New findings published in Evolutionary Psychological Science suggest that psychopathic people view the absence of aggression as an indicator of weakness. The study used the virtual life simulation game “The Sims 3” to examine how those with psychopathic personality traits choose to interact with others.
“My colleagues and I were interested in following up on some earlier work on the Cheater-Hawk Hypothesis of psychopathy,” said study author Beth Visser, an associate professor at Lakehead University.
“This theory suggests that psychopathy is an evolved strategy of exploiting other people and resources through deception (cheaters) and aggression (hawks). We theorized that people with psychopathic traits would generally avoid other aggressive individuals, but would see anxious, kind people as being more easily exploited. By using a Sims video game, we could put our hypotheses to the test without harming anyone.”
In the study, 205 undergraduate students played “The Sims 3” video game with four pre-made characters whose personalities were selected to represent a cheater (deceptive, sneaky, charming), a hawk (aggressive, rude, mean), a dove (submissive, nervous, shy), and a cooperator (nice, trusting, cooperative).
During a recorded gameplay session, the participants were able to interact with these four in-game characters in a virtual house using their own character. The participants also completed an assessment of psychopathic traits.
In line with the Cheater-Hawk Hypothesis, Visser and her colleagues found that participants who scored higher on the measure of psychopathic traits tended to engage in more negative “hawk-like” behaviors, such as insulting other characters and starting physical fights. Those high in psychopathy were also tended to engage in more negative behaviors towards the cheater and dove characters.
“In our study, people with higher levels of psychopathic traits were meaner and more aggressive overall, as well as particularly targeting our hypothesized ‘victim’ Sim character,” Visser explained to PsyPost. “I think the take-home message is that people should feel no reluctance about avoiding those who seem manipulative, deceptive, rule-breaking, and callous. These are the individuals who will take advantage of your nice, agreeable, and cooperative tendencies!”
However, participants high in psychopathic traits did not display the charming and deceptive behaviors predicted by the Cheater-Hawk Hypothesis. “One limitation to this research, and a possible explanation for the lack of cheater behaviors, was the lack of any inducement to cheat,” the researchers said. “Further research might incorporate a game or prize that might elicit cheater tactics.”
Of course, one’s behavior in a video game does not necessarily mirror their behavior in real-life. “There are perfectly lovely non-psychopathic people out there who made a childhood game of doing awful things to their Sims,” Visser said.
She also noted that study measured psychopathic personality traits, but that is not the same as a clinical diagnosis such as anti-social personality disorder.
“Even though the research suggests that psychopathy is on a spectrum, we don’t know to what extent this relates to criminal, diagnosable psychopaths preying on their victims,” Visser explained. “I don’t want to overgeneralize the findings, and yet we did have (mixed) support for our hypotheses. Clearly, there is more work to be done, but I think this study suggests that there are creative methods for exploring challenging research questions.”
The findings also have some practical implications for everyday social interactions.
“I like to tell people that if you find yourself targeted by an exploitive, manipulative, callous person — it’s not your fault. Don’t try to change your good qualities, but instead, be wary of those who seem to be trying too hard to charm, manipulate, deceive, or frighten you,” Visser said.
The study, “Psychopathic Sims: Testing the Cheater-Hawk Hypothesis in a Video Game“, was authored by B. A. Visser, M. Batinic, N. Worth, A. Book, and E. Toll.