Psychopaths Regret Bad Decisions, But Don't Learn From Their Mistakes

Psychopaths can experience a sense of regret particularly when their decisions have unfavorable consequences, however they are unable to use that experience to inform their future choices, according to a new study co-authored by a Yale University psychologist Arielle Baskin-Sommers.

“The popular view of psychopaths is that they are cold, callous, and simply don’t care what happens to themselves or anybody else,” said Arielle Baskin-Sommers, in a news release. “But this research shows they can experience negative emotions — if they are impacted by the situation. ”

For the study, Baskin-Sommers and his colleague from Harvard University evaluated the responses of 62 male participants, some of whom scored high on psychopathy measures, to different situations. The participants were given a gambling task in which they had to pick from one of two wheels. Each wheel had two different numbers printed on it and had four possible outcomes: −210, −70, +70, and +210. The researchers asked the participants to pick a wheel and throw a ball, and then stop on one of the numbers.

After each test, the participants were asked to rate how they felt about the outcome as either “very disappointed,” “neither pleased nor disappointed” or “very pleased.” The participants then were told what their score would have been if they had selected the wheels they didn’t and were again asked to rate their response.

Researchers found that all the participants did experience regret after they learned they would have made more points if they had made a difference choice. But, they did not use their experience to guide their future decision-making, and hence they keep repeating the mistakes. This inability to learn from their mistakes predicted the number of times the subjects had been incarcerated, the researchers told.

“This form of regret does not imply remorse for actions that harmed other people — an absence that is a hallmark of psychopaths,” said Baskin-Sommers. “Regret is self-focused, whereas remorse involves another.”

Researchers believe if people with psychopathy have a sense of regret, it would be possible to devise a strategy to harness that experience and decrease recidivism among psychopathic criminals, who make up a disproportionate percentage of repeat offenders.

“If they don’t experience any regret for their actions, we don’t have much of a chance, but these findings suggest that there is something to work with,” Baskin-Sommers added.