While it is well known that psychopaths often have a greater propensity to lie, new research from the University of Hong Kong now shows that people with psychopathic tendencies are also better at learning how to lie. The study’s authors say that being able to pick up new truth-concealing tricks a lot faster than other people is a characteristic of psychopathy.
As a personality disorder, psychopathy or sociopathy is associated with traits like egotism, boldness, a lack of inhibition as well as a lack of empathy and remorse. Psychopaths express these traits in a range of behaviours, from plain meanness or rudeness to criminal offences and violence. And while some suggestion has been made of a connection between psychopathy and intelligence (the arch-criminal motif), research has not borne this out.
Said to make up about one per cent of the population (and 15 to 20 per cent of incarcerated offenders), the causes of psychopathy are thought to be both hereditary and environmental in nature, with evidence showing that brain injuries to the prefrontal cortex can result in psychopathic behaviour.
And while lying is certainly not the sole purview of the psychopath — one survey found that people tell an average of 1.65 lies per day (although they may have been fibbing about that) — the tendency to lie is well-observed in psychopaths.
“High psychopathy is characterized by untruthfulness and manipulativeness,” says Dr. Robin Shao of the State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Laboratory of Neuropsychology at the University of Hong Kong and study co-author, in a statement. “But the evidence so far was not clear on whether high-psychopathic individuals in the general population tend to lie more or better than others. Our findings provide evidence that people with high psychopathic traits might just be better at learning how to lie.”
The researchers recruited 52 students from the University of Hong Kong, 23 of whom displayed low levels of psychopathic traits and 29 with high levels (based on a questionnaire used to assess psychopathy in a non-clinical setting). The participants were shown photos of familiar and unfamiliar faces and given cues as to whether to answer honestly or dishonestly when asked whether they knew the person.
The key to the study was that both groups were trained in learning how to “beat the system” and lie about their responses more effectively, yet the participants with high psychopathy did much better at picking up the new skills. The researchers noted that since the difference between two groups’ performance at lying before the training sessions began was negligible, the better result after training marked those with high psychopathic traits as more adept at picking up the training, something Dr. Tatia Lee, co-author of the study from the University of Hong Kong, says was “remarkable.”
“During lying, the ‘true’ information needs to be suppressed and reversed,” says Dr. Lee. “Thus, lying requires a series of processes in the brain including attention, working memory, inhibitory control and conflict resolution which we found to be reduced in individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits.”
Studies show that one in five violent criminals is a psychopath. A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal found that the brains of psychopaths are structurally different from others, with disproportionately lower volumes of grey matter in the regions of the brain connected to guilt, embarrassment, empathy and moral reasoning.