Psychopathy and arousal: a new interpretation of the psychophysiological literature

Biol Psychiatry. 1977 Feb;12(1):49-74.


The psychophysiological literature on psychopathy is reviewed in the context of low-arousal theory. Difficulties in the theory are discussed both in general terms and specifically in relation to psychopathy. Contrary to the low-arousal theory, the data indicate that psychopaths exhibit a wider degree of variability in arousal levels and reactivity than normal indiciduals. A more accurate model of the disorder might be one in which psychopaths display a faster rate and a greater magnitude of change in physiological and behavioral activity than normals. It is suggested that psychopathy might be usefully viewed as a biochemical disturbance manifested in abnormal oscillations in neurotransmitter functioning, autonomic activity, and behavior. The literature is reexamined in light of this hypothesis, and a number of avenues for further research are discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / physiology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Arousal* / physiology
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Behavior / physiology
  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology*
  • Norepinephrine / physiology
  • Psychophysiology
  • Serotonin / physiology
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Wakefulness / physiology


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Serotonin
  • Acetylcholine
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine