Monday, June 24, 2013

New Research in Psychopathy, Moral Decision-Making, and Empathy


Two new studies offer deeper insight into psychopathy, both from the open access journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The first one suggests that people high in psychopathic traits - specifically, those related to affective deficit - do not lack moral judgment, but they tend to exhibit greater utilitarianism in choice of action.

Here is their definition of psychopathy, just to set the stage for these two studies:
Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by emotional dysfunction, callousness, manipulativeness, reduced guilt, remorse and empathy, egocentricity, and antisocial behavior including impulsivity and poor behavioral control. Moreover, psychopaths frequently engage in morally inappropriate behavior, including taking advantage of others, lying, cheating, and abandoning relationships (Cleckley, 1941; Hare, 1999).
The authors believe that their study lends support to the idea that moral judgment and moral choice/action operate in different brain circuits.

The second study looks at two different types of psychopathy - primary and secondary - and how these traits are correlated (or not) with somatosensory resonance with others pain and with empathic response to that pain.
Primary psychopathy has been designated as the heritable traits of emotional detachment commonly reported as a lack of compassion and guilt, callous misuse of others for personal gain and failure to form close interpersonal attachment (Levenson et al., 1995; Poythress and Skeem, 2006). Secondary psychopathy usually refers to poor behavioral control, hostility and antisociality (Levenson et al., 1995).
The shared neural representations between the perception of pain in self and other (somatosensory resonance) may be the result of an "automatic resonance mechanism (Jackson et al., 2006)" that might be seen as "the lower-level of a vicarious pain response on which higher order process operate to develop empathy (Han et al., 2009; Vachon-Presseau et al., 2011)."

They investigated the impact of psychopathic traits [measured with Levenson's Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (LSRP)] on the relationship between sensorimotor resonance to other's pain and self-reported empathy. These researchers have previously shown that "a steady-state response to non-painful stimulation is modulated by the observation of other people's bodily pain. This change in somatosensory response was interpreted as a form of somatosensory gating (SG)."

Somatosensory gating is the term for how the body-brain filters relevant information out of the flood of sensory data available at any given time. They found that observing pain in others more likely triggered somatosensory gating in male college students with high psychopathic traits compared to students with low psychopathic traits.

Here is the complex part of this:
The study of Fecteau et al. (2008), in which a community sample of men was exposed to visual stimuli depicting hands in painful and non-painful scenarios, was the first to show a positive correlation between suppression of motor evoked potentials (MEPs) and the score of their participants on the Coldheartedness subscale of the psychopathic personality inventory (PPI; Lilienfeld and Andrews, 1996). This result seemed counter-intuitive because increased sensorimotor resonance to the pain of others had been positively associated with self-reported empathy (Avenanti et al., 2009). However, it was also suggested that this automatic neural response could trigger distress (Decety, 2011) and threat related networks (Ibáñez et al., 2011), therefore advocating for an alternative or concomitant view to automatic pain resonance that simply implies arousal. This would also support the view that regulation processes of sensorimotor responses are required in order to respond empathically to the pain of others (Han et al., 2009). Together, these results suggest that sensorimotor resonance to the pain of others is not a direct path to empathy and further investigation on the role of psychopathic traits could be useful to better understand this relationship.
[Emphasis added.]

As I see it, and this applies to both studies, the use of self-report empathy with correctional sample (prison inmates) is more than likely compromised in its usefulness due to the deception, manipulation, and grandiose sense of self-worth that are defining characteristics of psychopathy.

Even so, these are interesting studies - both of which can be read or downloaded by following the title link.

High levels of psychopathic traits alters moral choice but not moral judgment

Sébastien Tassy, Christine Deruelle, Julien Mancini, Samuel Leistedt, and Bruno Wicker

04 June 2013

Psychopathy is a personality disorder frequently associated with immoral behaviors. Previous behavioral studies on the influence of psychopathy on moral decision have yielded contradictory results, possibly because they focused either on judgment (abstract evaluation) or on choice of hypothetical action, two processes that may rely on different mechanisms. In this study, we explored the influence of the level of psychopathic traits on judgment and choice of hypothetical action during moral dilemma evaluation. A population of 102 students completed a questionnaire with ten moral dilemmas and nine non-moral dilemmas. The task included questions targeting both judgment (“Is it acceptable to … in order to …?”) and choice of hypothetical action (“Would you … in order to …?”). The level of psychopathic traits of each participant was evaluated with the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy (LSRP) scale. Logistic regression fitted with the generalized estimating equations method analyses were conducted using responses to the judgment and choice tasks as the dependent variables and psychopathy scores as predictor. Results show that a high level of psychopathic traits, and more specifically those related to affective deficit, predicted a greater proportion of utilitarian responses for the choice but not for the judgment question. There was no first-order interaction between the level of psychopathic traits and other potential predictors. The relation between a high level of psychopathic traits and increased utilitarianism in choice of action but not in moral judgment may explain the contradictory results of previous studies where these two processes were not contrasted. It also gives further support to the hypothesis that choice of action endorsement and abstract judgment during moral dilemma evaluation are partially distinct neural and psychological processes. We propose that this distinction should be better taken into account in the evaluation of psychopathic behaviors.
Full Citation: 
Tassy S, Deruelle C, Mancini J, Leistedt S and Wicker B. (2013). High levels of psychopathic traits alters moral choice but not moral judgment. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; 7:229. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00229

* * * * *

The modulation of somatosensory resonance by psychopathic traits and empathy

Louis-Alexandre Marcoux, Pierre-Emmanuel Michon, Julien I. A. Voisin, Sophie Lemelin, Etienne Vachon-Presseau, and Philip L. Jackson 
19 June 2013
A large number of neuroimaging studies have shown neural overlaps between first-hand experiences of pain and the perception of pain in others. This shared neural representation of vicarious pain is thought to involve both affective and sensorimotor systems. A number of individual factors are thought to modulate the cerebral response to other's pain. The goal of this study was to investigate the impact of psychopathic traits on the relation between sensorimotor resonance to other's pain and self-reported empathy. Our group has previously shown that a steady-state response to non-painful stimulation is modulated by the observation of other people's bodily pain. This change in somatosensory response was interpreted as a form of somatosensory gating (SG). Here, using the same technique, SG was compared between two groups of 15 young adult males: one scoring very high on a self-reported measure of psychopathic traits [60.8 ± 4.98; Levenson's Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (LSRP)] and one scoring very low (42.7 ± 2.94). The results showed a significantly greater reduction of SG to pain observation for the high psychopathic traits group compared to the low psychopathic traits group. SG to pain observation was positively correlated with affective and interpersonal facet of psychopathy in the whole sample. The high psychopathic traits group also reported lower empathic concern (EC) scores than the low psychopathic traits group. Importantly, primary psychopathy, as assessed by the LSRP, mediated the relation between EC and SG to pain observation. Together, these results suggest that increase somatosensory resonance to other's pain is not exclusively explained by trait empathy and may be linked to other personality dimensions, such as psychopathic traits.
Full Citation: 
Marcoux L-A, Michon P-E, Voisin JIA, Lemelin S, Vachon-Presseau E and Jackson PL. (2013). The modulation of somatosensory resonance by psychopathic traits and empathy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; 7:274. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00274


Post a Comment