Despite Popular Opinion, Psychopaths Can Show They Care

Caring about others, for psychopaths, may be a matter of identity.

Posted May 14, 2013

The quintessential psychopath shows callous disregard for others, a complete lack of empathy, a glibness and superficial charm, and an impulsive and antisocial lifestyle. We would never, given this set of qualities, expect such individuals to make decisions that would benefit anyone but themselves. Their lack of empathy should make it nearly impossible for them to understand how other people are feeling. Yet, when you think about it, the ability of psychopaths to con and smooth talk their way into situations that allow them to take advantage of people requires some pretty sensitive people-reading skills. Perhaps behaving in psychopathic ways isn’t a matter of lack of ability to empathize, but is instead due to lack of proper incentive. If that’s the case, it should be possible to put the psychopath’s people-reading skills to good use.

Following this logic, psychologists Nathan Arbuckle and William Cunningham (2012) explored the possibility that, under the right circumstances, people high in psychopathy would willingly behave in ways that would benefit someone other than themselves. The people in this study were not hardened criminals, but were drawn from the somewhat ordinary psychology study population of college undergraduates. However, based on the notion that psychopathy isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of trait,

Arbuckle and Cunningham reasoned that even college students can have at least some of the remorseless selfishness and glibness shown in clinical populations. In fact, the questionnaire measure they used to measure psychopathy seems capable of sniffing out the “everyday” psychopaths who stroll through college campuses. This measure, the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, contains 26 self-report items that is intended to be used with non-incarcerated individuals. The items on this scale include those we typically associate with psychopathy (“For me, what’s right is what I can get away with”, “People who are stupid enough to get ripped off usually deserve it”) as well as others that seem more typical of people who are interested only in themselves (“Looking out for myself is my top priority,” and “I enjoy manipulating other people's feelings.”)

The nearly 140 participants in the two studies published by Arbuckle and Cunningham completed a gambling-like task in which they were to decide whether to take or pass on pairs of gambles, with one gamble for themselves and one for other people. There were no other actual people, however. Instead, in the critical experimental condition, the researchers created an artificial sense of group membership by telling half the participants that they were playing for their “team.” The researchers told participants in the other condition that they were making their gambles for strangers. Thus, the researchers created a sense of group identity for the people in the team condition.  Even though that identity was relatively meaningless, it was an identity nevertheless.  The people in the strangers condition had no allegiance, however, thin, to the people for whom they were making their decisions.

The task that participants completed involved them deciding to take or pass on a series of paired bets, with one gamble being for themselves and the second for a person who was either on their team or in the other condition, a stranger. Unlike some studies that measure cooperation and competition, giving more to themselves did not mean they were giving less to the group, or vice versa.  If participants didn’t care about others, then only the quality of the bet for themselves would influence their decision. If participants did care about the welfare of the other participants, then they would take the bet that influences both of them. For example, the bet for the participant might be a 60% chance of winning 10 points and a 40% chance of losing 1 point. This would be relatively advantageous for the participant. However, if that bet was paired with the condition in which others would have a 20% chance of winning 1 point and an 80% chance of losing 7 points, then the other person would stand to lose. If invoking a team identity influenced the participant, then he or she would pass on the bet.  Because the bets were randomly paired, a participant wanting to benefit the group  would only take a gamble if both conditions were favorably weighted.

Hope you've gotten this method clear. Basically, the experiment was set up so that participants would either benefit themselves alone, or benefit themselves and the person for whom they were playing (team member vs. stranger).

Now let's get to the results. In the first study, the findings supported the hypothesis that people high in psychopathy would be more likely to take bets that would benefit their team rather than a group of strangers. However, the findings could suggest that the people high in psychopathy were simply trying to improve their own situation, and not necessarily that of the group’s.  Therefore, in the second study, the setup was slightly different.  Now the bets would benefit only the team, not oneself alone. With this slight tweaking of the experimental condition, the people high in psychopathy continued to make decisions that would benefit their team even when they, personally, didn't stand to benefit from their bets.

You might say that, well, these weren't real psychopaths. However, when you think further about it, the study is actually interesting precisely because it was conducted on a non-incarcerated, non-clinical undergraduate population of men and women.  These are exactly the people who have enough wits about them not to become the criminal version of the psychopath. They were, instead, likely to be the younger equivalents of the people who will grow up to those everyday psychopaths we encounter in the boardroom or just around town.  It’s also possible that they were open to considering the benefits of group effort because they were emerging adults and therefore still in flux in terms of their own identities.  By heightening their awareness of the group, even with a very slight manipulation, the members of their own team became an extension of their own sense of self.

If you, or someone you care about, shows the everyday psychopathy tendencies of callousness, lack of regard for ethical concerns, selfishness, recklessness, and impulsivity, consider invoking the idea of a team identity. If such a slight manipulation can change the behavior in an artificial situation of a lab, what might this lead to if used in real life? It's possible that we don’t have to give up on the person with psychopathic tendencies and assume that he or she will never be able to show empathy or selflessness.

Perhaps we don’t know as much about psychopaths as we think we do. If they are, in fact, capable of caring about the effect that their behavior has on others, we may be able to build on their empathy, one group identity at a time.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

Arbuckle, N. L., & Cunningham, W. A. (2012). Understanding everyday psychopathy: Shared group identity leads to increased concern for others among undergraduates higher in psychopathy. Social Cognition, 30(5), 564-583. doi:10.1521/soco.2012.30.5.564