Pupil reactivity to emotional faces among convicted violent offenders: The role of psychopathic traits

Steven M. Gillespie, Pia Rotshtein, Harriet Chapman, Emmie Brown, Anthony R. Beech, Ian J. Mitchell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Psychopathy is characteristically associated with impairments in recognizing others' facial expressions of emotion, and there is some evidence that these difficulties are specific to the callousness features of the disorder. However, it remains unclear whether these difficulties are accompanied by reductions in autonomic reactivity when viewing others' emotional expressions, and whether these impairments are particular to expressions showing another's distress or are more pervasive across different emotional expressions. In this study, 73 adult male prisoners with histories of serious sexual or violent offenses- who ranged across the psychopathy continuum-completed a facial emotion recognition task. For the first time in a convicted offender sample, we used pupillometry techniques to measure changes in the pupil dilation response, a measure of sympathetic autonomic arousal to affective stimuli. We found that the callousness features of psychopathy were related to impaired recognition of fearful faces. Strikingly, we also showed that increasing callousness was associated with a reduction in the pupil dilation response and that this was pervasive across different emotional expressions. Our results highlight a potential role of the locus coeruleus-noradrenaline system in the pathophysiology of psychopathy and demonstrate the potential of the pupillary response as a technique for understanding attention- emotion interactions in psychopathy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)622-632
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Abnormal Psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 American Psychological Association.


  • Antisocial behavior
  • Facial expression
  • Fear
  • Psychopathy
  • Pupilometry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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