). Furthermore, psychopathy has been shown to increase aggressive
behavior, reactive anger, substance use, and violent outbursts, all of which are posi-
tively associated with criminal behavior (Coccaro, Lee, & McCloskey, 2014).
The term psychopath is often (and generally, incorrectly) associated with the intel-
lectual prowess and charming dispositions embodied in well known fictitious charac-
ters, specifically Hannibal Lecter from the Silence of the Lamb series (see DeLisi,
Vaughn, Beaver, & Wright, 2010). In the early seminal writing about psychopathic
traits, moreover, Cleckley (1976), described the disposition of psychopaths as being a
kind of “Mask of Sanity,” by which he meant that psychopaths were individuals who
“masked” their antisocial propensities from their peers by erecting a facade of proso-
ciality (for additional detail, see Verona, Patrick, & Joiner, 2001). Indeed, early
research on the topic suggested that psychopaths generally led successful lives, all the
while hiding the secret of their darker natures through practiced socialization and
learned behavior (Cleckley, 1976). Recent studies, however, have elucidated a more
empirically grounded and rigorous perspective of psychopaths.
As others have mentioned, there are three components generally discussed and
associated with psychopathy and psychopathic personality styles: low levels of empa-
thy, increased impulsive behaviors, and self-destructive lifestyles (Loney, Frick,
Clements, Ellis, & Kerlin, 2003). These same traits, moreover, are also correlated with
criminal behavior (Loney et al., 2003). Although many scholars view psychopathy as
an antecedent to criminal behavior (Leistico, Salekin, DeCoster, & Rogers, 2008), oth-
ers argue that antisocial and criminal behavior are inherent components of psychopa-
thy making psychopathy and criminal behavior complicated to tease apart (Hare &
Neumann, 2005). Nonetheless, many criminological scholars view psychopathy as a
necessary area of study when discussing the causes and correlates of crime. For exam-
ple, DeLisi (2009) argues that psychopathy is so integral to our understanding of the
etiology of criminal behavior that it could be viewed as a unified theory in the field.
He explains that as a composite construct, psychopathy is made up of several different
dimensional and categorical conceptualizations of antisocial behavior and suggests

Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 35(1)
that these traits culminate to create criminogenic factors, which can change throughout
the life course (DeLisi, 2009).
For psychopathy in particular, and all crime correlates in general, there are two
main explanations for the covariation between psychopathy and criminal behavior.
First, exhibiting increased psychopathy directly affects one’s tendency to commit
crime. Second, there is a shared etiological pathway that increases the chances of both
greater levels of psychopathy and increased criminal behavior. Indeed, both traits have
been shown to be partly heritable, thus, the correlation between the two traits might
exist in part, due to shared genetic influences. Ultimately, understanding the genetic
and environmental contributions to this association is important because failure to
account for genetic confounds makes it difficult to tease apart possible causes from
correlates with crime (Barnes, Boutwell, Beaver, Gibson, & Wright, 2014). Below, we
examine both of these possibilities.
Psychopathic Personalities and Criminal Behavior: Possible Causal
Psychopathy is considered an interpersonal cluster of traits generally denoted as
broadly encompassing characteristics of callous unemotionality, high egocentric-
ity, and self-detrimental behaviors (Hare, 2003). Within these broad categories,
psychopathy can be delineated into more specific behaviors such as low excitabil-
ity, a lack of empathy, low levels of remorse, a lack of responsibility for one’s own
actions, high impulsivity, low levels of guilt for hurting or wronging others, and
an inability to plan for the future (Hare, 1996). Individuals who exhibit psycho-
pathic tendencies are also more likely to respond to social stimuli with impulsive
behavior and/or levels of violence and aggression (Verona et al., 2001). Traits
inherent to psychopathy such as increased impulsivity and aggression in response
to social stimuli are characteristics that have been well studied and which increase
the odds of engaging in criminal behavior throughout the life course (Beaver,
Boutwell, Barnes, Vaughn, & DeLisi, 2017; Porter, ten Brinke, & Wilson, 2009;
Pratt & Cullen, 2000).
Using a large national sample of Americans (approximately 14,000 respon-
dents from the same data set analyzed herein), Beaver and colleagues (2017)
revealed a significant effect of psychopathic personality styles on various indica-
tors of criminal justice processing (i.e., arrests), as well as self-reported crime
measures (with beta coefficients hovering around .15 for criminal behavior).
Moreover, a meta-analysis including 95 peer-reviewed studies seemed to clearly
reveal a relationship between psychopathy and increased antisocial behavior such
as violent offenses, nonviolent offenses, and other adverse outcomes (Leistico
et al., 2008). Thus, prior research on the association between psychopathy and
criminal behavior suggests that individuals that exhibit increased levels of psy-
chopathic behaviors also exhibit increased propensities for aggression, delin-
quent behavior, and criminal offending (Marsee, Silverthorn, & Frick, 2005;
Woodworth & Porter, 2002). The above literature supports the first aspect of

Lewis et al.
reasoning presented earlier, suggesting that psychopathy increases the risk of
individuals to engage in criminal behavior directly.
Psychopathic Personalities and Criminal Behavior: Shared Etiological
To help better understand the etiology of both psychopathy and criminal behavior, a
developing body of research has examined the extent to which variation in psy-
chopathy and criminal behavior is attributable to genetic differences. A burgeoning
line of research has consistently revealed that variation in psychopathy is moder-
ately heritable (Beaver, Vaughn, & DeLisi, 2013; Larsson,...

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