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Theory of mind and mentalizing ability in antisocial personality disorders with and without psychopathy

  • M. DOLAN (a1) and R. FULLAM (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 August 2004

Background. The literature on Theory of Mind (ToM) in antisocial samples is limited despite evidence that the neural substrates of theory of mind task involve the same circuits implicated in the pathogenesis of antisocial behaviour.

Method. Eighty-nine male DSM-IV Antisocial Personality Disordered subjects (ASPDs) and 20 controls (matched for age and IQ) completed a battery of ToM tasks. The ASPD group was categorized into psychopathic and non-psychopathic groups based on a cut-off score of 18 on the Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version.

Results. There were no significant group (control v. psychopath v. non-psychopathic ASPD) differences on basic tests of ToM but both psychopathic and non-psychopathic ASPDs performed worse on subtle tests of mentalizing ability (faux pas tasks). ASPDs can detect and understand faux pas, but show an indifference to the impact of faux pas. On the face/eye task non-psychopathic ASPDs showed impairments in the recognition of basic emotions compared with controls and psychopathic ASPDs. For complex emotions, no significant group differences were detected largely due to task difficulty.

Conclusions. The deficits in mentalizing ability in ASPD are subtle. For the majority of criminals with ASPD and psychopathy ToM abilities are relatively intact and may have an adaptive function in maintaining a criminal lifestyle. Our findings suggest the key deficits appear to relate more to their lack of concern about the impact on potential victims than the inability to take a victim perspective. The findings tentatively also suggest that ASPDs with neurotic features may be more impaired in mentalizing ability than their low anxious psychopathic counterparts.

Corresponding author
Dr Mairead Dolan, Edenfield Centre, Bolton Salford and Trafford Mental Health NHS Trust, Bury New Road, Prestwich, Manchester M25 3BL, UK. (Email:
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Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
  • URL: /core/journals/psychological-medicine
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