Psychopaths Have Regrets: Can Early Help and Love Save Them?

New research shows repeated bad choices, but intervention may help.

Posted Nov 30, 2016 Josef_Wenzel
Source: Josef_Wenzel

New research on psychopaths examines feelings of regret in adults and, earlier this year, targeted intervention for antisocial behavior in children was defined.  Additionally there was a publication in 2013 by a neuroscientist who highlighted the role of a supportive environment.

Contrary to the belief that psychopaths are devoid of feelings, Yale News just highlighted the work of assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry, Arielle Baskin-Sommers, PhD.  Her team determined that psychopaths do experience regret, but only if they themselves are personally impacted, as reported Nov. 28, 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

With regard to feelings, the team of Yale and Harvard researchers noted: “Psychopathy is associated with persistent antisocial behavior and a striking lack of regret for the consequences of that behavior. . ."

Essentially, a psychopath's feelings of regret are not associated with remorse when this involves harming another person, but rather “regret is self-focused.” The researchers found that regret was associated with personal loss such as making a bad gambling decision. Nonetheless, these individuals did not learn from their mistakes. (1)

With regard to children, in  August 2016 Samuel W. Hawes, PhD, professor of psychology at Florida International University, and colleagues, proposed targeted intervention for boys with early psychopathic tendencies such as "interpersonal callousness and conduct problems" as reported in the Journal of Child Psychology.  Oftentimes children who exhibit aggression and even cruelty towards animals and other children are at high risk for later psychopathic tendencies.

The study authors noted that "adolescents often engage in delinquent behavior as part of a larger deviant peer group, and longitudinal evidence suggests that as adolescents spend more time with delinquent peers, their tendency to view victimizing others as morally acceptable behavior increases."

At risk children are often "exposed to high levels of negative parenting." As such, targeted early intervention may be vital in helping them to curb dangerous antisocial behavior before they become adults. (2)

What is the role of a healthy and loving environment?  Neuroscientist James Fallon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at University of California, Irvine, shed light on this during an interview with the Greater Good Science Center. The man who has studied the brains of psychopaths since 1990 took on a project studying the brains of Alzheimer patients and, in the control group, he used himself and family members.(3)

"After looking at the results of psychopaths and violent murderers, he found a pattern of reduced neural activity in centers of the brain responsible for empathy and ethics. Too curious to let it go, he ‘unblinded’ the study to find out who the brain belonged to and made a startling discovery: The brain was his.” /Greater Good.Science Center - Can a psychopath learn to feel pain?

His questioning resulted in The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, 2013

What Professor Fallon learned appears to be reinforced by the research reported this year.  For psychopaths, early intervention and a loving environment may be the foundation for informed choices and compassion toward others.

Copyright 2016 Rita Watson


1. Baskin-Sommers, A.R., Stuppy-Sullivan, A.*, Buckholtz, J.B. (2016). Psychopathic Individuals Exhibit, But Don’t Avoid Regret During Counterfactual Decision-Making. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Epub ahead of print. 

2. Hawes SW1, Byrd AL2, Waller R3, Lynam DR4, Pardini DA1. (2016)  Late childhood interpersonal callousness and conduct problem trajectories interact to predict adult psychopathy, Journal of Child Psychology DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12598 

3. Ohikuare, Judith, (Jan 21, 2014)  Life as a Nonviolent Psychopath (Neuroscientist James Fallon).  The Atlantic.