Autonomic response to rewards and punishments was assessed in incarcerated psychopaths and nonpsychopaths during passive avoidance learning. Based on behavioral evidence that psychopaths are less likely to suspend approach behavior following punishment and that approach behavior is associated with increased heart rate (HR), we hypothesized that, in comparison to HR following reward, psychopaths would display greater HR following punishment than nonpsychopaths. A significant Psychopathy × Feedback interaction (P < 0.05) revealed that psychopaths displayed lower HR following punishment feedback than controls (P < 0.10) but group differences in HR were moderated by level of anxiety and seconds following feedback. A marginally significant Psychopathy × Feedback interaction for skin conductance responses (SCRs) revealed that psychopaths exhibited fewer SCRs following punishment than controls. There were no group differences in passive avoidance learning. That psychopaths displayed lower HR and fewer SCRs than controls following punishment is inconsistent with our hypothesis and indicates that psychopaths were relatively unresponsive to punishment feedback in this study. Alternative explanations for this finding are discussed within the context of psychopaths' difficulty learning from punishment.
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