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Another piece for the puzzle: Psychophysiological indicators of the absence of empathic responding in Factor I psychopathy

Antisocial behaviour has increasingly been identified as a problem in today's Western societies. One of the crucial issues is the question of identification, prevention and/or treatment. There is much debate among social scientists from different theoretical perspectives whether antisocial behaviours are a product of environmental influences or of biological predispositions. This study was lead by the assumption that there is a distinct group of antisocial individuals with a biological dimension (psychopathy Factor I), who can be distinguished early in life from merely delinquent individuals. As the research literature indicates, lack of empathy seems to be a prominent marker distinguishing psychopathic reactions from other antisocial behaviours. The overall aim of this research was to investigate whether psychophysiological indicators are powerful enough in detecting the absence of empathic responding in psychopathy Factor I. The main research questions explored were: whether empathy and psychopathy Factor I are inversely related to each other; whether it would be possible to discriminate empathic (i.e., empathy-analogues) from non-empathic children (i.e., psychopathy-analogues); and finally, whether psychophysiological measures (heart rate and skin conductance) would prove to be useful assessment tools for this task. Fifty boys, aged five years, from 22 different schools, participated in this study. They were pre-selected by their teachers to fit either into a group of 'non-empathic/difficulties with social behaviours', or a second group 'highly empathic' (via pre-screening checklist). The children's group membership remained unknown to the researcher. Each boy was tested twice. The first session (Phase A) involved the administration of test batteries using potential measures of dispositional empathy and psychopathy, whereas the second session (Phase B) included the ambulatory measurement of the children's heart rate and skin conductance, while they were watching several empathy-inducing film segments. The results of Phase A identified the most consistent empathy and psychopathy (Factor I) questionnaire measures, and further revealed that these instruments were strongly negatively correlated with each other. This seemed to indicate that the construct of affective empathy is indeed inversely related to psychopathy Factor I. The results of Phase B revealed that it was possible to develop a classification system which would distinguish two groups of children, based on their psychophysiological data related to empathic/non-empathic responding. Following the lead of the research literature, resting heart rate level was used as the initial criterion for grouping. This first classification was then further developed and modified using other psychophysiological variables as criteria, such as heart rate reactivity, heart rate variability, and skin conductance responses, as grouping variables for clustering and discriminant analysis procedures. As expected, the results seemed to conform to the theories regarding empathic/non-empathic responding in children, and thus appeared to confirm that the two groups originated from two different populations. The final classification system, based on an aggregate of these psychophysiological data, was then further verified by mapping it onto the questionnaire data from Phase A. This analysis revealed that the final classification system matched to a reliable degree the children's questionnaire scores. These results might open the possibility that individual profiles for at risk children could be developed, based on psychophysiological indicators. Psychophysiological measures appear to be reliable, are not intrusive, and most importantly, are independent from rater-bias and demand characteristics. They can be particularly important for research with very young children, who do not yet possess elaborate language skills and frequently lack insight into their own emotional responses. Thus, it has been found that psychophysiological indicators may be able to contribute an additional piece to the multimodal assessment of children 'at risk', and it also means that early detection and prevention of psychopathy might be a step closer.
Type of thesis
Isler, V. (2003). Another piece for the puzzle: Psychophysiological indicators of the absence of empathic responding in Factor I psychopathy (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/13229
The University of Waikato
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