The Imaginary Psychopath Line

What does the word “psychopath” mean? Usually ideas of a sadistic serial killer with a penchant for blood comes to most peoples minds. We most likely don’t think that we know anyone who is truly a psychopath, however, most likely there are people who we see everyday who would be considered “psychopaths.   The traditional definition is someone who cannot empathize with others, and so does not feel shame or regret for negative actions towards them. There is a new definition emerging, however, that states that a psychopath is someone who “cannot predict the outcomes of their choices or behaviour” and “somehow aren’t in tune with social norms”. They cannot follow the rules that keep the peace and act as a social glue, thereby maintaining the social order. It is their inability to predict outcomes that may lead to their poor choices.

This new definition arose because researches found that psychopaths do actually feel regret when they hurt others and can even feel empathy. Joshua Buckhotlz and Arielle Baskin-Sommers of Yale University found that psychopaths aren’t immune to empathy. They recruited both “normal” and “psychotic” prisoners, and had them play a game based on economics. After this game they measured the prisoners levels of regret using a metric called “prospective regret sensitivity” which was based on decisions they had made during the game. “Psychopaths” were seen as making riskier moves, but had difficulty evaluating whether or not they would regret them afterward. The researches came to the conclusion that regret, even though it seems like one emotion, is in fact a two step process. The first part being retrospective regret second being prospective regret.

Prospective regret is when we try and see if we will regret the choice we are about to make. It is when you take information from the environment and make a predictions on what will happen based on your information.

Retrospective regret happens after the action and is the part that you torment yourself over when you think about the painful experience and wish you had made a better choice.

Buckhotlz and Baskin-Sommers showed that it was an inability to make correct decisions based on prospective regret that defines a psychopath. “It’s almost like a blindness to future regret” though in the aftermath they feel remorse, they can’t see it coming. So where we can say that the problem for psychopaths social cognitive thinking arises happens at the first step, in prospective regrets. They cannot “make decisions based on values and understand the probable outcome, and its impact on others”. But their retrospective regret is still function al because of the fact that they can feel empathy for others about their decisions in the past. “These findings highlight that psychopathic individuals are not simply incapable of regret [or other emotions], but that there is a more nuanced dysfunction that gets in the way of their adaptive functioning.” (Baskins 2017)

Video to test for psychopaths 


  1. Psychopaths Do Feel Regret
  2. Aberrant social and cerebral responding in a competitive reaction time paradigm in criminal psychopaths
  3. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

9 thoughts on “The Imaginary Psychopath Line

  1. this is really interesting, it puts a new perspective on people that have been labeled as a psychopath. it also makes it harder to diagnose because if they do feel regret then someone could argue that it is a ID, Ego, and Super ego imbalance and they don’t for see the repercussions for their actions. but on the other side one may be able to argue that it could be that they have an instant gratification problem, they do a crime or something that society deems as inappropriate behaviour to make themselves feel better and they don’t care about what happens to them afterward or happens to the other person or things involved in the crime. i unfortunately couldnt find anything on instant gratification but i found a really interesting article that talk about the delay on gratification and psychopaths and how they are more or less likely to do the task depending on whether or not they will be “rewarded” now or if they will be “rewarded” later on.

    Newman, J. P., Newman, J. P., Kosson, D. S., & Patterson, C. M. (1992). Journal of abnormal psychology (1965): Delay of gratification in psychopathic and nonpsychopathic offenders American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037//0021-843X.101.4.630


    • You bring up a very good point as there is definetly a very good argument for ID, Ego and Super Ego. However, I found a interesting argument that claims that there is no tripartite structure (like the id, ego, superego) to the psychopath’s personality. This is because in the mind of a psycopath internalized objects remain part-objects in the sense that good and bad aspects are not integrated into a whole object or representation. For them the conception of self and others is either good or bad and is tenuously maintained through the use of primitive defenses so that self representations are always enhanced and object representations are always devalued.


  2. I found an article that explored how psychopaths operated in a business and economic social realm. I think this research would serve well to be explored further in connection to some of the points you raised in your blog post. This article gives a practical and observable example of how psychopaths operate in a specific social environment.

    Boddy, C. R., Ladyshewsky, R. K., & Galvin, P. (2010). The influence of corporate psychopaths on corporate social responsibility and organizational commitment to employees. Journal of Business Ethics, 97(1), 1-19. doi:10.1007/s10551-010-0492-3


  3. I’ve always been interested in how psychopaths function and how they’re different from sociopaths. I found that psychopathy is a “genetic predisposition” while being a sociopath is caused by environmental factors. They have very similar symptoms, however, with psychopaths being slightly more dangerous to society. Always interesting seeing how the human brain works and can be reformed.


    • There are a lot of interesting differences between sociopaths and psychopaths, even though both terms are usually used interchangable. An interesting point is that sociopaths are usually unable to learn from experience in the same way that psychopaths are able too. Psychopaths also show no remorse for their actions, usually because of a lesion on a part of their brain responsible for fear and judgment, known as the amygdala. Sociopaths also may suffer from their mental illness as a result of lesioned brain regions. Upbringing also plays a larger role in a child becoming a sociopath versus those that are diagnosed as psychopaths. Sociopathic behavior is manifested as conniving and deceitful, despite an outward appearance of trustworthiness or sincerity. Sociopaths are often pathological liars, they are manipulative and lack the ability to judge the morality of a situation.


  4. Glannon (2008) discusses responsibility of actions in psychopaths. He believes that psychopaths are partially responsible for their actions. Psychopathy is characterized by impaired empathy, remorse, and behaviour control. Brain scans have shown that psychopaths have differences in the structure of their brains, more specifically in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These areas contribute to cognitive aspects of moral reasoning. Because these areas are structurally different, psychopaths have deficits in moral reasoning. Dysfunctional cognitive and affective areas of the brain impact whether the individual will be held responsible for their actions. Varying degrees of dysfunction in these areas cause varying degrees of responsibility. Because of the differences present in the brains of psychopaths, Glannon concludes that psychopaths can only be partially held responsible for their actions.

    Glannon, W. (2008). Moral responsibility and the psychopath. Neuroethics 1(3). DOI: 10.1007/s12152-008-9012-x


  5. This is a fascinating article, great work. I have always enjoyed reading about how the psychopath thinks, what traits they possess and what they are capable of, so this article intrigued me. I found this chapter out of a peer-reviewed book which is supplementary to your topic. This is titled “Chapter: Assessing psychopathy in women.” In this look at how female and male psychopaths differ. They have many different traits, which they asses in the chapter. They also take a look in which ways the female psychopath differs from a non-psychopath. “Female psychopaths have been found to be more prone to affective rather than predatory violence, to offend against intimates and associates, and to have higher rates of psychopathology and experience greater maladjustment to correctional and forensic psychiatric facilities compared with non-psychopathic women.” (Gacono, C. 2016)

    Gacono, C. B. (2016). The clinical and forensic assessment of psychopathy: a practitioner’s guide. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.


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