The theory that psychopaths don’t feel regret is so strong that evaluating such emotions is a key way of diagnosing the condition. Psychopaths are known as callous, unfeeling people, with the diagnostic Psychopathy checklist describing them as “emotionally shallow.” But a team of researchers from Yale and Harvard, led by Yale psychologist Arielle Baskin-Sommers, has raised serious questions about this assumption in a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The paper found that those with signs of psychopathy do, in fact, experience regret over certain decisions. But it seems that they struggle to learn from that regret, and use it to inform future choices.
Baskin-Sommers and her team recruited 62 men who showed signs of anti-social behavior, including crime, drugs, and bullying. They were not formally diagnosed as psychopaths but the Self-Report Psychopathy–III scale was used to measure levels of the disorder.
Each subject completed a gambling task, where they were presented with two wheels, which offered different levels of points, and were asked to throw a ball at one. Before throwing, they could not see the various points options each wheel offered. After the task, subjects were shown how many points they could have received with the other wheel, and were asked to rate their emotions, ranging from “very disappointed” to “very pleased.” Participants who missed out on points showed similar levels of regret after the task, regardless of psychopathic tendencies. But those who had higher levels of psychopathy did not use those emotions to adjust their behavior for future decisions in the gambling task.
Joshua Buckholtz, assistant psychology professor at Harvard who helped conduct the research, told Medscape Medical News that the study suggests psychopaths’ antisocial behavior comes not from their inability to experience emotions, but difficulty in appropriately using those emotions to make better choices.
“This really shifts the focus in psychopathy from the idea that they are just these cold-blooded, emotionless individuals to people who may have normal emotional experiences, or are capable of having normal emotional experiences, but they do bad things because the mechanisms that we use to make better choices, good decisions are broken in these folks,” he added.
At this stage, treatment options based on the findings are highly speculative; after all, this is just one study and with a limited sample size. But the paper suggests there could be potential training psychopaths to learn from their feelings. “Our hope is that this will point to a new direction in psychopathy research,” said Buckholtz.