Psychopathic personality traits associated with abnormal selective attention and impaired cognitive control

Neuropsychology. 2008 Sep;22(5):669-80. doi: 10.1037/a0012692.


The current study investigated how mechanisms of attention that have been well-characterized in the cognitive psychology literature (Lavie, Hirst, De Fockert, & Viding, 2004; Maylor & Lavie, 1998) may be differentially associated with psychopathic traits in nonincarcerated men. Previous research on cognition and psychopathy indicated that primary psychopathic traits were associated with overfocused attention and/or reduced processing of information peripheral to the focus of attention. Conversely, deficits in executive functioning, such as working memory and cognitive control, were implicated in secondary psychopathic traits. Results revealed a significant relationship between traits typically associated with primary psychopathy (e.g., low anxiety, social dominance, fearlessness, callousness) and reduced processing of task-irrelevant distractors, suggesting diminished basic attentional capacity among individuals high on these traits. In contrast, some characteristics linked to secondary psychopathy (e.g., social alienation, cynicism) showed a positive relationship with impaired working memory functioning, indicative of deficits in cognitive control, whereas other traits (i.e., self-centeredness, antagonism) did not. These results suggest that psychopathic traits are differentially related to selective impairments in attentional functioning, which may help explain the observed heterogeneity in psychopathic manifestations.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Personality Tests / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Social Alienation / psychology
  • Social Dominance