To read this content please select one of the options below:

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

Julia Babcock (Department of Psychology, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, USA)
Jared Michonski (Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA)

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Article publication date: 28 May 2019

Issue publication date: 25 June 2019




The purpose of this paper is to examine the associations among psychopathic 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.


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.


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

Limitations include a small sample of heterosexual violent community couples. Women’s 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 challenge Blair’s (1995) model of a specific deficit in processing distress 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 traits across facial expressions supports Linehan’s (1993) emotional vulnerability model of borderline personality disorder.

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 perpetrators’ personality 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.


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.



This research was funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Mental Health (MH066943-01A1).


Babcock, J. and Michonski, J. (2019), "Sensitivity to facial affect in partner-violent men: the role of psychopathic and borderline traits", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 213-224.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

Related articles