A key feature of psychopathy is insensitivity to causing harm in others. Researchers have long attempted to understand why people high in psychopathy have this emotional blind spot. A recent investigation by University of Padova (Italy) psychologist Carolina Pletti and colleagues (2017) tested a new model to provide insight into the reasons why those high in psychopathy fail to care about the suffering of their fellow humans.
According to Pletti and her team, it is well-established that people with high levels of psychopathy are less able to recognize distress cues, including facial and vocal expressions of fear and sadness by people in need of immediate help. The potential relationship between emotions and morality is, as Pletti et al. note, addressed in the Integrated Emotion System Model (IES). Most of us, according to the IES, learn early in life to prefer to avoid making other people sad or afraid. Those who are psychopathic, though, do not, and therefore are less likely to base moral decisions on their potential to cause suffering to others.
The reasoning behind the IES model involves simple reinforcement. We've learned over our lives that it's bad to cause pain and suffering in others. Consider what happens when an ordinary toddler pushes a playmate, causing the playmate to burst into tears. Toddler #1 will feel sad at having hurt Toddler #2, and may even start crying, too. Such encounters teach children to avoid causing negative emotions in other people. Individuals with psychopathy, though, don’t make this connection and go on to become adults who aren’t deterred from harming other people. Neuroscientists trace this lack of empathy in part to a deficit in the amygdala, a part of the subcortex which processes emotional stimuli. The other deficit occurs in a part of the cerebral cortex involved in decision-making that would utilize this emotional information.
A classic dilemma used in studies of moral decision-making is the so-called “trolley” problem, in which individuals are given a scenario involving a runaway train that threatens to kill five people. In this hypothetical case, you're told that if you send the train down another track, one person will die but you'll save the original five in the train's way. Another variation of this dilemma is a bit more extreme, asking individuals whether they would push a man off an overpass in order to stop that runaway train. In this scenario, the man you push off will die, but he'll save the five because his body on the track will stop the train. Most people will find the choice less agonizing in the original, two-track version of the problem than in the overpass version, even though the actual problem is fundamentally the same in both scenarios. It seems worse, somehow, to actively cause the death of the man on the overpass, even though it would save the life of the five down below.
According to the IES model, the arousal of negative emotions associated with the overpass version of the problem leads most people to make the irrational decision of not saving him, but sacrificing the five. People high in psychopathy experience less of an emotional dilemma, and therefore make the more rational decision of sacrificing one for five regardless of what's involved in doing so.
Fortunately, it's not too often that we're faced with such extreme choices. Pletti and her colleagues believe the trolley problem and its related footbridge variant are too extreme compared to the decisions most of us must make in the course of our everyday lives. Instead, we face situations involving other moral transgressions, such as lying. The research team believed that they could gain greater insight into the role of emotions in moral decision-making in people high in psychopathy versus those who are not by comparing reactions to these lower-stakes moral dilemmas involving deception. One set of these everyday moral dilemmas involved causing harm to others through deception; the other set still involved lying, but were considered relatively harmless in their outcome.
Starting with a sample of 281 undergraduates, the University of Padova researchers first identified the highest and lowest in psychopathy using a standard measure that identifies those with the least emotional responsiveness to causing harm in others. The sacrificial dilemmas asked participants to imagine that they were firefighters or construction workers who had to decide whether to allow one person to die in order to save five others at risk. The everyday scenarios involving harm asked participants, for example, whether they would engage in deceptive behavior that would cost someone else money. A harmless deception-type of scenario asked them if they would fake illness to get out of going to a social event to which they’d already accepted an invitation.
As other researchers have noted, the high-psychopathic individuals were less distressed in the life-or-death sacrificial situations compared to low-psychopathic peers. The highly psychopathic also were equally likely to lie in the harmful versus harmless everyday situations, and were less emotionally distressed at the prospect of causing harm through their lies. Interestingly, the highly psychopathic seemed able to judge whether it was morally right or wrong to deceive others, but this judgment didn't deter them from making the harmful choice. As the authors concluded, “Psychopathic individuals are less inclined to refrain from pursuing a personal advantage involving harm to others because of their emotional hypoactivity” (p. 364).
To sum up, people high in psychopathy are able to distinguish between right and wrong, but don’t let this distinction affect their decision-making. They also will pursue choices that benefit them, even if they know they’re morally wrong, because they don’t have the same negative emotions associated with those choices that non-psychopathic individuals do. We can’t say that people high in psychopathy are unable to make moral choices, then, but it does appear justified to say that they will feel less anguish when they have to do so. The rest of us don’t want to cause harm to others and feel stressed when forced to do so, but those high in psychopathy seem to be able to make the “utilitarian," logic-based choice without feeling particularly distraught.
If you’re in a relationship with someone you believe is high in psychopathy, this study shows the dangers you may run into if that individual would need to make a sacrifice on your behalf. All other things being equal, you’re far better off being in relationships with people who both know, and care about, what’s best for you.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Pletti, C., Lotto, L., Buodo, G., & Sarlo, M. (2017). It's immoral, but I'd do it! Psychopathy traits affect decision‐making in sacrificial dilemmas and in everyday moral situations. British Journal of Psychology, 108(2), 351-368. doi:10.1111/bjop.12205