Written by Will Thurston Class of 2019
Psychopaths are individuals who display a set of specific personality characteristics including deficits in emotionality, empathy and impulse control. These individuals may have strong communication skills and manipulative abilities which help to provide what is known as a ‘mask of sanity’. Psychopathy is generally associated with negative outcomes such as criminality and violent behavior, but recent research suggests that there may be some elements of psychopathy which protect against other psychological disorders. In this study by Anestis, Harrop, Green and Anestis (2017), researchers investigated the potential protective quality of psychopathic personality traits against post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a sample of combat-exposed National Guard veterans. This sample was chosen due to its high risk of developing PTSD.
Psychopathic personality traits are often characterized by both interpersonal and mood differences. The researchers hypothesized that the interpersonal factors would be protective against PTSD, given that they include traits like deficient fear response, social dominance and lack of empathy. These traits can manifest as egocentricity, fearlessness and boldness, which contributes to the researchers’ expectation that they would reduce vulnerability to the development of PTSD symptoms.
The study participants were 292 National Guard soldiers who had reported combat exposure. The sample was predominately male (83.7%) and white (67.5%). Participants completed several self-report measures, including a scale of psychopathic personality traits, a combat experiences inventory and a PTSD symptom checklist. Two elements of the psychopathic personality, egocentricity and callousness, were focused on to represent the interpersonal-affective factor.
The study results showed that as scores on egocentricity and callousness increased, the relationship between combat exposure and PTSD symptoms weakened, confirming the primary hypothesis. The researchers explain this finding from two perspectives. First, studies have shown that individuals who are better able to tolerate distress and endure negative moods are less vulnerable to PTSD. High levels of callousness may contribute to this ability. Additionally, from a neurological perspective, studies have shown that deficits in parts of the brain involved with emotions and fear processing may be protective against PTSD. These deficits have been associated with self-report measures of personality traits like those used in this study.
More research is needed to fully understand the relationship between personality characteristics and vulnerability to PTSD. Once these traits are better understood, treatment strategies could utilize that information to better meet the needs of combat-exposed veterans and other individuals suffering from PTSD.
Anestis, J. C., Harrop, T. M., Green, B. A., & Anestis, M. D. (2017). Psychopathic personality traits as protective factors against the development of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in a sample of national guard combat veterans. Journal Of Psychopathology And Behavioral Assessment, 39(2), 220-229. doi:10.1007/s10862-017-9588-8 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10862-017-9588-8
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