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How the Antisocial Mind Deals With Trust

Antisociality is linked to less trust(worthiness) and greater retribution.

by Jan B. Engelmann

Humans, probably more so than any other species, rely on their ability to infer the mental states of their counterparts in their day-to-day social interactions. Social neuroscientists refer to this ability as “theory of mind” or “mentalizing.” This ability allows us to take the perspective of our interaction partners and infer their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, likely by simulating how we would react in similar situations.

One prominent theory concerned with the evolution of human social cognition (the social brain hypothesis) claims that our ability to read others' minds, or to predict their intentions and infer their beliefs, has evolved because of the social pressures that came along with living together in ever larger groups a few million years ago. While living in groups proved to be advantageous to our ancestors, because it offered protection from predators and promised greater hunting success, the possibility of betrayal by other group members became omnipresent. Despite our contribution to the public good, others might not share the resources that we have worked to accumulate and protect.

These complexities of dealing with others in social contexts created the evolutionary pressures to select for brains that were able to predict the behaviors and intentions of others, so the theory goes.

The brain’s “social cognition” network identified by social neuroscientists seems to do exactly this: It allows us to place ourselves in the position of our interaction partners and infer their beliefs and intentions. Prominent brain regions in this network include the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC). These regions are typically activated when we interact with others—for instance in the context of trust games.

Jan Engelmann
Theory of mind network showing the locations of temporoparietal junction and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex within the brain.
Source: Jan Engelmann

A recent study conducted jointly by my colleagues and me shows that the way we engage theory of mind and infer others’ mental states might depend on our personality. Using trust games that participants completed under different conditions, namely with and without the possibility of being punished for unfair behavior, the study identified a specific behavioral profile in antisocial individuals which suggests that they assume others think and act just like them. This belief is largely false, as many participants were in fact quite prosocial, but it doesn't seem to have hurt antisocial individuals, who walked away with the largest earnings in this experiment.

How different was the behavior of people with antisocial personality from other participants? Not only were antisocial participants in this study significantly less trustworthy, but they also trusted others less and were more prone to punish those who betrayed their trust. Interestingly, when they were in conditions in which they could be punished for betraying others' trust, their trustworthiness was indistinguishable from prosocial individuals. It is this strong response to the possibility of being punished that was observed exclusively in antisocial individuals.

This observation indicates that antisocial individuals behave very strategically in social interactions: When they have the upper hand and cannot be punished for “bad” behavior, they use their advantageous position to exploit others and extract their interaction partners’ resources. But when punishments are possible, they appear indistinguishable from their prosocial counterparts to avoid losing those resources.

In sum, the results suggest that antisociality influences three distinct behaviors important for social interactions, namely:

  • Trust. Antisocial individuals have relatively little trust in others unless they have the chance to sanction them.
  • Retributions. If the chance exists, they are relatively likely to punish untrustworthy behavior.
  • Trustworthiness. These individuals themselves show a greater tendency to betray the trust of others, as long as they do not have to fear being sanctioned.

Overall, antisocial individuals exhibit a specific combination of behaviors and beliefs that indicates that they assume that others share their antisocial worldview.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Dunbar, R. I. (2009). The social brain hypothesis and its implications for social evolution. Annals of human biology, 36(5), 562-572.

Engelmann, J. B., Schmid, B., De Dreu, C. K. W., Chumbley, J., & Fehr, E. (2019). "On the psychology and economics of antisocial personality." Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 201820133. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1820133116

Engelmann, J. B., Meyer, F., Ruff, C. C., & Fehr, E. (2019). The neural circuitry of affect-induced distortions of trust. Science advances, 5(3), eaau3413.

Shultz, S., Opie, C., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2011). Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates. Nature, 479(7372), 219.

Schurz, M., Radua, J., Aichhorn, M., Richlan, F., & Perner, J. (2014). Fractionating theory of mind: a meta-analysis of functional brain imaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 42, 9-34.