Mowle, Elyse Nicole (2016-11). Deficits in Emotion Recognition: An Eye-tracking Investigation. Master's Thesis. Thesis uri icon


  • Historical conceptualizations of psychopathic personality emphasized affective deficits as characteristic of the disorder. Contemporary research reports deficits in facial emotion recognition, with particularly strong effects for recognition of fearful faces. Researchers have proposed a number of theories to explain the interaction between psychopathic traits and emotion processing deficits. The response modulation hypothesis emphasizes deficits in shifting attention from goal-directed behavior, whereas the Integrated Emotions System model emphasizes deficits in moral socialization due to abnormalities in fear processing. The current research investigated whether individuals elevated in psychopathic traits displayed deficits in recognizing emotion overall, deficits specific to fear recognition, and/or deficits in attention to fearful faces. A sample of 110 undergraduate students completed the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure, a facial emotion recognition task, and a visual dot probe task. Participants relatively elevated in psychopathic traits also completed an attentional retraining task to determine if their attention could be directed to fearful faces. Finally, an ASL Eye-Trac 6 eye-tracker was used to investigate whether gaze fixations on the eyes or the mouth of an emotional face were associated with deficits in emotion processing. Accuracy of emotion identification was recorded for each participant. Additionally, a facilitation index was calculated for the dot probe task to measure attentional orientating to emotional stimuli. Contrary to hypotheses, individuals elevated in psychopathic traits did not display overall deficits in identification of emotional faces overall or for fear faces specifically. Results indicated that individuals elevated in psychopathic traits displayed deficits in identifying disgusted faces. As hypothesized, reduced response time to fearful faces in the dot probe task was associated with elevations in psychopathic traits. However, the attentional retraining task did not increase attention to fearful faces. Finally, deficits in emotion recognition and emotional attention were not associated with eye gaze. The results suggest that psychopathy may not be universally associated with emotion recognition performance. Instead, deficient emotion processing in psychopathic individuals may be due to attentional deficits rather than inability to identify emotional facial expressions. Interpretations of these results are limited by small sample size and the use of an undergraduate student sample.

publication date

  • November 2016