Study: Psychopaths feel fleeting regret

By Susan Gonsalves
April 1st, 2017

A Yale study concludes that psychopaths can feel regret but it doesn’t affect their future choices.

The research, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by Arielle Baskin-Sommers, Ph.D., assistant professor at Yale University and Joshua Buckholtz, Ph.D., assistant professor at Harvard University.

Baskin-Sommers explained that they recruited a group of 62 male community members aged between 18 and 55 who are at risk for engaging in anti-social behavior; 70 percent had been arrested and half, incarcerated at some point.

She said the purpose of the research was to determine whether the subjects, who scored high on psychopathy measures, had the ability to feel negative emotions in certain situations.

Participants in the study were asked to engage in a gambling exercise, picking between two wheels with differing values. Each wheel had four outcomes with probabilities marked on them. They tossed a ball at their chosen wheel to come up with a score. Afterwards, their feelings and reactions to the result were recorded when they saw the outcome of their choice.

They were asked to rate how they felt about the outcome – ranging from very disappointed, neither pleased nor disappointed or very pleased.

Then, they were shown what they might have won had they picked a different wheel.

“They were either pleased or equally as disappointed in the outcome,” Baskin-Sommers said. “It is how that may influence their future choices where they showed a deficit.”

Baskin-Sommers said that the popular view of psychopaths is that they are cold and unfeeling and don’t care about themselves or others.

“This research shows they can experience negative emotions – if they are directly affected by the situation,” she said.

However, that tinge of regret does not carry over to inform later decisions.

“They feel it in the moment but it does not affect the future,” Baskin-Sommers said.

As an example, Baskin-Sommers noted that she might feel nervous taking a test if she did not do well on a previous test. “My past experience is influencing how I’m feeling about doing a future task,” she said.

That situation would not apply to people with psychopathic tendencies.

“There is a discrepancy there between current and future experiences. Each situation they encounter is like brand new to them,” she said.

This inability to learn from their mistakes predicted the number of times the subjects had been incarcerated.

Baskin-Sommers noted the distinction between remorse and regret, pointing out that psychopaths typically do not feel badly about harming other people.

“Regret is self-focused, whereas remorse involves another,” she said.

A take away from the research, however, is that if psychopaths can experience a sense of regret about a decision, it may pave the way to come up with a strategy to harness the experience and decrease recidivism among psychopathic criminals, according to Baskin-Sommers.

“These findings suggest there is something to work with,” she said.

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