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

Psychopaths can experience a sense of regret particularly when their decisions lead to unfavorable consequences. However, they fail to apply their experience to translate into an effective learning process that informs their future choices, according to a new study.

Simply put, psychopaths lack the ability to learn from their mistakes and modify their behavior accordingly.

“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. ”

The study challenges the popular view of psychopaths as individuals who are entirely devoid of emotions, and as pointed out in the study, they can experience negative emotions, but only if they have a personal stake in the outcome. This suggests that while psychopaths may not always exhibit emotional responses that are typical of most people, they are not completely lacking in emotions.

In the study, researchers evaluated the reactions of 62 male participants to different situations, some of whom had high scores on psychopathy measures. The participants were asked to engage in a gambling task in which they selected a wheel and threw a ball, with each wheel displaying two different numbers and four possible outcomes. The participants were then asked to rate their emotional response to the outcome as “very disappointed,” “neither pleased nor disappointed,” or “very pleased.” The researchers also informed the participants of what their score would have been if they had chosen the other wheel and asked them to rate their response again.

They found that all the participants, including those with high psychopathy scores, experienced feelings of regret when they learned that they could have scored more points if they had made a different choice. However, the participants did not apply this experience to inform their future decisions, and as a result, they continued to make similar mistakes. The researchers noted that this inability to learn from past mistakes was linked to the number of times that the participants had been incarcerated.

“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.”

The research highlighted that the regret that psychopaths experienced in the study is different from remorse because it is self-focused. Regret is a negative feeling that arises when a person feels they have made a mistake or missed out on an opportunity, whereas remorse is a feeling of sadness or regret that arises when a person realizes they have harmed another person. Remorse involves empathy and an understanding of the impact of one’s actions on others, which is often absent in psychopaths. Therefore, while psychopaths may experience regret, it does not imply that they feel remorse for their actions, as they often lack the ability to empathize with others.

The researchers assert that in the event that individuals with psychopathy possess a capacity for experiencing regret, there may be potential for developing a strategy that utilizes this emotional experience to reduce recidivism among individuals with psychopathy. This demographic is disproportionately represented among repeat offenders, and if harnessed effectively, the experience of regret may provide a means of breaking this cycle.

“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.