How do people with antisocial and psychopathic traits process emotions?

How do people with antisocial and psychopathic traits process emotions?

Posted by Annemieke Hendriks on Tue 16 May. 2023 - 3 minute read

What happens when you're unable to show others how you feel, or to understand the emotions of other people? We need these social skills to function in society, work, or school, and to build interpersonal relationships. 

Unfortunately, this is exactly what people with antisocial personality disorder (APD) and psychopathic traits have trouble with. Understanding more about how these individuals process emotions, and how to strengthen these skills, can help to improve interventions. 

That's why researcher Kyranides and her team studied how well people high in APD symptoms and/or psychopathy express and recognize emotions. In one condition of their study, they also asked participants to imitate facial expressions before performing their task. Curious about the effects? Read on to find out! 

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What are psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder (APD)?

Antisocial personality disorder (APD) and psychopathy have considerable overlap, but there are also some important differences.

People with APD generally show no regard for the rights and feelings of others. They may behave impulsively, irresponsibly, and even violently. A subset of people with APD also have psychopathic traits, which means they lack empathy and have a tendency to manipulate others. They also have trouble expressing and interpreting emotions. However, not everyone with APD has these traits of psychopathy.

Why emotion processing is so important

Our facial expressions play an important role in interpersonal relationships. Subtle nonverbal cues tell you about the emotions of others, or show someone else what you're thinking or feeling. This helps to signal what you're expecting of each other. 

Maybe you want someone to answer a question or wait their turn speaking, or the other person expects you to smile or to understand they're feeling sad and need some comfort. For people with psychopathic traits, research shows, this is very difficult. It's still unclear whether people with APD experience the same difficulties, or if it's specific for psychopathy.

By learning more about the differences between people with and without psychopathic traits, and the way they might improve their emotion processing, interventions for APD can be improved.

The role of attention in emotion processing

Experts think that emotion processing difficulties in people with psychopathic traits reflect an attentional bias. Specifically, they suggest that these people are highly goal-oriented and have difficulty extending their attention to information that doesn't relate to their goals. This includes social interactions.

So, if attention is part of the problem, why not steer people's attention to emotional information? As part of their study on emotion processing in people with psychopathic traits and/or APD, researcher Kyranides and her team asked participants to mimic the facial expressions they saw in an emotion recognition task.

Not only does this instruction direct people to emotional cues, but it may also strengthen empathy, as research shows that facial mimicry and empathy are related. 

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Facial expression analysis

 Their study included 107 young adults, divided over four different groups: low-risk, psychopathic traits, APD symptoms, and psychopathic traits + APD symptoms. All participants completed an emotion recognition task. They received three different kinds of instruction, in randomized order: imitate the facial expressions in the task, suppress any facial responses of your own, or simply to respond to the test items (no other instructions). 

While performing the emotion recognition task, participants' facial expressions were recorded using FaceReader. This way, the research team could assess their responses to the different instructions, as well as analyze their emotional expressivity.

Analyzing emotion recognition and expression

The team examined differences in emotion recognition between groups. Similar to earlier research, they found that participants with APD symptoms and the group with both APD and psychopathic traits recognized emotions less accurately than the low-risk group. Interestingly, the group with only psychopathic traits performed similarly to controls.

Using FaceReader, the research team also analyzed how the different groups expressed positive and negative emotions. They found that people from the group with combined APD and psychopathic traits expressed more anger compared to the group with only psychopathic traits. Surprisingly, the APD group expressed more sadness than the group with combined symptoms.

These results highlight the importance of considering groups with isolated or co-occurring APD symptoms and psychopathic traits. They also suggest that emotion regulation interventions, like anger management, could be beneficial for individuals with combined APD and psychopathic traits.

Imitation improves emotion recognition

So, what's the effect of different instructions? The results show that participants were most accurate in the emotion recognition task during imitation. Additional analyses show that these results were most pronounced in the APD group and the group with combined APD and psychopathic symptoms. 

Overall, these results indicate that imitation of facial expressions helps to improve accuracy on emotion recognition, again providing valuable information for designing or improving interventions.


Kyranides, M.; Petridou, M.; Gokani, H.; Hill, S.; Fanti, K. (2022). Reading and reacting to faces, the effect of facial mimicry in improving facial emotion recognition in individuals with antisocial behavior and psychopathic traits. Current Psychology,

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