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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014 Jan;9(1):3-11. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss097. Epub 2012 Sep 5.

When psychopathy impairs moral judgments: neural responses during judgments about causing fear.

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Department of Psychology, Georgetown University, 302-A White Gravenor, 37 & O St. NW, WA 20057, USA.


Psychopathy is a disorder characterized by reduced empathy, shallow affect and behaviors that cause victims distress, like threats, bullying and violence. Neuroimaging research in both institutionalized and community samples implicates amygdala dysfunction in the etiology of psychopathic traits. Reduced amygdala responsiveness may disrupt processing of fear-relevant stimuli like fearful facial expressions. The present study links amygdala dysfunction in response to fear-relevant stimuli to the willingness of individuals with psychopathic traits to cause fear in other people. Thirty-three healthy adult participants varying in psychopathic traits underwent whole-brain fMRI scanning while they viewed statements that selectively evoke anger, disgust, fear, happiness or sadness. During scanning, participants judged whether it is morally acceptable to make each statement to another person. Psychopathy was associated with reduced activity in right amygdala during judgments of fear-evoking statements and with more lenient moral judgments about causing fear. No group differences in amygdala function or moral judgments emerged for other emotion categories. Psychopathy was also associated with increased activity in middle frontal gyrus (BA 10) during the task. These results implicate amygdala dysfunction in impaired judgments about causing distress in psychopathy and suggest that atypical amygdala responses to fear in psychopathy extend across multiple classes of stimuli.


amygdala; antisocial; empathy; fear; moral judgment; psychopathy

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