Results of the present study suggest complex relationships between externalizing psychopathology and risk taking that differ across indices of risk taking. Consistent with the extensive literature on psychopathy and crime (Leistico et al., 2008
), in the present study psychopathy was associated with ICRT. Moreover, the association remained even after controlling for ASPD and severity of AUDs and DUDs. This finding adds to the evidence for psychopathy as a particularly powerful construct for understanding willingness to take extreme personal risks during the course of criminal behavior, and suggests that processes unique to psychopathy are at work in ICRT. The hypothesis that psychopathy would be associated with SSRT was also corroborated, though this relationship became non-significant after controlling for the other disorders, suggesting that a vulnerability factor shared among externalizing disorders may account for the association between psychopathy and stimulation-seeking risky behavior. Similarly, whereas scores on the psychopathy dimension associated with impulsive, irresponsible antisocial behavior were also associated with risk related to sensation-seeking, this association was also attributable to variance shared between this dimension and other measures of externalizing pathology.
Consistent findings across methods of assessment would increase our confidence in a broad relationship between psychopathy and risk taking. However, the hypothesis that psychopathy would be related to risk taking propensity measured by the BART was not corroborated by the results. This is the first study to examine the relationships of PCL-R-assessed psychopathy to risk taking on the BART, and we failed to replicate Hunt et al.’s (2005)
finding of an association between psychopathic traits and BART performance in a non-criminal sample. Our findings underscore the importance of caution in generalizing conclusions from non-criminal to criminal samples. As well, the current results may reflect differences between PCL-R-assessed psychopathy and self-report-assessed psychopathy (e.g., Hunt et al., 2005
), though this explanation is speculative, and studies incorporating both measures in the same sample would be helpful to clarify this point.
Findings with regard to the other externalizing disorders and risk taking were mixed. Surprisingly, risk taking on the BART was not related to symptoms of externalizing disorders examined. This finding suggests limited externalizing spectrum diagnostic utility for the BART among incarcerated offenders. Given prior evidence that BART scores correlate with substance use severity and antisocial behavior (Crowley et al. 2006
; Lejuez et al., 2002
), it could be argued that the lack of an association between BART-assessed risk taking and externalizing disorders in the current study may reflect reduced variability in externalizing pathology in the current sample due to the high prevalence of ASPD, AUDs, and DUDs in our sample. However, such an explanation does not account for the relationships that were observed between individual differences in ASPD, AUD, and DUD scores and scores on ICRT and SSRT. Alternatively, it could be that our BART methodology would have had greater predictive utility in a nonclinical sample than in our current sample. A recent study indicated that using the BART with greater rewards for risky behavior than in the standard version of the paradigm may lead to greater differentiation between impulsive/sensation-seeking individuals and others (Bornovalova et al., 2009). We cannot rule out that our use of the standard version of the paradigm (i.e., one-cent rewards) contributed to the failure to detect relationships between BART-assessed risk taking and externalizing disorders.
Consistent with prior descriptions of a link between ASPD and risky behavior (Rogers, Salekin, Sewell, & Cruise, 2000
) ASPD was related to ICRT. Unlike the relationship between psychopathy and ICRT, however, the association between ASPD and ICRT was reliant upon variance shared with the other externalizing disorders. As in prior studies of sensation-seeking and substance use (Martin et al., 2002
; Stephenson et al., 2002
), substance use disorders were related to SSRT. The lack of an association between substance use disorders and ICRT suggests that the presence of a substance use disorder does not necessarily increase the likelihood of antisocial risk taking among criminal offenders, for whom both substance use disorders and risk taking occur at high rates and for many different reasons. However, a substantial body of literature corroborates the notion that there are meaningful subtypes of abusers of specific substances (Ball, Carroll, Babor, & Rounsaville, 1995
; Moss, Chen, & Yi, 2007
) and there are personality differences among abusers of different substances (Hopwood, Baker, & Morey, 2008
; Walsh, Allen, & Kosson, 2007
). These differences may confer differing propensities toward risk taking that were not examined in the present study, and our aggregate approach to DUD may have obscured more subtle relationships.
Risk taking on the BART was positively associated with the sensation-seeking component of self-reported risk taking. Moreover, scores on the BART were negatively associated with trait anxiety. This pattern of relationships suggests that, among adult criminal offenders, the BART may primarily assess a characterological tendency toward what has been described as impulsive decision-making (Reynolds et al., 2006
; Reynolds, Penfold, & Patak, 2008
) or, alternatively, as an initial propensity toward risk taking that may or may not involve impulsivity (Crowley et al., 2005) and may be associated with excessive approach behavior. These traits can be distinguished from a characterological tendency toward behavioral disinhibition, which refers to a failure to inhibit prepotent responses in spite of a high likelihood of negative outcomes (Reynolds et al., 2008
). Psychopathy is commonly described as a prototype for disinhibitory psychopathology, but several other forms of externalizing disorders have also been characterized by disinhibition (Gorenstein & Newman, 1980
; Levenson, 1990
). Indeed, Reynolds et al. (2006)
found that BART scores were orthogonal to measures of disinhibition (e.g., passive avoidance learning) that are commonly associated with higher levels of psychopathy (Blair et al., 2004
; Newman & Kosson, 1986
). The negative association between BART scores and ICRT in the present study may reflect the role of disinhibition in ICRT, and the failure to find relationships between BART-assessed risk taking and externalizing pathology may reflect the role of disinhibition in externalizing disorders among criminal offenders. Moreover, risky criminal behavior in adult offender populations is multi-determined, arising from a variety of complex interactions among a number of personality (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000
), cognitive (Walsh, Swogger, & Kosson, 2004
), and social (Beyers, Loeber, Wikstrom, & Stouthamer-Loeber, 2001
) factors other than sensation-seeking. Prominent efforts to explain the antisocial behavior of psychopaths have emphasized emotional deficits (Patrick, Cuthbert, and Lang, 1994
), impairments in response modulation (Wallace, Vitale, & Newman, 1999
), and state-dependent cognitive deficits associated with left hemisphere activation (Kosson et al., 2007
), each of which may play a more important role in ICRT than the behavioral tendencies measured by the BART.
Several limitations of this study are worth noting. Only African American and European American offenders were included in the study, and findings should not be generalized to other groups. The decision to include only African American and European American participants was based upon the limited evidence for PCL-R construct validity among other ethnic populations. However, such evidence is growing (Sullivan, Abramowitz, Lopez, & Kosson, 2006
), and future studies of risk taking and psychopathy might benefit from the inclusion of individuals of other ethnicities. In addition, although the factor analysis enabled an empirically-driven and convenient characterization of risk taking data, our limited sample size and the limited number of items in each component of real-world risk taking suggests that independent replication is necessary to establish the reliability of our risk taking classification scheme beyond the current analysis. Finally, use of the current sample limits the generalizability of findings to criminal offenders. These limitations are balanced by a number of strengths, including relatively comprehensive coverage of risk taking and use of a well-validated measure to assess psychopathy.
In summary, in the context of prior work the present findings suggest that associations between externalizing disorders and real-world risk taking appear to largely reflect shared mechanisms. However, psychopathy appears to confer some non-shared propensity toward irresponsible and criminal risk taking beyond that associated with other externalizing disorders. This additional propensity is related to the core psychopathic personality traits that comprise F1. For this reason, assessing F1 traits of psychopathy may be especially important for understanding and predicting irresponsible and criminal risky behavior, even in populations with high rates of such behavior. Moreover, our findings suggest the importance of assessing core psychopathic traits in studies of specific types of risky behavior among offenders. Future work that elucidates the means by which these traits contribute uniquely to irresponsible and criminal risk taking is warranted.