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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptNIH Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
 
Child Dev. Author manuscript; available in PMC Jul 13, 2011.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3134591
NIHMSID: NIHMS296490
The Genetic and Environmental Covariation Among Psychopathic Personality Traits, and Reactive and Proactive Aggression in Childhood
Serena Bezdjian, Adrian Raine, Catherine Tuvblad, and Laura A. Baker
Serena Bezdjian, Washington University School of Medicine;
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Serena Bezdjian, Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, 3620 S. McClintock Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90089-1061. Electronic mail may be sent to bezdjian/at/usc.edu
The present study investigated the genetic and environmental covariance between psychopathic personality traits with reactive and proactive aggression in 9- to 10-year-old twins (N = 1,219). Psychopathic personality traits were assessed with the Child Psychopathy Scale (D. R. Lynam, 1997), while aggressive behaviors were assessed using the Reactive Proactive Questionnaire (A. Raine et al., 2006). Significant common genetic influences were found to be shared by psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors using both caregiver (mainly mother) and child self-reports. Significant genetic and nonshared environmental influences specific to psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression were also found, suggesting etiological independence among these phenotypes. Additionally, the genetic relation between psychopathic personality traits and aggression was significantly stronger for proactive than reactive aggression when using child self-reports.
A significant link between psychopathy and aggressive behaviors has been established in antisocial youths and adults (Hare & Jutai, 1983; Harpur & Hare, 1994; Porter & Woodworth, 2006). During adulthood, psychopaths are charged with violent crimes twice as often as nonpsychopathic offenders (Hare & Jutai, 1983). Meta-analyses have demonstrated that psychopathy has an overall effect size of rs = .27–.37 in predicting violence or violent behaviors (Hemphill, Templeman, Wong, & Hare, 1998; Salekin, Rogers, & Sewell, 1996).
There is growing evidence that psychopathic personality traits are related to aggression much earlier in life. Precursors to psychopathy have been said to emerge in early childhood in the form of “callous–unemotional” traits (Lynam, 1997, 2002), which closely resemble adult psychopathic personality traits (particularly Revised Psychopathy Checklist [PCL-R] Factor 1; Hare, 1991). These characteristics or traits are usually associated with aggressive and violent behavior (Dodge, 1991; Fite, Stoppelbein, & Greening, 2009; Frick, 1998; Lynam, 1997, 2002). Comprehension and greater understanding of the link between psychopathy and aggression could greatly benefit and aid in the prediction of future violence by adult offenders (Salekin et al., 1996).
Aggressive individuals who are said to be reactive in nature have been described as having high emotional arousal, difficulties with impulse control, and an inability to regulate or control their emotions or affect (Dodge & Coie, 1987). Proactive aggression, on the other hand, has been described as an organized and instrumental form of aggression, with little evidence of autonomic arousal (Berkowitz, 1993; Dodge, 1991). Although both reactive and proactive aggression are statistically related constructs (Dodge & Coie, 1987) and often co-occur and correlate at about r = .70 (Vitaro & Brendgen, 2005), evidence also suggests that reactive and proactive aggression may be separate and distinct types of aggression (Crick & Dodge, 1996; Dodge & Coie, 1987; Fite, Stoppelbein, Greening, & Gaertner, 2009) with unique correlates to both types of aggression. For example, reactive aggression is related to peer rejection and victimization (Lamarche et al., 2007; Salmivalli & Helteenvuori, 2007; Schwartz et al., 1998), while proactive aggression is related to psychopathic personality traits (Raine et al., 2006), and later delinquent behavior (Brendgen, Vitaro, Tremblay, & Lavoie, 2001; Pulkkinen, 1996; Vitaro, Gendreau, Tremblay, & Oligny, 1998). In addition, both exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses have shown that reactive and proactive aggression are factorially distinct (Crick & Dodge, 1996; Poulin & Boivin, 2000; Raine et al., 2006; Salmivalli & Nieminen, 2002).
Criminals identified as committing proactive violent offenses have higher scores on the PCL than those with a history or background of reactive aggression or violence (Cornell et al., 1996). Some have argued that psychopathy is more associated with proactive rather than reactive aggression (Blair, 2001, 2007; Patrick & Zempolich, 1998) and even early in life, Frick, Cornell, Barry, Bodin, and Dane (2003) have found that children with callous– unemotional traits have higher proactive aggression scores (Frick et al., 2003). Along similar lines, Raine et al. (2006) also found a strong association between psychopathic personality traits (as measured by the Child Psychopathy Scale [CPS]; Lynam, 1997) and residualized proactive aggression, but found no significant relation between psychopathy and reactive aggression. Accordingly, we would expect a stronger relation between psychopathic personality traits and proactive than reactive aggression in community samples of children. However, research has also established that psychopaths are impulsive and the most violent of offenders (Hare & Jutai, 1983; Harpur & Hare, 1994), suggesting that there may also be a significant relation between psychopathic personality traits and reactive aggression (Flight & Forth, 2007). Although phenotypic relations can be hypothesized for both reactive and proactive aggression with psychopathy, the etiological roots of either relation is not yet well understood.
Substantial estimates for the heritability of psychopathic personality traits in children and adolescents have been reported (Blonigen, Hicks, Krueger, Patrick, & Iacono, 2006; Larsson, Andershed, & Lichtenstein, 2006; Taylor, Loney, Bobadilla, Iacono, & McGue, 2003; Viding, Blair, Moffitt, & Plomin, 2005), and reactive and proactive forms of aggression have also been found to be heritable (Baker, Raine, Lui, & Jacobson, 2008; Brendgen, Vitaro, Boivin, Dioone, & Perusse, 2006; Tuvblad, Raine, Zheng, & Baker, 2009). To the authors’ knowledge no study has examined the underlying common genetic and environmental etiological covariation between psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression in children. As both psychopathic and aggressive traits have been found to be heritable and covary with one another, we would expect to find significant genetic overlap among these constructs. Based on previous studies examining the relation between psychopathy and proactive behaviors, we hypothesized a genetic overlap between psychopathic personality traits and proactive aggression (Patrick & Zempolich, 1998). However, we would also expect a significant relation between psychopathic personality traits and reactive aggression because of the fact that both constructs encompass difficulties in impulse control (Flight & Forth, 2007).
When examining violent and aggressive behaviors, it is critical to consider and understand the motivation of the violence—that is, whether the violent and aggressive act was “defensive,” meaning an immediate reaction to an emotional stimulus, or “offensive,” a planned and instrumental act (Berkowitz, 1983; Porter & Woodworth, 2006, p. 483). It is also possible that a violent act may be associated with both reactive and proactive aggression (Barratt, Stanford, Dowdy, Liebman, & Kent, 1999). Caregivers may not fully know or understand the motive behind their child’s aggressive act; therefore, (child) self-report data may be especially informative. Both caregiver and child self-report data of psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors were examined in the present study, as both caregivers and their children know crucial and unique pieces of information regarding behaviors. Self-reporters are privy to their own motives and behaviors that may go undetected by their caregivers or other reporters, while caregivers may be able to understand difficult and complex constructs better than children can (Bartels et al., 2003); thus, both types of reporters are utilized in the current study. Predicting whether psychopaths will commit more reactive violence (as a result of poor behavioral controls) or more premeditated instrumental violence (because of a callous nature) is difficult (Porter & Woodworth, 2006). Thus, there is paucity in the literature and a need for a greater understanding of the relation between violent acts and aggressive behaviors using both caregiver and twin self-reports.
Previously in our sample, we have demonstrated that psychopathic personality traits measured using the CPS (Lynam, 1997) yield a two-factor solution: Factor 1 (callous & disinhibited) and Factor 2 (manipulative & deceitful). The present study investigates the genetic and environmental covariation of these two CPS factors with reactive and proactive aggression in 9- and 10-year-old twins. The purpose of the current study was to expand the existing literature on psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors, and examine the genetic and environmental overlap between the two dimensions of psychopathic personality traits (callous & disinhibited and manipulative–deceitful) and reactive and proactive aggression employing both child self-report and caregiver reports of these traits. Specifically, we expect to find a genetic overlap between psychopathic personality traits and proactive aggression (Patrick & Zempolich, 1998). We also expect a significant relation between psychopathic personality traits and reactive aggression to emerge because of the fact that both constructs encompass difficulties in impulse control (Flight & Forth, 2007).
Participants
The sample was composed of participants from the Southern California Twin Project at the University of Southern California (USC). Complete information regarding the design and procedures of the project has been provided in Baker, Barton, Lozano, Raine, and Fowler (2006). Briefly, the Southern California Twin Project is a longitudinal study assessing the development of aggressive and antisocial behaviors from childhood to young adulthood. The present study used data from the first wave of assessment that was conducted from 2000 to 2004.
The twins and their families were recruited from Los Angeles County. The sample is representative of the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the greater Los Angeles area and includes 605 families (N = 1,219 children). The mean age of the children in the first wave assessment was 9.60 years (SD = 0.60), and the gender distribution was approximately equal with 48.7% boys (n = 594) and 51.3% girls (n = 625). The twins and their primary caregivers (mainly the biological mothers) participated in a 6–8 hr laboratory assessment at USC. The caregivers were administered self-report questionnaires and interviewed about their twins’ behaviors. The mean age of the caregivers was 40.14 years (SD = 6.61).
Zygosity was established through DNA micro-satellite analyses. Details on the determination of twins’ zygosity have been provided in Baker, Jacobson, Raine, and Bezdjian (2007). The sample is composed of the following zygosity groups: monozygotic (MZ) males (N = 138 pairs), MZ females (N = 139 pairs), dizygotic (DZ) males (N = 84 pairs), DZ females (N = 97 pairs), and DZ opposite-sex pairs (N = 147 pairs).
Measures
Child Psychopathy Scale
Psychopathic personality traits were measured using a slightly extended version of the revised CPS–Revised Extended (Lynam, 1997; Lynam et al., 2005; see also Falkenbach, Poythress, & Heide, 2003). The CPS is a well-validated instrument measuring psychopathic personality traits in children and adolescents (see Lynam, 1997) and is composed of 14 subscales (based on 58 yes or no items scored 1 = no, 2 = yes), which include assessments of glibness, untruthfulness, lack of guilt, callousness, impulsiveness, boredom susceptibility, manipulation, poverty of affect, parasitic lifestyle, behavioral dyscontrol, lack of planning, unreliability, failure to accept responsibility, and grandiosity. The CPS was administered to the twins (self-report) and their caregivers in interview form. Internal reliabilities for the total composite score was acceptable with Cronbach’s α = .83. The CPS total score (mean of all 58 items) demonstrates moderate to strong correlations with caregiver reports of children’s aggressive and antisocial behaviors (see Baker et al., 2007).
The CPS was primarily developed to operationalize, in childhood and adolescence, the personality traits found in the PCL–R (Hare, 200). Two PCL–R items, criminal versatility and juvenile delinquency, were not included so that the CPS might serve as a pure measure of personality uncontaminated by antisocial behavior. Further validation of the instrument is provided in Lynam (1997).
Previously, we have demonstrated through exploratory principal component analyses and confirmatory factor analyses that caregiver ratings of CPS subscales have a two-dimensional solution within our sample. That is, a two-factor solution was the best fitting and most appropriate solution and fit better than a one-, three-, and four-factor solution. The two factors found were callous & disinhibited and manipulative–deceitful (Bezdjian, Raine, Baker, & Lynam, 2011). Based on this finding, confirmatory factor analyses were also conducted in child self-reported data of psychopathic personality traits using the CPS. Results indicated that the same factor structure found in adults was also the best fitting solution for child self-reported data (two-factor solution: χ2 = 362.59, df = 78, comparative fit index [CFI] = .84, Akaike’s information criterion [AIC] = 22916.29, root mean square error of approximation [RMSEA] = .07; one-factor solution: χ2 = 494.39, df = 77, CFI = .77, AIC = 22953.52, RMSEA = .09; three-factor solution: χ2 = 531.35, df = 76, CFI = .75, AIC = 22992.49, RMSEA = .10; the three-factor model is based on the factor structure tested in Salekin, Brannen, Zalot, Leistico, & Neumann, 2006). Thus, two factor scores were computed for each child within each rater, by using means of items for scales loading on each factor.
Reactive and Proactive Aggression Questionnaire
To measure aggressive behavior in the twins, the Reactive and Proactive Aggression Questionnaire (RPQ) was completed by both the twins (self-report) and their caregivers (Raine et al., 2006). The RPQ is a 23-item validated questionnaire designed to measure reactive and proactive aggression in young children and adolescents (Raine et al., 2006). The RPQ includes 11 reactive items (e.g. hitting others when teased, gets angry when frustrated) and 12 proactive items (e.g., damages things for fun, uses force to get things from others). The RPQ is scored on a 3-point response scale (0 = never, 1 = sometimes, 2 = often). Mean scores for the item responses were computed to form reactive and proactive aggression subscales (obtained from principal component analyses of the 23 items). Caregiver (mainly the biological mothers) reports of the twins’ aggressive behaviors as well as the twins’ self-reports were used in the current study. It has been shown in at least two prior independent studies that the RPQ has a two-factor reactive–proactive solution (Baker et al., 2008; Raine et al., 2006).
Data Analyses
The genetic analyses carried out in the current study are based on traditional twin designs and the general assumptions of twin studies. MZ twins share 100% of their genes, while DZ twins share on average 50% of their genes. The total phenotypic variance of a measured trait can be divided into additive genetic factors (A), shared environmental factors (C), and nonshared environmental factors (E). In general, heritability is the proportion of total phenotypic variance because of genetic variation (Neale & Cardon, 1992; Plomin, DeFries, McClearn, & McGuffin, 2001). For a particular trait or measure, MZ correlations that are higher than DZ correlations are indicative of genetic influences, whereas a DZ correlation more than half the MZ intraclass correlation signifies the presence of both genetic and shared environmental effects. The cross-twin cross-trait correlations yield information about the genetic and environmental correlations between traits. Cross-twin cross-trait correlations are interpreted the same way as intraclass correlations—that is, greater values for MZ compared with DZ pairs suggest shared or correlated genetic influences for two traits.
Bivariate Cholesky decompositions were fitted to estimate genetic correlation (rg), shared environmental correlation (rc), and nonshared environmental correlation (re) between CPS factors and reactive and proactive aggression. A genetic correlation indicates the extent to which genetic effects on one measure are associated with genetic effects on another measure (Posthuma et al., 2003).
A series of multivariate models were also fitted to investigate further the nature of the relations among reactive and proactive aggression and the CPS factors. These models included: (a) saturated covariance models to estimate the phenotypic thresholds and variance–covariance matrices within each of the five zygosity groups, and (b) multivariate models to determine the magnitude and significance of genetic (A), shared twin environment (C), and nonshared environment (E) variance for each factor, as well as to understand the nature of the covariance between each factor, that is, the extent to which genetic and environmental aspects may influence the shared genetic and environmental influences between the factors. In particular, we fitted a Cholesky decomposition in which correlated genetic and environmental effects were included for both factors, and an independent pathway model in which genetic and environmental influences were uncorrelated for the two factors. In addition to estimating genetic and environmental influences common to the measures, an independent pathway estimates genetic and environmental influences specific to each measure.
All models were fitted with the structural equation program Mx (Neale, Boker, Xie, & Maes, 2003) using a maximum likelihood estimation procedure for raw data. Raw maximum likelihood yields a goodness-of-fit index called log-likelihood. The fit of the models was assessed and determined by comparing the AIC between different models. The AIC represents the balance between model fit and the number of parameters (parsimony), with lower values (i.e., larger negative) of AIC indicating the most statistically acceptable or suitable model (Akaike, 1987). Finally, a third model-selection statistic was the Bayesian information criterion (BIC), where increasingly negative values also correspond to increasingly better fitting models (Raftery, 1995). All measures were ranked and standardized to normalize the skewed data and estimates displayed are after transformations.
Descriptive Statistics
Means and standard deviations (by sex and zygosity) for the two CPS factors (callous & disinhibited and manipulative & deceitful) as well as the two RPQ factors (reactive and proactive aggression) for both caregiver and child self-reports are provided in Table 1. No mean or variance differences were found between Twins 1 and 2 or between MZ and DZ twins. Mean sex differences were found using caregiver reports of both psychopathic dimensions and reactive and proactive aggression with boys showing significantly higher mean values than girls on all four factors: manipulative & deceitful (t = 3.65, df = 1,213, p < .01), callous–disinhibited (t = 5.99, df = 1,189, p < .01), reactive aggression (t = 4.32, df = 1,213, p < .01), and proactive aggression (t = 2.79, df = 1,196, p < .01). Sex differences of reactive and proactive aggression have been previously provided in Baker et al. (2008). Likewise, mean sex differences were also found using child self-reports with boys showing significantly higher mean values than girls on all four factors: manipulative & deceitful (t = 3.96, df = 1,197, p < .01), callous & disinhibited (t = 3.34, df = 1197, p < .01), reactive aggression (t = 3.13, df = 1,203, p < .01), and proactive aggression (t = 3.99, df = 1,203, p < .01).
Table 1
Table 1
Number of Participants (N), Means and Standard Deviations for Child Psychopathy Scale (CPS) Factors, Reactive and Proactive Aggression, by Zygosity and Sex
For caregivers’ report, the phenotypic correlations for the two psychopathic dimensions with reactive and proactive aggression were as follows: manipulative & deceitful and reactive aggression: rp = .50, p < .01; manipulative & deceitful and proactive aggression: rp = .47, p < .01; callous & disinhibited and reactive aggression: rp = .51, p < .01; callous & disinhibited and proactive aggression: rp = .43, p < .01. For twins’ self-report, the phenotypic correlations for the two psychopathic dimensions with reactive and proactive aggression were as follows: manipulative & deceitful and reactive aggression: rp = .39, p < .01; manipulative & deceitful and proactive aggression: rp = .46, p < .01; callous & disinhibited and reactive aggression: rp = .45, p < .01; callous & disinhibited and proactive aggression: rp = .46, p < .01. Additionally, cross-report correlations among the two psychopathy dimensions and reactive and proactive aggression are reported in the Appendix.
Appendix
Appendix
Cross-Report (Phenotypic) Correlations Among the Two Psychopathy Factors and Reactive and Proactive Aggression
Twin Correlations
Intraclass and cross-twin cross-trait correlations for the two psychopathic personality factors and reactive and proactive aggression within each of the five zygosity groups are reported in Table 2 for caregiver reports and Table 3 for child self-reports. The MZ intraclass correlations were consistently greater than the corresponding DZ intraclass correlations, both in male and female twin pairs, suggesting that genetic influences are important for manipulative & deceitful and callous & disinhibited personality traits and for reactive and proactive aggression. In general, the cross-twin cross-trait correlations between the psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behavior scales were also greater for MZ than for DZ pairs, indicating that genetic effects are important for the relation between manipulative & deceitful and callous & disinhibited traits with reactive and proactive aggression.
Table 2
Table 2
Phenotypic and Twin Correlations Between the Two Child Psychopathy Scale Factors and Reactive and Proactive Aggression (Caregiver Reports)
Table 3
Table 3
Phenotypic and Twin Correlations Between the Two Child Psychopathy Scale Factors and Reactive and Proactive Aggression (Twin Self-Reports)
Bivariate Modeling
Table 4 displays the genetic and environmental correlations between the psychopathic personality dimensions and reactive and proactive aggression, separately for child and caregiver reports. In bivariate genetic analyses of each CPS factor paired with each of the two aggression scales, a model that constrained genetic and environmental parameter estimates to be equal in males and females fitted best. Also, the shared environmental correlation could be dropped in all four pairings without a decrease in fit (results available upon request).
Table 4
Table 4
Genetic and Environmental Correlations Between Child Psychopathy Scale Factors and Reactive and Proactive Aggression, Caregiver and Twin Self-Reports
For caregivers, the genetic and nonshared environmental correlations between the callous & disinhibited factor with reactive aggression were rg = .49 and re = .47, respectively. The genetic and environmental correlations between callous & disinhibited and proactive aggression were rg = .41 and re = .37, respectively. Similarly, the genetic and environmental correlations between the manipulative & deceitful factor with reactive aggression were rg = .57 and re = .34, respectively, while rg = .35 and re = .41 for manipulative & deceitful with proactive aggression. Both genetic and non-shared environmental correlations were significant (p < .05) in all cases except for the genetic correlation between proactive aggression and either psychopathic factor using caregiver reports of the twins’ behavior.
The twins’ self-report data also revealed significant genetic and nonshared environmental correlations between the two psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression. Specifically, the genetic and nonshared environmental correlations between the callous & disinhibited factor with reactive aggression were rg = .59 and re = .37, respectively. The genetic and environmental correlations between callous & disinhibited and proactive aggression were rg = .76 and re = .30, respectively. Correspondingly, the genetic and environmental correlations between the manipulative & deceitful factor with reactive aggression were also significant (rg = .57 and re = .29, respectively), as were those for manipulative & deceitful with proactive aggression (rg = .81 and re = .29).
Additionally, the difference in correlations for reactive and proactive scales were also tested and results revealed for twins’ self-report that the genetic correlation between callous & disinhibited and proactive aggression was significantly greater than the genetic correlation between callous & disinhibited and reactive aggression (χ2diff = 140.30, df = 112, p = .04; the genetic correlation could not be constrained to be equal across types of aggression). Similarly, the genetic correlation between manipulative & deceitful traits and proactive aggression was also significantly greater than the genetic correlation between the manipulative & deceitful traits and reactive aggression in the twins’ self-report data (χ2diff = 137.13, df = 112, p = .05; i.e., the genetic correlation could not be constrained to be equal for manipulative & deceitful with the two types of aggression). The genetic relation between psychopathic personality traits and aggression was significantly stronger for proactive than reactive aggression, but only in child self-reports. The genetic correlation between proactive aggression with either the callous & disinhibited or manipulative & deceitful psychopathic personality dimension was not significant in caregiver reports of the twins’ behaviors.
Multivariate Modeling
A summary of the various multivariate genetic models fit to the two psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression in both caregiver and child self-reports is provided in Table 5. Specifically, a fully saturated model (Model 1 in Table 5) was used as a baseline comparison for a Cholesky decomposition (Model 2), and an independent pathway model (Model 3a–f). The one-factor independent pathway model demonstrated the best fit to the data for both caregiver (Model 3c) and child self-reported data (Model 3d). Constraining parameters to be equal for males and females did not result in a significant loss in fit (Δχ2 = 31.15, Δdf = 24, p = .15; Model 3a); therefore, we constrained the sexes to be equal in subsequent models. Additional constraints on the independent pathway model revealed that both common (Cc) and specific shared environmental (Cs) effects could be dropped without a significant loss in fit as demonstrated by the lower AIC and BIC indices (Model 3c in caregiver reports: Δχ2 = 14.58, Δdf = 8, p = .07; in caregiver reports and Model 3d in twin self-reports: Δχ2 = 9.16, Δdf = 12, p > .10). Additionally, genetic effects (common or specific) could not be dropped from either caregiver reports (Δχ2 = 60.82, Δdf = 8, p < .01), or twin self-reported data (Δχ2 = 13.19, Δdf = 4, p < .001) without a significant loss in fit to our model.
Table 5
Table 5
Model Comparisons for Multivariate Genetic Analyses for the Two Child Psychopathy Scale Factors With Reactive and Proactive Aggression, Caregiver and Twin Self-Reports
Squared standardized parameter estimates from the one-factor AE independent pathway model with equal effects across gender are provided in Figure 1 (for both caregiver and child self-reports). As shown, all shared effects from common genetic (Ac) and environmental (Ec) factors were significant (p < .05) for both caregiver and child reports, illustrating the overlapping etiologies for psychopathic personality traits and aggression. Specific effects for each measure were also significant in all cases except for genetic influences (As) on the callous & disinhibited factor in child reports. While a shared etiology for psychopathic personality traits and aggression is clearly evident, there are also measure-specific influences for each construct, which are both genetic and environmental in origin.
Figure 1
Figure 1
Standardized squared estimates from the best fitting one-factor independent pathway model are displayed.
Summing the genetic paths for each measure yields the heritability estimate. On the same note, summing the nonshared environmental paths yields the relative influence of the environmental effects. For caregiver reports, the heritability for the two psychopathic personality factors and for reactive and proactive aggression was moderate but significant: genetic effects explained 53%–57% (p < .05) of the variance in each of these psychopathic and aggressive traits. Similarly, the nonshared environmental effects for the two psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression were also moderate, explaining 43%–48% (p < .05) of the variance in these traits (see Figure 1).
Likewise, for child self-report significant genetic and nonshared environmental effects for both psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression were found. Genetic effects (both common and specific) explained 33%–38% (p < .05) of the variance in psychopathic and aggressive traits, while nonshared environmental influences explained 48%–62% (p < .05) of the variance in psychopathic and aggressive behavioral traits in children (see Figure 1).
This study provides one of the first reports from a large twin study examining the genetic and environmental covariation among childhood psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggressive behaviors. Our results demonstrated, most importantly, a significant genetic and non-shared environmental correlation among psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggressive behaviors in children using both caregiver reports and child self-reports. We also found unique genetic and nonshared environmental influences in each of the measures, suggesting some independence among these behaviors and constructs. Furthermore, we also found a significant association between psychopathic personality traits and proactive aggression, but only in child self-reports. This may in part be due to the fact that children may have more insight into their own actions and behaviors (at least more so than their parents).
Common genetic estimates for psychopathic personality traits and aggression ranged from 21% to 46% using caregiver reports and 15% to 26% using the twins’ self-reported data. Bivariate analyses also revealed significant genetic correlations between both psychopathic personality factors with reactive and proactive aggression indicating further that genetic influences may be common to psychopathy and aggression during childhood. This shared influence could arise because of a common set of genes influencing both types of behaviors and in turn may influence the susceptibility to both psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors and thus their covariation. Evidence of genetic influence on these traits, however, does not signify that the children in our sample are not capable of change or that they are impervious to intervention methods. This result falls in line with other twin studies on psychopathic personality traits that have found that a common genetic factor influences psychopathic personality traits and different types of externalizing behaviors in adolescents (Larsson et al., 2006).
In comparing shared genetic influences between psychopathic personality traits with different forms of aggression, we found that the genetic correlation between the callous & disinhibited factor and proactive aggression was significantly greater than callous & disinhibited and reactive aggression, but only using the twins’ self-reports. Similarly, the twins’ self-reports also indicated that the genetic correlation between the manipulative & deceitful factor and proactive aggression was significantly greater than with reactive aggression. There results fall in line with what has been previously found phenotypically in the psychopathy and aggression literature (Patrick & Zempolich, 1998). Previous analyses within this sample have also demonstrated that children might be better reporters of their own aggressive behaviors in that they have better knowledge of their motivation for perpetrating different aggressive acts as compared to other reporters including caregivers (see Baker et al., 2008; Raine et al., 2006). Relatedly, we have found a better fit of the two-factor proactive–reactive model to self-report data compared to caregiver or teacher reports, indicating somewhat greater validity and differentiation between these two forms of aggression when assessed by self-report (Baker et al., 2008).
Furthermore, it may be difficult for a single rater to provide a complete or thorough picture of a desired behavior. Data collected from multiple informants has been previously found to be more informative (Baker et al., 2006; Baker et al., 2008). In general, interrater agreement has been found to be low (Youngstrom, Loeber, & Stouthamer-Loeber, 2000). Moreover, meta-analyses conducted on informant data demonstrated that a correlation of r = .28 (p < .05) was found between different types of informants, and a correlation of r = .22 (p < .05) was found between self-reporters and other informants or reporters (Achenbach, McConaughy, & Howell, 1987). These findings suggest that different raters may be privy to different aspects of a behavior. Additionally, individuals are also likely to behave differently in different situations. For example, parents may be less aware of their children’s proactive aggression than their reactive aggression. It is also possible that parents may not fully know every detail of their children’s behaviors.
Another source of rater disagreement may be rater bias. Rater bias may occur in twin studies because a single informant (mainly the biological mothers) is reporting on both twins (either as being more similar than they actually are or exaggerating the differences; Bartels et al., 2003; Hudziak et al., 2003). Additionally, greater shared environmental influences found in parental reports may be indicative of rater bias; however, no shared environmental influences were found for the current study indicating that rater bias may be low.
Moreover, the genetic relation between psychopathic personality traits and aggression was significantly stronger for proactive than reactive aggression, but only in child self-reports. This finding is in line with the prediction that psychopathic personality traits should have more of a core relation with proactive than reactive aggression (Patrick & Zempolich, 1998). The lack of a significant difference in genetic and environmental correlations for psychopathic personality traits with reactive versus proactive aggression using caregiver reports may stem in part from parents’ inability to distinguish proactive from reactive aggressive behaviors in their children, as previously reported in this study (Baker et al., 2008).
We also found a significant nonshared environmental factor commonly influencing psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression. It should also be noted that the model used in the present study partitions measurement error away from variance in the latent nonshared environmental factor. When doing this, common nonshared environmental estimates ranged from 15% to 19% in caregiver reports, and 14% to 30% in twins’ self-reports. These nonshared environmental influences in psychopathic personality traits and aggression may involve experiences or circumstances that are unique to psychopathic personality traits or aggression. They may also include influences that are unique to the individual (not shared by his or her cotwin). These may involve the young twins having different friends and influences.
In addition to finding common genetic and environmental factors among psychopathic personality traits and aggression, our study also found substantial and significant specific genetic and nonshared environmental influences, including measurement error, on psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression. This implies that there are etiological differences in psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors in our sample of young twins. As the genetic correlations between psychopathic personality traits and aggression were significantly less than 1.0 using both caregiver and twins’ self-reported data, this lends further support to the notion that there are multiple factors that capture psychopathic personality traits and aggression within this sample.
In line with previous research on psychopathic personality traits (Larsson et al., 2006) and aggressive behavior (Eley, Lichtenstein, & Moffitt, 2003) we did not find any quantitative sex differences in the covariation among psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression using either twins’ self-reported data or the caregiver reports of the twins’ behaviors. Evidence suggests that psychopaths seem to choose to engage in instrumental or proactive aggression and antisocial behavior (Blair, 2007), and that psychopathy is a relatively good predictor of violence (Hart, 1998; Salekin et al., 1996). Others have also suggested that psychopathy is significantly correlated with future violence (Grann, Langstrom, Tengstrom, & Kullgren, 1999; Hemphill et al., 1998). Knowledge and understanding of the link between psychopathic personality traits with aggression may greatly aid in the prediction of future antisocial and violent behavior in adult offenders (Salekin et al., 1996). Research has demonstrated that psychopathic offenders were approximately five times more likely than nonpsychopathic offenders to engage in violent recidivistic behaviors (Serin & Amos, 1995). The results from the current study extend prior knowledge of the relation between psychopathic personality traits and aggression in examining the genetic overlap of psychopathic personality traits with reactive and proactive aggression. Results demonstrated a similar pattern between psychopathic personality traits and reactive and proactive aggression in this sample. Thus, it may be that it is difficult to differentiate these types of aggressive behaviors at such a young age when using caregiver reports.
Although most research on psychopathy has focused thus far on adults, there is increasing evidence that maintains that psychopathic personality traits are related to aggression much earlier in life (Frick, Bodin, & Barry, 2000; Lynam, 2002). For example, several researchers have purported that psychopathic personality traits emerge early in life (in childhood) in the form of “callous–unemotional” traits (Lynam, 1997, 2002). These traits resemble adult psychopathic personality traits and may be associated with serious aggressive behavior and may signal a pattern of antisocial and violent behavior (Dodge, 1991; Frick, 1998). The current findings do provide evidence that these traits may be associated early in life. Fully understanding antisocial and aggressive behaviors is crucial for designating a subgroup of antisocial youth who showed more severe aggression and violence, especially youth who were more likely to show both instrumental (e.g., for gain) and reactive (e.g., in response to perceived provocation) aggression (Enebrink, Andershed, & Langstrom, 2005; Frick et al., 2003; Kruh et al., 2005).
The current findings of significant genetic and environmental covariance between psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors may have implications for future molecular genetic studies. Understanding the covariance among complex behaviors including antisocial and aggressive behaviors may aid in trying to identify susceptibility genes as well as aid in the possible prevention and intervention of externalizing disorders through identification of at-risk children early in life. Moreover, the significant nonshared environmental effects found may also suggest that unique experiences (e.g., influence from peers) may play an important role in the development of these behaviors—perhaps, intervention methods may also want to target and incorporate influence from peers.
Study Strengths and Limitations
The results of the current study should be examined while taking a few limitations into account. First, we may not necessarily be able to generalize the results from our twin study to the general population because there may be something innately different about twins compared with nontwins. However, our twins are no more or less disordered than any other population in terms of conduct or oppositional defiant disorder (Baker et al., 2006). The examination of psychopathic personality traits in children could also be questioned. Some researchers believe that it might not be developmentally appropriate to diagnose this syndrome in children and adolescents (Vincent & Hart, 2002); however, studies have shown that psychopathic personality traits can be seen in young children (Lynam, 1997; Viding et al., 2005). Moreover, one of the purposes of investigating personality disorders including psychopathic-like traits is to increase the understanding of these traits (and increase the genetic and environmental underpinnings of these traits). Additionally, results from the current study demonstrate the variance proportions associated with psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors as well as the covariation of these two complex constructs; however, as with many behavior genetic studies, they do not inform us about the underpinning biological mechanisms associated with complex behaviors or disorders.
Finally, our study is cross-sectional involving a sample of 9- to 10-year-old twins, and therefore does not consider any developmental changes in the different constructs, or whether one precedes the other. However, targeting youth at such a young preado-lescent age may also be considered a strength and provide insight into early behavior problems.
Conclusions and Future Directions
In conclusion, the results from the current study may aid in the understanding of the etiology of psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors early in life during childhood. Additionally, we found that the twins may be more aware of their motivations for different forms of aggressive behaviors (proactive–reactive) compared to their caregivers who may see the behavior but not necessarily the motivation. This study may further be extended in the future to explore the longitudinal stability or change (both phenotypically and etiologically) of these traits throughout adolescence and adulthood.
Acknowledgments
The authors wish to thank the USC Twin Project staff for assistance in data collection and scoring, and the twins and their families for their participation in this research. This study was supported by grants to Serena Bezdjian from NIMH (F31-MH068953) and NIDA (T32-DA07313), to Laura Baker from NIMH (R01 MH58354), and to Adrian Raine from NIMH (Independent Scientist Award K02 MH01114-08). Catherine Tuvblad was supported by postdoctoral stipends from the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research (Project 2006-1501) and the Sweden-America Foundation.
Contributor Information
Serena Bezdjian, Washington University School of Medicine.
Adrian Raine, University of Pennsylvania.
Catherine Tuvblad, University of Southern California.
Laura A. Baker, University of Southern California.
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