While it might not be intuitive to think about shame when thinking about psychopathy, there might be actually relevant mechanisms to consider when it comes to internalising negative emotions, such as shame.
In a recent publication, Carlo Garofalo and Patrizia Velotti (Garofalo & Velotti, 2021) investigated the relationship between psychopathy and coping with shame as a form of emotion regulation. They asked men who were imprisoned for violent offenses to complete a series of questionnaires assessing how they cope with shame and how they regulate their emotions more generally. They also measured self-reported psychopathic personality traits.
In their large sample, they found that the men higher on psychopathy reported using more externalising strategies (like attacking others) when experiencing shame. On the other hand, men with higher affective detachment traits relevant to psychopathy used fewer adaptive strategies to cope with shame, such as reflecting on ways to improve their behaviour.
What can we learn from this finding, which replicated earlier work by these authors as well as by June Tangney and colleagues? First, it reinforces the association between externalising negative feelings and psychopathic traits. It is also helpful in shedding light on the role of emotions that are rarely considered when trying to understand behaviour and developmental mechanisms in psychopathy.
Interestingly, non-adaptive coping strategies for dealing with shame is an important feature of another personality dimension: Borderline personality traits (Brown et al., 2009). While those traits can seem contrary to psychopathic traits, with strong emotional swings and self-devaluing aspects, especially in women there seems to be phenotypic overlap, which could play a role in coping with shame (Blonigen et al., 2012; Edwards et al., 2021; Eisenbarth, 2014; Sprague et al., 2012). For individuals with borderline personality traits, violence is often oriented towards the self, but also others when coping with shame (Peters et al., 2014). What if psychopathic personality traits in some individuals reflect early-emerging strategies to cope with negative emotions such as shame and guilt, potentially even with fear? This coping mechanism can be considered maladaptive, especially when it leads to violent behaviour or low empathy.
But: shame is not a single phenomenon. There are different types of shame and different roles of shame, just as many other emotions–it is not a simple construct. Depending on the role of the emotion and its outcome, shame can be described by the ways it is experienced (e.g. bodily, cognitive and existential shame; Scheel et al., 2020) or by the coping functions (e.g. maladaptive and adaptive functions, as described in the Compass of Shame: Nathanson, 1992). Those various aspects might play different roles for men and women and therefore contribute to the variety in behavioural outcomes.
This brings us back to why it is interesting to look at psychopathic traits, expressions and behaviour through the lens of shame. Oftentimes psychopathic personality traits are associated with anger, violence, destabilizing behaviours, and rage. However, those might be sometimes (but not always) emotions arising in response to another emotion. It might then depend on one’s motivational state what the emotional response looks like. We need better momentary-assessment studies that cover both self-reported emotional states and physiological responding to learn more about those mechanisms, which may be short lived, but with potential detrimental impact.
Blonigen, D. M., Sullivan, E. A., Hicks, B. M., & Patrick, C. J. (2012). Facets of psychopathy in relation to potentially traumatic events and posttraumatic stress disorder among female prisoners: the mediating role of borderline personality disorder traits. Personality Disorders, 3(4), 406–414. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026184
Brown, M. Z., Linehan, M. M., Comtois, K. A., Murray, A., & Chapman, A. L. (2009). Shame as a prospective predictor of self-inflicted injury in borderline personality disorder: a multi-modal analysis. Behav Res Ther, 47(10), 815–822. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2009.06.008
Edwards, B. G., Maurer, J. M., Harenski, C. L., & Kiehl, K. A. (2021). Psychopathy, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Substance Use in Incarcerated Females. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 009385482110333. https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211033336
Eisenbarth, H. (2014). Psychopathische Persönlichkeit bei Frauen. Der Nervenarzt, 85(3), 290–297. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00115-013-3902-9
Garofalo, C., & Velotti, P. (2021). Shame coping and psychopathy: A replication and extension in a sample of male incarcerated offenders. Journal of Criminal Justice, 76(July), 101845. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2021.101845
Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and Pride. Affect, Sex andthe Birth ofthe Self. W. W. Nortton & Company.
Peters, J. R., Geiger, P. J., Smart, L. M., & Baer, R. A. (2014). Shame and borderline personality features: The potential mediating role of anger and anger rumination. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 5(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1037/per0000022
Scheel, C. N., Eisenbarth, H., & Rentzsch, K. (2020). Assessment of Different Dimensions of Shame Proneness: Validation of the SHAME. Assessment, 27(8), 1699–1717. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191118820130
Sprague, J., Javdani, S., Sadeh, N., Newman, J. P., & Verona, E. (2012). Borderline personality disorder as a female phenotypic expression of psychopathy? Personality Disorders, 3(2), 127–139. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024134
Hedwig Eisenbarth is an Associate Professor in Forensic Psychology School of Psychology at the Victoria University of Wellington.