Psychopaths score high on test of morals

by John MacBeath Watkins

A study by David Bartels and David Pizarro of Columbia University and Cornell University finds that the commonly used tool for evaluating the morals of the subjects of psychological experiments shows psychopaths to be better at moral judgments than non-psychopaths, putting into question the usefulness of this standard psychiatric tool.

This is a fascinating result, and I suspect it sheds light on how people lacking certain normal human capabilities try to adapt to society.

The tool in question is to pose moral dilemmas to subjects and gauge their response based on the idea that the proper response is a utilitarian one -- the solution that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. From the abstract:

"Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness. These results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral."

Psychopaths lack the ability to form normal human attachments and lack normal empathy, yet they are able to appear normal. How do they do that?

Well, one way to do that would be to try and logically work out how they are supposed to act. People with normal attachments and normal empathy can make their way in the world based on how their behavior feels. People who lack certain normal feelings can't do that.

There's a tendency to think of psychopaths are sort of evil super villains, and certainly they are  over-represented in our prisons and corporate board rooms. But the inability to form normal attachments and feel empathy will, of course, lead one to score high on "life meaninglessness," as Bartels and Pizarro have noted.

Far from being a super power, psychopathy is a mental disability. People who lack empathy and are not able to appear normal are generally thought to belong somewhere on the autistic spectrum of mental disabilities. Being manipulative -- Bartels and Pizarro use the term "Machiavellianism" to describe it -- is how they appear normal. Pretending to have normal feelings that they don't possess may strike the rest of us as dishonest, and this pretense can't be relied upon, because they might drop the pretense when they decide they no longer need it, but the pretense is their survival strategy.

There are other aspects of disability to being a psychopath (there's a pretty good paper on it here that you don't have to pay to see.) There is a temporal element, as noted by R.D. Hare in  the 1970s. Psychopaths tend to have short time horizons, and an immediate reward means more to them than a distant punishment. Distant rewards are also less attractive to them, so the rewards of actually progressing in therapy don't really appeal. Here's Hare's checklist for identifying psychopaths:

(a) Glibness / superficial charm
(b) Grandiose sense of self-worth
(c) Need for stimulation / proneness to boredom
(d) Pathological lying
(e) Cunning / manipulative
(f) Lack of remorse or guilt
(g) Shallow affect
(h) Callous / lack of empathy
(i) Parasitic lifestyle
(j) Poor behavioral controls
(k) Promiscuous sexual behavior
(l) Early behavioral problems
(m) Lack of realistic, long-term goals
(n) Impulsivity
(o) Irresponsibility
(p) Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
(q) Many short-term marital relationships
(r) Juvenile delinquency
(s) Revocation of conditional release (parole violations)
(t) Criminal versatility

In short, as Bartels and Pizarro have pointed out, not what most of us regard as moral. In fact, much more like one of Jim Thompson's protagonists (after reading This World, then the Fireworks, you might want to take a bath. Unless you're a psychopath, that is.)

There have been attempts to treat psychopathy. Whoever tried group therapy was clearly not thinking, because what psychopaths take away from group is a deeper knowledge of the weaknesses of others in the group. And given the list above, clinical staff can't be blamed for disliking this lot. The high scores they get on psychology's usual measure of morals is an example of how they frustrate psychologists, by coldly analyzing the test and coming up with the "right" answer more often than those who consult their moral compass. They will also lie about their therapeutic progress and manipulate the clinical staff and other patients.

But if they are good at figuring out utilitarian puzzles, won't they learn from prison that they must apply the calculus to their own actions? Not necessarily. The short time horizons of the psychopath don't mesh well with justice that grinds slow, but grinds exceedingly fine.


  1. I will remark that many people are born with these traits, but struggle against type. They had parents or teachers who helped them, and they tried to overcome having this personality, or even used it for the greater good. Look at some of the people who are world leaders, or even who run major charities; they have some or all of these traits.
    This is not a black-and-white issue; even the most wretched person, the most 'outrageous lying jerk' can change, when he sees it is in his own best interest.
    It takes getting them when they are young, and having someone they look up to, guide them. Or have a catastrophe strike them, which may jolt them out of this mental cage.

  2. That was my point. We have plenty of sympathy for people who lack empathy but can't appear normal, such as people with asperger's, none for the "lying" people who have learned to appear normal when they aren't. Even clinical staff often feel this way, which is part of why this is hard to treat. One of the things connected with psychopathy is lack of male parental authority while growing up. That would be someone to guide them when they're young.


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