Psychopathic traits and preattentive threat processing in children: a novel test of the fearlessness hypothesis

Psychol Sci. 2011 Oct;22(10):1280-7. doi: 10.1177/0956797611420730. Epub 2011 Aug 31.


We tested the fearlessness hypothesis of psychopathy in an at-risk sample of 88 preadolescent children. Psychopathy was measured using combined child- and parent-reported scores on the Antisocial Process Screening Device (APSD). Using a continuous-flash-suppression paradigm, we evaluated threat processing at the preattentive level for the first time in a study of psychopathy. Scores for the APSD Callous/Unemotional factor, which assesses the core affective deficits of psychopathy, predicted preattentive face-recognition deficits for fearful faces and, to a lesser extent, for disgusted faces. This finding contradicts recent suggestions that the fearlessness associated with psychopathy is solely a consequence of overt attentional artifacts. Future research should focus on preattentive processing of fear in individuals with callous-unemotional traits, and on the implications of preattentive-processing deficits for treatment and theory development.

MeSH terms

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Attention*
  • Child
  • Facial Expression
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reaction Time
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Task Performance and Analysis