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Psychol Sci. 2011 Feb;22(2):226-34. doi: 10.1177/0956797610396227. Epub 2011 Jan 18.

Specifying the attentional selection that moderates the fearlessness of psychopathic offenders.

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Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, 1202 W. Johnson St., Madison, WI 53706, USA.


Our previous research demonstrated that psychopathy-related fear deficits involve abnormalities in attention that undermine sensitivity to peripheral information. In the present study, we specified this attention-mediated abnormality in a new sample of 87 prisoners assessed with Hare's Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (Hare, 2003). We measured fear-potentiated startle (FPS) under four conditions that crossed attentional focus (threat vs. alternative) with early versus late presentation of threat cues. The psychopathic deficit in FPS was apparent only in the early-alternative-focus condition, in which threat cues were presented after the alternative goal-directed focus was established. Furthermore, psychopathy interacted with working memory capacity in the late-alternative-focus condition, which suggests that individuals high in psychopathy and working memory capacity were able to maintain a set-related alternative focus that reduced FPS. The results not only provide new evidence that attention moderates the fearlessness of psychopathic individuals, but also implicate an early attention bottleneck as a proximal mechanism for deficient response modulation in psychopathy.

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