Is There a Link Between Psychopathy, Aggression, and Recidivism?

Are psychopathic and criminal people more likely to reoffend? Does psychopathy have an influence on the type of aggression exhibited? Find out here.
Is There a Link Between Psychopathy, Aggression, and Recidivism?
Isabel Ortega

Written and verified by the psychologist Isabel Ortega.

Last update: 29 August, 2023

Society believes that the presence of psychopathy in offenders is a factor that predisposes them to recidivism. But is this true? In reality, it isn’t entirely clear. In fact, different studies have obtained conflicting results on whether this mental illness acts as a risk agent for recidivism.

As such, there’s no clear answer as to whether psychopaths have a tendency to recidivism. But, what exactly defines a psychopath? And, what makes them the way they are? We’re going to explain.


Psychopaths are manipulative, self-centered, dominant, and superficial in the interpersonal sphere. On the affective level, they have difficulty getting emotionally involved or putting themselves in another’s place. Behaviorally, they’re impulsive, unstable, and sensation-seeking. They’re also prone to breaking social norms and not complying with responsibilities and obligations, both explicit and implicit.

But, what kind of emotions do they experience? In fact, people with high levels of psychopathy tend to feel negative emotions toward others, such as spite and contempt, more frequently and intensely than other people. They also lack feelings of remorse or guilt.

Research suggests that psychopathic traits among convicted violent offenders are associated with reduced expression of fear and minimal response to emotional gestures from others. In addition, the ability of high-risk inmates to recognize anger or disgust is linked to affective and antisocial characteristics typical of psychopathy, but also to the individual’s cognitive abilities.

Research on psychopathy and recidivism 

An investigation in 2017 studied whether convicts who exhibited psychopathy and sexual deviation demonstrated a greater propensity for sexual recidivism. However, they found no significant trend. But, a study conducted in 2020 did find a relationship between convicted persons who exhibited psychopathy and recidivism.

In 2021, a study conducted in different Spanish prisons analyzed whether inmates with moderate to high levels of psychopathy also exhibited greater recidivism than those with low levels of psychopathy. The researchers concluded that inmates with moderate and high levels of psychopathy revealed higher risks of recidivism than those with low levels of psychopathy.

As you can see, there’s a great deal of disagreement when it comes to addressing whether this mental illness is linked to recidivism. Therefore, we need to delve deeper into the field. We also need to take into account other aspects or characteristics that may influence the correspondence between psychopathy and recidivism.

Is the type of aggression linked to psychopathy?

There are different types of aggression. Two kinds are instrumental (proactive) and hostile (reactive). The difference between these two is found in the objectives pursued by the perpetrator.

Hostile aggression occurs in response to an insult or threat. It’s usually more emotional. On the other hand, instrumental aggression focuses on obtaining a profit or a goal via the victim.

Some studies indicate that psychopathy is more linked to instrumental-type aggression. Others consider that this mental condition can occur with both models of aggression.

For example, a study conducted in 2020 determined that there was a link between psychopathy and both types of aggression. Moreover, the above-mentioned research conducted in Spanish prisons and published in Anurio de Psicología Jurídica (Legal Psychology Yearbook) also found that proactive and reactive aggression is latent in psychopathy.

Finally, are all psychopaths criminals? The answer is no, not all psychopaths have a criminal record. In fact, many psychopaths are integrated into society. You may even know a few.

“I like hurting little things that can’t fight back.”

-Mary Bell-

“I’m full of hate and I love it.”

-Eric Harris-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Alemar Psicólogos. Psicópatas. Robert Here habla en redes.
  • Azevedo, J. C., Pais-Ribeiro, J. L., Coelho, R. y Figueiredo-Braga, M. (2018). Validation of the Portuguese version of Impulsive-Premeditated Aggression Scale in an inmate population. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9(10).
  • Azevedo, J., Vieira-Coelho, M., Castelo-Branco, M., Coelho, R. y Figueiredo-Braga, M. (2020). Impulsive and premeditated aggression in male offenders with antisocial personality disorder. PLoS ONE, 15(3).
  • EnGrama Psico. ¿Qué es un psicópata integrado? Vicente Garrido y Édgar Artacho.
  • Garofalo, C. y Neumann, CS (2018). Regulación de la psicopatía y las emociones: balance y avance. En M. DeLisi (Ed.). Manual internacional de Routledge sobre psicopatía y delito (págs. 58-79). Londres, Reino Unido: Routledge.
  • Gillespie, S. L., Anderson, C. M., Zhao, S., Tan, Y., Kline, D., Brock, G., Odei, J., O’Brien, E., Sims, M., Lazarus, S. A., Hood, D. B., Williams, K. P. y Joseph, J. J. (2019). Allostatic load in the association of depressive symptoms with incident coronary heart disease: The Jackson Heart Study. Psychoneuroendocrinology109, 104369.
  • Harris, P. B., Boccaccini, M. T. y Rice, A. K. (2017). Field measures of psychopathy and sexual deviance as predictors of recidivism among sexual offenders. Psychological assessment29(6), 639–651.
  • Hierro, T. A. D., Fernández, M. E. P. y Rodríguez, J. M. A. (2021). Psicopatía, Agresión y Violencia: un Análisis de la Interrelación en una Muestra de Delincuentes. Anuario de Psicología Jurídica, 32(1), 61 – 69.
  • Ireland, J. L., Lewis, M., Ireland, C. A., Derefaka, G., Taylor, L., McBoyle, J., Smillie, L., Chu, S. y Archer, J. (2020). Self-reported psychopathy and aggression motivation: a role for emotions? Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 31(1), 156-181.
  • Sherretts, N., Boduszek, D., Debowska, A. y Willmott, D. (2017). Comparison of murderers with recidivists and first time incarcerated offenders from U.S. prisons on psychopathy and identity as a criminal: An exploratory analysis. Journal of Criminal Justice, 51, 89-92.
  • Wang, M. C., Gong, J., Gao, Y., Zhang, X., Yang, W. y Luo, J. (2020). Variants of psychopathy in Chinese male offenders: A latent profile analysis in a large prison sample. Journal of Criminal Justice, 69, 101708.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.