Face validity : exploring the relationship between facial affect recognition and psychopathic traits with high-risk prisoners in New Zealand : a thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology at Massey University
Psychopathy, as a psychiatric entity, psychological construct, and social idea
has suffered from conceptual vagueness and misuse for over two centuries.
Currently, psychopathic individuals are considered to present as having a
constellation of affective, interpersonal, and behavioural characteristics that
typically incurs great social, economic, and human costs by virtue of repeated
displays of extreme antisocial behaviour. As such, individuals who are
considered ‘psychopathic’ tend to be over-represented in judicial and
correctional settings, tend to re-offend faster and more often than nonpsychopathic
offenders, and are also resistant to conventional treatment
efforts – so much so, in fact, as to have the reputation of being ‘untreatable’.
Historical and current conceptualisations of psychopathy have emphasised
moral, behavioural, cognitive, neurocognitive, and even physiological
differences. However, the various social and interpersonal contexts in which
these individuals interact and indeed offend do not appear to have been fully
explored in the literature. This study explored social cognitive aspects of
violent offenders with psychopathic traits with a view towards informing
intervention approaches with this high-risk and potentially dangerous group.
Furthermore, the impact of psychopathy is largely evident in the social realm
and suggests differences in social information-processing. The role of
emotions, especially those of others, is an important construct across theories
of social interactions and impairments in affective processing, such as low
empathy, guilt, and fear that are common features of psychopathy. Given that
recognising emotions from facial cues is an early developmental marker ofemotional and social development, it presents as an interface between
behaviour and social cognitive processes. This study sought to investigate the
basic relationships between psychopathy and social cognitive phenomena.
Male prisoners (N = 68) from New Zealand prisons were invited to (1) identify
facial expressions from Ekman and Friesen’s (1976) Pictures Of Facial Affect
stimuli set; (2) discriminate emotions from displayed pairs of faces; and (3)
repeat the tasks after being administered a frustrating task. It was
hypothesised that men who presented with psychopathic traits (as measured
on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised; PPI-R; Lilienfeld &
Widows, 2005) would reveal biased responding before and after the stress
intervention. Contrary to expectations, the findings from this study did not – on
the whole – support the hypothesis. However, the outcomes called into
question the supposedly pervasive and apparently cognitively-impaired nature
of psychopathic social information-processing.