Electrodermal and cardiovascular activity in psychopathy : indicants of a coping response
Ogloff, James Robert Powell
The most well accepted theory of pscyhopathy, and the one which has spawned the largest amount of research, was developed by Cleckley (1976). Recently, Hare (1980a, 1985b) created the Psychopathy Checklist based upon 16 characteristics of psychopathy elaborated by Cleckley. The checklist is a valid and reliable method for assessing criminal psychopathy (Hare, 1983, 1985a; Hare & McPherson,1984; Wong, 1984). Numerous studies have investigated the psychophysiological responsivity of psychopaths. In a particularly productive line of research subjects' heartrates (HR) and skin conductance responses (SCR) have been measured during a countdown prior to the onset of an aversive stimulus. During the countdown, psychopaths have been found to display accelerated HR accompanied by small increases in SC while non-psychopaths have shown less accelerated HR accompanied by dramatic increases in SC (Hare, 1978; Hare, Frazelle & Cox, 1978). It has been suggested that these findings are indicative of the psychopath's use of an efficient coping system (Hare, 1978; Hare, Frazelle & Cox, 1978; Schalling, 1978). According to this hypothesis, the increased HR demonstrated by psychopaths helps to attenuate the impact of the impending aversive stimulus. This suggestion is substantiated since the psychopath's SC, which may be indicative of anxiety (Hare, 1978; Spziler & Epstein, 1976), does not increase during the countdown. Since the Psychopathy Checklist was only developed recently, it has not been employed to select subjects in these studies. Subjects in the present study were 32 male patient volunteers from the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon. This study was performed to determine; 1) whether the Psychopathy Checklist is a useful measure for assessing psychopathy in psychophysiological research; and, 2) whether the pattern of HR and SCR shown by psychopaths is indicative of a coping response. The present results are consistent with earlier findings (Hare & Craigen, 1974; Hare, Frazelle & Cox, 1978) indicating the efficacy of the checklist for subject selection. In order to test the second point, the HR and SCR of psychopathic and non-psychopathic subjects were compared across two countdown tasks. In the first task, subjects were confronted with a 120 db tone following the countdown. Subjects were given the option of preventing the tone onset in the other task. It was hypothesized that the pattern of increased HR and small increases in SC shown by psychopaths is indicative of a coping response and would disappear in the tone-prevention task where there was no need to "cope" internally. The results substantiated this hypothesis. However, non-psychopaths demonstrated increases in HR and SCR in both tasks. The theoretical implications of these findings and suggestions for future research programs are also discussed.