Study Finds Psychopathic Traits Globally Present

Dr. David P. Schmitt, Caterpillar professor of psychology.

September 21, 2012

By Emily Laidley ’13

Dr. David P. Schmitt, Caterpillar professor of psychology, recently directed a study on sexuality and personality. The scope of the research, however, wasn’t confined to the Hilltop.

The study, which is the basis for Dr. Schmitt’s latest article “Psychopathic Traits in Males and Females across the Globe” in the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law, took place in 56 different countries and more than 20 languages. The article will be published within the next few months.

The article is based on what Dr. Schmitt calls the “ISDP-2”; the “second wave” of research done through the International Sexuality Description Project of which Dr. Schmitt is the founding director. He began the ISDP in 2000 by contacting psychologists throughout the world with an interest in studying sexuality and personality.

The paper accepted for publication is about the personality trait of psychopathy, as measured by Hare’s Self-Reported Psychopathy scale. Robert Hare, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a coauthor on this paper, is a well-known forensic and clinical psychologist who developed the Hare Checklist, a tool used to rate a person's clinical psychopathic or antisocial tendencies.

“Hare developed the Self-Reported Psychopathy scale as a way of measuring ‘normal people’ and their tendency to be a little bit high or a little bit low on psychopathic traits. So it’s a general personality scale—it’s not to diagnose anybody. But it’s the same basic dimension of high versus low psychopathy,” explains Dr. Schmitt.

Hare developed this checklist working under the assumption that psychopathy has two components: an emotional dimension, which is somewhat heritable, and a behavioral dimension, which has more to do with culture. This model was based on research that had been conducted in Western countries. The goal of Dr. Schmitt’s study was to determine whether psychopathy was composed of these two dimensions in all cultures.

“What we found was that these two major factors have just about the same relationship in every culture, among both men and women. So that’s a powerful finding,” Dr. Schmitt said.

The finding also suggests the Hare Checklist might serve as a universal measure of clinically-related psychopathy. The discovery, though influential, is only the foundation for more extensive analysis and research. “This particular data set I think I will keep working on it for at least another five years,” Dr. Schmitt added.

The ISDP-2 research worked much the same way as the first, except it was easier this time because “people had heard about the first one and contacted me,” Dr. Schmitt said. The most difficult part, he said, was dealing with the translation of questionnaires and other material.

“To be honest, the translators have to be psychologists because a lot of these phrases in English mean something that only a psychologist would understand,” he said. “So the translation process is a lot of management of people; it’s a lot of work.”

Despite the difficulties, Dr. Schmitt had the surveys circulated on college campuses and in communities around the globe. These were eventually returned to Bradley where the students in his Personality and Culture Lab, where Dr. Schmitt continues his research on personality with his students, who have been entering the data ever since.