Blunted startle reactivity in everyday sadism and psychopathy


Two studies examined the amplitude of the startle response as a function of the Dark Tetrad of personality (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism). We measured electromyographic activity of the orbicularis oculi muscle evoked by a startle stimulus while participants viewed images on a computer screen. Both studies revealed a negative correlation between general startle reactivity (averaged across positive, negative, and neutral images) and sadistic tendencies. In Study 2, all four dark traits were negative correlates of general startle reactivity. Study 2 also examined the personality correlates of aversive startle potentiation (ASP; indexed by greater reactivity while viewing negatively-valenced images than positive or neutral images). ASP correlated negatively with a variety of personality measures of psychopathy and sadism, their facets, and related personality tendencies (callousness, risk-taking, and restricted affect). These findings suggest that ordinary people with high levels of callousness and antagonism display physiological evidence of non-reactivity (i.e., blunted acoustic startle in general), whereas psychopathy and sadism are preferentially associated with reduced ASP.

Scientific Reports


Buckels, E. E., Williams, D. A., Trapnell, P. D., Kermani Koosheh, S., Javra, O. M., & Svenne, S. C. (2023). Blunted startle reactivity in everyday sadism and psychopathy. Scientific Reports, 13, 14216.

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