Social cognition in nonforensic psychopathy: further evidence for a dissociation between intact 'theory of mind' and impaired emotion processing

M. Aylett, M. Mahmut, R. Langdon, M. Green

    Research output: Contribution to journalMeeting abstract


    Background: Psychopathy is a developmental disorder characterized by antisocial behaviour identified in forensic settings using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare 1991). Forensic psychopaths, like autistic individuals, show social cognition abnormalities linked to amygdala dysfunction (eg impaired recognition of negative affect). These developmental disorders differ, however, with respect to theory of mind (ToM); while psychopaths are adept at imputing others’ causal mental states (intentions/beliefs), ToM deficits characterize autism. In line with recent research that has used nonforensic groups to further examine the dissociation of sociocognitive skills in psychopathy, this study investigated conscious and preconscious processing of facial affect, ToM and empathy in a university sample assessed for psychopathic traits using the Self Report Psychopathy Scale III (SRP-III; Paulhus et al. in press), an instrument styled on the PCL-R. Method: About 416 university students completed the SRP-III. Sixty individuals with high (>75 percentile), medium (40–60 percentile) and low (<25 percentile) psychopathic tendencies (20 per group) were then called back for experimental testing. Tasks assessed facial affect recognition, affective priming (using subliminally presented facial expressions) and ToM. The Emotional Empathy Questionnaire (Mehrabian & Epstein 1972) was also administered. Results: While groups did not differ in their ToM abilities, psychopathic tendencies were associated with poor recognition of negative affect (eg disgust), an absence of affective priming and reduced empathy. Conclusions: Nonforensic and forensic psychopaths appear alike; these individuals know how others think but neither know (explicitly or implicitly) nor care how others feel. The role of the amygdala in the development of ToM in autism and psychopathy is discussed.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)328-329
    Number of pages2
    JournalActa Neuropsychiatrica
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 2006
    EventThe Australian Society for Psychiatric Research Annual Meeting 2006 - Sydney
    Duration: 6 Dec 20068 Dec 2006


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