Graduation Date

Fall 2018

Document Type



Master of Arts degree with a major in Psychology, option Academic Research

Committee Chair Name

Dr. Tasha R. Howe

Committee Chair Affiliation

HSU Faculty or Staff

Second Committee Member Name

Dr. Carrie Aigner

Second Committee Member Affiliation

HSU Faculty or Staff

Third Committee Member Name

Dr. Brandilynn Villarreal

Subject Categories



Research has linked adult psychopathy with abuse or neglect in childhood; however, less is known about how it relates to other adverse childhood experiences. The prevention of psychopathic traits may be possible if the issue is examined from a developmental psychopathology perspective, which attempts to understand how early experiences and disruptions in stage-salient tasks may contribute to pathological behavior. ACEs may disrupt the attachment bond between child and parent and continue to impact adult relational functioning, via cognitive templates of adult attachment styles and difficulties with emotion regulation.

This study examined whether ACEs were related to psychopathic trait scores in adulthood in a sample of 359 adults from a convenience sample recruited online and from a university participation pool. Participants completed surveys online through SurveyMonkey. It was hypothesized that different dimensions of psychopathic traits, such as meanness (i.e., callousness) and disinhibition (i.e., low inhibitory control), would be positively correlated with ACEs, while boldness (i.e., fearlessness) would be negatively correlated. Additionally, it was expected that markers of developmental task disruption (attachment insecurity and emotion dysregulation) would mediate this relationship.

Results revealed that as the number of ACEs increased, meanness and disinhibition scores also increased; however, boldness scores were unrelated to ACEs. Avoidant attachment styles and emotional dysregulation were found to mediate the relationship between ACEs and meanness. Moreover, anxious attachment styles and emotional dysregulation mediated the link between ACEs and disinhibition. This suggests that adults with more ACEs may develop dysfunctional emotion regulation strategies and may become overwhelmed by negative emotions. They may distort or suppress emotional experiences (avoidant attachment-related strategies), or may ruminate over and catastrophize emotion-eliciting events (anxious attachment-related strategies), which may in turn relate to increased displays of callousness, manipulativeness, impulsivity, and aggression. To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the relationship between psychopathic traits and ACEs. Findings support further exploration into how attachment and emotion regulation may be used as possible targets in prevention and intervention efforts for children demonstrating callous-unemotional behaviors, precursors to psychopathic traits in adulthood.

Citation Style