By Emma Young
Imagine going to sit in a room with a violent, imprisoned psychopath and having a chat about what you both like to eat. (It’s impossible not to think of liver, fava beans and Chianti, isn’t it….?)
This is exactly what one researcher did recently in Germany. But the purpose of the study, reported in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment wasn’t to gather data on criminal psychopaths’ dining preferences, but rather on how they make — or don’t make — eye contact during a conversation.
This was the first study to explore psychopaths’ eye movements in a naturalistic setting. And it reveals that prisoners who scored highly on one aspect of psychopathy, in particular, were much less likely to look at the interviewer’s eyes. This finding not only helps with understanding how psychopathy develops, but also suggests that finding ways to encourage at-risk children to make more eye contact might be a useful intervention, argue Nina Gehrer at the University of Tübingen and her colleagues.
The team studied 30 men who had been convicted of serious crimes (including murder, rape and hostage-taking) and who were incarcerated in two institutions in Germany.
One researcher led all the interactions, which were divided into talking and listening stages. For one minute, the participant listened while the researcher talked about one of three neutral topics (eating habits/food, job/work or typical daily routine). Then, after a brief exchange on the topic, the second stage began: the participant talked for about a minute on the same topic. This was then repeated for the other two topics.
Throughout both stages, the experimenter maintained eye contact (this was later verified by two independent raters). And at all times, the prisoner wore an eye-tracking headset. This allowed the team to monitor where they were looking while they were listening and talking.
For the purposes of the study, the team divided the face into two sections: the eyes and the philtrum (the nose and mouth region). They then examined whether time spent looking at the eyes or philtrum correlated with the participants’ scores on the PCL-R, a standard psychopathy assessment.
Psychopathy is generally thought to have four facets, or components: manipulating other people, affective impairments (deficits in feeling emotion and empathy and in showing remorse or guilt), having an erratic lifestyle and demonstrating antisocial behaviour. Each of these is measured within the PCL-R. And the team found that during both listening and talking, prisoners with higher affective psychopathy scores made less eye contact. “These results are in line with previous research suggesting impaired attention to social cues in psychopathy,” the researchers write.
Current theories about how psychopathy develops assume that a failure to view important social cues (from the eyes, especially) is a key factor. For children who go on to be diagnosed with psychopathy, there’s evidence that emotion-related impairments emerge early, in the form of callous unemotional traits. There’s some evidence that young children who pay less attention to other people’s eyes are more likely to develop these traits, the researchers note. Now that this link has been found for adult, criminal psychopaths, this suggests that eye contact, or rather a lack of it, could be important for understanding the development of the disorder.
There are some limitations to the study, however. The number of participants was quite small, and all were men. The researchers themselves call for a replication before any firm conclusions can be drawn. It will also be important to investigate whether it’s possible to fix this particular deficit in eye contact, and, if so, whether that reduces the risk of developing emotion-related problems.
“To date, evidence for lasting changes in eye gaze through social attention bias modification training is still elusive,” they note. “Thus, these promising approaches and further opportunities that target impaired eye contact need to be further investigated and enhanced.”