Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Visual Complexity Attenuates Emotional Processing in Psychopathy: Implications for Fear-Potentiated Startle Deficits

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Visual Complexity Attenuates Emotional Processing in Psychopathy: Implications for Fear-Potentiated Startle Deficits

Article excerpt

Published online: 21 December 2011

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2011

Abstract A long-standing debate is the extent to which psychopathy is characterized by fundamental deficits in attention or emotion. We tested the hypothesis that the interplay of emotional and attentional systems is critical for understanding processing deficits in psychopathy. A group of 63 offenders were assessed using the Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and fearpotentiated startle (FPS) reflexes were collected while participants viewed pictures selected to disentangle an existing confound between perceptual complexity and emotional content in the pictures typically used to study fear deficits in psychopathy. As predicted, picture complexity moderated the emotional processing deficits. Specifically, the affective- interpersonal features of psychopathy were associated with greater allocation of attentional resources to processing emotional stimuli at initial perception (visual N1), but only when the picture stimuli were visually complex. Despite this, results for the late positive potential indicated that emotional pictures were less attentionally engaging and held less motivational significance for individuals high in affective-interpersonal traits. This deficient negative emotional processing was observed later in their reduced defensive fear reactivity (FPS) to high-complexity unpleasant pictures. In contrast, the impulsive- antisocial features of psychopathy were associated with decreased sensitivity to picture complexity (visual N1) and were unrelated to emotional processing, as assessed by both ERPs and FPS. These findings are the first to demonstrate that picture complexity moderates FPS deficits, and they implicate the interplay of attention and emotional systems as deficient in psychopathy.

Keywords Psychopathy . Fear-potentiated startle . Visual complexity . Emotion . Event-related potentials

There is increasing interest in clarifying the neurobiological vulnerabilities associated with psychopathy, a disorder characterized by a constellation of affective-interpersonal deficits (e.g., duplicity, grandiosity, manipulativeness, and callousness) and impulsive-antisocial behaviors (e.g., thrill-seeking, irresponsibility, and violence; Harpur, Hare, & Hakstian, 1989). Prominent etiological models of psychopathy differ in the emphasis placed on emotional versus cognitive deficits for the development of the disorder, which has led to disagreement about what neural processes are aberrant in psychopathy (R. J. R. Blair & Mitchell, 2009; Kiehl, 2006; Newman, 1998). Furthermore, the affective- interpersonal and impulsive-antisocial dimensions often evidence different relationships with psychological, biological, and environmental indicators (Benning, Patrick, Hicks, Blonigen, & Krueger, 2003; Gordon, Baird, & End, 2004; Harpur et al., 1989; Ross, Benning, Patrick, Thompson, & Thurston, 2009; Verona, Patrick, & Joiner, 2001), suggesting that they may index distinct risk factors for the manifestation of psychopathy. The goal of the present study was to test the hypothesis that interactive emotion-cognition deficits manifest differentially across the psychopathy dimensions.

Dual-deficit theory

Although Cleckley (1941) originally conceptualized psychopathy as a unitary disorder, contemporary psychometric research on the structure of psychopathy supports a multidimensional conceptualization of the construct, in that at least two sets of traits vary dimensionally across individuals (e.g., Edens, Marcus, Lilienfeld, & Poythress, 2006; Harpur et al., 1989). The first dimension describes the affective and interpersonal features of psychopathy, and the second dimension describes an impulsive, irresponsible, and antisocial lifestyle (e.g., Harpur et al., 1989). The affective-interpersonal dimension has been associated with low levels of anxiety and fear, resilience against mood disorders, and intact general intelligence (Benning et al. …

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