Why You Shouldn’t Make a Contract With a Psychopath

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Pity the poor psychopathic criminal. O.K., pity might be a strong word, but cut them a little slack. A new study in the journal Psychological Science shows that one of the reasons for their characteristic badness to the bone is that they just don’t understand how to behave any other way.

Human beings are social creatures and, as such, are governed by social contracts. All of us may have very different aptitudes when it comes to formulaic reasoning such as A equals B, B equals C, therefore A equals C. But social reasoning is a different matter. We are all born with an innate understanding of interpersonal equity — the idea that if you lend me your rake today, I’ll respond in kind when you come to borrow my shovel tomorrow. Or nearly all of us are born with that. Psychopaths aren’t. (More on Time.com: Psychology vs. Psychiatry: What’s the Difference, and Which Is Better?)

True psychopathy affects only about 1% of the general population, but among the prison population it’s 20%. That’s no surprise, since the characteristics of many psychopathic personalities — impulsiveness, moral numbness, indifference to legal and social norms — are just the characteristics likeliest to land you in the clink. Psychopaths know the technical difference between right and wrong — which is one of the reasons their insanity pleas in criminal cases so rarely succeed; they just fail to act on that knowledge.

To see why, two researchers, Elsa Ermer and Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico, ran a study with 67 prisoners, some of whom were diagnosed as psychopaths and some of whom weren’t. The investigators had the subjects work out puzzles based on three types of rules: descriptive associations (such as “If a person is from California, then that person will be patient”); social contracts (such as “If you borrow my motorcycle, then you have to wash it”); and precautions (such as “If you work with tuberculosis patients, then you must wear a surgical mask”). The if-then construction in all of the associations may get grammatically clumsy after a while, but it sets up the desired cause-effect relationship clearly. The subjects’ results were then compared to those of the  population at large. (More on Time.com: What Goes on Inside the Brain of a Misbehaving Boy?)

In general, the non-psychopathic prisoners — like the non-prisoners — performed best on the social contract questions, appearing to bring to bear what ethicists and anthropologists refer to as a sort of “moral grammar” that’s encoded into humans at birth. The psychopatic criminals, on the other hand, did as well as everyone else on the descriptive rules, but worse on both social contracts and precautionary rules — precisely what you’d expect for people who are indifferent to notions of right and wrong, as well as to the penalties that may befall them if they violate those norms.

“Psychopaths don’t understand cheating in the normal way,” says Ermer. They may also fail to understand “when they can avoid negative consequences of a risk by taking a precaution.” (More on Time.com: Special Report: Kids and Mental Health)

For this relatively small study, the researchers did not attempt to answer the larger chicken-or-egg question: whether such deficits of reasoning and logic are responsible for the prisoners’ troubles or whether a criminal life and long stretches in prison snuff higher social qualities. More probably, it’s a combination of both. Whatever the reason such basic social software is missing, its absence does not bode well for rehabilitation or, alas, for a law-abiding future.

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