Psychopaths Aren’t Better At Lying, Just Better at Learning How

Lying comes more naturally for people with psychopathic traits, but only after being taught how.

Lionsgate Films

If you’ve ever taken a psychology course (or known someone who took one course and proceeded to diagnose everyone they’ve ever met with some sort of psychological disorder) then you know that there are people out there who are psychopathic and that they are excellent manipulators.

According to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, these people likely fall under the umbrella of Antisocial Personality Disorder, which involves a lack of empathy for others and self-serving behavior.

Among other things, these people are thought to be excellent liars.

Well, research published Tuesday in the journal Translational Psychiatry on Tuesday analyzed these psychopaths and their ability to lie. After a couple training sessions, people with psychopathic tendencies quickly learned how to be deceptive while others barely improved.

In other words: It’s not that psychopaths are born with some inherent ability to lie; rather, they’re just amazingly good at learning how to.

The study had University of Hong Kong students, half of whom reportedly had markers for psychopathic traits and half who didn’t, view faces on a screen and press a button to say whether or not they recognized them. Throughout the trial, participants were instructed to either tell the truth or lie.

By recording brain scans via fMRI imaging and keeping track of how long it took to respond, the researchers verified the existing scientific consensus that lying takes work and is mentally taxing. Not only did it take both groups longer to respond when lying, but their brains were working harder. In particular, regions of the brain related to inhibition, self-control, and higher levels of thought like the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex were working overtime when participants were instructed to lie.

This showed that all sorts of cognitive processes need to occur in order to successfully lie — not only do people need to recognize the honest response, but they then need to inhibit that answer, generate a different one, and report that one to the scientists.

However, after two training sessions, all of those delays and mental exertion went away in the group of students with psychopathic traits. They had already received enough practice for deceit to become natural and automatic; their brains’ regulatory processes no longer needed to work as hard. But the other students still had to make an effort and focus in order to say that they recognized an unfamiliar face or vice versa.

The scientists who conducted this experiment argue that there are many unknowns remaining, especially given the fact that they were limited to studying undergraduate students from their own university. But in the future, they also hope to learn more about how environmental factors and people’s surroundings affect people who have psychopathic qualities.

Abstract: High psychopathy is characterized by untruthfulness and manipulativeness. However, existing evidence on higher propensity or capacity to lie among non-incarcerated high-psychopathic individuals is equivocal. Of particular importance, no research has investigated whether greater psychopathic tendency is associated with better ‘trainability’ of lying. An understanding of whether the neurobehavioral processes of lying are modifiable through practice offers significant theoretical and practical implications. By employing a longitudinal design involving university students with varying degrees of psychopathic traits, we successfully demonstrate that the performance speed of lying about face familiarity significantly improved following two sessions of practice, which occurred only among those with higher, but not lower, levels of psychopathic traits. Furthermore, this behavioural improvement associated with higher psychopathic tendency was predicted by a reduction in lying-related neural signals and by functional connectivity changes in the frontoparietal and cerebellum networks. Our findings provide novel and pivotal evidence suggesting that psychopathic traits are the key modulating factors of the plasticity of both behavioural and neural processes underpinning lying. These findings broadly support conceptualization of high-functioning individuals with higher psychopathic traits as having preserved, or arguably superior, functioning in neural networks implicated in cognitive executive processing, but deficiencies in affective neural processes, from a neuroplasticity perspective.
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