Psychopathic Traits, Multimodal Emotion, and Empathy

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Mackenzie, Angel Heather




Psychopathy is a disorder of personality characterized by a lack of conscience, with emotional (interpersonal and affective) and behavioural (lifestyle and antisocial) characteristics. Psychopathy can also be scored along a continuum as a dimension of personality. Previous research has identified a link between psychopathy and reduced processing of emotional stimuli, as well as low empathy. Yet, one feature psychopathy is the ability to reproduce correct emotional responses despite reduced emotional and empathic experience, likely as a result of social learning. The present study evaluated perception of emotion and empathy relative to psychopathic traits in a sample of undergraduate students, and examined whether increasing the ambiguity of the stimuli would reveal deficits in emotion processing and empathy associated with psychopathy, which would provide further evidence of a learned response to emotional stimuli in individuals high in psychopathy. Rather than static images, the stimuli were dynamic video clips incorporating two types of emotion cues, facial expression and vocal affect, with varying levels of ambiguity in the expression of the emotion. These stimuli were used in four experiments in which emotion recognition and empathic response were measured in large samples of undergraduate participants. Across the four experiments, the predicted interaction between psychopathy and ambiguity of emotion cues was not observed. However, in all experiments, participants with higher levels of psychopathy had reduced emotion recognition accuracy and lower levels of empathy. The present study provides further evidence of an overall deficit in emotion processing in individuals high in psychopathy, and evidence of impaired empathic response using a novel objective measure of empathy.


Psychology - Cognitive
Psychology - Personality




Carleton University

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