UW-Madison: UW study: Witnessing domestic violence as a child linked to psychopathy

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Madison, Wis. — A long-running study of psychopathic prisoners in the Wisconsin prison system has revealed a link between witnessing domestic abuse in childhood and developing psychopathic personality traits as an adult.

“It has been well established that the experience of physical abuse as a child is linked to anti-social personality traits and criminal behavior in adulthood,’’ says senior author Dr. Michael Koenigs, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“What’s particularly interesting about this study is that it shows for the first time that even witnessing domestic violence as a child is linked to psychopathic traits among adult criminal offenders. This finding suggests a previously unappreciated pathogenic effect of domestic violence on children.”

Monika Dargis, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, led a team that interviewed 127 male offenders incarcerated at the medium-security prisons located at Oshkosh and Fox Lake in Wisconsin.

They were evaluated on psychopathic traits, using a scale that runs from zero to 40, with those diagnosed as psychopaths scoring 30 and above, and normal people scoring about a 2. The scale looks at interpersonal traits, such as grandiosity, manipulative charm, lack of empathy and shallow affect. It also looks at anti-social actions, such as committing multiple types of crimes. The study found that the stronger the history of seeing a parent or sibling abused, the higher the score, especially on the psychopathic personality traits.

The relationship held even if they controlled for the prisoner being a childhood victim of abuse, meaning that just witnessing abuse can have a profound effect on children.

“Domestic violence is a really important issue, because we know that one in 15 children will witness abuse during their childhood,’’ Dargis says. “It can have really negative effects on them that last into adulthood, even if they aren’t the victims of the abuse.”

The researchers aren’t sure why seeing abuse creates psychopathic personalities, but think it could be adaptive – the children learn to charm and manipulate to avoid becoming targets. Or they could be picking up on traits that they see in their homes.

“Abusive relationships are marked by manipulation and control, and so the children could just be picking up on the behavior that they see modeled to them,’’ Dargis says.

Dargis says the research is driven by the observation that many prisoners experienced a lot of violence as children. Coming up with ways to intervene when they are young could not only help the children, but also spare society from the crimes and costs of incarcerating them when they are older, she says.

The study has been published online in the journal Law and Human Behavior. It is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.