How a Psychopath Learns to Lie

How a Psychopath Learns to Lie

Why you should care

Because we’re all looking for the truth. 

It’s likely that there are psychopaths among us … in our workplaces, in our circle of friends, maybe even in our families. Or at least that’s what Tatia Lee, associate dean and neuropsychology professor at the University of Hong Kong, will tell you. “The personality trait of psychopathy actually exists along a continuum in the general population, and relatively high-psychopathic individuals can be readily found among competent, successful professionals or high-functioning university students,” she says. Despite popular assumptions, not all psychopaths are criminals. But are all psychopaths natural-born liars?

Since a greater tendency to lie is a core aspect of the Machiavellian trait that makes up the broader psychopathy concept, Lee and her team set out to uncover why psychopaths tend to be exceptional liars. Their study, published in the July issue of Translational Psychiatry, found that rather than having a natural ability to lie:

People with higher psychopathic tendencies are better at learning how to lie than those with lower psychopathic tendencies.

The researchers screened university students using the Chinese version of a self-report personality test called the Psychopathic Personality Inventory and then selected 52 students (29 with high levels of psychopathic traits, 23 with lower levels) to participate in the study. As they were shown a series of photographs, and based on a signal from the researchers, the students were asked to make an honest or dishonest statement about whether they knew the person in the picture.

Psychopathic traits could be dynamic, evolving and potentially malleable to experiences.

As each participant answered, the individual’s brain activity was monitored by MRI. Surprisingly, in the first round, there was no difference in lying ability between the two groups. Then, participants were briefly trained on how to improve their ability to lie. In tests following the 30-minute training, the individuals with higher psychopathic tendencies improved their response times and were able to lie better. But those with lower psychopathic tendencies didn’t show progress.

“During lying, people need to actively hold the goal of lying in mind, and manipulate and suppress the ‘true’ information in order to generate and articulate the counterfactual statements,” Lee explains. At the same time, they need to “regulate and suppress the negative affective responses elicited by lying to others.” Those with higher psychopathic tendencies demonstrated superior performance in the complex cognitive processing and emotional regulation functions to pull this off.

It could be that psychopaths aren’t necessarily more trainable in lying, but that they simply lack emotion when lying. “With lack of emotion or guilt about lying, it was quicker and easier for them to lie,” says Cynthia Cohen, founder of Verdict Success, which specializes in jury research, trial strategies and settlement decision-making. “The brain activity in inhibiting conflict resolution about lying was reduced.”

Lee hopes the study will redirect views “from thinking of psychopathy as a constellation of static, deterministic traits such as manipulativeness and coldheartedness.” Instead, she believes psychopathic traits could be dynamic, evolving and potentially malleable to experiences.

Still, best to be on guard when looking for the truth.

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