Psychopaths chronic cheating and impulsive risky behaviors are linked to reasoning impairments

Psychopaths are impaired in social exchange and precautionary reasoning


From Pychological Science

Psychopaths persistently violate social, moral, and legal norms, cheating family, friends, and strangers alike. Two hallmarks of psychopathy are the persistent violation of social contracts and chronic, impulsive risky behavior. By testing incarcerated psychopaths this study considers if they understand what qualifies as such behavior. Results indicate that psychopaths despite displaying intact intellectual functioning, have specific reasoning impairments that may contribute to their chronic cheating and impulsive risky behaviors.


Psychopaths show a profound lack of morality and behavioral controls in the presence of intact general intellectual functioning. Two hallmarks of psychopathy are the persistent violation of social contracts (i.e., cheating) and chronic, impulsive risky behavior. These behaviors present a puzzle: Can psychopaths understand and reason about what counts as cheating or risky behavior in a particular situation? We tested incarcerated psychopaths’ and incarcerated nonpsychopaths’ reasoning about social contract rules, precautionary rules, and descriptive rules using the Wason selection task. Results were consistent with our hypotheses: Psychopaths (compared with matched nonpsychopaths) showed significant impairment on social contract rules and precautionary rules, but not on descriptive rules. These results cannot be accounted for by differences in intelligence, motivation, or general antisocial tendency. These findings suggest that examination of evolutionarily identified reasoning processes can be a fruitful research approach for identifying which specific mechanisms are impaired in psychopathy.

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Article details

Ermer, E., & Kiehl, K. (2010). Psychopaths Are Impaired in Social Exchange and Precautionary Reasoning Psychological Science, 21 (10), 1399-1405 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610384148

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