Adult Attachment Styles and Psychopathic Traits: A Relationship Mediated by Empathy and Emotion Regulation?

Chelsea Heim, University of South Carolina - Aiken


Psychopathic personality traits encompass an array of characteristics that emerge early in life and are influenced by insecure attachments between children and their parents. Disruptions in parent-child interactions also affect the development of empathy (Panfile & Laible, 2010) and emotion regulation (Waters, S. F., Virmani, E. A., Thompson, R. A., Meyer, S., Raikes, H. A. & Jochem, R., 2010), which contributes to lasting impairments in interpersonal working models about the self and others (Mack, Hackney & Pile, 2010). The interactions between psychopathy and insecure attachment, low levels of empathy, and the ability to regulate one’s emotions have been separately investigated in a number of studies (Mack et al., 2010; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; Donahue, McClure & Moon, 2014). However, few studies have examined the complex interactions of all these variables together, and causal mechanisms in non-clinical populations are elusive (Mack et al., 2010). The present study examined whether the association between adult attachment styles (i.e., anxious and avoidant) and psychopathy is mediated by levels of empathy toward others and by levels of emotion regulation (e.g., impulse control difficulties, lack of emotional awareness, etc.). Gender was explored to determine whether these associations differ for males and females. Results of the present study revealed that anxious attachment style significantly predicted emotion dysregulation overall and specifically, impulse control difficulties. Further, this study provided evidence of a relationship between anxious and avoidant attachment styles and facets of empathy. Specific hypotheses related to gender could not be fully explored due to an insufficient number of males in the sample.