May 27, 2024

New scientific findings provide a deeper understanding of how psychopathic traits influence moral decisions

Individuals high in psychopathic personality traits tend to prioritize a greater overall benefit in moral dilemmas, even if it means harming someone. But this tendency is related to their heightened willingness to violate moral norms and to take action rather than their sensitivity to consequences, according to new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Psychopathy is a complex psychological construct characterized by traits like lack of empathy, shallow affect, impulsivity, callousness, and manipulativeness. Such individuals often lack the emotions and anxieties that ordinary people experience in interpersonal encounters and may exhibit amoral and antisocial behavior. The motivation behind the study was to understand how people high in psychopathic traits make moral decisions, especially in difficult moral dilemmas.

Many previous studies on this topic have used only one psychopathy measurement and treated psychopathy as a general, unitary construct. The researchers wanted to provide a more nuanced and comprehensive approach by using multiple psychopathy measures and considering various aspects of psychopathy.

“First, there needed to be more clarification in past research as some studies found the effect, some not, and even past results were contradictory,” said study author Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, a postdoctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania’s ChatLab and an associate professor at the University of Silesia in Katowice.

“We wanted to solve this issue. That is why we compared a few measures of moral judgments and psychopathy scales. We aimed to look more deeply at the problem. Second, studying morality is a timely and relevant issue. How do people make moral judgments? What impacts it? Do psychopathic traits play a role here? We aimed to answer these questions.”

The researchers recruited 702 Polish participants for their online study, which consisted of two parts. First, participants responded to various psychopathy measures, including the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised, and the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure. These measures were used to assess different aspects of psychopathy, such as emotional affect, lifestyle, impulsivity, meanness, boldness, and more.

Next, the participants were presented with a battery of 48 moral dilemmas, which included the trolley switch dilemma and the footbridge dilemma. For each dilemma, participants had to indicate their response on a seven-point rating scale, indicating their willingness to perform the described action. Additionally, the researchers employed the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale to measure dimensions of utilitarianism in moral judgment.

In line with previous research, Paruzel-Czachura and her colleagues found that individuals with higher levels of psychopathic traits were more willing to harm others in moral dilemmas. This suggests that individuals high in psychopathy may be less concerned about the well-being and suffering of others and are more willing to engage in harmful actions.

For example, in the footbridge dilemma, where participants had to decide whether to push a fat man off a footbridge to stop a trolley and save five others, all psychopathy scores (primary psychopathy, secondary psychopathy, self-centered impulsivity, fearless dominance, meanness, and coldheartedness) were positively associated with the decision to push the man.

The researchers also found that individuals with higher psychopathy scores were more likely to make decisions based on an utilitarian approach rather than a deontological one. This means that they were more willing to take actions that might cause harm to a few people if it led to a greater overall benefit for a greater number of people.

“Personality traits, like psychopathy, may impact how people make moral decisions,” Paruzel-Czachura told PsyPost. “We might think we make some moral decision based on our religion or some inner values we ‘received’ from our parents or culture. Our study shows that there is much more going on there, and personality matters for morality.”

When using the CNI (Consequences, Norms, Inaction) model to understand moral dilemma judgment, the relationships between psychopathy and sensitivity to consequences (C parameter) were not significant, except for a correlation with fearless dominance scores. Fearless dominance was related to higher sensitivity to consequences, suggesting that considering the potential outcomes of actions might require some courage.

The N parameter, representing sensitivity to moral norms, showed significant negative correlations with all psychopathy scores, indicating that individuals with elevated psychopathic traits were less sensitive to moral norms.

Furthermore, the I parameter, reflecting a general preference for inaction versus action, was negatively correlated with most psychopathy scores, except for boldness. This means that most psychopathic traits were linked to a greater inclination to act, especially in situations where most people might choose to do nothing.

In other words, when using traditional moral dilemma scenarios (like the trolley problem), the researchers found that people with higher psychopathic traits tended to show a greater preference for utilitarian judgments, a moral approach based on maximizing positive outcomes.

However, when the researchers utilized the CNI model of moral decision-making, they found a more nuanced pattern of results. Psychopathic traits were not associated with being more sensitive to outcomes (except for fearless dominance). Instead, people with higher psychopathy scores showed weaker sensitivity to moral norms and were less hesitant to take action in morally difficult situations.

Regarding the need for future research, Paruzel-Czachura said “we still need to know how other traits may impact how people make moral judgments. And we need to test it with well-powered samples, the best in diverse cultures, including non-WEIRD, and understand which factors are the most relevant for moral decision-making.”

“Studying how people make moral judgments and what impact this process has is one of the most relevant questions psychologists must answer in the next few years,” the researcher added. “What else matters? Can we change how people make moral judgments? And which factors are the most relevant?”

The study, “Psychopathic Traits and Utilitarian Moral Judgment Revisited,” was authored by Mariola Paruzel-Czachura and Zuzanna Farny.

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