Psychopathic traits and empathy: moral decision making and complex affect expression recognition
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Wydział Psychologii, Uniwersytet Humanistycznospołeczny SWPS, Warszawa
Submission date: 2019-02-19
Final revision date: 2019-11-24
Acceptance date: 2020-04-21
Online publication date: 2021-12-31
Publication date: 2021-12-31
Corresponding author
Łukasz Tanaś   

SWPS Uniwersytet Humanistycznospołeczny
Psychiatr Pol 2021;55(6):1235-1255
The issue of specific cognitive deficits in psychopathy is still open for debate. Much evidencepoints to problems with affective empathy. The current study aims to verify the hypothesis about the correlation between psychopathic traits, difficulties in complex affect expression recognition and making moral decisions without taking into account the aspect of potential harm.

58 males were studied (student and inmate groups). Psychopathy was assessed with the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). Recognition of complex emotional expressions was assessed with the Faces subset of the Emotional Intelligence Scale and moral inclinations to avoid harm (“deontological”) and maximize consequences (“utilitarian”) were measured via the process dissociation method

Inmates generally showed deficiencies in correct expression recognition, for both positive and negative stimuli. Inmates with high psychopathy additionally showed high rate of false positive perceptions of negative emotions. High psychopathy inmates showed lower, than low psychopathy inmates and students, inclination to avoid harm. High psychopathy was related to declarations that the presented moral dilemmas were “easy decisions”. Group differences in the inclination to maximize consequences in moral decisions were not significant.

Results support the hypothesis that psychopathy is related to ageneral deficiency in affective processing. Psychopathic traitsare related to worse recognition of complex emotional expressions which does not manifest itself as uncertainty, but as high rate of false positives. Inmates with psychopathic traits also declare that the presented moral sacrificial dilemmas require “easy decisions” and show reduced responsivity to harm. An important and problematic element of psychopathy seems to be the dysfunctional affective empathy with a simultaneous unawareness of these dysfunctions.

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