Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sociopaths know right from wrong but don't care.

An interesting point from Cima et al. (open access):
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.


  1. It seems to me that researchers fail to take into account the “intensity” of emotions, that is, shallow emotions in psychopaths might be enough for solving moral dilemmas but not for preventing them from acting on their impulses.

  2. Luis, it seems that you believe that ideas of right from wrong derive simply from emotional responses to stimuli. You could easily test this hypothesis. If the subject had *some* dampened emotional response causing him to think committing a particular crime was wrong but chose to commit it anyway (as if benefit outweighs cost), we should predict he should have at least *some* guilt after having done so. In fact, we know that sociopaths lack remorse.

    Furthermore, if morality were derived simply from emotional response, we might predict that ideas on morality would be as disparate as preferences of ice cream flavor. However, they are not. Moral ideals are remarkably consistent across all types of people, with fairly little variation. Morality can't then simply be derived from emotional response; it is an intellectual recognition of how one *should* behave, even when one chooses to behave in the opposite way.