Someday My Psychopath Will Come…

September 5, 2012

Promiscuity is often linked to maladaptive personality traits. Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist includes it in two of its 20 items:

11. PROMISCUOUS SEXUAL BEHAVIOR — a variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.The Dark Triad traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sociopathy are linked to a short-term mating orientation, resulting in more sexual partners but poor relationships.

17. MANY SHORT-TERM RELATIONSHIPS — a lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.

There is also considerable research correlating promiscuity to the personality traits of low agreeableness and low conscientiousness. Extraverted, impulsive, and sensation-seeking personalities predict:

  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Unprotected sex
  • Intoxicated sex
  • No-strings sex

New research by psychologists Dr. Martin Sellbom and his doctoral student Rebecca M. Kastner at the University of Alabama explores the boundaries further by examining psychopathy above and beyond personality traits relative to sexual behavior (Hat tip: J). In Hypersexuality in college students: The role of psychopathy, Sellbom and Kastner looked at the link between psychopathy and hypersexuality in 393 undergraduate students. Using the Psychopathy Personality Inventory (PPI), which has been found valid in criminal, community and college settings, the researchers looked at two particular aspects of psychopathic behavior.

1. Fearless Dominance

  • Charming
  • Grandiose
  • Eager to take risks with little regard for consequences
  • Absence of anxiety

2. Impulsive Antisociality

  • Reckless disregard for safety of self and others
  • Aggressive
  • Impulsive
  • Blames others for personal misfortunes
  • Uses others for personal gain

(Note how closely these descriptions align with the Charming Sociopath and Brooding Loner of my previous post.)

Per the study, previous findings:

  1. Theoretical underpinnings for the link between psychopathy and hypersexuality include an underactive behavior inhibition system (BIS), which would lead to a failure of behavior regulation, including inhibiting sexual behavior in potential threatening contexts (e.g., Hughes, Moore, Morris, & Corr, 2012). 
  2. Psychopathy has been associated with promiscuous sexual relations at a young age for both men and women (Visser, Pozzebon, Bogaert, & Ashton, 2010).
  3. Impulsivity/irresponsibility were significant predictors of risky sexual behavior in adolescents, particularly girls (Rucevic, 2010).
  4. In a sample of college students, Jonason, Li, Webster, and Schmitt (2009) found that psychopathy was related to an exploitative social style measured by several aspects of hypersexuality including sociosexuality, number of sex partners, seeking a short-term mate, and short-term mating. 
  5. Primary psychopathy (callousness, charm, egocentrism) in both men and women is associated with coercion to gain short-term sexual partners (Fulton et al., 2010; Muñoz, Khan, & Cordwell, 2011). 
  6. Gender differences on indicators of social dominance (high social dominance in men; low social dominance in women) have been shown to predict infidelity in a community sample (Egan & Angus, 2004). 

The contribution of the current study was an investigation of the link between Fearless Dominance (FD) and Impulsive Antisociality (IA) to hypersexuality. Sellbom and Kastner looked at the correlation between the PPI and numerous other personality and sexuality inventories. Of particular interest was the Sociosexuality Orientation Inventory. The SOI is of great interest to me here at HUS, because it measures a person’s attitudes towards sexual behavior and reliably predicts that behavior. The ability to predict promiscuous behavior is obviously of critical importance in selecting a partner.

The construct of sociosexuality or sociosexual orientation captures individual differences in the tendency to have casual, uncommitted sexual relationships. 

…[The SOI] assesses sociosexual orientations along a single dimension from “restricted” (indicating a tendency to have sex exclusively in emotionally close and committed relationships) to “unrestricted” (indicating a tendency for sexual relationships with low commitment and investment, often after short periods of acquaintance and with changing partners).

On average, men tend to be more unrestricted than women in their sociosexual orientations, though there are also large individual differences within both sexes (Schmitt, 2005).

The current study looked at the following SOI factors:

1. Number of sexual partners in the past year

2. Number of sexual partners in the next 5 years

3. Number of one time sexual partners

4. Number of partners used condom with

5. Number of times fantasized about someone other than partner

6. Sex without love is OK

7. Enjoy casual sex with different partners

8. Need to be attached to partner to enjoy sex (reversed) 

The Findings

The current findings indicate that psychopathy adds to the prediction of hypersexuality above and beyond sensation seeking, antisociality, and impulsivity. Both factors offer unique prediction of hypersexuality; however, IA was generally a stronger predictor than FD. For risky sexual behavior in particular, an interaction effect for the factors was significant; thus, high scores on both FD and IA predict higher levels of hypersexuality than either factor individually. In other words, individuals who are fearless, interpersonally assertive, egocentric, exploitative, and impulsive are especially prone to engaging in sexual behavior with potentially harmful consequences. 

…There is something about the maladaptive constellation of psychopathic personality traits that afford particularly high risk for dangerous sexual practices.

Both facets of psychopathy were predictive of these various processes with the exception of sexual inhibition. Impulsive-Antisociality was generally the better predictor, which is not unexpected because this psychopathy facet tends to be associated with overt behavioral outcomes in general, including the inability to delay gratification and lack of careful consider- ation of consequences (e.g., Benning et al., 2005a).  

Interestingly, they found that while most people experience some sexual inhibition due to the threat of performance failure, the presence of Fearless Dominance hampered inhibition. “Individuals high on this psychopathy facet might be particularly prone to seek out thrilling, dangerous, and otherwise anxiety provoking sexual situations.” This is in keeping with the testimonials of various promiscuous men online, who generally display strong immunity to feelings of failure or rejection.

Psychopathy in the Population

Futurist and ethicist George Dvorsky notes that psychopathy results from dysfunction in the amygdala. It’s estimated that 1-2% of individuals are psychopaths, and 3-5% of people in business are!

Scientists have determined that there is a genetic component to psychopathy. They argue that genetic factors may generally influence the development of psychopathy while environmental factors affect the specific traits that predominate. Geneticists have calculated that the heritability coefficient for psychopathy is around 50%.

Psychologist Robert Hare has argued that psychopathy does indeed have a genetic component. He has observed how many (male) psychopaths have a pattern of mating with, and quickly abandoning women, and as a result, have a high fertility rate. His contention is that these children may inherit a predisposition to psychopathy.

It seems reasonable to hypothesize that the current SMP, with its culture of casual sex, comprises a strong environmental factor that creates or exacerbates psychopathy in both men and women.

Evolutionary psychologists theorize that psychopathy represents a frequency-dependent, socially parasitic strategy. This may only work, however, as long as there are few other psychopaths in the community. More psychopaths means that there’s an increased risk of encountering another psychopath as well as non-psychopaths likely adapting more countermeasures against cheaters.

That said, this “social parasite” theory doesn’t take into account the ways in which psychopaths can be successful in modern society. It might be an increasingly adaptive trait. As already noted, there’s a heightened tendency for psychopaths to enter into the business world. Similarly, there’s the (potentially) increased likelihood for political success.

It’s also quite possible that humans are evolving away from psychopathy. Perhaps the 1-2% is the smallest proportion yet in our species’ history. It’s generally thought, for example, that women are selecting for kinder, gentler males. This self-domestication has resulted in an increase in empathetic traits over time. It’s quite possible that we’re the “kindest” version ever to appear in our evolutionary trajectory.

The Bottom Line

Not all psychopaths are sexy, and not all sexy people are psychopaths, but the link to promiscuity is significant. I advise both sexes to avoid promiscuous partners. Even if you can live with their body count, they’ve likely got other maladaptive qualities that make them deficient in forming and sustaining relationships. Using the 8 sociosexuality orientation criteria above would be an excellent proxy for identifying psychopathy in both sexes. 

The researchers end their paper by recommending identifying at-risk individuals in an attempt to “decrease behaviors that are unhealthy for themselves or others.” I have some suggestions as to where these psychopaths may be found on campus. 🙂

You’ve been warned. Proceed with the Brooding Loner or Charming Sociopath at your own risk.

Many thanks to Dr. Martin Sellbom, who graciously provided the study gratis at my request.