The term "psychopath" gets thrown around a lot, whether we're talking about movie villains or politicians. In real-world terms, psychopaths are both superficially charming and shockingly dangerous—they're as much as three times more likely to commit violent and non-violent crime. Via all this antisocial behavior, they display what psychologists have always assumed was an inability to feel guilt or remorse about their actions.
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put that widely accepted notion to the test. As it turns out, psychopaths actually do feel regret under the right circumstances. What differentiates them from people who don't compulsively act out, the study found, is their ability to use those feelings to make better decisions.
The difference might sound a little academic, but a clear understanding of how psychopaths' brains work could help prevent the violence they cause. "What really matters about psychopaths is that they make choices that are bad for us and bad for them," says study co-author Joshua Buckholtz, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Regret seemed like a nice model for studying this, because it has both a retrospective emotional component and a prospective decisional component." In layman's terms, that means regret over your failures is what keeps you from messing up again.
To explore that idea in psychopaths, the researchers recruited 62 men who had engaged in risky behaviors like gambling, substance abuse, and crime (a little more than half of the men had been in prison before the study). They took a standard psychological test to determine where they ranked on a measure of psychopathy.
Researchers then asked the study participants to play a simple computer game where they had to accumulate points by choosing one of two wheels. They could pick a wheel with 50-50 odds of gaining or losing an equal number of points, and another with a 75 percent chance of gaining points but a 25 percent chance of losing three times as many points.
If that sounds unnecessarily complex, that's because the whole point is not to master the game, but to explore how people make value-based decisions. Once the participants made their choice, a red ball would land on a spot on the wheel, like roulette, and they'd receive their points. Here's the key part: Researchers then showed them how many points they would have earned if they'd chosen the other wheel. Both before and after that reveal, researchers asked the participants whether they were pleased or disappointed with their outcome. Finally, they were asked to pick their wheel for the next turn, and the whole process would repeat.
Not only did the participants with more psychopathic tendencies express regret when they lost points on the wheel, but they rated themselves as more pleased with good outcomes and more disappointed with bad outcomes than everyone else. "The idea that psychopaths are cold-blooded, fearless and generally lacking in emotional responsiveness goes back more than 50 years," says Buckholtz. "One thing that has always struck us about this model, though, is it has never provided a compelling explanation for why psychopaths seem to make such terrible choices all the time."
About those choices: The test revealed that psychopaths didn't take the prospect of feeling remorse into account the next time they picked a wheel. In that situation, "most people should choose the less-risky wheel, whereas psychopathic participants tended to choose the more risky wheel," says study co-author Arielle Baskin-Sommers, a professor of psychology at Yale University.
Psychologists call this "counterfactual thinking." It's our ability to imagine what our lives would be like if we had made different decisions in the past—if we had picked a different major in college or asked a crush out on a date. If it seems like we made the wrong choice, then we feel regret or remorse. Counterfactual thinking also allows us create little simulations of our future in our heads, and make decisions to avoid feeling more painful regret.
Since the study shows that psychopaths don't seem to be able to avoid regret when making decisions, it might explain why psychopaths find themselves behind bars or just generally causing mayhem. "It is almost like every situation a psychopath encounters is brand-new to them," says Baskin-Sommers. "If you are unable to weigh the costs and benefits and integrate or remember contexts in which the similar situation has gotten you into trouble, you are less likely to inhibit that behavior."