Emotion in the criminal psychopath: startle reflex modulation

J Abnorm Psychol. 1993 Feb;102(1):82-92. doi: 10.1037//0021-843x.102.1.82.


Startle-elicited blinks were measured during presentation of affective slides to test hypotheses concerning emotional responding in psychopaths. Subjects were 54 incarcerated sexual offenders divided into nonpsychopathic, psychopathic, and mixed groups based on file and interview data. Consistent with findings for normal college students, nonpsychopaths and mixed subjects showed a significant linear relationship between slide valence and startle magnitude, with startle responses largest during unpleasant slides and smallest during pleasant slides. This effect was absent in psychopaths. Group differences in startle modulation were related to affective features of psychopathy, but not to antisocial behavior per se. Psychopathy had no effect on autonomic or self-report responses to slides. These results suggest an abnormality in the processing of emotional stimuli by psychopaths that manifests itself independently of affective report.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affective Symptoms / diagnosis
  • Affective Symptoms / psychology*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / diagnosis
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Arousal*
  • Defense Mechanisms
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Personality Assessment
  • Reflex, Startle*
  • Sex Offenses / psychology
  • Socialization