Psychopaths can't connect emotionally. Researchers have thought that trait may be connected with an outsized drive for reward and an inability to register fearful expressions in others’ faces. And that training them to pay attention to such expressions might help.
Training, however, has not been successful, and a paper to be published in the journal Psychological Science suggests why. [Patrick Sylvers, Patricia Brennan and Scott Lilienfeld, "Psychopathic Traits and Preattentive Threat Processing in Children: A Novel Test of the Fearlessness Hypothesis," link to come]
Scientists gathered 88 young boys. Some who have a high measure of disregard for others’ feelings, and others who were normal. Each boy watched a screen where a different image was flashed momentarily in each eye. One eye received abstract shapes and the other received an image of a face bearing one of four emotions: fear, disgust, happiness or neutral. The child had to push a button as soon as he saw the face.
Healthy children notice the fearful face faster than any other emotion. But for the others, their reaction time to fearful faces slowed in proportion to their lack of empathy.
The images flash so fast that this lack of reaction is at the unconscious level. So the scientists conclude that attention training will not help prevent psychopathic behavior. And that there is indeed an inherent ignorance of any expression of fear in the first place.
[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]