Self-Control Versus Psychopathy

Date01 January 2018
AuthorMark Heirigs,Jennifer Tostlebe,Michael Vaughn,Kyle Burgason,Matt DeLisi
Published date01 January 2018
Subject MatterArticles
YVJ682998 53..76 Article
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
2018, Vol. 16(1) 53-76
Self-Control Versus Psychopathy: ª The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
A Head-to-Head Test of General
DOI: 10.1177/1541204016682998
Theories of Antisociality
Matt DeLisi1, Jennifer Tostlebe1, Kyle Burgason1, Mark Heirigs1,
and Michael Vaughn2
Self-control and psychopathy are prominent general theories of antisociality that, although present a
very similar type of individual, have not often been studied in tandem, and few studies have con-
ducted a head-to-head test of their association with serious delinquency and youth violence. Using a
near census of institutionalized delinquents from Missouri, the current study found that both low
self-control and psychopathy were significantly associated with various forms of delinquency and
severe/chronic delinquency as measured by 90th percentile on the distribution. However, low self-
control was associated with more forms of delinquency, and victimization and youth with the lowest
levels of self-control were at greatest risk for pathological delinquency relative to those with the
most psychopathic personality. Both self-control and psychopathy are essential for understanding
the most severe variants of delinquency, and more head-to-head tests are encouraged to assess the
strength of criminological theories.
self-control, psychopathy, general theory, delinquents, juvenile justice, youth violence
General theories of antisociality posit that a syndrome, constellation of traits, or individual con-
struct is responsible for explaining involvement in diverse forms of antisocial behavior. These
theories share at least three important features. First, general theories locate the fundamental
causes of crime at the individual level in the name of specific deficits, symptoms, or features that
are theorized to engender behavioral problems. Second, general theories assert that whatever their
fundamental concept, its effects are sweeping, robust, and general. In this way, the fundamental
concept is able to explain variance not only in antisocial behavior but also in cognate problem
behaviors that are indicative of maladjustment, such as substance use; increased mortality and
reduced psychiatric and physical health; and interrelated relationship, school, and work problems.
Third, the theories are parsimonious.
1 Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA
2 Saint Louis University, School of Social Work, St. Louis, MO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Matt DeLisi, Iowa State University, 203A East Hall, Ames, IA 50011, USA.

Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 16(1)
In the social and behavioral sciences, two of the most influential general theories of antisocial
conduct are psychopathy and self-control theory. Although these theories are distinct, they are
similar in their presentation of the antisocial individual as one who is lacking in self-regulation,
who is egocentric and indifferent to others, who is poorly tempered and has low emotional and
behavioral regulation, and who gravitates toward shortsighted, hedonistic, action-oriented pursuits.
Surprisingly, little research has examined these theories in tandem, and few prior investigators have
conducted a ‘‘head-to-head’’ empirical test of psychopathy versus self-control as predictors of
serious delinquency and violence.
Self-control, the basic capacity to regulate one’s emotions and behaviors, is implicated in a variety
of theories in psychology, neuroscience, and criminal justice (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007;
Casey, 2015; DeLisi & Vaughn, 2014; Denson, DeWall, & Finkel, 2012; Heatherton & Wagner,
2011; Moffitt et al., 2011). Although these theories are important in their own right, there is little
doubt that the most influential self-control theory in criminology is the one promulgated in A
General Theory of Crime (1990). In that influential book, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) advanced
that ineffective parenting practices inculcated low self-control which in their model was character-
ized by self-centeredness, low gratification delay, poor temper, action orientation, risk-taking, and
preference for simple tasks. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, low self-control was the quin-
tessential predictor of crime and other maladaptive behaviors that are often correlated with criminal
offending, such as relationship strife, substance use, work problems, school problems, infidelity,
financial problems, and others.
Empirical work has consistently supported their claims. The low self-control syndrome has been
linked to an array of criminal and imprudent behaviors among diverse samples of participants
including jail inmates (Malouf et al., 2014; Ward, Nobles, & Fox, 2015), parolees (DeLisi,
Hochstetler, & Murphy, 2003), probationers (Taylor, Hiller, & Taylor, 2013), institutionalized
delinquents (DeLisi & Vaughn, 2008; Piquero, MacDonald, Dobrin, Daigle, & Cullen, 2005), and
sex offenders (Ha & Beauregard, 2016) among correctional or clinical samples and children (Coyne
& Wright, 2014; Houts, Caspi, Pianta, Arseneault, & Moffitt, 2010), adolescents and emerging
adults (Beaver, DeLisi, Mears, & Stewart, 2009; Nedelec & Beaver, 2014), adults (Diamond,
2016; Moffitt, Poulton, & Caspi, 2013), and elderly adults (Wolfe, Reisig, & Holtfreter, 2016) from
general population or community samples.1
In addition to the relevance of self-control to conduct problems among disparate samples, there
is impressive empirical support for its relation to disparate forms of crime, including violent
offending, property offending, delinquency, severe delinquency, and victimization. Among vio-
lent crime, investigators have linked low self-control to homicide (Eisner, 2001; Piquero et al.,
2005), sex offending (Clevenger, Navarro, & Jasinski, 2016), domestic violence (Sellers, 1999),
dating violence (Jennings, Park, Tomsich, Gover, & Akers, 2011), gang violence (Olate, Salas-
Wright, Vaughn, & Yu, 2015), and generalized violence (Larson, Vaughn, Salas-Wright, &
DeLisi, 2015). Property offenses including shoplifting (Piquero & Tibbetts, 1996); theft, auto
theft, and property damage (Burton, Evans, Cullen, Olivares, & Dunaway, 1999); and burglary,
larceny, auto theft, and arson (DeLisi, 2001) have also been shown to be more likely among
individuals with lower self-control.
Numerous studies have reported that salience of low self-control to generalized offending and
overall delinquent involvement (Baron, 2003; Sacarellos et al., 2016; Vaughn, Beaver, DeLisi,
Perron, & Schelbe, 2009; Walters & DeLisi, 2013) as well as more severe manifestations of crime
such as life-course-persistent antisocial conduct and career criminality (DeLisi, 2016a; Piquero,
Moffitt, & Wright, 2007; Vaughn, DeLisi, Beaver, & Wright, 2009). Self-control has also proven

DeLisi et al.
useful in understanding the nexus between offending and victimization. The same person-specific
characteristics that facilitate crime also facilitate being a victim, and several prior studies have
shown associations between low self-control and personal, property, sexual, and online forms of
victimization (Bossler & Holt, 2010; Franklin, Franklin, Nobles, & Kercher, 2012; Higgins, Jen-
nings, Tewksbury, & Gibson, 2009; Holt, Turner, & Exum, 2014; Schreck, 1999; Turanovic & Pratt,
2013; Ward, Fox, Tillyer, & Lane, 2015).2 In sum, low self-control is a powerful correlate of diverse
forms of delinquency, victimization, and other negative life outcomes. As Moffitt and her colleagues
(2011, p. 2693) suggested, ‘‘The need to delay gratification, control impulses, and modulate emo-
tional expression is the earliest and most ubiquitous demand that societies place on their children,
and success at many life tasks depends critically on children’s mastery of such self-control.’’
For over 200 years, psychopathy has been utilized by researchers in psychiatry, psychology, and
forensic science to explain broadband involvement in problem behaviors. Psychopathy is a personality
disorder that is constituted by a constellation of affective, interpersonal, lifestyle, and behavioral
features that coalesce into an individual who is selfish and narcissistic, impulsive, mean, antagonistic,
manipulative, fearless, aggressive, uncaring, and unemotional. The latter characteristic is of particular
importance because the paramount feature of psychopathy is reduced emotional connection to others
that manifests in guiltlessness, remorselessness, callousness, and low empathy. Although scholars
generally agree about the core characteristics of psychopathy, there are dozens of theories of psycho-
pathy that focus on various features of the disorder such as its relation to autonomic functioning, social
cognitive features, and its genetic etiology. Indeed, much of the ‘‘theorizing’’ about psychopathy is
achieved by developing diverse measures of the condition (cf. Boduszek & Debowska, 2016; Bod-
uszek, Debowska, Dhingra, & DeLisi, 2016; Dhingra & Boduszek, 2013; Frick, Ray, Thornton, &
Kahn, 2014; Hare & Neumann, 2008; Miller & Lynam, 2012; Vaughn & Howard, 2005).
Empirical linkages between psychopathy and diverse forms of antisocial conduct and delin-
quency are moderate to strong and this attests to the generality of the psychopathy construct. Indeed,
early behavioral problems, poor behavioral controls, juvenile delinquency, and criminal versatility
are diagnostic criteria in the most widely used measure of psychopathy, the Psychopathy...

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