UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Psychopathy and the conditioning of autonomic responses Quinn, Michael James


A delayed, differential, classical conditioning paradigm was used to investigate defense and reward conditioning of autonomic responses in psychopaths. The CSs were tones and the UCSs were shock and pictures of nudes. The Ss were drawn from the inmate population of a maximum security penitentiary and were classified as primary psychopaths (P), secondary psychopaths (S), and nonpsychopaths (NP), according to criteria proposed by Cleckley and Karpman. The three dependent variables of chief interest, the GSR, HR, and finger vasoconstriction, were recorded simultaneously on an Offner Type R Dynograph. Differential conditioning was expressed as the amplitude of response to a reinforced CS minus the amplitude of response to the unreinforced CS. The primary hypothesis of the study was that Group P would show less defense conditioning of electrodermal, cardiac, and vasomotor responses than would Group NP. The secondary hypothesis predicted no significant differences between Groups P and NP in amount of reward conditioning on any of the autonomic measures investigated. The results showed that of the three physiological systems studied only the electrodermal differentiated between Groups P and NP with Group P; (1) showing significantly less defense conditioning; (2) giving smaller conditioned ORs, and smaller UCRs to shock; and (3) having a significantly lower level of basal skin conductance midway through the experiment. There was no significant difference between the two groups in reward conditioning although the tendency was for Group P to give ORs and ARs of smaller amplitude than those given by Group NP. No significant difference was found between groups in shock detection threshold or shock tolerance level - hence these variables were ruled out as significant contributors to the difference in defense conditioning. It was also shown that a difference in basal conductance between Groups P and NP was not significantly related to the observed difference in conditioning. Under both defense and reward stimulus conditions all groups showed evidence of conditioned HR deceleration, and an increase in the amplitude of vasomotor responses. There was no significant difference between Groups P and NP on any index of either cardiac or vasomotor activity. The GSR findings pertaining to defense conditioning were interpreted as providing additional evidence that primary psychopaths are deficient in the acquisition of conditioned fear responses. The reward conditioning results indicate that there is still no evidence that primary psychopaths differ from nonpsychopaths in the conditioning of reward responses. The difference between the amount of electrodermal and cardiovascular conditioning shown by Group P was related to structural and functional differences between the physiological systems investigated. The results of this study seem to permit the following tentative conclusions: (1) The GSR may be a more appropriate autonomic correlate of the psychopath's emotional reactivity than is either HR or finger vasoconstriction. (2) The primary psychopath's autonomic conditioning deficit may be restricted to the GSR. (3) In comparison with nonpsychopaths primary psychopaths are deficient in the acquisition of classically conditioned fear responses expressed as electrodermal measures. (4) There is no evidence that primary psychopaths and non-psychopaths differ significantly in the acquisition of classically conditioned reward responses. (5) Relative to nonpsychopaths primary psychopaths appear to be electrodermally hyporeactive.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.