Psychopaths know right from wrong but don’t care

Maaike Cima, Franca Tonnaer, Marc D. Hauser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

Adult psychopaths have deficits in emotional processing and inhibitory control, engage in morally inappropriate behavior, and generally fail to distinguish moral from conventional violations. These observations, together with a dominant tradition in the discipline which sees emotional processes as causally necessary for moral judgment, have led to the conclusion that psychopaths lack an understanding of moral rights and wrongs. We test an alternative explanation: psychopaths have normal understanding of right and wrong, but abnormal regulation of morally appropriate behavior. We presented psychopaths with moral dilemmas, contrasting their judgments with age- and sex-matched (i) healthy subjects and (ii) non-psychopathic, delinquents. Subjects in each group judged cases of personal harms (i.e. requiring physical contact) as less permissible than impersonal harms, even though both types of harms led to utilitarian gains. Importantly, however, psychopaths' pattern of judgments on different dilemmas was the same as those of the other subjects. These results force a rejection of the strong hypothesis that emotional processes are causally necessary for judgments of moral dilemmas, suggesting instead that psychopaths understand the distinction between right and wrong, but do not care about such knowledge, or the consequences that ensue from their morally inappropriate behavior.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-67
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Volume5
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Cite this