Sensitivity to facial affect in partner-violent men: the role of psychopathic and borderline traits

Date27 June 2019
Published date27 June 2019
AuthorJulia Babcock,Jared Michonski
Subject MatterHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Sociology,Gender studies,Gender violence,Social conflicts,War/peace
Sensitivity to facial affect in partner-violent
men: the role of psychopathic and
borderline traits
Julia Babcock and Jared Michonski
Purpose The purpose of this paper i s to examine the associations among psycho pathic and borderline
traits, intimate partner violence (IPV) and sensitivity to facial affect. The authors hypothesized that IPV
men high in psychopathic traits would exhibit reduced sensitivity to expressions of distress specifically
(fear + sadness), while IPV men high in borderline traits would show heightened sensitivity to facial affect
more generally.
Design/methodology/approach A community sample of 79 IPV men in heterosexual relationships were
exposed to slides of facial affect displays while psychophysiological reactions were recorded. Sensitivity to
facial affect was operationalized as accuracy in recognizing and skin conductance responses (SCR) while
viewing discrete facial expressions.
Findings Borderline personality disorder (BPD) features were positively related to accuracy in labeling fear
and surprise while primary psychopathy (Factor 1) was negatively related to accuracy in labeling disgust.
Borderline traits were positively associated with SCR while primary psychopathy was negatively associated
with SCR while viewing slides of facial affect. Secondary psychopathy (Factor 2) follows the same
physiological patterns of BPD traits but the correlates are weaker. Results suggest that IPV men high in traits
of primary psychopathy show hypoarousal whereas those high borderline features show hyperarousal to
facial emotions.
Research limitations/implications Limitationsinclude a small sample of heterosexual violentcommunity
couples. Womens IPV was not analyzed. Findings suggest that BPD and primary psychopathy traits are
diametrically opposite in SCR, making them powerful comparison groups for psychophysiological studies.
Findings challengeBlairs (1995) model of a specific deficit in processingdistress cues for individuals high in
psychopathic traits. Rather results suggest that IPV men high in traits of primary psychopathy show more
pervasive hypoarousal to facial emotion.The hyperarousal of men high in BPD traitsacross facial expressions
supports Linehans (1993) emotional vulnerability model of borderline personalitydisorder.
Practical implications Differences in psychophysiological responding to emotions may be clinically
relevant in the motivations for violence perpetration. The hypoarousal associated with primary psychopathy
may facilitate the perpetration of proactive violence. The hyperarousal associated with BPD and secondary
psychopathy may be fundamental in the perpetration of reactive violence. Treatment matching by IPV
perpetratorspersonality traits may improve the efficacy of battering intervention programs. Perpetrators high
in borderline personality features may benefit from emotional regulation therapies, such as Dialectical
Behavior Therapy. IPV men high in traits of primary psychopathy may benefit from affective empathy and
validation training.
Social implications Currently, battering intervention programs show little efficacy in reducing
intimate partner recidivism. Experimental psychopathology studies such as this one may inform advocates
seeking to develop new, tailored treatment packages for partner violence offenders with different personality
disorder traits.
Originality/value Many treatment providers assume that men who batter women have deficits in empathy
and emotional intelligence. However, this study suggests that rather than global deficits, deficits depend on
personality traits. The current study is the first to assess psychophysiological reactivity in response to facial
affect displays among IPV perpetrators. Examining SCR responding to photos of facial affect may be used in
future studies of affect sensitivity.
Keywords Domestic violence, Facial affect recognition, Psychopathy, Borderline,
Intimate partner violence, Psychophysiology
Paper type Research paper
Received 27 December 2018
Revised 8 March 2019
23 March 2019
Accepted 24 March 2019
This research was funded by the
US Department of Health and
Human Services, National
Institutes of Health and National
Institute of Mental Health
Julia Babcock is based at the
Department of Psychology,
University of Houston,
Houston, Texas, USA.
Jared Michonski is based at the
Department of Psychology,
University of Washington,
Seattle, Washington, USA.
DOI 10.1108/JACPR-12-2018-0396 VOL. 11 NO. 3 2019, pp.213-224, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 1759-6599

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