Psychopaths Feel Regret — but It Doesn't Change Their Decisions

Understanding the way psychopaths make decisions could help scientists develop targeted therapies to treat them.

The word psychopath often conjures images of a cold-blooded murderer, straight out of a horror movie, who will stop at nothing to kill their victims and then feel no regret over their actions. But a recent study suggests individuals with psychopathy may in fact feel remorse and be sensitive to others' emotions.

Arielle Baskin-Sommers, assistant professor of psychology and of psychiatry at Yale University and Joshua Buckholtz, associate professor of psychology at Harvard, found that psychopaths are capable of feeling emotions like regret and disappointment. They just can't use those emotions to understand how their decisions will affect the future.

Using an economic reasoning task, they examined how psychopathic individuals make decisions. Participants were asked to rate their feelings after finding out how much they "earned" through their behavior and also how much they could have earned, had they picked another choice.

"We then used those ratings and modeling of choice (which circle was picked) to get two estimates of regret," Baskin-Sommers told Seeker. "There is retrospective regret, which is how we usually think about regret - the emotional experience after you learn you could have done better if you had chosen differently. There is also prospective regret, which we use to make better decisions."

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What they found is that psychopaths appear to ignore prospective regret.

"What differentiated psychopaths from other people was their inability to use those prospective regret signals, to use information about the choices they were given, to anticipate how much regret they were going to experience and adjust their decision-making accordingly," Baskin-Sommers said.

"It's almost like a blindness to future regret," Buckholtz added. "When something happens, they feel regret, but what they can't do is look forward and use information that would tell them they're going to feel regret to guide their decision-making."

The researchers hope their findings will be helpful in understanding why psychopaths make such poor decisions so their violent behavior is easier to predict - and prevent.

"Once we get a clear picture of what is going on in the mind of a psychopath," Baskin-Sommers said, "we can use this to develop targeted strategies."

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