Reduced susceptibility to the attentional blink in psychopathic offenders: implications for the attention bottleneck hypothesis

Neuropsychology. 2012 Jan;26(1):102-9. doi: 10.1037/a0026000. Epub 2011 Oct 24.


Objective: Newman and Baskin-Sommers (in press) have proposed that psychopathy reflects an attention bottleneck that interferes with processing contextual information, including the timely processing of affective and inhibitory cues that initiate self-regulation. Despite a wealth of evidence that attention moderates the affective, inhibitory, and self-regulation deficits of psychopathic offenders, to date there is little or no evidence that psychopathic offenders perform abnormally on a canonical measure of selective attention. In this study, we address this gap in the literature and clarify the attention-related abnormality in psychopathy.

Method: We administered the attentional blink (AB) task to 37 male prisoners assessed with Hare's (2003) Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. In the AB paradigm, participants identify targets in a rapid serial visual presentation. Distracters' temporal proximity to the first target elicits a conflict between attending to the target and attending to the distracters. Greater conflict results in a larger AB (i.e., reduced accuracy for the second target).

Results: As predicted, psychopathic offenders displayed a significantly smaller AB (i.e., better accuracy throughout the blink interval) than nonpsychopathic offenders.

Conclusions: Consistent with the attentional bottleneck hypothesis, psychopathic participants were less susceptible to distracter effects following presentation of an initial target. The results clarify the nature of the attention bottleneck in psychopathy, the circumstances in which it enhances versus interferes with performance, and its implications for more ecologically valid conditions involving the sequential presentation of goal-relevant and goal-incongruent information.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Attention*
  • Attentional Blink / physiology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Criminals / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Psychological Theory
  • Psychomotor Performance