Objective: Damage to the amygdala produces deficits in the ability to recognize fear due to attentional neglect of other people's eyes. Interestingly, children with high psychopathic traits also show problems recognizing fear; however, the reasons for this are not known. This study tested whether psychopathic traits are associated with reduced attention to the eye region of other people's faces.
Method: Adolescent males (N = 100; age mean 12.4 years, SD 2.2) were stratified by psychopathic traits and assessed using a Tobii eye tracker to measure primacy, number, and duration of fixations to the eye and mouth regions of emotional faces presented via the UNSW Facial Emotion Task.
Results: High psychopathic traits predicted poor fear recognition (1.21 versus 1.35; p < .05) and lower number (1.85 versus 2.51; p < .001) and duration (375 versus 620 ms; p < .001) of eye fixations, and fewer first foci to the eye region (1.01 versus 2.01; p < .001). There were no differences in gaze indices to the mouth region. All indices of gaze to the eye region correlated positively with accurate recognition of fear for the high psychopathy group, especially the number of times that subjects looked at the eyes first (r = .50; p < .01).
Conclusions: Attention to other people's eyes is reduced in young people with high psychopathic traits, thus accounting for their problems with fear recognition, and is consistent with amygdala dysfunction failing to promote attention to emotional salience in the environment.