Reduced Transfer of Affective Value to Instrumental Behavior in Violent Offenders

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Abstract

Instrumental or goal-directed aggression is a core feature in violent offenders with psychopathic tendencies. To understand this type of behavior, previous work in the field of aggression has focused on affective processing, with mixed results. We propose that instrumental aggression is best understood in terms of the consequences of affective processing for instrumental behavior rather than affective processing per se. Therefore, we assessed the degree of affective biasing of instrumental action in a group of violent offenders with psychopathic tendencies and healthy controls using a validated affective decision-making task. Participants learned whole body approach-avoidance actions upon instrumental targets based on monetary feedback, while being primed by aversive versus appetitive facial stimuli. Unlike controls, instrumental behavior in violent offenders was not influenced by the affective stimuli. Specifically, violent offenders showed reduced instrumental avoidance in the context of aversive (vs. appetitive) stimuli relative to controls. This finding suggests that reduced affective biasing of instrumental behavior may underlie the behavioral anomalies observed in violent offenders with psychopathic tendencies. More generally, the finding underscores the relevance of examining the interaction between affect and instrumental behavior for a better understanding of dysfunctional behaviors in psychiatric populations.

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