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Investigating the relationship between Psychopathy, Fear Conditioning, and Facial Affect Recognition

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posted on 13.11.2021, 21:21 by Casey, Allanah R.

Psychopathic offenders are often considered to be untreatable, especially dangerous, and at very high risk of reoffending. Psychopathy has generated considerable research interest. Despite this interest, our understanding of psychopathy is relatively poor, with ongoing debate regarding how best to define psychopathy, and a lack of clarity regarding how psychopathy develops. Etiological theories of psychopathy posit deficits in recognising and responding to others’ emotions, and an attenuated experience of fear as crucial mechanisms in the development of psychopathy. The aims of this thesis are to investigate the pattern of psychopathic traits present within an inmate sample, and to investigate the relationship between these psychopathic traits and performance on two tasks related to etiological theories of psychopathy: facial affect recognition and fear conditioning. Part One of this thesis addresses the first aim, investigating the presentation of psychopathy in the current sample. The relationship between psychopathic traits in the present sample was largely consistent with previous research. A Principal Components Analysis identified two factors of psychopathic traits: a Bold/ Fearlessness factor which measures an absence of fear and anxiety and the presence of self-assurance, and a Mean/ Disinhibited factor which measures the presence of externalising and disinhibited behaviour, alongside aggression and the use of other people for one’s own gain. These findings are discussed in relation to common conceptualisations and operationalisations of psychopathy.   Part Two of this thesis uses the measurement of psychopathy from Part One to investigate performance on a facial affect recognition task and a fear conditioning task. The Violence Inhibition Mechanism theory suggests that psychopaths should show impairments on facial affect recognition tasks, particularly in the recognition of fearful and sad facial expressions. However, in the current research psychopathy was unrelated to affect recognition, across all emotional expressions. When criminal offenders were compared to a student sample, the offenders showed poorer affect recognition than the students. These results suggest that there may be an effect of antisociality on affect recognition, but no effect of psychopathy. Low fear theories of psychopathy suggest that psychopaths should be impaired at learning conditioned fear associations. However, the present study found no evidence of psychopathy-related deficits in fear conditioning. Rather, higher psychopathy was related to better fear conditioning, with higher scores on the Mean/ Disinhibited factor predicting better discrimination between the conditioned and neutral stimuli.   Taken together, these findings suggest that psychopathy was not related to deficits in either affect recognition or fear conditioning. These findings are inconsistent with etiological theories of psychopathy, and question common assumptions about the deficits which characterise psychopathy.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970117 Expanding Knowledge in Psychology and the Cognitive sciences

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Polaschek, Devon; Grimshaw, Gina