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Understanding the cognitive differences in psychopathy: Emotional distraction across psychopathic traits

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posted on 25.08.2021, 05:19 by Bryant, Conor

Emotional stimuli naturally draw our attention. In emotional distraction paradigms, such stimuli can interrupt performance on a simple cognitive task. There are, however, individual differences in the extent to which emotional distractors impact performance. Previous research has found that highly psychopathic people perform better than others in these tasks, indicating that they are less distracted by emotional stimuli. We tested two separate accounts of the cognitive differences in psychopathy. Emotional processing accounts believe the deficit is specific to processing of aversive stimuli. Conversely, the Attention deficit accounts suggest the deficit is rather ineffective processing of peripheral information. To tease these hypotheses apart we investigated emotional distraction using positive and negative peripheral distractors. Negative distraction but not positive distraction should be reduced if emotional processing accounts are correct; all types of distraction should be reduced for Attention-deficit accounts. The current study employs an emotional distraction paradigm that includes peripheral task-irrelevant distractors that vary in valence and arousal. We measured trait psychopathy using the Psychopathic Personality Inventory in a university sample and grouped participants into low, intermediate, or high Fearless Dominance groups. Participants (N = 83) were instructed to ignore distracting images (positive, negative, or neutral) in the periphery while completing a simple perceptual task at fixation. Participants low in Fearless Dominance showed greater distraction by emotional stimuli than neutral stimuli. In contrast, those high in Fearless Dominance showed no greater distraction by emotional than neutral stimuli. The findings suggest there is no fear-specific deficit in psychopathy, instead, we see an overall decrease in emotional distraction for those high in Fearless Dominance. This finding also supports attention-deficit accounts, however, distraction by neutral stimuli was not associated with Fearless Dominance indicating the reduced distraction is specific to emotional stimuli.


Advisor 1

Grimshaw, Gina

Advisor 2

Eisenbarth, Hedwig

Copyright Date


Date of Award



Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Rights License


Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology