People With Psychopathic Traits Appear to Be Better at Learning How to Lie

Individuals with psychopathic tendencies learn to lie more quickly than those without psychopathic traits, according to a new study of college students in Hong Kong.

Individuals with psychopathic traits are highly skilled at learning to lie when measured against others who do not exhibit psychopathic tendencies, according to a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

The findings suggest that individuals with higher levels of psychopathic traits can learn to lie quickly even if they don't necessarily show any “natural” capacity to lie. The distinction is important, researchers say, because it suggests that the brains of high-psychopathic individuals may function differently than others.

First things first: The word psychopathic can be a loaded term in popular culture.

“Psychopathy sometimes carries negative connotations due to its connection with antisocial personality disorder,” said Tatia Lee, co- author of the study and professor in neuropsychology at the University of Hong Kong. “However, psychopathy has also been conceptualized as a continuous personality spectrum in the general population with no crime records or psychological disorder diagnosis.”

In other words, the popular conception of the term psychopathic, from crime fiction or slasher films, for example, doesn't always apply in clinical settings. Instead, psychopathy refers to particular personality traits such as irresponsibility, overconfidence, selfishness, or lack of empathy, which needn’t arise to a level that leads to antisocial behavior.

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For the Hong Kong study, the researchers measured a participant’s level of psychopathic tendency using a standard test known as the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, which helps identify traits such as Machiavellian egocentricity, blame externalization, carefree nonplanfulness, and cold heartnedness.

Fifty-two University of Hong Kong students — 23 with low psychopathic trait scores and 29 with high scores — were recruited for the study.

Individuals in both groups were shown a series of photographs with familiar and unfamiliar faces. They were then given a cue to provide either an honest or dishonest response when asked whether they recognized the people in the photos. Reaction times and brain activity were measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Next, the participants completed a two-session training exercise designed to help them lie more quickly and efficiently. They were then asked to repeat the photograph exercise.

The researchers found that those with strong psychopathic traits had significantly shorter response times during the second round compared to their first-round responses. Those with low levels of psychopathic traits showed no change in response time.

These results are significant, Lee said, because previous studies have shown that the brain needs to suppress and reverse certain kinds of information when lying.

“Lying requires a series of processes in the brain including attention, working memory, inhibitory control, and conflict resolution which we found to be reduced in individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits,” she said. “By contrast, in individuals with low levels of psychopathic traits this lie-related brain activity increased. The additional effort it took their brains to process untruthful responses may be one of the reasons why they didn't improve their lying speed.”

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The study is the first to investigate both the behavioral and neural processes associated with learning to lie, Lee said. By testing high-functioning individuals with either high or low-psychopathic tendencies, the research could potentially be helpful in therapy and other types of psychological treatment.

“As all of our participants were high-functioning university students, any forensic or clinical implications of our findings must be considered tenuous,” she said. “That being said, our findings suggest that high-psychopathy individuals' behaviors and neural processes may indeed be sensitive to behavioral interventions.”

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