Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Scott D. Lane

Committee Member

F. Gerard Moeller

Committee Member

Thomas J. Goka

Committee Member

Alan C. Swann

Committee Member

Anthony A. Wright


Child abuse and neglect are universal risk factors for delinquency, violence and aggression; this phenomenon is known as the cycle of violence. Despite a wide body of research demonstrating this phenomenon, the processes which mediate this relationship remain largely unknown. One potentially relevant result of abuse and neglect may be disruptions in the development of the body’s stress response, specifically the function of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA-axis, and its end-product, cortisol, may play a role in regulating aggressive behavior, but this function may be disrupted following abuse and neglect. Another risk factor for aggression, psychopathy, may mediate the cycle of violence or independently contribute to aggressive behavior. This study examined the relationship between child abuse and neglect, HPA-axis function, psychopathy and aggression. History of abuse was measured using a self-report questionnaire, the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. Using a within-subject, placebo-controlled, counter-balanced dosing design, 67 adults were given an acute dose of 20mg cortisol as a challenge to the HPA-axis. Following dosing, measures of cortisol response were obtained through saliva samples, and state-aggressive behavior was measured by a laboratory task, the Point-Subtraction Aggression Paradigm (PSAP). Basal measures of cortisol were obtained prior to dosing. Psychopathy and a trait-measure of aggression were assessed through self-report questionnaires. PSAP data and trait-aggression scores were normalized and summed for an overall aggression score. Linear regression analyses indicated that a history of abuse and neglect robustly predicted aggression, supporting the cycle of violence hypothesis. Further, abuse and neglect predicted a diminished HPA-axis response to the cortisol challenge. Although a diminished HPA-axis response significantly predicted increased aggression, mediation analysis revealed that HPA-axis reactivity did not mediate a significant portion of the effect of abuse and neglect on aggression. However, HPA-axis reactivity did mediate part of the effect, indicating that HPA-axis function may be a factor in the cycle of violence. Psychopathy robustly predicted increased aggression. Although the results indicate that cortisol, psychopathy and HPA-axis function are involved in the cycle of violence, further research is required to better understand the complex interaction of these factors.


HPA-axis, aggression, psychopathy, impulsivity