Psychopaths lack the automatic avoidance of social threat: relation to instrumental aggression

Psychiatry Res. 2012 Dec 30;200(2-3):761-6. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2012.06.026. Epub 2012 Jul 20.


Psychopathy (PP) is associated with marked abnormalities in social emotional behaviour, such as high instrumental aggression (IA). A crucial but largely ignored question is whether automatic social approach-avoidance tendencies may underlie this condition. We tested whether offenders with PP show lack of automatic avoidance tendencies, usually activated when (healthy) individuals are confronted with social threat stimuli (angry faces). We applied a computerized approach-avoidance task (AAT), where participants pushed or pulled pictures of emotional faces using a joystick, upon which the faces decreased or increased in size, respectively. Furthermore, participants completed an emotion recognition task which was used to control for differences in recognition of facial emotions. In contrast to healthy controls (HC), PP patients showed total absence of avoidance tendencies towards angry faces. Interestingly, those responses were related to levels of instrumental aggression and the (in)ability to experience personal distress (PD). These findings suggest that social performance in psychopaths is disturbed on a basic level of automatic action tendencies. The lack of implicit threat avoidance tendencies may underlie their aggressive behaviour.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Criminals / psychology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Facial Expression
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Social Perception*