Psychopathic traits are linked to a dysfunction in the integration of neural information, study finds

An international team of researchers have found evidence that psychopathic traits are related to alterations in the basic efficiency of neural communication. Their findings have been published in the journal Psychophysiology.

“Individuals with psychopathic traits seem to process the world around them in a fundamentally different way than other individuals, allowing them to chronically and callously harm others and engage in other types of antisocial behaviors,” explained study author Scott Tillem of Yale University.

“I have always been interested in understanding not just how these individuals perceive and process the world around them, but, why, neurologically, these individuals seem to process the world so differently. I got involved in this particular line of research because it seems to be a promising means of advancing our understanding of both of these issues.”

In the study, 172 participants from Rotterdam completed a measure of psychopathy before the researchers used an electroencephalogram to examine the resting electrical activity of their brain. Tillem and his colleagues found that participants who scored higher on the measure of psychopathy tended to have less efficient neural communication within the alpha1 and gamma frequency bands.

“Individuals with psychopathic traits, specifically the interpersonal (glib, superficial charm), and affective (shallow affect, callousness) traits of psychopathy, seem to neurally integrate information less efficiently, meaning it might take more time or energy for these individuals to process/integrate all the aspects of a given situation or potential course of action,” he explained to PsyPost.

The new findings help explain previous research, which found that psychopathic traits were related to problems with counterfactual thinking, meaning the comparison of reality with hypothetical alternatives.

“For example, when deciding whether or not to steal from someone walking down the street, a non-psychopathic individual might be able to rapidly process multiple aspects of the situation, such as: the potential benefits of stealing from that person (i.e., the goal/reward), the potential impact or harm their actions might have on the other person, and the potential consequences of that action for themselves (e.g., the risk of getting caught and arrested/incarcerated), and use/integrate all of those aspects of the situation in their decision-making process,” Tillum said.

“Individuals with interpersonal and affective psychopathic traits, in contrast, might take substantially longer to integrate all those pieces of information. This could mean that, by the time they are actually deciding how to act, they only really have processed the potential benefits of stealing, and, therefore, are unable to incorporate/account for other aspects of the situation (e.g., harm to the other person, the risk for punishment/incarceration, etc.) into their decision-making process.”

Like all research, the study includes some limitations.

“There are two major caveats to the current study. First, this study was done in a community sample where base rates of psychopathic traits are typically low, and it is possible that these findings may not replicate in samples with higher rates of psychopathic traits (e.g., incarcerated samples),” Tillum explained.

“Second, while the current study provides strong evidence that neural communication, in general, is inefficient in individuals with psychopathic traits, we do not have a sense for which specific parts of the brain (i.e., which specific neural circuits or networks) are not integrating information effectively in these individuals.

“Future research would want to examine not only neural efficiency but also tie this to specific neural regions/networks.”

The study, “Psychopathic traits are differentially associated with efficiency of neural communication“, was authored by Scott Tillem, Josanne van Dongen, Inti A. Brazil, and Arielle Baskin‐Sommers.