Thursday, July 05, 2012

Eye Contact, Autism and Psychopathy

Researchers have found that children with psychopathic tendencies have trouble recognizing fear. Some new research suggests a relationship between poor fear recognition in psychopathy and lack of attention to the eyes of fearful faces. (Apparently fear shows most prominently in the eyes.) One study shows that psychopathic teens pay less attention to the eyes in emotion recognition tasks, and another study shows that instructing kids to look at the eyes improves psychopathic kids' fear recognition to normal levels.

They explain this through a theory which suggests that lack of eye contact in infancy results in poorer parent-child attachment, which impairs development of a conscience in these children. Problem is, psychopathic kids aren't the only ones who pay less attention to eyes. Many studies, such as this one, have shown reduced eye contact in autistic children as well. In fact, this is a more consistent finding, to the point where lack of eye contact is listed in many diagnostic scales as a sign of autism.

So if their theory is right, autistics should show the same lack of moral development that is seen in psychopaths. Problem is, they don't. Several studies have shown that autistic kids perform more like NTs than psychopaths on many psychopathy-related tests, such as the moral/conventional distinction and self-report of emotional empathy. On fear recognition, autistic kids are no poorer at recognizing fear than any other emotion - they show a generalized difficulty in recognizing all emotions (interestingly, kids with both psychopathy and autism show an additive effect, with the effects of both conditions combining to make them extremely poor at recognizing fear).

Clearly, then, lack of eye contact is not a cause of a lack of conscience and empathy. So what would explain the association between fear recognition and eye contact in psychopaths? Well, here's my theory:

lack of interest in others' emotions --> less attention to eyes --> poor fear recognition

So, most people, when they see a face, they immediately flag this as something to attend to, and they look at the eyes of the face so they can figure out what the person is thinking/feeling. They do this unconsciously. And one of the big reasons they do this is because they care what other people are thinking/feeling - they have affective empathy.

Psychopaths don't care what others are thinking/feeling. So when they spot a face, they won't instinctively try to figure out what's going on in that person's mind. As they get older they'll consciously try to figure people out when it serves their advantage, but they don't automatically try to do so. As a result, they don't gather as much information, especially from the person's eyes, so they don't recognize fear as easily.

Meanwhile, the situation for autistics is different. It seems to me that with eye contact, there are two kinds of autistic people. For one type, their brain flags eyes as important. In fact, their brain practically screams at them that eyes are important. The signal is too strong and causes overload, and they cope by averting their gaze. (This post is a good illustration of what eye contact is like for this kind of autistic.) Very often this type of autistic will not only avoid eye contact, but will avoid gazing at people at all - these tends to be the people who turn away when you're trying to talk to them. Fragile X Syndrome kids show this type of reaction to eye contact - they avoid eye contact, show abnormal brain activation to eye contact, and show lower cortisol (stress hormone) the less eye contact they make.

The other kind don't have eyes marked out as important. This is not, as in psychopathy, because they're not interested in how others feel, but because they don't get the same kind of information from people's eyes. It's like how a prosopagnosic person pays less attention to faces, because faces don't tell them who the person is. For this kind of autistic person, the brain regions that process and interpret subtle cues to other people's facial expressions are not working properly, and so they don't get all that much information from the person's eyes. Some focus on the mouth instead of the eyes, because many kids with language problems will often use lip-reading to boost comprehension. Others focus on body areas that they can read emotions in more easily - I tend to read emotion most easily from people's shoulders (tension, height, etc).

How would you test my theory? Well, the same study that showed recused attention to the eyes of fearful faces in psychopaths also showed that non-psychopaths look at eyes more for fearful faces than for sad faces (eyes are less important for recognizing sadness). Other studies have shown that psychopaths make more, not less, eye contact in certain settings, such as when being interviewed, suggesting that there's no generalized deficit in eye contact in psychopaths. This supports my theory that lack of eye contact is an effect of reduced empathy - in situations where people make eye contact for reasons other than empathetic ones, psychopaths will make plenty of eye contact.

Secondly, we could examine whether there's any relationship between the amount of eye contact infants seek and their performance on the Strange Situation several months later. If my theory is correct, individual differences in eye contact should have no relationship to attachment style.


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