Early and late components of error monitoring in violent offenders with psychopathy

Biol Psychiatry. 2009 Jan 15;65(2):137-43. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.08.011. Epub 2008 Sep 23.


Background: One of the most recognizable features of psychopathy is the reduced ability to successfully learn and adapt overt behavior. This might be due to deficient processing of error information indicating the need to adapt controlled behavior.

Methods: Event-related potentials (ERPs) and behavioral components of error-monitoring processes were investigated in 16 individuals with psychopathy and in 18 healthy subjects. A letter version of the Eriksen flanker task was used in two conditions. The first condition (normal condition) required participants to press one of two buttons depending on the identity of the target stimulus. The second condition (signaling condition) required them to signal each time they had committed an error by making a second press on a signaling button. Early stages of error monitoring were investigated by using the error-related negativity (ERN/Ne) and post-error slowing as indexes. Later stages were explored by examining the error positivity (Pe) and signaling rates.

Results: Both groups showed similar ERN amplitudes and amounts of post-error slowing. The psychopathic group exhibited both reduced Pe amplitudes and diminished error-signaling rates compared with the control group.

Conclusions: Individuals with psychopathy show intact early error processing and automatic behavioral adaptation but have deficits in later stages of error processing and controlled behavioral adaptation. This is an indication that individuals with psychopathy are unable to effectively use error information to change their behavior adequately.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / physiopathology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Attention / physiology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Matched-Pair Analysis
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Prisoners
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Reference Values
  • Self-Assessment*
  • Violence*