Thursday, August 11, 2011

Do Psychopaths Know Right From Wrong?

Apparently, a common question asked about psychopathy is 'are psychopaths criminally responsible? Do they know right from wrong?'

The experts all agree that psychopaths are criminally responsible. They understand that they are breaking the law, and they know that the justice system punishes that behavior. But what a lot of people overlook is that knowing legal from illegal is quite different from knowing right from wrong.

Intuitively, the majority of people get the distinction between illegal and wrong. They know something can be illegal but not wrong (eg stealing a loaf of bread when you're starving) and that something can be wrong but not illegal (eg pretending to be someone's friend so you can set them up for humiliation).

Psychopaths don't get this distinction. Fisher & Blair (1998) did an interesting study into children with psychopathic tendencies. Boys (8-16 years old) at boarding schools for children with emotional/behavioral difficulties were divided into two groups - psychopaths and non-psychopaths - based on their scores on a questionnaire filled out by their teachers. Each child was told stories about a character breaking the rules. Four of these stories involved harm to another person, such as an aggressive act or the destruction of other people's property. The other four were things like walking out of class halfway through or talking while the teacher is talking. Both psychopaths and non-psychopaths agreed that each story involved someone doing something wrong. Then they were told that one day, the teacher said that the particular behavior was OK. On that day, would that behavior be morally permissible?

Here's where the difference showed up. Non-psychopaths said that hurting others or destroying property was wrong, even if the teacher said it was OK, but that things like walking out of class or talking in class were only wrong if the teacher had a rule against them. Psychopaths made no such distinction - if the teacher said it was OK to hit your classmates, they thought it was OK to hit your classmates.

And it's not just that they don't care about right and wrong, or have an unconventional moral code. Blair (1995) administered the same test to adult violent criminals (mostly murderers) who scored high or low on psychopathy. Unexpectedly, many of the psychopaths said that harmful actions were still wrong, even if they weren't against the rules. But they said the exact same thing about the non-harmful rule infractions as well. These psychopaths, in hopes of getting parole, were trying to present themselves as reformed. But even when they tried to fake morality, they still didn't get the basic idea. They didn't understand what made hitting someone different from leaving class halfway through.

I don't think psychopaths choose to be bad instead of good. Instead, I think psychopaths don't understand what 'bad' and 'good' actually mean. Not that this means we should tolerate their behavior - it's important to protect victims whether or not the perpetrator understands what they're doing. But there's a difference between stopping someone from doing harm and condemning them for bad choices. I really don't think psychopaths have a choice about being bad, because in order to chose not to be bad, you need to understand what 'bad' is. The world must be confusing to them, with people shrugging off some things and getting very upset about other things, when those things really don't seem all that different.

7 Comments:

Blogger Lorraine said...

Did someone pretend to be your friend to set you up for humiliation? I hope not. Sounds reminiscent of the "Elizabeth West" chapter of Jesse Saperstein's book. Very traumatic.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Ettina said...

Someone faked an invitation for me to attend the birthday of a girl (also unpopular) who hated me. Fortunately I was aware she didn't like me and blunt enough to go straight to her and ask her if she really wanted me to go to her party, so I didn't get the humiliation of arriving unwelcome at someone's birthday party.

7:22 AM  
Blogger TheBoss said...

One big difference between concepts like "good" and "bad" is that the definition is rarely ever explicitly taught. We mostly learn what they "mean" growing up associating them with various situations rather than anything explicit.

I wonder what would happen if you took children who show "psychopathic tendencies" and educate them in an environment where words like "good" and "bad" were given a very specific and detailed explanation.

These kids are able to learn what other words mean and apply them in life so maybe then they would be able to know what "good" and "bad" mean if the concepts were dished out in the same manner as an academic subject. Has any research been undertaken here?

Some compromise over the details to be taught would have to be established, since people rarely agree on what the details are even if they generally understand what "good" and "bad" is.

Very early the difference between "against the rules", "illegal", and "bad" should be taught. It should be taught that first and foremost a "bad" thing is something that causes "harm" and then the word "Harm" delineated according to types of harm, such as bodily harm, economic harm(theft),...

7:57 PM  
Blogger Mystie01 said...

Psychopaths learn from a young age how to effect emotions and pretend they know the difference between right and wrong. But they will often make mistakes because they really don't know. When caught out they will either turn it back on you or play the pity card. They know that other people feel this thing called 'guilt', which they see as a weakness for them to exploit.

11:04 PM  
Blogger Gary N. said...

Do Psychopaths know the difference with right and wrong? Of course they do, don't mean they are going to ever admit to it.

I grew up with a psychopathic father, and believe me he knew right and wrong, and that didn't stop him from going out and doing the most bizarre things. When he would beat you down, it was never his fault, it was your fault for making him do it. When he got drunk and broke stuff, it was never his fault, it was your fault for pushing him that way. Oh let's not forget all the years of drug abuse, which was also my fault for being the "burden" of his life, because I stood up to him.


Living with a psychopath is like walking through fire until you finally have enough of it and do anything to leave them. I think it starts at home. My father for instance had a psychopathic family, and he went on to become a total mirror reflection of his father before him who was a trashy hardcore alcoholic and drug abuser.

They learn it from a young age living like this, or at least the psychopath that was around me everyday did.

12:38 PM  
Blogger jeff dahmer said...

Are all psychopaths insane?
also Is it a Psychopaths fault for acting on their impulses?

9:45 PM  
Blogger Hannah Matthau said...

Legal/legal/right/wrong aside for now, there is a difference between those who don't know what they are doing is wrong and do it because they think it's right (which unfortunately encompasses most people nowadays with consuming animal products and supporting the war because society and people in power taught them so), people who know something is wrong and don't care (thinking "so? Whatever, I just do what I want") and those who know and enjoy doing things that are wrong for whatever reason, such as narcissism, defiance, greed, etc..
And another thing,
"But even when they tried to fake morality, they still didn't get the basic idea. They didn't understand what made hitting someone different from leaving class halfway through."
And I mean this in the nicest way and just attracting your attention upon it, I don't think or mean anything by it(: but neither do you, because by hitting someone, one might hurt them physically, but leaving their class halfway through, a class they worked long and hard on preparing, then one might hurt them emotionally by being rude and disrespectful.. being rude isn't illegal, but it's hurtful.. so it's wrong too, even if that person doesn't mean to.. do you understand?
And to draw a parralel back to psycho/sociopathy, most people nowadays don't seem to realise and/or care that they are being rude if it suits them.. but I suppose that goes back to the whole raised wrong in a messed up society consumed by hurt and hate and brainwashing and drugging, which all makes people mentally ill, as what you consume affects all areas, mind body and soul..

And because I feel the need to at least present the possibility of options, and if you think everyone thinki
Well, have a nice day and be kind to one differently is a crazy conspiracy theorist, please stop reading now as negativity only does harm for you and all

Even though being autistic is not a bad thing and you obviously are it for good reasons (to help people and raise awareness), if you don't want it anymore or at elast some aspects, you can make it stop/go away! We are aller than they want us to believe and care cure ourselves and others of everything, in many ways, regardless of the cause.Staying away from vaccines would be the first step, goes without saying. But you can look the subject up if you want!(: I just don't want anyobe to be hurt (even if it teaches us and helps us grow as souls)..

Have a nice day and be kind to one another!

9:07 PM  

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