Psychopathy Associated with Witnessing Domestic Violence as a Child

Witnessing domestic violence as a child is associated with overall psychopathy levels. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2017, Vol. 41, No. 2, 173-179

Witnessing Domestic Violence During Childhood Is Associated With Psychopathic Traits in Adult Male Criminal Offenders


Monika Dargis, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Michael Koenigs, University of Wisconsin-Madison


While there is growing evidence that suffering physical abuse during childhood is subsequently associated with psychopathic traits in both juvenile and adult offenders, there is considerably less research on whether exposure to domestic violence as a witness, rather than as a direct victim, influences the subsequent presentation of psychopathic traits in adulthood. Accordingly, the current study examined the relationship between witnessing domestic violence during childhood (i.e., witnessing, hearing, or intervening in abuse against a parent/sibling) and psychopathic traits in adulthood in a sample of n 127 incarcerated male offenders. As predicted, witnessing domestic violence was significantly associated with overall level of psychopathy, with a particularly strong relationship to the interpersonal/affective features of psychopathy. Importantly, this relationship held when controlling for the experience of domestic violence as a direct victim. These results add to the growing body of literature linking adverse and traumatic events during childhood with psychopathic traits later in life, and suggest that domestic violence exposure may be one factor contributing to the manipulative, interpersonal style exhibited by individuals high in psychopathy.


psychopathy, childhood maltreatment, domestic violence, PCL-R

Summary of the Research

“Despite growing evidence that the direct experience of childhood maltreatment is associated with psychopathic traits in both juvenile and adult offenders, there is considerably less research on whether exposure to domestic violence as a witness, rather than as a direct victim (i.e., witnessing, hearing, or intervening in abuse against a parent/sibling), influences the subsequent presentation of psychopathic traits later in life. This is a critical gap in the literature given that an estimated one in 15 children in the United States witness domestic violence every year. Furthermore, there is a substantial body of work suggesting that witnessing domestic violence, even in the absence of direct victimization, puts children at a greater risk for developing both internalizing and externalizing symptomology.” (p. 173)

“Thus, while there are well-documented relationships between psychopathy and childhood maltreatment as well as between domestic violence exposure and externalizing symptomology, and emerging evidence on the relationship between community violence and psychopathy, the link between witnessing domestic violence and psychopathy has not been directly investigated. This may be an important distinction to make as some authors have suggested that the degree to which exposure to violence affects long-term emotion processing and traumatization may relate not only to the intensity of the violence, but also the relationship the child has with the victim of the violence. Furthermore, if there is indeed a relationship between psychopathy and domestic violence exposure, it is important to distinguish which features of psychopathy most strongly relate to domestic violence exposure. There is substantial evidence that divergent relationships emerge among the interpersonal/affective and lifestyle/antisocial traits of psychopathy.” (p. 174)

“Participants included n=127 adult males incarcerated at medium-security state prisons in Wisconsin. All participants were selected from a larger database of eligible participants. Individuals were eligible for participation if they were between the ages of 18 and 55, had no documented diagnosis of a psychotic disorder, and were not currently taking psychotropic medications. Additionally, participants were eligible if they had a fourth grade reading level or above and scored a 70 or above on a standardized measure of intelligence. Individuals meeting inclusion criteria were asked to participate in an ongoing study on the causes of incarceration and informed that participation was completely voluntary and would have no impact on their incarceration status.” (p. 174)

The Maltreatment and Chronology of Exposure (MACE) scale was used to separately assess childhood exposure to domestic violence as a direct victim and as a witness. The MACE is a 52-item scale comprised of 10 subscales which assess different types of trauma experienced during childhood (i.e., 18 years and younger), including witnessing parental domestic violence (e.g., “Saw adults living in household push, slap, or throw something at mother”), witnessing domestic violence against a sibling (e.g., “Parents or adults living in house hit your sibling so hard that it left marks”), and directly experiencing physical abuse (e.g., “Parent hit you so hard it left marks for more than a few minutes”).” (p. 175)

“In a sample of incarcerated male offenders, we have shown a significant association between witnessing domestic violence during childhood and psychopathy in adulthood. More specifically, we found that witnessing domestic violence was individually associated with both factors and all facets of the PCL-R, but when controlling for the unique variance of the factors and facets, a

specific relationship between witnessing domestic violence and the interpersonal/affective features of psychopathy emerged. This relationship was driven predominantly by the relationship between the interpersonal features of psychopathy (Facet 1) and witnessing domestic violence. Finally, we showed that although the effect sizes decreased, these results largely remained unchanged when controlling for direct experience of physical abuse.” (p. 176)

Translating Research into Practice

“Given the consistency of these cross sectional findings, further longitudinal research is needed in order to better parse how environmental experiences contribute to, or exacerbate, the development of psychopathic traits. A firmer understanding of environmental contributions to severe emotional and behavioral pathology, like psychopathy, would not only provide a better understanding of etiological factors of psychopathy, but would also help guide intervention efforts for children living in violent homes. For example, recent efforts have been made to design randomized, controlled studies to treat children exposed to domestic violence. It is possible that these specific interventions could influence the presentation or development of psychopathic traits. The current findings also suggest that the presence of psychopathic or callous/unemotional traits should be taken into consideration when developing domestic-violence focused interventions for youth.” (p. 176)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“An alternate explanation for the specific relationship between domestic violence exposure and the interpersonal features of psychopathy may be rooted in social learning theory, which highlights the role of the environment in shaping children’s future behavior. Following this framework, it is possible that witnessing domestic violence in the home models a maladaptive interpersonal style that is then adopted by the abuse exposed child.” (p. 177)

“An alternative possibility regarding the relationship between Facet 1 of psychopathy and domestic violence exposure is that children exposed to violence against their caregiver(s) and sibling(s) may learn to develop a manipulative interpersonal style in an effort to avoid direct victimization. Although further research is needed in order to examine this prospect, researchers have suggested that attentional abnormalities exhibited by maltreated children may be adaptive given the hostile environment in which they are raised.” (p.177)

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Kenny Gonzalez

Kenny Gonzalez is currently a master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College. His main research interest include forensic assessment, specifically violence risk. In the future, Kenny hopes to obtain a Phd in clinical forensic psychology and pursue a career in academia and practice.

4 thoughts on “Psychopathy Associated with Witnessing Domestic Violence as a Child

  1. Perhaps is the loss of empathie an adaptative reaction to survive the stress to see their caretaker abused? As an adaptative exit not to feel the pain and helpness sensation, not to be able to defend them?
    Just a reflexion.
    Good study, I hope co-dependent partners can see one day, how much damage they inflict their kids just by staying with the abuser. To give them “a family”.
    Best regards.

  2. Great beginning to research on this topic. Would definitely be interesting to see a longitudinal study, use of women, and also the use of individuals who are not incarcerated.

    Warm Regards.

  3. I believe you’re definitely on to something here. I grew up in this exact household and I found insight into myself from this study.
    I have been incarcerated but I am now a law-abiding, tax paying citizen with a 3 year old daughter and wife.
    Admittedly, I most certainly have antisocial traits and incredible skills in motivating (manipulating) people, but I use these skills today to help people: more specifically, patients in crisis.
    I’m a manager of a new program/discipline that I developed and now manage at an emergency psychiatric facility in Phoenix, Arizona. I manage 18 people that work for me and my program is continually growing.
    If I could at all help you I’d be willing to correspond with you.

    Jeff Schwertfager

  4. It may be useful to compare this body of research to Lonnie Athens’ “violentization” research from the 1970’s. He found that a necessary precondition for becoming a dangerous violent offender was to experience violence directly, and also to witness a member of the primary support group also being subjected to violence while simultaneously wanting to do something to protect the other, and being unable to do so. Among other cases, I have independently verified that Athens’ developmental sequence was present in the upbringing of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Manson Family member who later went to Federal prison for trying to assassinate President Ford, then took another inmate hostage as part of an escape attempt.

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