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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Visual attention in psychopathic criminals Harpur, Timothy John


This study was designed to examine the hypothesis that criminal psychopaths differ from criminal nonpsychopaths in their ability to over-focus attention on certain kinds of stimuli. For the purposes of this study, the concept of over-focussing was operationalized to mean the ability to process stimuli more quickly or efficiently by making use of one or more attentional mechanisms for selecting among locations or stimuli. A second aim of the study was to identify the component processes contributing to this more efficient selection. Five experiments were run to assess several different components of attention contributing to selection of stimuli in a variety of paradigms. Experiments 1 and 2 assessed covert orienting of attention across the visual field using both peripherally presented physical cues and centrally presented symbolic cues to prime locations in visual space. Three dissociable components of attention were assessed in this paradigm. Experiments 3-5 were designed to assess the efficiency of processing a target item in the presence of a distractor item. Four additional dissociable components of selective attention were measured in these three studies. The results supported the hypothesis that psychopaths can over-focus attention, but the groups were differentiated by only one of the component processes measured. In Experiments 1 and 2 endogenous orienting of attention was greater for psychopaths than for nonpsychopaths. In these paradigms endogenous facilitation controlled the allocation of attention to cued locations, and the subsequent speeding of reaction time to targets presented at those locations, when the cue was symbolic or predictive, but not when it involved a physical change of energy at the cued location. This strategic allocation of attention probably resulted from the predictive validity (approximately 68% valid) of the cue in relation to the target. Other component processes failed to differentiate the groups. These included measures of exogenous orienting and inhibition of return in experiments 1 and 2, and measures of interference due to a distracting stimulus, habituation of interference, attenuation of interference due to spatial displacement of the distractor, and negative priming in experiments 3-5. The difference in covert orienting was replicated in experiments 1 and 2 in two groups of criminals who also failed to demonstrate any abnormalities in a variety of other processes involved in attention. It was concluded that psychopaths differ from nonpsychopaths specifically in their strategic allocation of attention in situations of moderate uncertainty, but show no other abnormalities in the component processes that control attention.

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