Behavioural and neural correlates of emotion recognition as a function of psychopathic personality traits
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Psychopathy is associated with well-known characteristics such as a lack of empathy and impulsive behaviour, but it has also been associated with impaired recognition of emotional facial expressions. The use of event-related potentials (ERPs) to examine this phenomenon could shed light on the specific time course and neural activation associated with emotion recognition processes as they relate to psychopathic traits. In the current study we examined the PI , N170, and vertex positive potential (VPP) ERP components and behavioural performance with respect to scores on the Self-Report Psychopathy (SRP-III) questionnaire. Thirty undergraduates completed two tasks, the first of which required the recognition and categorization of affective face stimuli under varying presentation conditions. Happy, angry or fearful faces were presented under with attention directed to the mouth, nose or eye region and varied stimulus exposure duration (30, 75, or 150 ms). We found that behavioural performance to be unrelated to psychopathic personality traits in all conditions, but there was a trend for the Nl70 to peak later in response to fearful and happy facial expressions for individuals high in psychopathic traits. However, the amplitude of the VPP was significantly negatively associated with psychopathic traits, but only in response to stimuli presented under a nose-level fixation. Finally, psychopathic traits were found to be associated with longer N170 latencies in response to stimuli presented under the 30 ms exposure duration. In the second task, participants were required to inhibit processing of irrelevant affective and scrambled face distractors while categorizing unrelated word stimuli as living or nonliving. Psychopathic traits were hypothesized to be positively associated with behavioural performance, as it was proposed that individuals high in psychopathic traits would be less likely to automatically attend to task-irrelevant affective distractors, facilitating word categorization. Thus, decreased interference would be reflected in smaller N170 components, indicating less neural activity associated with processing of distractor faces. We found that overall performance decreased in the presence of angry and fearful distractor faces as psychopathic traits increased. In addition, the amplitude of the N170 decreased and the latency increased in response to affective distractor faces for individuals with higher levels of psychopathic traits. Although we failed to find the predicted behavioural deficit in emotion recognition in Task 1 and facilitation effect in Task 2, the findings of increased N170 and VPP latencies in response to emotional faces are consistent wi th the proposition that abnormal emotion recognition processes may in fact be inherent to psychopathy as a continuous personality trait.