Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Yu Gao

Committee Members

Jill Grose-Fifer

Mariann Weierich

Jennifer Wagner

Tony Ro

Subject Categories

Behavioral Neurobiology | Behavior and Behavior Mechanisms | Biological Psychology | Cognitive Neuroscience | Social Psychology


psychopathy, attention, empathy, psychophysiology, emotion recognition, arousal


Psychopathy is a multifaceted disorder characterized by a lack of cognitive and emotional empathy. The traditional model of psychopathy divides the disorder into two factors: Factor 1 consists of the interpersonal and affective traits of psychopathy while Factor 2 measures antisocial behaviors and lifestyle choices. The attention-to-the-eyes hypothesis argues that psychopathic individuals have impaired emotion recognition (specifically for fear) due to deficits in orienting attention to salient facial features like the eyes. Psychopathic individuals also display blunted autonomic responding to emotional stimuli, though whether this is due to attention-orienting deficits remains to be clarified. The present project investigated whether empathy-related deficits (poor emotion recognition and low levels of autonomic arousal) were the result of attention-based difficulties in young adults with psychopathic traits. Two different samples of Brooklyn College students participated in an emotion recognition study to see if varying levels of psychopathic traits affected autonomic arousal and the ability to successfully categorize emotional expressions. In both studies, participants completed the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised to assess self-reported levels of psychopathic traits. They also completed an emotion recognition task during continuous physiological recording (heart rate and skin conductance) and tracking of eye movements. There was a free gaze and cued-gaze condition; during the cued condition, participants directed their attention to either the eyes or the mouth of the emotional face. The principal aims of this project were to see if 1) psychopathic traits affected fixation to the eyes, emotion recognition accuracy, and autonomic arousal, and 2) whether cueing to the eyes, a threatening and salient facial feature, improved emotion recognition accuracy and increased arousal for participants with high levels of psychopathic traits.

In Experiment 1, we found that Factor 2 psychopathic traits were related to reduced fixation duration to the eye region, partially supporting the attention-to-the-eyes hypothesis. However, when cued to the eye region, performance on the emotion recognition task decreased as Factor 2 traits increased. We did not replicate this finding in Experiment 2. Results across both studies revealed that there was no relationship between psychopathic traits and emotion recognition accuracy nor under-arousal during free gaze conditions. In fact, participants with high levels of Factor 1 traits showed a pattern of heightened engagement with the task that was reflected in elevated skin conductance responses during the free gaze condition and increases in heart rate during the cued condition. Participants with concurrently high levels of Factor 1 and Factor 2 traits did not show an increase in physiological responding when cued to specific facial features, suggesting alternate methods are necessary to boost emotional empathy in these individuals. Overall, this project reinforced the value of looking at the separate and interactive effects of psychopathy factors to understand the mechanisms that underlie physiological and behavioral responses to emotional content.