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A study published in Psychiatry Research found that having psychopathic traits was linked to poor emotional regulation among both a community sample and a sample of violent offenders.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that is defined by persistent antisocial behavior that is typically hostile, deviant, and apathetic. Although the study of psychopathy has captured the attention of researchers for some time, study authors Carlo Garofalo and colleagues observed a gap in the research.

Few studies have explored how difficulties in emotional regulation — the ability to monitor and control one's emotions — may be involved in the expression of psychopathy. One of the reasons for this disparity may be due to early definitions of psychopathy which suggested that psychopathic individuals were "devoid of emotion." Findings have since emerged suggesting that these individuals do, in fact, experience emotions.

"If psychopathy does not fundamentally involve an absence of emotions," Garofalo and team theorize, "it is possible that disturbances in emotional regulation may be linked to the expression of psychopathic traits."

The researchers set out to explore the link between psychopathy and emotional regulation while controlling for the two other dark triad traits of narcissism and Machiavellianism.

Garofalo and colleagues recruited two nonclinical North American samples, which amounted to a total of 1,217 respondents. A third, nonclinical sample of 559 people living in Italy was additionally recruited from the general public. Finally, a sample of 164 male violent crime offenders was recruited from seven Italian prisons.

All participants completed a measure of emotional regulation and psychopathic traits. The two Italian samples were additionally assessed for Machiavellianism (characterized by cold, manipulative behavior) and narcissism (characterized by an inflated sense of self and excessive need for attention).

Structural equation modeling revealed a significant correlation between psychopathy and emotional regulation. Specifically, subjects with heightened psychopathy traits were more likely to display emotional dysregulation. This was true of all samples and was strongest in the male offenders.

Moreover, for the two samples from Italy, the researchers found that psychopathy continued to predict emotional regulation (as measured by the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS)) even after accounting for the two other dark triad traits.

"It is noteworthy that, in both samples examined, narcissism was significantly and positively related to higher DERS scores, whereas the relations between Machiavellianism and DERS latent variables were not significant in both samples," the researchers remark.

This finding offers convincing evidence that psychopathy is uniquely related to increased emotional dysregulation, over and above any shared variance between the other maladaptive traits.

The authors caution that their study was cross-sectional, and does not allow researchers to infer the direction of the relationship between psychopathy and emotional dysregulation. Still, the findings suggest interesting directions for future research, including exploring the possibility that emotional regulation might mediate the link between psychopathy and violent behavior.

"Of note, the present findings provide some compelling evidence consistent with the clinical and theoretical intuition that emotion dysregulation may play an important role in the emotional functioning of individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits (Harenski and Kiehl, 2010). Replicating recent findings, these results suggest that the relevance of ER in the construct of psychopathy might be greater than previously believed," Garofalo and team say.

The study, "Psychopathy and emotion dysregulation: More than meets the eye", was authored by Carlo Garofalo, Craig S. Neumann, David S. Kosson, and Patrizia Velotti.