Faces and Facets: The Variability of Emotion Recognition in Psychopathy Reflects Its Affective and Antisocial Features

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Psychopathy consists of a constellation of affective-interpersonal features including lack of empathy, callousness, manipulativeness and interpersonal charm, impulsiveness and irresponsibility. Despite its theoretical and predictive value in forensic contexts, the relationships between the psychometric dimensions of psychopathy, including its antisocial features, and the construct’s neuropsychological characteristics remain uncertain. In this study, 685 personality-disordered prisoners with histories of serious violent or sexual offenses were assessed for psychopathy before completing a computerized and well-validated assessment of the ability to recognize emotional expressions in the face. Prisoners with more of the affective features of psychopathy, and prisoners with more of its antisocial manifestations, showed relatively poor recognition accuracy of fearfulness and disgust. These relationships were independent and modest but were still evident following correction for demographic features (e.g., ethnicity and socioeconomic status), mental illness (e.g., substance and alcohol misuse), personality disorders (other than antisocial personality disorder) and treatment status. By contrast, the associations between these dimensions of psychopathy and emotion recognition were diminished by controlling for cognitive ability. These findings demonstrate that variability in the ability of high-risk personality-disordered prisoners to recognize emotional expressions in the face—in particular, fear and disgust—reflects both the affective and antisocial aspects of psychopathy, and is moderated by cognitive ability.

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