Deficient avoidance and aggression in men with psychopathic traits
Martinez, Marc Alan
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Cleckley (1941) posited that psychopathic individuals suffer from a "semantic dementia" in which they fail to process the emotional meaning of language. The current study sought to examine the role of "semantic dementia" in across factors of psychopathy (i.e., factor 1 [emotional detachment] and factor 2 [antisocial behavioral style]) by investigating cognitive processing of affective words, behavioral predispositions, and aggression. One-hundred and forty-four men were recruited to participate in both a noncompetitive and competitive reaction time task. During the noncompetitive reaction time task, participants responded to emotionally-valenced word stimuli through push and pull movements using a joystick. Previous work conducted by Chen and Bargh (1999) found that individuals respond quicker to appetitive (positively-valenced) stimuli when performing a pull movement and quicker to aversive (negatively-valenced) stimuli when performaing a push movement. Prior to the competitive reaction time task, which provided participants the opportunity to shock or refrain from shocking an ostensible opponent, participants were randomly assigned to either the reactive or instrumental condition. Those assigned to the reactive condition received provocation via shocks and performance feedback. Individuals in the instrumental condition were informed of a potential $20 prize conditional on accumulating more "wins" (i.e., faster reaction times than their opponent). Participants in this condition were informed that shocks negatively influence reaction time speed. This manipulation was intended to motivate participants to use aggression as a means to acquire a secondary gain. No feedback regarding performance was provided until the conclusion of the experiment to remove any potential provocation. Analyses revealed that the relationship between high levels of factor 1 (emotional detachment) psychopathy traits and aggression was moderated by level of behavioral activation and ability to correctly classify positively- and negatively-valenced words. No significant relationships were noted for reaction time, factor 1, and aggression. Significant results provide support to the role of "semantic dementia" and suggest possible subtypes of factor 1 psychopathy based upon levels of behavioral activation.