Psychopathy and Peer Relationships: An Academic Review

AGeneralLookintoChildrenwithPsychopathicTraitsandtheRelatedEffectsontheirRelationshipsA General Look at Children with Psychopathic Traits and the Related Effects on their Peer Relationships

Amy-Caroline Downing

People that are superficial, manipulative, unable to form strong emotional bonds with others, and lack interpersonal connectors such as guilt, empathy, or remorse are typically found to be psychopathic (Hare, 2003, pg. 230). Traits of adult psychopathy can begin to show in adolescent development by way of emotional or behavioral problems. Psychopathy has been studied in many different areas, including child psychopathy and subsets of that topic. The purpose of this paper is to review research on child psychopathic traits and peer relationships.

A common assumption is that people who have psychopathic personalities are unable to cultivate strong developments in peer relations. In order to understand if a child with psychopathic tendencies can have normal relationships with their peers, the definition of a healthy relationship needs to be established and defined. In its simple form, a relationship goes beyond interactions of behavioral exchanges. It is a succession of interactions with another person that creates a history. According to the self-determination theory, healthy functional relationships depend on autonomy, relatedness, and competence in order to create an emotionally healthy friendship (Deci & Ryan, 2011). Autonomy suggests that a person has free will and does not make decisions based on an external or internal pressure. Relatedness is a shared connection with another person, typically meaningful, in a relationship. Competence is self-belief in the ability to perform well in an activity. These three categories depend on cohesiveness in order for a relationship to flourish.

Social status in adolescence also helps determine how successful a child will be in developing peer relationships. Children who are socially rejected are the most likely to be unable to develop healthy relationships, and they are at risk for early antisocial behavior. A risk is also present for these behaviors to continue and progress later on in life (Salekin & Lyman, 2011, pg. 53). There is a clear correlation with adolescents displaying antisocial behavior and psychopathic personalities. This is due to the fact that antisocial behavior is a common quality in the psychopathic personality. Academic literature has suggested that youths high on psychopathic traits should not be able to maintain relationships for long periods of time and that they use relationships for their own motivations (Hare, 1993). However, some research has shown that children with callous-unemotional (CU) traits are not as affected by being rejected from their peers as a child without psychopathic traits (Barry et al., 2003).

The most common method used in determining if a child is displaying psychopathic behaviors is the Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL: YV; Forth et al., 2003). This checklist was adapted from Hare’s (1991) Psychopathy Checklist – Revised. Though this is the most common, there are other assessments as well, such as the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory (Andershed et al., 2002), the Child Psychopathy Scale (Lynman, 1997), and others, which are used for more specific data collection. The PCL: YV contains 20 items similar to the PCL-R (Hare, 1991), but has been altered to represent the adolescent environment in a more appropriate way for the test subjects. The four large facets of the checklist are, interpersonal, affective, antisocial, and lifestyle.

Several studies will be reviewed in this paper on child psychopathy in relation to peer relationships as well as deviant behavior. This will present a general look at youths high on psychopathic traits and their abilities to develop healthy relationships with peers according to Deci and Ryan’s (2011) Self-Determination Theory.

Literature Review

Bagwell et al., (1998) suggest that peer rejection and the absence of friendships do have a connection to the development of psychopathy as an adult, thus verifying that the development of peer relations is crucial during adolescence. However, among youths that are already showing the psychopathic personality traits, there is no research that suggests they do not have the ability to develop relationships. In fact, some research suggests the opposite.

Kimonis et al., (2004), conducted a study on a group of non-referred boys and girls who showed severe conduct problems and as well as callous-unemotional traits. They were selected by a two-step stratified random sampling procedure, which resulted in a group of 98 participants. The researchers assessed the participants yearly for three years. Surveying parents and teachers achieved results after utilizing the Antisocial Process Screening Device (Frick & Hare, 2001), the Children’s Symptom Inventory-4 (Gadow & Sprafkin, 1995), and the Alabama Parenting Questionnaire (Shelton et al., 1996). The researchers also used data from the Peer Delinquency Scale (Keenan et al., 1995). This scale requires participants to report on their friends’ delinquent or disruptive behaviors. Parents were financially compensation for their participation and youths received gift certificates for lesser amounts.

The results show that children who rate high on CU traits affiliate the most with peers who are high on delinquent behavior. Children with CU traits were affiliated more with delinquent peers than the control group or the group of children with conduct-only problems. After conducting 2 X 2 ANOVAs, data showed that high scores on CU traits are correlated with dysfunctional parenting and more problematic social adjustment. It was also found that children are more likely to display delinquent behavior when in a peer relationship with someone who has CU traits. Along with this, the results support that psychopathic personalities develop relationships with antisocial youth.

It was noted earlier that antisocial behavior is a result of being rejected by peers. Being rejected by peers does not necessarily imply the inability to develop and maintain relationships; the data revealing that social adjustment is more difficult for youths showing CU traits supports the fact that developing relationships will be more challenging for these personalities. This study confirms that children high on CU traits and conduct disorder are able to have peer relationships in some form. There are many limitations to this study to consider. It is unclear if the peer relationships are reciprocated, because the study was only performed looking at parent, teacher, and participant perspectives. A deeper understanding of the quality of relationships cannot be discovered with the current data presented in this article.

A study after this looked at relationships of children with psychopathic tendencies, the friendships they have, and the likeliness that they will perform deviant acts in these friendships. This is similar to the study discussed above, but the defining difference between these two investigations is that the current study has an extended method in order to yield more thorough results. Munoz et al., (2008), conducted a longitudinal study in Sweden on a group of schoolchildren between the ages of 10 to 18. The data were collected over four years’ time. This group interviewed their participants using the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory (Andershed et al., 2002). The participants were asked to identify important peers and the activities performed with these peers. The participants high on psychopathic traits, as well as their peers, were asked to complete surveys on the quality of the relationship.

Chi-square tests performed during this study show that youth who rate high with psychopathic traits are equally as likely to have important peers as those who do not display these traits. The data showed gender differences in the perception of the relationships. Boys high on psychopathic traits had more requited friendships than girls who were high on psychopathic traits. Although, the girls high on psychopathic traits still believed to have more reciprocal relationships than they actually did. Girls lower on psychopathic traits were less likely to believe in a friendship that was nonexistent or not mutual. Both boys and girls high on psychopathic traits were not likely to nominate the same important peers several years in a row. A series of mixed ANOVAs showed significance in the behaviors performed within the friendships between psychopathic personalities and their friends. It was found that youth who are high on psychopathic traits are more likely to share antisocial activities with their important peers than those who are low on psychopathic traits. This includes playing hooky from school, talking about illegal activities, and engaging in illegal activities. The researchers also found that children were less likely to take part in delinquent behavior with peers from school than they were with peers outside of school. A mixed ANOVA was performed on the peers’ own self-reported psychopathic traits and an effect between-subjects were shown. Youths high on psychopathic traits were likely to choose relationships with peers who endorsed psychopathic tendencies. Interestingly, adolescents who were rated high on psychopathic traits were more likely to see conflicts in their relationships than their non-psychopathic inclined peers.

This research presents many useful discoveries in understanding youth psychopathic personalities and their peer relationships, yet still there are some limitations. Though this study shows that children high on psychopathic traits perform delinquent activities with peers, it does not show how often the children with psychopathic traits perform these activities alone. That information could potentially affect the significance of the results. Along that line, it is unclear if youths high on psychopathic traits selected important peers because of their willingness to perform delinquent behaviors, or if the behaviors were performed based on the influence of the psychopathic personality.

The answers to these unsolved questions would give insight into the psychopathic personality’s ability to develop healthy relationships based on the self-determination theory. If the peer is being manipulated or used by the psychopathic personality then they may not have a sense of autonomy or a sense of competency in the relationship, even if there is still an established sense of relatedness. A way to research this using the structure presented, could be to include a more thorough questionnaire presented to the youths high on psychopathic tendencies as well as to their nominated important peers.

The fact that children high on psychopathic traits were unlikely to nominate an important peer several years in a row poses as a threat to maintaining a healthy relationship. Lasting relationships allow the members to develop a history, and ultimately trust and intimacy. These factors are important in an average child’s ability to not become depressed or feel lonely, but it is possible that certain psychopathic traits may prevent the youth from being affected in that way.

A particularly interesting discovery from this research is that youths who are high on psychopathic traits tend to see conflict in their relationships when the feeling is not mutual. It would be assumed that the important peer would have more difficulties within the relationship, rather than the individual with psychopathic traits. This, along with the fact that the psychopathic personality is more likely to play hooky with a peer rather than alone, shows that youths high on psychopathic traits see some type of value in their relationships. Seeing value in a relationship can promote a balance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

In an investigation by Barry et al. (2008), it was predicted that social-relationship variables would be connected to psychopathic personalities and that they would have an influence on some of the change in psychopathy. The 80 participants in this study, ages ranging from 9 to 12, are children who were recruited for a larger study on the effectiveness of a school-based prevention program for moderately aggressive children (The Coping Power Program; Lochman & Wells, 2003). Fourth grade teachers were recruited to complete the teacher screener. The Teacher Report of Reactive and Proactive Behaviors Scale (Dodge & Coie, 1987) was used for this purpose. Children who were within the top 30% were possible participants. Using surveys and scales, data was collected from the child, the parent, the teacher, and the peers. The sociometric technique was also carried out allowing students to nominate anyone on a scale of likeness in order to find peer-rated social preference scores.

The results of this 3-year investigation show a consistency over time in psychopathic traits as based on teacher and parent reports. A positive correlation was found with teacher-rated social competence in relation to CU traits. However, self-report of social competence did not significantly relate with the psychopathic variables. The results show that the narcissistic perception of social competence remained stable over time. The results also indicate that peer-rated social preference and teacher-rated social competence moderate change over time. In the data, there was a decrease in preference and competence over time and better social functioning showed a decrease in psychopathic traits.

This study supports the idea that children who have psychopathic personalities have difficulties with social competence, even if they do not perceive it to be so. Since youths high on psychopathic tendencies do not see themselves as socially incompetent, they will not be experiencing certain effects of rejection, such as depression or loneliness, by the same means that a socially rejected child usually suffers from without psychopathic traits. This study gives a broad and reliable insight into the consistency of psychopathic personalities due to the method of using several reporters. Although, it does not give insight into the types of relationships these youths are developing. The small size of the study group also prevents a strong diversification of participants.

Another study conducted used sociometric techniques, as well as peer, teacher, and parent ratings. It was found that peer-rejected children were more likely to have aggressive behavior and conduct problems later on (Miller-Johnson et al., 2002). Participants of this study were part of a multisite longitudinal investigation of the development and prevention of conduct problems in children. The sites included in the study were, North-Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

The results of this study show that social preference and aggression are both significant predictors for conduct problems. The results also show that children who are both rejected and aggressive score highest on ADHD, which has been considered by some psychologists to be a precursor to psychopathic traits (Barry et al., 2000). Differences were seen amongst males and females when looking at social competence. Both socially rejected males and females had lower social competence than other socially accepted groups. The degree of differences between groups was greater for females than it was for males.

The current study shows the relation between children who have conduct problems with psychopathic tendencies and children with conduct problems without psychopathic tendencies. Being apart of the “rejected” social classification can facilitate relationships with peers who have also been rejected. “They can be excluded from mainstream social groups and shunted toward deviant peer groups that promote conduct problem behavior” (Miller-Johnson et al., 2002).

Lastly, a study conducted by Simons et al., (1991) can perhaps give a look into why youth begin to show delinquent behaviors in the absence of many psychopathic traits. The model was used testing using 61 families, each of which had a member in the seventh grade. The data were collected over two evenings with the families individually. The first night was a series of questionnaires completed by each member of the family and the second night focused on videotaping intra-family interaction. The researchers coded the videotapes, looking at the parenting styles based on four categories: authoritarian, authoritative, coercive, or nattering. Child behavior was also looked into at depth by the videotapes as well as the surveys.

They found that inept parenting could lead to a child’s problems at school. They also found that having a coercive interpersonal style impacts directly upon the probability of participation in delinquent behavior, however, it is not related to the association with deviant peers. Results of delinquent behavior in youths who do not have high psychopathic traits could be a result of their at-home environment. A limitation that needs to be considered when looking at the data is that all of the families who participated in this study were Caucasian. Thus, this data cannot be generalized over other demographics.

Other research that briefly discusses child psychopathic tendencies and relationships has been referred to in this paper, but there is a deficit on literature looking specifically at the development of relationships with adolescents that are high on psychopathic qualities.


Contrary to common belief, the research reviewed above clearly shows that children who have psychopathic tendencies are able to develop relationships with peers. Children with psychopathic personalities may even value their relationships. This idea is supported by the fact that they are more likely to perform delinquent behavior with important peers than alone, especially if they have peers who are willing to play hooky with them (Munoz et al., 2008). Difficulties in social competence have been found, but natural inclinations still give the psychopathic personality willingness to develop relationships. It is suggested that youths with psychopathic traits may not be affected by peer rejection (Barry et al., 2003) and data does not show cases of frequent self-isolation. Thus, companionship is preferred by the psychopathic personality.

Youths who display psychopathic traits tend to be in relationships with peers that share in the same delinquent activities. This shows that they are capable of achieving relationships that fulfill the three main facets of the Self-Determination Theory. Youths high on psychopathic traits will have a high sense of competence and autonomy due to their narcissistic personality, and they have a shared sense of relatedness with their chosen peers. Though adolescent relationships are contextual, the studies above show that peer relationships are a possibility for children who rate high on psychopathy.

One factor that should have heavier consideration in future research is gender differences in child psychopathy and peer relations. Especially in early development, gender differences in adolescents can be very apparent. Some of the studies reviewed looked at gender correlations and some data showed significant differences. An example is the findings on the differences in male and female perspectives in regards to their peer relationships. The ability to develop friendships can vary based dependent on gender. Thus, generalizations for all youth may not be appropriate for certain types of data.

Much of the research on children with psychopathic tendencies and their peer relationships are focused on delinquency or conduct disorders. It would be a great value in academic research to understand the daily interactions and peer relations of psychopathic children in common social contexts. This would create a general basis of how children high on the psychopathic checklist interact in a “normal” setting. This could possibly be useful for researchers who will pursue other investigations on child psychopathy and peer relationships. An example of a common social setting would be at school. A realistic and affordable way for research to be implemented would be to integrate the PCL – YV (Forth et al., 2003) in testing already being done in the school setting. Data can still be collected using usual methods while being able to uncover correlations with students who rate high on the Psychopathy Checklist. With this, researchers will be able to discover the network dynamics and social status of children who have psychopathic personalities.


Based on the information presented, it can be said that adolescent psychopathic personalities have peer relationships and that the relationships affect their behavior. Psychopathic personalities in adolescents usually choose peers who condone delinquent behavior. This trend suggests that the traits do have an impact on how their peer relationships are developed. Though the child psychopathic personality may have issues with social competence (Barry et al., 2008) they will still be able to have development in peer relations. The youths high on psychopathic traits have the ability establish relationships that have a balance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Whether the balance is commonly found in psychopathic friendships is contextual and not revealed by research.

A caveat in the ability to maintain healthy relationships is that important relationships are not expected, by the psychopathic personality, to last over a long period of time. This threatens the ability to maintain strong friendships due to the lack of history. History contributes to a growing sense of trust and loyalty in a relationship. This, and the commonality of deviant behavior could be contributors to the fact that psychopathic personalities are typically noted as peer rejected. Peer rejection is also correlated with callous and antisocial characteristics.

It is uncertain if the psychopathic characteristics are the reason for why the children are rejected, or if the psychopathic traits are provoked due to their rejection. It could be a combination of the two, but in either case, it is clear that peer rejection and conduct disorder are highly correlated to children who have psychopathic tendencies.

Overall, the development of peer relationships in child psychopathy is an interesting topic, and though many subsets of child psychopathy are looked at in depth, there is a lack of understanding when it comes to peer relationships. A broader research method could be fundamental in understanding the basics of child psychopathy and relationships. Researching this topic could benefit future study of child psychopathy in many specifications.


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