Rational, emotional, or both? Subcomponents of psychopathy predict opposing moral decisions

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Recent research has documented a small but significant correlation between psychopathic capacities and utilitarian moral judgment, although the findings are generally inconsistent and unclear. We propose that one way to make sense of mixed findings is to consider variation in perspective-taking capacities of psychopathic individuals. With this in mind, we had criminal offenders (n = 60), who varied in their psychopathy levels according to the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), respond to common sacrificial moral dilemmas (e.g., trolley dilemmas) under different conditions. In a baseline condition, participants simply responded to the sacrificial moral dilemmas as is typically done in previous research. In an “emotion-salient” condition, participants had to reason about the emotions of another person after solving moral dilemmas (deliberative processing). In the “emotion-ambiguous” condition, participants saw images of people in distress, after solving moral dilemmas, but did not have to explicitly reason about such emotions (spontaneous processing). The four PCL-R facets predicted distinct interference effects depending on spontaneous versus deliberative processing of hypothetical victim's emotions. The findings suggest that the use of a multi-faceted approach to account for cognitive and moral correlates of psychopathy may help address previously mixed results. Implications and future directions for theory and research are discussed.




Hauser, N. C., Neumann, C. S., Marshall, J., & Mokros, A. (2021). Rational, emotional, or both? Subcomponents of psychopathy predict opposing moral decisions. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 39(5), 541–566. https://doi.org/10.1002/bsl.2547

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