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Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2011 Dec;11(4):451-62. doi: 10.3758/s13415-011-0041-2.

Evidence for unique threat-processing mechanisms in psychopathic and anxious individuals.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI 53706, USA.


Behaviorally, psychopathy and anxiety display opposite patterns of threat sensitivity and response inhibition. However, it is unclear whether this is due to shared or to separate underlying processes. To address this question, we evaluated whether the threat sensitivity of psychopathic and anxious offenders relates to similar or different components of Gray and McNaughton's (2000) Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory using a sample of 87 prisoners and a task that crossed threat onset with attentional focus. Psychopathy was associated with significantly weaker fear-potentiated startle (FPS) under conditions that presented threat cues after alternative, goal-directed cues. Conversely, anxiety was associated with significantly stronger FPS when threat appeared first and was the focus of attention. Furthermore, these differences were statistically independent. The results suggest that the abnormal sensitivity to threat cues associated with psychopathy and anxiety relate to different underlying processes and have implications for understanding the relationship between low- and high-anxious psychopathy.

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