Psychopaths are not what you think they are. They can be good or evil, violent or pacifist, slyly manipulative or extremely social. They are not necessarily evil, crazy maniacs.
Still, they are very good at lying. As a new study in the journal Translational Psychiatry confirms, individuals with psychopathic traits are better at learning to lie than those that show less related traits. This isn’t particularly surprising, as psychopaths are renowned for being able to lie in a variety of ways, but it’s good to know the science backs the concept up yet again.
A team from the University of Hong Kong recruited 52 students – admittedly a small sample size – which was roughly evenly split between those that showed psychopathic traits and those that didn’t. These traits include lack of empathy, an ability to become emotionally detached, a poor sense of self-preservation, anti-authority proclivities, a lack of fear, and unconscientiousness – among others.
These traits were ascertained not by a psychological test, but by self-identification during a questionnaire. Overall, 29 of the 52 showed a significant number of these traits.
Then, students in both groups were shown a series of photographs of both familiar and unfamiliar faces. While their brain activity was being monitored by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, they were asked whether they recognized the people in each photograph or not. This task was repeated, punctuated by a couple of training exercises in-between.
Importantly, the students were told when to give an honest or dishonest response. Curiously, those exhibiting more psychopathic traits, when prompted to lie, lied far quicker than those in the less psychopathic group. According to the researchers, this means that psychopaths are happier to lie quicker when necessary, because their brains can process the deception faster.
So it’s not saying that psychopaths lie more frequently – just that they’re better at doing it.
There are societal disadvantages to this behavior, clearly, but there are also personal advantages. Psychopaths that also exhibit Machiavellianism – another “dark triad” personality trait – are able to rise up through the ranks of businesses, companies, and communities faster than others. You need this manipulative ability, though, otherwise your impulsivity and recklessness will doom you.
Although this is a small study, it does help to paint a picture of psychopathy and psychopaths, concepts that are nebulous at best and misrepresented at worst.
A recent study revealed that there’s definitely some neurobiology driving psychopathy too. As well as an overactive amygdala – the part of the brain that regulates fear – those with psychopathic traits also have weaker neural connectivity between the segments of the brain that deal with decision-making and consequences.