Anger following provocation in individuals with psychopathic traits

Publication Date06 Nov 2017
AuthorBrian L. Steuerwald,Allison R. Brown,Malek Mneimne,David Kosson
subjectMatterHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Criminal psychology,Sociology,Sociology of crime & law,Deviant behaviour,Public policy & environmental management,Policing,Criminal justice
Anger following provocation in individuals
with psychopathic traits
Brian L. Steuerwald, Allison R. Brown, Malek Mneimne and David Kosson
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to test the attenuated-anger and heightened-anger hypotheses of
psychopathy by assessing the physiological, behavioral, and subjective measures of anger in individualswith
and without psychopathic traits.
Design/methodology/approach In all, 62 male college students were assigned to one of three groups
based on evidence of elevated affective-interpersonal (Factor 1) and antisocial lifestyle (Factor 2) traits
associated with psychopathy (the IF1+F2 group), evidence of only Factor 2 traits (the F2 only group), or
based on the absence of psychopathic traits (the control group), using Goughs (1957) Socialization scale
and a modified, interview only form of Hares (1991) Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. To induce anger,
participants received unjust criticism about their performance on a computer-based affective lexical decision
task and were denied a performance bonus they had reason to expect.
Findings Following provocation, the three groups displayed similar increases in blood pressure, pulse, and
self-reported anger. The control and IF1+F2 groups also displayed similar retaliation toward the confederate.
However, the IF1+F2 group displayed smaller increases on two of three measures of facial muscle activity
associated with anger.
Originality/value This study is one of the first to assess anger responsiveness in individuals with
psychopathic traits using a powerful anger induction and using physiological, behavioral, and subjective
indices of anger. It is also the first to assess both the attenuated-anger and the heightened-anger hypotheses
of psychopathy. The findings appear largely inconsistent with both perspectives.
Keywords Community, Anger, Psychopathy, Aggression, Emotion induction, Psychopathic traits
Paper type Research paper
The emotional experiences associated with psychopathy occupy a central position in
descriptions of the disorder. Whereas several theorists have argued that psychopaths exhibit
a deficient capacity for sadness and/or fear (Fowles, 1980; Lykken, 1957; Millon, 1981;
Patrick, 1994), there is substantial disagreement about the psychopaths experience of anger.
Cleckley (1976) argued that psychopathic individuals exhibit a general poverty of major affective
reactions that prevents them from modifying and directing their behavior in an appropriate way.
According to this perspective, psychopathic individuals experience little genuine anger, and facial
expressionsand actions associated with anger episodesare largely dramatic displays thatlack an
affective basis. In contrast, others assert that psychopathic individuals experience genuine anger
when frustrated (McCord and McCord, 1964) or when faced with threats to self-esteem (Meloy,
1988; Millon, 1981). Still others have argued that the aggression of psychopathic individuals reflects
intense anger, envy, and rage (e.g. Goldner-Vukov and Moore, 2010; Kernberg, 1989, 2004)
and a hyper-reactivity to slight criticisms and frustrations (Yochelson and Samenow, 1976).
These accounts fall into two broad categories. Cleckleys perspective, the attenuated-anger
hypothesis, argues that psychopathic individuals experience little genuine anger. In contrast, the
heightened-anger hypothesis argues that psychopathic individuals experience anger frequently
and at intense levels. Despite well-replicated links between psychopathy and violence (Leistico
et al., 2008) and the increasing use of psychopathy in forensic settings to estimate risk for
Received 2 February 2017
Revised 5 May 2017
Accepted 7 May 2017
This study was conducted by the
first author in partial fulfillment of
the requirements of the PhD at the
University of North Carolina at
Greensboro. This study was
funded by a National Institute of
Mental Health Grant No. MH49111
awarded to David S. Kosson.
The authorswish to express
appreciation to JacquelynW. White,
P. Scott Lawrence,Robert Eason,
and Jack Humphrey who provided
valuablefeedback during this study.
Also, the authors would liketo
thank SusanBaird, Matt Kirkhart,
and Michaelde Arellano for their
assistanceon the project.
Brian L. Steuerwald is the
Vice President for Institutional
Effectiveness at Martin
University, Indianapolis,
Indiana, USA.
Allison R. Brown is a Student at
the College of Health
Professions, Rosalind Franklin
University of Medicine and
Science, North Chicago, Illinois,
Malek Mneimne is a
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
at the University of Notre Dame,
South Bend,Indiana, USA.
David Kosson is a Professor at
the College of Health
Professions, Rosalind Franklin
University of Medicine and
Science, North Chicago, Illinois,
VOL. 7 NO. 4 2017, pp. 244-261, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 2009-3829 DOI 10.1108/JCP-02-2017-0007
violence (Walsh and Walsh, 2006), few empirical studies have examined anger experiences in
individuals with psychopathic traits.
Lang (1979) was among the first to emphasize that activity in the physiological, behavioral, and
subjective (i.e. phenomenological) emotional response systems is often only loosely related,
and to advocate for the multimodal assessment of emotion (i.e. measuring reactions in multiple
systems) in order to more precisely assess emotional responsiveness (e.g. Johnson et al., 2017).
Although a few studies assessing responses within one system have found increased
self-reported anger in less socialized individuals (Sterling and Edelman, 1988) and individuals
scoring higher on the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL; Serin, 1991) or increased instrumental and
reactive aggression following anger-provoking situations by individuals higher in self-reported
psychopathic traits (Reidy et al., 2007), participantsemotional states were not assessed across
more than one system, and the induction employed in one of these studies appeared more
effective at instilling competitive motives rather than anger.
Several studies have examined emotional reactivity in individuals with psychopathic traits on
physiological and behavioral measures but did not use powerful methods of inducing emotional
states. Consequently, although results appear at least partly consistent with Cleckleys
attenuated-anger perspective (Dikman and Allen, 2000; Levenston et al., 2000; Patrick et al.,
1993; Rilling et al., 2007; Vaidyanathan et al., 2011), most of the behavioral indices employed in
these studies were performance measures (e.g. accuracy, response latency) or preferences
(e.g. stimulus viewing time) rather than direct measures of emotional reactivity. Moreover, with
one exception (Levenston et al., 2000), these studies were not designed to index specific
emotional responses, and none of them employed anger inductions. In sum, most studies of
anger responsiveness only addressed responsiveness in one domain, and most prior studies that
examined multiple systems did not assess anger responsiveness per se.
Multiple system studies of anger responsiveness
Among the few prior studies assessing responses to anger provocations in multiple systems in
individuals with psychopathic traits are three unpublished studies (Forth, 1992; Kelly and Kosson,
1997; Patterson, 1991). All three used film clips to induce anger and several other emotions.
Two studies tested adult inmates selected on the basis of PCL or PCL-revised (PCL-R) scores;
the latter used the Socialization (So) scale and an interview-only measure of the affective and
interpersonal features that comprise Factor 1 of the PCL. Patterson (1991) reported no group
differences in facial expressions or self-reported anger after the anger film. Similarly, Forth (1992)
reported no group differences in heart rate, skin conductance, facial expressions, or self-reported
anger while watching an anger film. Thus, findings from both studies contradict both the
attenuated-anger and the heightened-anger hypotheses. Whereas the examination of several
emotions and assessment of activity in two response systems represent important strengths, the
inclusion of conditions designed to induce several conflicting emotions may have attenuated
group differences for specific emotions or created carryover effects.
To increase the power of the anger inductions, Kelly and Kosson (1997) used longer film clips
to induce anger in college students. Consistent with these other studies, they reported that
low-So college students and control groups self-reported similar levels of anger. However, unlike
Patterson and Forth, they reported that low-So college students with Factor 1 traits exhibited
fewer angry facial expressions than high-So college students. Thus, this study provided mixed
results only partially consistent with the attenuated-anger hypothesis.
Moreover, anger is an emotion usually experienced during interpersonal interactions in which
injustices are perceived as directed at oneself rather than at others (Averill, 1982). Following
this line of reasoning, Lobbestael et al. (2008) argued that harassment and anger recall or
re-experiencing procedures may be more effective than film clips at inducing anger arousal.
To our knowledge, only one prior study of individuals with psychopathic traits has used a direct
interpersonal anger induction that appeared effective at inducing anger and assessed anger
responsiveness in more than one system. Lobbestael et al. (2009) employed the stress interview
validated in Lobbestael et al. (2008). Participants were asked to discuss an interaction they had
VOL. 7 NO. 4 2017

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