Somatic Marker Functioning During Recovery From a Romantic Relationship with a Psychopathic Abuser: An Examination of Mental Health, Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth in Social Decision Making

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Humeny, Courtney Meagan




Damasio’s (1994) Somatic Marker Hypothesis (SMH) proposes a system in the brain that creates somatic markers, a mechanism which assists in integrating emotional information to aid in everyday functioning, including social decision making. Survivors of domestic abuse commonly experience mental health impairments that are associated with abnormalities in the somatic marker circuitry. These abnormalities are made apparent in deficits in facial affect processing and social impairments that contribute to the maintenance of these disorders. Whiffen and MacIntosh (2005) propose that the strategies survivors use to cope with distress can perpetuate and extend impairments to mental health by diminishing their ability to maintain supportive relationships. However, some survivors demonstrate growth or resilience despite their experiences, and utilize social support relatively well. The purpose of my research is to provide a conceptual investigation of the neuropsychological underpinnings of Whiffen and MacIntosh’s pathway by utilizing Damasio’s SMH. I examine survivors of a romantic relationship with a psychopathic abuser. Survivors of psychopathic abusers have received limited attention from researchers, but suggestions have been made regarding profound emotional and interpersonal outcomes (Pagliaro, 2009). Two studies were conducted to examine the extent that abusers’ level of psychopathic traits influenced survivors’ abuse experiences and recovery outcomes (e.g., mental health impairments, resilience). Participants (N = 105 and N = 392) were recruited from domestic abuse support websites and completed a series of close and open-ended questionnaires, the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), and a facial affect recognition task. A series of correlation and regression analyses revealed that abusers’ ascribed level of psychopathic traits were predicted by survivors’ experiences of abuse that was frequent, physically harmful, and versatile (i.e., physical, financial, sexual, and property abuse), and survivors’ diminished intensity of positive emotional experiences and elevated post-traumatic stress symptoms (Study 1a and 2). While both Factor 1 and Factor 2 psychopathy were predictive of frequent and physically harmful abuse, Factor 1 psychopathy was also predictive of survivors’ levels of anxiety (Study 1a).


Psychology - Clinical
Psychology - Cognitive
Psychology - Experimental




Carleton University

Thesis Degree Name: 

Doctor of Philosophy: 

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Thesis Degree Discipline: 

Cognitive Science

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Theses and Dissertations

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