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Emotion Processing Deficiencies In Psychopaths

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Emotion Deficit Processing in Psychopaths

A synthesis paper

Cary Malczewski

Professor Gary A. Noll, Ph.D

Abnormal Psychology 270

November 01, 2007

Emotion Processing Deficiencies in Psychopaths

Callous, insincere, remorseless, and manipulative are all traits that are encompassed by psychopathic individuals. People affected with a psychopathy have difficulty functioning normally in society. Their behavior is often seen as antisocial and amoral. Common characteristics of psychopathic individuals are aimlessness, impulsive behavior without regard to consequence, untruthfulness, lack of remorse, and irresponsibility (Newman & Scott, 2002). Healthy individuals are able to respond accordingly to other people around them by reacting to certain cues. People use emotions or cues like body language, facial expression, and tone to communicate effectively. These emotions are recognized, understood, integrated, and responded to by the recipient party. Psychopathic individuals have a decreased ability or capacity at some point during the recognition, understanding, integrating, and responding process to certain cues. These important social cues would tailor their actions in society; actions which are clearly not seen.

Many different studies have been performed on psychopaths to understand which emotions are deficient and at what stage the deficiency arises. Scientists have approached this issue from a variety of different vantage points including neurological: nerve impulse/sensitivity, electrodermal, electrocardio; biological: amygdale, orbitofrontal cortex, insula, amteror singulate; functional: change in focus, mood, scenario; and physiological: heart rate, muscle reactions, sympathetic responses. The specific emotions that psychopaths have difficulty identifying and processing are sad and fearful expressions.

It is my hypothesis that psychopaths will present with altered neuronal patterns compared to healthy individuals but due to the bodies amazing ability to compensate, psychopaths will volunteer actions that mask specific emotion processing deficits. Though psychopaths have emotion processing and response deficits, they will still be able to identify the fearful or sad emotion allowing them the ability to emulate an expected response when desired. This masking model would encompass biological aspects of psychopathic disorders and account for the lack of complete sad or fearful recognition and/or processing in psychopaths. Discerning the depth and type of deficits in psychopaths will provide a body of evidence for or against the proposed hypothesis.

Recognition of facial affect in psychopathic offenders

Of the many emotional cues, facial expression is one of the most blatant. A study initiated on facial affect in psychopathic offenders performed by Samantha and Newman (2006) was designed to test psychopaths’ ability to recognize and process facial expression dependant on their focus set. This study was interested in finding a scientific explanation for the empirical observations made on the emotional recognition deficits in psychopaths.

A second goal of their study was to gauge the depth of emotional processing deficits in psychopathic individuals, even eliminating the deficit, through altering focus sets. Changing the psychopaths focus was done by having the participants respond to an emotion corresponding to a face. Samantha and Newman hypothesized that psychopathic offenders would be less accurate than controls in identifying fearful and sad facial expressions. Contrary to the hypothesis, the results of their study showed that psychopathic offenders on average did slightly better at recognizing sad and fear emotions even when manipulating focus sets.

The initial hypothesis proposed in this study was not supported, eliciting numerous questions that will require further study. Along with the proposed hypothesis, this study wanted to show correlations between previously performed studies in hopes of finding similarities and correlations between the different studies that would explain their failed hypothesis. A previous study on emotion processing was conducted in psychopathic individuals by Habel et al. (2002) and can provide some further insight into such deficits psychopaths posses.

Emotion Processing in Psychopathic Personality

A study performed by Habel et al. was concerned with examining the emotional processing in psychopaths using emotion discrimination and mood induction probes. This is different than changing the subjects attention. The manipulation is in changing the emotional state of the subject and seeing if that effects the processing of perceived emotions.

Habel et al. hypothesized that subjects with psychopathic personality would demonstrate impaired emotion discrimination and reduced emotional reactivity to positive or negative mood induction compared with non-psychopathic healthy controls. The emotion in the subjects was altered by having the subjects look at a picture containing a specific emotion and having the subject emulate that emotion. If a picture of a happy face was presented, the subject was encouraged to emulate a happy feeling. Interestingly, the performance on emotion discrimination in psychopathic individuals increased with greater emotional detachment. The psychopathic subjects were better at identifying emotion when feeling the opposing emotion that they were encouraged to emulate.

These findings provide an explanation for the heightened skill of psychopaths to manipulate others around them. Aside from the empirical observations that psychopaths have a deficit in emotional processing, evidence has shown that psychopaths have the ability to correctly interpret emotion response.

Why then are psychopathic individuals so calloused, and detached if in fact they can identify emotions, namely fear and sadness, effectively? To answer this question a different approach will need to be taken. Being able to interpret an emotion does not necessarily mean that the perceived emotion is processed correctly to elicit the appropriate response. Another study conducted by Patrick et al. (1994) tested physiological responses in psychopathic individuals. This study foregoes the self reporting of psychopathic individuals by using scientific instruments to record physical data.




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