Yale scientist: It is almost like every situation a psychopath encounters is brand-new to them

Psychopathic individuals may be so troublesome not because of a general lack of emotions, but instead because of maladaptive decision making.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found evidence that the dysfunctional behavior associated with psychopathy may result from deficits in cognitive processes rather than deficits in emotional processing.

“Psychopaths have long captured the imagination,” remarked the study’s corresponding author, Arielle Baskin-Sommers of Yale University. “They are often portrayed as cold-blooded and fearless, and most of all, as a predator incapable of human emotion. However, research is growing to suggest that this may not be totally accurate. For a while, my program of research has been focused on refining our conceptualization of the mechanisms that contribute to psychopathic behavior by examining attention abnormalities and emotion deficiencies in psychopathy.”

“Dr. Buckholtz (at Harvard University) has been interested in cost-benefit decision-making as it relates to antisocial behavior. From our research we both had a sense that psychopaths may not be totally incapable of certain emotions but we wanted to understand better the conditions under which they appear to have problems with emotions or not.”

“One of the features of psychopathy that is often cited, but has not been empirically tested is this experience of regret (and related remorse, though we did not examine that feature in this study),” Baskin-Sommers told PsyPost. “Research in decision science has elegant empirically tested manipulations of regret that we used in this particular study. The focus on regret and counterfactual reasoning is a nice blend of research that Dr. Buckholtz does on cost-benefit decision making and that I do on psychopathy and cognition-emotion interactions.”

The study of 62 adult men found that psychopathy was not associated with blunted emotional responses to regret. Instead, the findings suggested that psychopathic traits were related to problems with counterfactual thinking, meaning the comparison of reality with hypothetical alternatives.

While psychopathic individuals did experience regret, they had trouble learning from it.

“The idea that psychopaths are cold-blooded, fearless and generally lacking in emotional responsiveness goes back more than 50 years,” Baskin-Sommers said. “One thing that has always struck us about this model, though, is it has never provided a compelling explanation for why psychopaths seem to make such terrible choices all the time. In other words, while the purported emotion deficits in psychopaths make for great drama, what really matters about psychopaths is that they make choices that are bad for us and bad for them.”

The researchers used a gambling task to induce regret in the participants.

“Regret seemed like a nice model for studying this, because it has both a retrospective emotional component and a prospective decisional component,” Baskin-Sommers told PsyPost. “In our task both forms of regret can be measured: retrospective regret, which is the emotional experience you have after learning you could have done better if you had chosen differently, and prospective regret, which is when you consider potential outcomes for each option and contemplate which decisions would be regrettable in order to make better future decisions.

“Psychopaths reported feeling regret when they saw how much they won or could have won on the game. However, psychopaths were unable to use the information about the choices they were given to anticipate how much regret they were going to experience in the future, and to adjust their decision-making accordingly. They have a deficit in prospective regret, not retrospective regret.”

The inability to learn from their mistakes also predicted the number of times the participants had been incarcerated.

“These data are consistent with the larger literature that suggest these individuals have difficulty integrating information across contexts,” Baskin-Sommers explained. “One way to examine that problem is through cost-benefit decision making. It may be that several of their behaviors like sensation seeking, engaging in criminal behavior, etc is a result of the failure to notice cues in their environment, integrate that information, and use it to make future choices.”

“It is almost like every situation a psychopath encounters is brand-new to them,” she added. “They are not informed by history or use that new information to direct their future. It then becomes clear why they continually have encounters with the law; if you are unable to weigh the costs and benefits and integrate or remember contexts in which the similar situation has gotten you into trouble you are less likely to inhibit that behavior. Despite this difference in decision-making, these data also fit with the pattern that we cannot consider psychopathic individuals as simply deficient individuals, particularly when it comes to emotion.”

“The underpinnings of psychopathy are complex and require fine-grained analysis. The more specific and nuanced we can get the better hope we have at understanding the mind of a psychopath and eventually considering prevention and intervention options.”

The study, “Psychopathic individuals exhibit but do not avoid regret during counterfactual decision making“, was also co-authored by Allison M. Stuppy-Sullivan and Joshua W. Buckholtz.