For over a hundred years clinicians have taken an interest in the construct of psychopathy, however it is only in the last quarter century that the construct has been subject to concerted empirical investigation. The current conception of psychopathy is operationally defined by two correlated factors: One reflecting the emotional coldness and manipulativeness of the psychopath; the other defined by impulsive, irresponsible and frequently antisocial behaviour. Despite an exponential growth in studies of psychopathy since the late 1980's, many fundamental questions about the nature and development of the construct remain. Much is known about the cognitive, physiological, neurological and behavioural correlates of psychopathy, however few researchers have stopped to question the validity of the construct as a whole: Is psychopathy a unitary construct, or is it comprised of sub-components which overlap only among the prison groups in which it is typically studied? Is one component of psychopathy more central to the construct than the other, and if so, why? The present study sought to explore these questions by investigating the associations among psychopathy and a number of related constructs, and by exploring the divergent correlations of the affective/interpersonal and behavioural components of psychopathy, in an adult, male prison sample in Australia.
In addition to psychopathy, the present study measured Machiavellianism, a personality trait associated with manipulative, coercive and deceptive behaviour, and cynical attitudes. The apparent conceptual overlap between Mach and psychopathy is supported by the empirical literature. Given that low empathy is believed to be central to both psychopathy and Machiavellianism, a measure of empathy was also included. Divergent correlations of the affective and cognitive components of empathy were considered. Finally, in light of growing interest in the role of 'mind reading' in shaping social interaction, a measure of theory of mind (ToM) was included. Based on the view that psychopaths may be characterised not by a ToM deficit, but by a qualitative difference in their ToM, an attempt was made to tap the qualitative nature of ToM among both psychopathic and non-psychopathic prisoners.
In a Pilot Study a range of self-report measures tapping these constructs was administered to a group of 25 male undergraduate students, and then in Study 1, the same measures were administered to 30 adult male prisoners. All participants completed two self-report measures of psychopathy, two self-report measures of Machiavellianism, tests of ToM capacity and quality, a measure of prosocial risk-taking behaviour, and a career preferences questionnaire. Points of convergence and divergence among these constructs, and among their component parts, were explored. As expected, Mach was positively association with psychopathy, although only with the behavioural component. There was also evidence of a positive relationship between ToM and both psychopathy and Mach. Finally, risk-taking was positively associated with both the affective/interpersonal and the behaviour components of psychopathy.
Study 2 involved a larger sample of 58 adult male prisoners, each of whom completed the key measures used in Study 1, plus self-report measures of self-esteem and empathy. Participants were also assessed using the PCL-R. One in five participants met the PCL-R cut-off for a diagnosis of psychopathy, however surprisingly, the two factors were uncorrelated. Nevertheless, Mach scores were higher among those receiving relatively high PCL-R Factor 2 scores, and relatively low Factor 1 scores. Conversely, self-esteem was higher among those who received relatively high Factor 1 scores, and relatively low Factor 2 scores. There was no relationship between either psychopathy or Mach, and theory of mind. Those reporting greater empathy were less Machiavellian, received lower scores on the behavioural component of psychopathy, but higher scores on the affective/interpersonal component. Those scoring higher on the affective/interpersonal component of psychopathy reported more risk-taking behaviour.
Further analysis of the combined data sets revealed more support for a positive association between Mach and the behavioural component of psychopathy, but a negative association between Mach and the affective/interpersonal component. This is consistent with the view that Machiavellianism is a form of 'sub-criminal' antisocial behaviour. Furthermore, greater ToM capacity was associated with a tendency to use more emotion words in a spontaneous narrative, perhaps reflecting the quality or nature of ToM. Exploration of the divergent correlates of the components of psychopathy and Mach suggest that while the former consists of two relatively independent components, the latter is better construed as a unitary construct. These and other findings are discussed with respect to the ontogeny and varying manifestations of psychopathy and Mach.