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Examining Attention Bias in Psychopathy with Emotionally Salient Face Stimuli
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Does psychopathy impact how individuals direct their attention to emotionally charged stimuli?

Written by: Simal Dolek

Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna from Pexels

Examining Attention Bias in Psychopathy with Emotionally Salient Face Stimuli

By Simal Dolek, Research Assistant


Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of remorse and guilt. Individuals with psychopathic traits display impulsive and antisocial behaviour, which is often associated with a disregard for social norms, a lack of empathy, and deceitful behaviour.

Within individuals exhibiting psychopathic traits, a significant characteristic is the reduced emotional reactivity and a diminished ability to accurately perceive and interpret emotions. This phenomenon is often linked to potential dysfunctions in a region of the brain known as the amygdala (Boll & Gamer, 2016). The amygdala plays a critical role in processing and regulating emotions. When it doesn't function as expected, it can lead to difficulties in recognizing and appropriately responding to emotional cues in the environment.

Numerous previous studies have consistently uncovered alterations in how individuals with psychopathic traits direct their attention, particularly when exposed to emotionally charged stimuli. These deviations in attentional processes are often marked by two key observations:


  1. Deficient Attention to Emotionally Salient Cues: Individuals with psychopathic traits tend to exhibit reduced focus on emotionally significant or compelling cues in their surroundings. This diminished attention to emotional stimuli can have far-reaching implications, as it may result in difficulties in comprehending and appropriately reacting to emotional information.
  2. Impaired Orienting Toward the Eye Region of Faces: In social interactions, one of the primary ways humans convey emotions is through their facial expressions. The eye region of the face, in particular, plays a crucial role in expressing emotions. However, individuals with psychopathic traits often display impaired attentional orientation toward this critical facial region. This means they may miss important emotional cues conveyed through eye expressions, potentially affecting their ability to empathize and engage in socially appropriate behaviours.


These findings, as highlighted by Gehrer et al. (2019) and Billeci et al. (2019), shed light on the complex interplay between psychopathy, emotional processing, and attentional mechanisms.

PROSIT Lab conducted a study to explore psychopathy by considering it as a spectrum, rather than a fixed category. We examined how variations in typical personality traits relate to psychopathy in a group of young individuals. To measure psychopathic traits, we used Hare's four-factor Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), which assesses different aspects of psychopathy, including interpersonal skills, affective traits, lifestyle choices, and antisocial behaviour (Hare, 2016).

We conducted an eye-tracking experiment to investigate how participants pay attention to emotionally charged faces. Participants were shown human faces that displayed a variety of emotions, and we monitored their gaze with an eye-tracker.

Such studies can shed light on the complex relationship between psychopathy and attention, providing valuable insights into how psychopathic traits may influence facial and emotional perception.


Simal presented this work at this year’s Psychiatry Research Day on October 27th. Come stop by to learn more ( )! Thanks for reading!




Billeci, L., Muratori, P., Calderoni, S., Chericoni, N., Levantini, V., Milone, A., Nocentini, A., Papini, M., Ruglioni, L., & Dadds, M. (2019). Emotional processing deficits in Italian children with Disruptive Behavior Disorder: The role of callous unemotional traits. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 113, 32–38.


Boll, S., & Gamer, M. (2016). Psychopathic traits affect the visual exploration of facial expressions. Biological Psychology, 117, 194–201.


Gehrer, N. A., Scheeff, J., Jusyte, A., & Schönenberg, M. (2019). Impaired attention toward the eyes in psychopathic offenders: Evidence from an eye tracking study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 118, 121–129.


Hare, R. (2016). Psychopathy, the PCL-R, and Criminal Justice: Some New Findings and Current Issues. Canadian Psychology, 57(1), 21–34.


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