Psychopathic Traits in Adolescence: the Importance of Examining Components in Face Processing, Voice Processing, and Emotional Skill

  • Christopher T. A. Gillen
  • Zina Lee
  • Karen L. Salekin
  • Anne-Marie R. Iselin
  • Natalie A. Harrison
  • Abby P. Clark
  • Olivier F. Colins
  • Randall T. Salekin


This study examined relations among interpersonal, affective, and impulsive-irresponsible psychopathic traits, emotional capacities, and recidivism rates in 144 detained adolescents. Emotional skill was conceptualized using a range of constructs, including face and voice processing, emotional intelligence, and self-reported cognitive and affective empathy. In addition, the relation between these concepts and recidivism three years after the initial assessment was examined. Results indicated that interpersonal traits were positively associated with better facial identification of fearful faces, whereas affective traits were associated with worse facial identification of sad and happy faces as well as angry voices. Impulsive-irresponsible traits were associated with reduced emotional intelligence. Differential predictive utility of the three psychopathic traits dimensions was also evidenced. Findings highlight the need to consider the broad concept of psychopathy, but also its underlying dimensions.


Adolescents Callous-unemotional Psychopathy Emotional intelligence Empathy, recidivism 

Psychopathy was originally conceptualized as a chronic clinical condition associated with superficial charm, social ease, deceitfulness, and sensation seeking (Cleckley, 1976). Although Cleckley provided the initial clinical framework for research on psychopathy, Hare and his colleagues later developed the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003) to assess psychopathic traits in forensic adult populations. This diagnostic checklist expanded upon Cleckley’s original conceptualization of psychopathy by including additional behavioral characteristics such as impulsivity and criminal versatility. An adolescent version of the instrument, the Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL: YV; Forth et al. 2003) was later created to help researchers and clinicians assess the construct in youthful populations. Like the adult literature (see Storey et al. 2016), research examining the factor structure of the PCL:YV has generated support for a three or four-factor solution (e.g., Salekin et al. 2006). Specifically, each model measures key domains related to pathological lying, grandiosity, and manipulation (interpersonal factor); callousness, lack of remorse, and shallow affect (affective factor); and impulsivity, poor planning, and irresponsibility (lifestyle factor) (Hillege et al. 2011; Jones et al. 2006; Kosson et al. 2013).

In addition to offending, violence, and recidivism (Kimonis et al. 2016; Salekin et al. 2010), a core characteristic associated with psychopathy is thought to be anomalies in emotional functioning and potentially specific information processing (e.g., Newman 1998; Lorenz & Newman 2002). Several investigations have examined the relation between psychopathic traits and cognitive and affective processing including studies on face and voice processing, emotional intelligence, perspective-taking, and empathic concern. However, findings at the broad construct level are generally mixed (e.g., Bowen et al. 2014; Del Gaizo and Falkenbach 2008; Habel et al. 2002; Kahn et al. 2016; Klapwijk et al. 2016; Wilson et al. 2008; Woodworth and Waschbusch 2008).

These equivocal findings may be due to a lack of specificity regarding the underlying dimensions of psychopathy (Salekin 2016a, b). For instance, research shows that interpersonal traits are negligibly or even positively associated with cognitive intelligence and certain emotional skills, such as emotion regulation and cognitive empathy, whereas, affective traits are negatively related to these features (Chabrol et al. 2011; Fontaine et al. 2008; Salekin et al. 2004; Vaughn et al. 2011). Based on these studies, impulsive-irresponsible traits are unassociated or possibly negatively related with cognitive intelligence and such emotional skills. This pattern of associations may align with Cleckley’s (1976) notion that psychopathy is characterized by a disassociation between cognition and emotion. This dissociation has been thought to account for psychopathic individuals’ disregard for others and antisocial conduct. Despite the importance of studying the underlying dimensions of psychopathy, studies do not systematically report on dimensional differences, even though such reporting is critical to better understanding the etiology of psychopathy (e.g., Salekin 2016a, 2017; Colins et al. 2016).

Three key emotional areas of study may shed light on these important dimensional differences and perhaps shed light on the disassociation between cognition and emotion (Cleckley 1976). First, with respect to face and voice processing (nonverbal information), research has shown that aggregated interpersonal and affective profiles (Factor 1) are associated with improved facial emotion recognition, particularly for fearful faces, and emotion differentiation. Lifestyle and antisocial traits (Factor 2), however, are unassociated with facial emotion and voice recognition (Del Gaizo and Falkenbach 2008; Habel et al. 2002). When further parsing the psychopathy items at the factor level, affective traits, rather than interpersonal traits, are uniquely negatively related to specific impairments in emotional processing, including processing fear, disgust, sadness, and pain (Leist and Dadds 2009; Pihet et al. 2015; Wolf and Centifanti 2014; Woodworth and Waschbusch 2008). Together, these findings suggest that interpersonal traits may be uniquely related to skills in emotion processing, whereas affective traits may be related to select recognition difficulties. Relations regarding the irresponsible-impulsive factor and face and voice processing are less clear.

Second, emotional intelligence has negligible or negative relations with global psychopathy (Ali et al. 2009; Ciucci et al. 2015; Kahn et al. 2016; Lishner et al. 2011; Malterer et al. 2008). However, at the dimensional level, research has shown differential relations. For instance, when interpersonal and affective traits are aggregated (Factor 1) they produce emotional intelligence profiles that indicate improved cognitive and affective control (Del Gaizo and Falkenbach 2008; Watts et al. 2016). Alternately, aggregated impulsive-irresponsible and antisocial dimensions (Factor 2) are related to reduced emotional regulation and emotional skills (Del Gaizo and Falkenbach 2008; Watts et al. 2016). Although data on the specific dimensions is lacking, these broad traditional two-factor findings suggest that Factor 1 (interpersonal/affective) traits are predictive of cognitive and affective control whereas Factor 2 (irresponsibility and social deviance) traits are associated with emotional dysregulation.

Finally, studies relating psychopathic traits to perspective-taking and empathic concern have further highlighted the importance of examining the dimensions of psychopathy (Ciucci et al. 2015; Klapwijk et al. 2016; Mullins-Nelson et al. 2006; O’Kearney et al. 2016; Oliver et al. 2016; White 2014). Specifically, research has shown that interpersonal traits are unrelated or positively related to perspective-taking and negatively related to empathic concern (Grieve and Panebianco 2013; Mullins-Nelson et al. 2006; Wai and Tiliopoulos 2012). Alternately, research has shown that individuals with elevated affective traits exhibit both cognitive and emotional concern deficits (e.g., Eberly-Lewis and Coetzee 2015; Johnson et al. 2014; Lishner et al. 2015). Finally, research on the relation between impulsive-irresponsible traits, perspective-taking, and empathic concern has been equivocal, with some studies noting positive associations and others finding negative relations.

When psychopathy, emotional skills, and gender are considered, research suggests that females express fewer psychopathic traits than males (Borroni et al. 2014; Pihet et al. 2015), and they are described as more impulsive, less accepting of responsibility, less grandiose, and more goal directed than males when individual psychopathic traits and behaviors are examined (Tsang et al. 2015). Compared to males, females also tend to display heightened empathic development throughout adolescence (Allemand et al. 2015) and affect recognition abilities, particularly identification of happiness, surprise, disgust, and anger from faces (Lawrence et al. 2015; Pihet et al. 2015). Despite these differences, the componential relations between psychopathic traits and affect recognition, emotional intelligence, and empathy are largely similar across genders (e.g., Ciucci et al. 2015; White 2014; although see Dadds et al. 2009). Thus, although at the broad construct level, evidence on the relation between psychopathy and emotional skills has been mixed, dimensional level analyses may shed greater light on these relations as well as their potential connection to antisocial behavior. The current study addresses this gap in the literature.

The Present Study

The present study had four specific aims. First, this study aimed to determine whether psychopathic traits, as measured by the three-factor model of the PCL: YV, are differentially related to face and voice processing. It was hypothesized that interpersonal traits would be positively related to face and voice emotion recognition (Del Gaizo and Falkenbach 2008; Habel et al. 2002; see also Wilson et al. 2008 for predatory memory), whereas affective and impulsive-irresponsible traits would be negatively related to emotion recognition (see Leist and Dadds 2009; Wolf and Centifanti 2014).

Second, the study aimed to examine whether psychopathic traits are related to emotional intelligence. It was hypothesized that psychopathy as a global construct (i.e., PCL:YV total scores) would be negatively related to emotional intelligence. However, in terms of specific dimensions, it was hypothesized that affective and impulsive-irresponsible dimensions would display negative relations of medium effect with emotional intelligence, whereas interpersonal traits would display negative relations of small effect with emotional intelligence (Ciucci et al. 2015; Del Gaizo & Falkenbach 2008; Kahn et al. 2016; Malterer et al. 2008).

Third, the study examined whether psychopathic traits are related to cognitive perspective-taking and emotional empathy. It was hypothesized that the PCL:YV total score would be weakly associated with perspective-taking and negatively associated with emotional empathy. At the dimensional level, it was hypothesized that interpersonal traits would be positively associated with perspective-taking, whereas affective and impulsive-irresponsible traits would be negatively related to perspective-taking (e.g., Blair 1999; Mullins-Nelson et al. 2006; O’Kearney et al. 2016). All three dimensions were expected to be negatively associated with affective empathy. These associations were not expected to differ by gender.

Finally, we examined whether emotional skills may affect the psychopathy-recidivism relation. It was expected that recidivism would be higher among youth with interpersonal traits and better affect recognition and emotional intelligence because it is hypothesized they will use these competences in the commission of crime consistent with classic descriptions of psychopathy (Cleckley 1976). This is also consistent with the predatory memory explanation of victimization (see Wilson et al. 2008). Alternately, it was expected that the relations between affective and impulsive-irresponsible traits and recidivism would only be present when empathy, emotional intelligence, and affect recognition are low. To explore this possibility, we accessed 3-year prospective recidivism data.



Participants were 144 youth (95 males, 49 females) between the ages of 11 and 18 years (M = 15.24, SD = 1.59) who were placed in a regional detention facility.1 The racial composition of the sample was 55% Black and 45% White. Representative crimes included violation of probation, theft, disorderly conduct, and assault.


Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL: YV; Forth et al. 2003)

The PCL:YV is a 20-item rating scale for the measurement of adolescent psychopathy. PCL:YV items are rated based on a semi-structured interview that is used to garner information on the youth’s background, such as past relationships/friendships, and interpersonal presentation. Information gathered from this interview alone was used to rate a youth’s behavior and personality characteristics. The psychometric properties for the PCL:YV have shown good reliability and validity data (Forth and Burke 1998; Forth et al. 2003; Kosson et al. 2002). To assess inter-rater reliability in this study, two trained doctoral students independently rated 32 (22%) of the protocols. Consistent with previously reported coefficients, interrater reliabilities (ICC 1 ) based on a two-way random effects model with absolute agreement were .90, .56, .75, and .77 for the PCL:YV Total (based on all 20 items), interpersonal, affective, and lifestyle (impulsive-irresponsible) factor scores, respectively, in the current study.

Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2 (DANVA-2; Nowicki 2002)

The DANVA-2 measures an individual’s ability to recognize non-verbal affective cues of others. The measure is comprised of three subtests: facial expression, vocal tone (paralanguage), and body posture. In this study, we examined the child faces and child voices subtests; both subtests present stimuli that represent one of four emotions: happy, sad, angry, and fearful. For the facial expressions subtest, participants view photographs of people displaying facial expressions of one of the four emotions. For the tone subtest, participants listen to an audio clip of a person stating a standardized sentence in which his/her tone of voice exhibits one of the four emotions. Each stimulus is timed for 5 s, and the participant must determine, in the time-frame allotted, the emotion being displayed. Reliability and validity for the DANVA-2 have been established with coefficient alphas of .77 and test-retest reliabilities of .84, as well as good validity for both facial expressions and tone (Nowicki Jr. and Carton 1992; Nowicki Jr and Duke 1994). In the current study, coefficient alphas for facial affect accuracy ranged from .60 to .87, whereas the internal consistencies were lower for vocal affect accuracy (αs between .50 and .61).

Bar-on Emotional Quotient-Inventory: Youth Version (EQ-I:YV; Bar-On and Parker 2000)

The EQ-i:YV is a 60-item self-report measure of emotional intelligence. The EQ-i:YV yields six scales: (a) Intrapersonal, (b) Interpersonal, (c) Adaptability, (d) Stress Management, (e) General Mood, and (f) Total Emotional Intelligence. Intrapersonal items measure an individual’s level of emotional self-awareness (e.g., “It’s hard for me to understand the way I feel”), whereas Interpersonal items measure an individual’s awareness of other people’s emotional expression (e.g., “I am good at understanding the way other people feel”). Individuals scoring high on Adaptability can use a variety of methods to manage and solve difficulties (e.g., “I like to get an overview of a problem before trying to solve it”). Stress Management items assess a youth’s ability to handle frustrating situations and their own anger (e.g., “I tend to explode with anger easily”). General Mood items measure the ability to maintain a positive perspective of oneself, others, and life (e.g., “I am satisfied with my life”). The total emotional intelligence quotient encompasses and integrates five of the six mentioned abilities (the exception being the General Mood scale) and provides a global assessment of a youth’s emotional and social intelligence. EQ-i:YV scores displayed good internal consistency in the present study (αs between .71 and .83), comparable to those cited by Bar-On and Parker (2000).

Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis 1983)

The IRI is a self-report, multidimensional scale that measures both cognitive and affective empathy. The IRI is comprised of four dimensions: (a) Perspective Taking (e.g., “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.”), (b) Empathic Concern (e.g., “Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems.”), (c) Personal Distress (e.g., “I tend to lose control during emergencies.”), and (d) Fantasy (e.g., “After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were one of the characters.”). The Empathic Concern and Personal Distress subscales measure affective components of empathy, whereas the Perspective Taking and Fantasy subscales measure cognitive components of empathy and can be combined to yield Perspective Taking and Empathic Concern composite scores (Cohen and Strayer 1996; Davis et al. 1987). The IRI has yielded good test-retest reliability (.71) and has ample validity data (Davis 1983; Davis and Franzoi 1991; Pardini et al. 2003). Internal consistencies in the current study were adequate (α = .67 to .78).


Official three-year recidivism data (i.e., charges and convictions) were extracted from a computer database and coded for the number of violent (e.g., assault) and general (i.e., violent and non-violent) offenses. Recidivism data were available for 134 of the 144 youth who participated in the study. Of the individuals from whom recidivism data were available, 23% committed a violent re-offense and 63% of the sample recidivated generally.


Researchers obtained informed consent from parents and assent from youth prior to administering any psychological measures. Trained research assistants administered and scored the PCL:YV. Participants were free to discontinue testing for any reason during the session. Participants completed all measures in one testing session. Youth who indicated that they could not read items were read items aloud.

Plan of Analysis

The analyses involved several steps. First, descriptive statistics were generated (means, standard deviations, and skewness and kurtosis values). Second, zero-order correlations between the PCL:YV three factor model and measures of face and voice processing, emotional intelligence, and empathy were examined to evaluate the potential differential relations between psychopathic traits and emotional skills. Further partial correlations were considered to determine the unique relations of each factor. Finally, psychopathic traits, emotional skills, and the interactions between them were entered as predictors in a series of step-wise logistic regressions to examine how these constructs interact to predict violent and general recidivism.


Descriptive Statistics

Descriptive data for the current study are presented in Table 1. Several significant gender differences were noted across the measures. Males had higher PCL:YV total scores (sum of all 20 items) and committed more general re-offenses than females. In contrast, females scored higher than males on the EQ-i:YV Total, Intrapersonal, and Interpersonal scales, and all IRI subscales. Given these gender differences, we focus this paper primarily on males given that the sub-sample of girls is small. Nonetheless, separate descriptive statistics and correlations are included in Tables 1 and 2 for females. In the overall sample, all variables were normally distributed except general recidivism, IRI total, and DANVA scores for happy, sad, and fearful faces and angry voices.2
Table 1

Descriptive statistics for psychopathy and emotion variables


Male M (SD)

Female M (SD)




PCL:YV Total

18.12 (6.74)a

15.45 (5.80)b




 Interpersonal (Factor 1)

1.78 (1.53)

1.59 (1.32)




 Affective (Factor 2)

3.56 (1.85)

3.31 (1.76)




 Lifestyle/II (Factor 3)

5.59 (1.90)

4.96 (2.09)




DANVA-2 Child faces


5.75 (0.97)

5.94 (0.25)





5.57 (1.06)

5.63 (0.94)





4.38 (1.50)

4.65 (1.35)





4.68 (1.30)

5.23 (1.04)




DANVA-2 Child voices


3.68 (1.51)

3.77 (1.40)





4.33 (1.44)

4.73 (1.40)





4.78 (1.22)

4.94 (1.19)





2.85 (1.60)

3.33 (1.42)




EQ-i:YV Total

53.47 (7.48) a

56.80 (8.73) b





14.31 (3.46) a

16.76 (4.66) b





36.43 (5.74) a

40.04 (5.42) b





28.61 (5.10)

29.59 (5.74)




 Stress management

28.96 (7.26)

27.27 (6.60)




 General mood

44.15 (7.42)

46.20 (6.38)




 Positive impression

14.14 (3.36)

13.86 (3.10)




IRI Total

55.93 (12.52) a

67.96 (10.60) b




Cognitive empathy

26.49 (7.62)a

31.63 (6.13)b




 Perspective taking

13.57 (4.69) a

15.61 (3.68) b





12.86 (4.88) a

16.02 (4.96) b




Affective empathy

29.59 (6.61)a

36.33 (6.88)b




 Empathic concern

17.47 (4.89) a

21.33 (4.42) b




 Personal distress

12.02 (4.56) a

15.00 (5.02) b






0.38 (0.72)

0.27 (0.75)





2.15 (2.42)a

1.07 (1.68)b




PCL:YV = Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version; II = Impulsive-Irresponsible; DANVA-2 = Diagnostic Analysis of Non-Verbal Accuracy 2; EQ-i:YV = Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory: Youth Version; IRI = Interpersonal Reactivity Index; means with different subscripts indicate a significant gender difference. Range, kurtosis, and skew data are presented for the combined sample

Table 2

Correlations between psychopathy and emotion recognition accuracy of faces and voices, emotional intelligence, and empathy

Correlated measures

PCL:YV Total




Happy faces

−.25* (.12)

−.01.12 (.03.18)

−.26*-.20 (−.21*-.31*)

−.16.16 (−.05.19)

Sad faces

−.24* (.06)

−.12.16 (−.01.17)

−.26*.00 (−.21–.07)

−.15.04 (−.03–.01)

Angry faces

.04 (−.01)

.19.06 (.26*.12)

−.10–.05 (−.19–.06)

.01–.11 (−.01–.12)

Fearful faces

.02 (.02)

.24*-.08 (.27**-.12)

−.02.06 (−.11.09)

.02.03 (−.05.05)

Happy voices

−.04 (.11)

−.08–.01 (−.07–.08)

−.14.10 (−.17.09)

.07.11 (.16.10)

Sad voices

−.03 (−.06)

.05–.01 (.12.03)

−.20–.04 (−.25*-.02)

.02–.10 (−.08–.10)

Angry voices

−.16 (.06)

−.07.11 (.06.14)

−.32**-.18 (−.32**-.29*)

−.09–.20 (−.05.24)

Fearful voices

−.03 (−.04)

.08.16 (.16.27)

−.20–.02 (−.25*-.04)

−.03–.24 (.01–.31*)

Emotion intelligence

−.17 (−.03)

−.14.12 (−.07.17)

−.03.24 (.09.31*)

−.22*-.33* (−.20–.46**)


−.06 (.07)

−.01.12 (.03.07)

.05.37* (.12.42**)

−.16–.21 (−.20–.36*)


−.16 (−.12)

−.09–.04 (.01.05)

−.12–.05 (−.04.01)

−.20–.24 (−.16–.24)


−.13 (−.02)

−.18.20 (−.14.26)

−.05.13 (.06.13)

−.15–.26 (−.10–.37**)

 Stress management

−.12 (−.07)

−.11.04 (−.09.08)

.01.14 (.09.21)

−.11–.30* (−.10–.37**)

 General mood

−.12 (.03)

−.07.13 (−.04.15)

.02.11 (.10.11)

−.13–.15 (−.14–.22**)

 Positive impression

−.09 (−.16)

−.16–.08 (−.13–.04)

.01.14 (.12.27)

−.16–.37* (−.14–.41**)

Empathy total

−.25* (−.17)

−.23*.04 (−.13.14)

−.17.02 (−.04.08)

−.26*-.32* (−.14–.36*)

Cognitive empathy

−.16 (−.04)

−.13.16 (−.06.23)

−.06.13 (.05.14)

−.18–.08 (−.15–.37*)

 Perspective taking

−.12 (−.08)

−.10.09 (−.08.16)

−.10.07 (−.07.10)

−.03–.26 (.04–.33*)


−.13 (.01)

−.11.13 (−.04.15)

.00.10 (.14.09)

−.25*-.13 (−.26*-.21)

Affective empathy

−.27** (−.23)

−.25*-.08 (−.14.01)

−.25*-.08 (−.13–.01)

−.22*−.26 (−.08–.24)

 Empathic concern

-.26* (−.14)

−.22*.18 (−.12.35*)

−.23*-.08 (−.12–.10)

−.20*-.33* (−.07–.41**)

 Personal distress

−.14 (−.20)

−.15–.27 (−.09–.28)

−.12–.04 (−.05.08)

−.13–.06 (−.05.02)

F1 = Interpersonal Factor, F2 = Affective Factor, F3 = Impulsive-Irresponsible Lifestyle Factor. For PCL:YV Total: values outside parentheses are bivariate correlations for males; values within parentheses are bivariate correlations for females. For F1, F2, and F3: values outside parentheses are bivariate, values inside parentheses are partial correlations controlling for the other factors not included in the correlation; subscripts represent correlations for females

* p ≤ .05, ** p ≤ .01

Relations between Psychopathy and Emotional Skills

Bivariate and partial correlation coefficients were used to examine the hypothesis that psychopathic traits are differentially associated with a range of emotional skills (Table 2). The relations between psychopathic traits and facial and vocal emotion recognition were first examined. PCL:YV total score were related to lower accuracy of happy and sad faces. Interpersonal psychopathic traits were positively related to fearful and angry facial emotion recognition accuracy when controlling for the other two psychopathy factors. Based on partial correlations, affective traits were associated with poorer accuracy in identifying happy faces and sad, angry, and fearful voices.

Second, relations between psychopathy and emotional intelligence were examined. In males, PCL:YV total scores were unrelated to any aspect of emotional intelligence. However, impulsive-irresponsible traits were moderately related to lower emotional intelligence at the bivariate level. Lastly, relations between psychopathy and cognitive and affective empathy were investigated. Self-reported overall empathy was inversely related to PCL:YV total, interpersonal, and impulsive-irresponsible scores with moderate magnitude at the zero-order level. PCL:YV total and factor scores were negatively related to affective empathy, specifically empathic concern, at the zero-order level. Zero-order and partial correlations showed that impulsive-irresponsible traits were moderately negatively related to empathic fantasy.

Prediction of Recidivism from Psychopathy and Emotional Skills

Due to limited variability in total recidivism rates, logistic regressions were conducted using dichotomous (yes/no) overall and violent recidivism rates as outcome variables to examine whether psychopathy and emotional skills predicted recidivism. For each outcome variable, four regressions were conducted. Mean centered PCL:YV total scores were entered into step one of each regression, whereas one of DANVA sad (composite of faces and voices), DANVA fearful (composite of faces and voices), EQ-i:YV total, or IRI total scores were also entered into the first step. The two-way interactions between total psychopathy scores and each emotional skill were entered into the second step of each regression. Family-wise error was controlled using a Bonferroni correction for each set of four tests (αpc = .013). The results were analyzed only for males to reduce the number of predictors and interaction terms in each model. This was done to aid in interpreting the interactions and limit overinterpretation of results based on a small subsample of girls.

At step one, the model predicting general recidivism from the PCL:YV total score and emotional intelligence was significant, Cox & Snell R 2  = .11, p = .005, whereas the concurrent model predicting violent recidivism approached significance after error correction, Cox & Snell R 2  = .09, p = .016. Specifically, emotional intelligence decreased the odds of engaging in violent (B = −.10, SE = .04, Wald = 6.72, OR = .91, p = .010) and general (B = −.11, SE = .04, Wald = 8.96, OR = .90, p = .03) recidivism. No additional main effects or two-way interactions were significant in any model.

To examine the potential differential interactions between emotional intelligence and the three-factor model of psychopathy in predicting recidivism, two sets of four logistic regressions were conducted (one set for each type of recidivism). At step one, three PCL:YV factor scores were entered into each regression, whereas a different emotional skill was entered into each of the four tests. The two-way interactions between each PCL:YV factor and the corresponding emotional skill were entered into step two. Family-wise error was again controlled using a Bonferroni correction for each set of four tests (αpc = .013).

Like the previous regression models, the model predicting general recidivism from the three-factor model of psychopathy and emotional intelligence approached significance after error correction, Cox & Snell R 2  = .13, p = .017. Only emotional intelligence predicted recidivism, B = −.11, SE = .04, Wald = 9.34, OR = .89, p = .02, such that it decreased the odds of engaging in general recidivism. Although the interaction terms in step two did not add incremental value in predicting general recidivism above step one, Cox & Snell R 2 change = .06, p = .068, there was an interaction between interpersonal traits and emotional intelligence before error correction, B = .06, SE = .03, Wald = 3.91, OR = 1.06, p = .048. Higher emotional intelligence decreased the odds of general recidivism to a greater degree among adolescents expressing lower interpersonal (Factor 1) traits than higher traits (see Fig. 1). No other main effects or interactions were significant.
Fig. 1

Interaction between interpersonal psychopathic traits (Factor 1) and emotional intelligence in the prediction of general recidivism


Despite some early studies mapping emotional strengths and weaknesses of psychopathic individuals (e.g., Blair et al. 2002; Habel et al. 2002; Wilson et al. 2008), scientific evidence on the relation between psychopathic traits and emotional skills remains generally untested, especially at the dimensional level. To address this gap in the literature, the present study examined the utility of the three-factor model of psychopathy in predicting a range of emotional skills and recidivism outcomes in adolescent offenders. Results of this study help generalize past findings regarding the differential relations of specific psychopathy dimensions and emotional capacities. The current study also offers an improvement over past research in that a more extensive array of emotional criteria was used to examine the psychopathy-emotional skill relation while providing us with the prospect to downwardly extend psychopathy research in youth and investigate how these associations may impact future offending.

Psychopathy Factors and Face and Voice Processing

First, we examined relations between psychopathic traits and face and voice processing. Examining facial and vocal emotion was important to test in this study because emotional skills are likely related to the accurate perception of others’ emotions. Thus, this examination offered a performance measure of emotional skills that is not directly captured with self-report scales (e.g, Mayer et al. 2008). Regarding face and voice processing, interpersonal traits were associated with better accuracy in identifying fearful faces. Affective traits were related to poorer accuracy in identifying specific facial and vocal emotions (i.e., happy and sad faces and angry voices). Impulsive-irresponsible traits were not related to facial and vocal affect recognition accuracy.

These findings are consistent with previous research on this topic (Ciucci et al. 2015; Habel et al. 2002; Leist and Dadds 2009; O’Kearney et al. 2016; Pihet et al. 2015; Wilson et al. 2008; Wolf and Centifanti 2014) and suggest differences in how youth with interpersonal and affective traits may process certain emotional stimuli. For instance, the often reported association between affective traits and antisocial behavior (Frick et al. 2014) may be influenced by poor recognition of certain emotions, as youth expressing these traits may not recognize how their actions affect others. However, youth with high interpersonal traits may behave in a manner consistent with a ‘predatory memory’ hypothesis (Wilson et al. 2008). Specifically, these youths may be at an advantage for detecting vulnerability in others via their ability to recognize fear in potential victims.

Psychopathy Factors and Emotional Intelligence

A central question of this study was whether interpersonal traits are differentially related to emotional intelligence abilities compared to affective and impulsive-irresponsible traits. Overall, interpersonal traits were neither related to stronger nor weaker emotional intelligence skills as was found by Del Gaizo and Falkenbach (2008). Affective traits were also not related to emotional intelligence in boys, whereas impulsive-irresponsible traits were related to lower emotional intelligence across gender. Although impulsive-irresponsible traits were not related to all forms of emotional intelligence, our results map well onto the findings of past research demonstrating that adults expressing these traits experience higher levels of emotional problems than those with elevated interpersonal and affective traits (Del Gaizo and Falkenbach 2008; Malterer et al. 2008; Watts et al. 2016).

Psychopathy Factors, Perspective-Taking, and Empathic Concern

The relations between psychopathy, its dimensions, and perspective-taking and empathic concern were also investigated. Findings showed that psychopathic traits were related to lower empathic concern for others. At the dimensional level, however, interpersonal traits were not associated with perspective-taking, as was expected. Rather, interpersonal traits were negatively related to empathic concern in boys. Affective traits were also unrelated to cognitive empathy but negatively related to affective empathy. Finally, impulsive-irresponsible traits were most strongly negatively associated with cognitive empathy and negatively associated with affective concern. These results suggest that deficits with affective empathy, rather than cognitive empathy, are at least one core deficit associated with all psychopathic traits, particularly in boys. Such an inability to care about the feelings of others may further exacerbate the persistent antisocial behavior associated with psychopathy and may explain why conventional treatments focusing on behavioral change and the family system have exhibited varying degrees of success with this group of youth (Wilkinson et al. 2016).

Psychopathic Traits, Emotional Skill, and Recidivism

Although the three-factor model of psychopathy did not robustly predict recidivism as has been noted by other research in criminal justice-involved youth that used the PCL:YV (Shepherd and Strand 2016) or other psychopathy measures (e.g., Colins et al. 2018), emotional intelligence appeared to be a protective factor against further recidivism, especially in boys expressing affective and impulsive-irresponsible traits. However, in boys with elevated interpersonal traits, heightened emotional intelligence did not reduce the odds of further recidivism. Thus, consistent with predatory memory discussed above, this specific ability does not appear to buffer against and may influence reoffending for certain youth expressing elevated interpersonal traits such as manipulation and deceitfulness (Wilson et al. 2008). Nevertheless, the current study did not find broad support for the notion that emotional skills affect the psychopathy-recidivism relation. For instance, the noted interaction did not apply to violent re-offending and empathy and affect recognition accuracy in boys did not appear to affect offending in any manner. Further, the interaction was only significant before a conservative alpha was used and the inter-rater reliability of the interpersonal factor was poor. Thus, some caution is needed to avoid overinterpreting these findings, signifying the need for further research.


Although the sample was small for girls, the pattern of correlations in this study suggest that psychopathy and emotional skills in girls may function differently even if there are componential differences. For instance, the psychopathy-emotional intelligence relation operated differently for girls. Specifically, a positive association was found between affective traits and emotional intelligence, especially intrapersonal intelligence, suggesting that female offenders may be uncaring toward others and simultaneously in touch with their own emotions. Similarly, the relation between emotional concern and affective traits appeared to display an opposite pattern than was found for boys. Gender differences favoring empathic development in girls throughout adolescence may account for such differences (Allemand et al. 2015). Thus, these findings suggest that further research is needed on psychopathic traits in girls and their accompanying emotional functioning.

Limitations and Future Directions

Although the current study had several strengths, it also had several limitations. First, the use of a self-report emotional intelligence measure might be construed as a limitation. We augmented our research by including a performance task measure and a scale to measure cognitive and emotional empathy, but did not have specific real life emotional intelligence performance appraisals. To further build on this research, future studies may wish to examine individuals with psychopathic traits on their performance in social settings to obtain observer perspectives regarding emotional intelligence. Second, the number of predictors used in our regression analyses is a limitation in terms of statistical power; however, we feel that the number of tests run is important given the exploratory nature of the paper in investigating the differential relations between psychopathy, emotional skill, and recidivism. Third, the use of official recidivism statistics alone may have limited our ability to detect all offending. Self-reports of delinquency might be particularly helpful when examining differential relations between community functioning and psychopathic traits, although this is not guaranteed (e.g. Colins et al. 2017). Finally, the results of the current study tap a narrow aspect of the youth’s life and more data is needed not only on covert antisocial behavior but also both positive and other negative outcomes. Clearly much critical work is left to be done on the construct of psychopathy and how it pertains to emotional intellect and future outcomes. Longitudinal research that centers on clarifying the relation between these constructs and that focuses on a broad array of outcomes will likely further pave the way for future research into the nature, prevention, and treatment of the disorder.


  1. 1.

    Although the PCL:YV is intended for youth aged 12 to 18, one 11 year old participated in the current study (70% of the sample). Data were analyzed with and without this case. Because the pattern of results did not change when this individual was kept in the analyses reported in the current study.

  2. 2.

    Given the gender differences in IRI total scores and general recidivism, skew and kurtosis were calculated separately for males and females and revealed a similar pattern. Consequently, all transformations were performed on scores from the total sample. Square root transformations normalized recidivism scores; however, square root and log transformations did not normalize the other variables. The pattern of results remained the same with transformed and untransformed data. Consequently, untransformed data are reported to improve the interpretation of the results.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Christopher T. A. Gillen, Zina Lee, Karen L. Salekin, Anne-Marie R. Iselin, Natalie A. Harrison, Abby P. Clark, Olivier F. Colins, and Randall T. Salekin declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Experiment Participants

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher T. A. Gillen
    • 1
  • Zina Lee
    • 2
  • Karen L. Salekin
    • 3
  • Anne-Marie R. Iselin
    • 4
  • Natalie A. Harrison
    • 3
  • Abby P. Clark
    • 3
  • Olivier F. Colins
    • 5
    • 6
  • Randall T. Salekin
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyThe University of Southern MississippiHattiesburgUSA
  2. 2.School of Criminology and Criminal JusticeUniversity of the Fraser ValleyAbbotsfordCanada
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyThe University of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyThe University of North Carolina WilmingtonWilmingtonUSA
  5. 5.Department of Child and Adolescent PsychiatryLeiden University Medical CenterLeidenNetherlands
  6. 6.Örebro UniversityÖrebroSweden

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