Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Differential Effects of Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms on Cognitive and Fear Processing in Female Offenders

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Differential Effects of Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms on Cognitive and Fear Processing in Female Offenders

Article excerpt

Published online: 12 August 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder (APD) have long been considered important risk factors for criminal behavior and incarceration. However, little is known about the psychobiological underpinnings that give rise to the disinhibited behavior of female offenders. Using an instructed fear-conditioning paradigm and a sample of incarcerated female offenders, we manipulated attentional focus and cognitive load to characterize and differentiate between the dysfunctional cognitive and affective processes associated with these syndromes. We used fear-potentiated startle (FPS) and event-related potentials as measures of affective and cognitive processing, respectively. After controlling for APD symptoms, psychopathic women displayed greater FPS while attending directly to threat-relevant stimuli and displayed less FPS while performing a demanding task that directed attention to threat-irrelevant information. Conversely, controlling for psychopathy, women with high APD symptoms displayed less overall FPS, especially when instructed to focus on threat-relevant stimuli. However, as the demands on cognitive resources increased, they displayed greater FPS. For both psychopathy and APD, analysis of the event-related potentials qualified these findings and further specified the abnormal cognitive processes associated with these two syndromes. Overall, simultaneous analysis of psychopathy and APD revealed distinct patterns of cognitive processing and fear reactivity.

Keywords Female offenders . Attention . Cognition . Fear . Fear-potentiated startle . Event-related potential

Psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder (APD) have long been considered important risk factors for criminal behavior and incarceration. Increasingly, researchers are investigating the significance of these syndromes for female offender populations (Rogstad & Rogers, 2008; Verona & Vitale, 2006; Warren & South, 2006). Among incarcerated women, base rates of psychopathy have been estimated to range from 9 %-11 % (Loucks, 1995; Neary, 1990; Vitale & Newman, 2001). For APD, base rates are closer to 21 % (Fazel & Danesh, 2002). Additionally, Warren and South (2006) reported that approximately 30 % of female offenders with psychopathy also qualify for an APD diagnosis. While most female offenders do not qualify for these categorical diagnoses, women displaying higher levels of psychopathic and APD symptoms are at high risk for diverse conduct problems (e.g., sexual promiscuity, pathological lying, or manipulative behavior), both in prison and upon release. To date, however, little is known about the psychobiological underpinnings that give rise to the disinhibited behavior of female offenders.

Although APD and psychopathy share many features, such as pathological impulsivity, irresponsibility, aggression, and antisocial behavior (Dolan & Völlm, 2009; Rogstad & Rogers, 2008; Warren & South, 2006), they differ in significant ways. Psychopathy, for instance, is distinguished by callous-unemotional traits (e.g., glibness, pathological lying, shallow affect, and lack of empathy) and low levels of anxiety, depression, and general psychopathology (Patrick, 2007). Conversely, women with APD have higher rates of comorbid psychiatric disorders, such as substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and self-injurious behaviors (Mulder, Wells, & Bushnell, 1994; Rogstad & Rogers, 2008; Singh & Waldman, 2010; Warren & South, 2006). In terms of criminal behavior, psychopathy in women is associated with higher rates of incarcerations and a greater likelihood of committing both violent and nonviolent crimes (Louth, Hare,& Linden, 1998; Strachan, 1995; Vitale, Smith, Brinkley, & Newman, 2002).Women with APD are more likely to display generally impulsive and irresponsible behavior (e.g., chronic unemployment, high rates of marital separation, or dependence on welfare), though this behavior is not necessarily criminal (Mulder et al. …

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