The Relationship between Psychopathic Traits, Intellectual Abilities and Responses to Emotional Stimuli

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Psychopathy is characterised by a reduction in the ability to experience emotion, and this has been offered as an explanation for the perpetration of serious violence, high rates of criminal recidivism, institutional misconduct, and the transgression of social and moral conventions. However, research evidence has increasingly indicated that severe behavioural deviance is not an inevitable outcome of psychopathic traits. A range of protective factors, including good intelligence, are theorised to moderate the expression of psychopathic traits so that they are manifest in more socially acceptable behaviours. The overarching aim of the current thesis was to investigate the relationship between psychopathic traits, intellectual abilities, and responses to emotional stimuli.

Study 1 (N = 253) investigated the construct validity of the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence – Second Edition (WASI-II) and its relationship with the Psychopathic Personality Traits Scale (PPTS). Confirmatory factor analysis revealed that the WASI-II was best represented by a bifactor model comprising a single general factor and four grouping factors reflecting the original Block Design (BD), Vocabulary (V), Matrix Reasoning (MR) and Similarities (S) subtests. Path analysis revealed a divergent set of relationships between the intelligence subtests and the psychopathic traits Affective Responsiveness (AR), Cognitive Responsiveness (CR), Interpersonal Manipulation (IPM) and Egocentricity (EGO).

Using the above scales, Study 2 (N = 113) examined whether intellectual abilities moderate the relationship between psychopathic traits and responses to 180 photographic scenes from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS). Hierarchical moderated regression revealed a direct negative relationship between Affective Responsiveness and the accuracy of categorisation of negative images, whereas Cognitive Responsiveness and Interpersonal Manipulation demonstrated indirect relationships with reaction times that were contingent on Matrix Reasoning.

Study 3 (N = 44) utilised event-related potential (ERP) techniques to further understanding of the neurocognitive mechanisms underpinning the relationship between psychopathic traits, intellectual abilities, and responses the same set of emotionally valenced stimuli. During trials with positive images, an early (75-125ms) positivity identified over lateral occipital sites demonstrated a significant negative association with Egocentricity, and a significant positive association with Vocabulary. Considering similarities with the P1 component, this implies that Egocentricity is inversely related to the allocation of sensory resources during the processing of positive affect, whereas Vocabulary confers greater allocation of sensory resources during the processing of positive affect.
Date of Award26 Apr 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorChris Retzler (Co-Supervisor)

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