Background: Psychopathy is characterized by profound affective deficits, including shallow affect and reduced empathy. Recent research suggests that these deficits may apply particularly to negative emotions, or to certain negative emotions such as fear. Despite increased focus on the cognitive and neural underpinnings of psychopathy, little is known about how psychopathy is associated with emotional deficits across a range of emotions. In addition, the relationship between psychopathy and the subjective experience of emotion has not yet been assessed.
Methods: Eighteen 10–17-year-olds with psychopathic traits and 24 comparison children and adolescents reported on their subjective experiences of emotion during five recent emotionally evocative life events, following a paradigm developed by Scherer and colleagues (Scherer & Wallbott, 1994). Group comparisons were then performed to assess variations in subjective experiences across emotions.
Results: As predicted, psychopathy was associated with reductions in the subjective experience of fear relative to other emotions. Children and adolescents with psychopathic traits reported fewer symptoms associated with sympathetic nervous system arousal during fear-evoking experiences.
Conclusions: Rather than being related to uniformly impoverished emotional experience, psychopathic traits appear to be associated with greater deficits in subjective experiences of fear. This pattern of responding supports and extends previous observations that psychopathy engenders deficits in fear learning, physiological responses to threats, and the recognition of fear in others.