As Far as the Eye Can See: Relationship between Psychopathic Traits and Pupil Response to Affective Stimuli

PLoS One. 2017 Jan 24;12(1):e0167436. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0167436. eCollection 2017.


Psychopathic individuals show a range of affective processing deficits, typically associated with the interpersonal/affective component of psychopathy. However, previous research has been inconsistent as to whether psychopathy, within both offender and community populations, is associated with deficient autonomic responses to the simple presentation of affective stimuli. Changes in pupil diameter occur in response to emotionally arousing stimuli and can be used as an objective indicator of physiological reactivity to emotion. This study used pupillometry to explore whether psychopathic traits within a community sample were associated with hypo-responsivity to the affective content of stimuli. Pupil activity was recorded for 102 adult (52 female) community participants in response to affective (both negative and positive affect) and affectively neutral stimuli, that included images of scenes, static facial expressions, dynamic facial expressions and sound-clips. Psychopathic traits were measured using the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure. Pupil diameter was larger in response to negative stimuli, but comparable pupil size was demonstrated across pleasant and neutral stimuli. A linear relationship between subjective arousal and pupil diameter was found in response to sound-clips, but was not evident in response to scenes. Contrary to predictions, psychopathy was unrelated to emotional modulation of pupil diameter across all stimuli. The findings were the same when participant gender was considered. This suggests that psychopathy within a community sample is not associated with autonomic hypo-responsivity to affective stimuli, and this effect is discussed in relation to later defensive/appetitive mobilisation deficits.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychological Tests
  • Pupil / physiology*
  • Pupil Disorders / psychology*
  • Reference Values
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Young Adult

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.4236137.v2