Economic decision-making in psychopathy: a comparison with ventromedial prefrontal lesion patients

Neuropsychologia. 2010 Jun;48(7):2198-204. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.04.012. Epub 2010 Apr 18.


Psychopathy, which is characterized by a constellation of antisocial behavioral traits, may be subdivided on the basis of etiology: "primary" (low-anxious) psychopathy is viewed as a direct consequence of some core intrinsic deficit, whereas "secondary" (high-anxious) psychopathy is viewed as an indirect consequence of environmental factors or other psychopathology. Theories on the neurobiology of psychopathy have targeted dysfunction within ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as a putative mechanism, yet the relationship between vmPFC function and psychopathy subtype has not been fully explored. In this study, we administered two laboratory decision-making tasks (the Ultimatum Game and the Dictator Game) to a group of prisoners (n=47) to determine whether the different subtypes of psychopathy (primary vs. secondary) are associated with characteristic patterns of economic decision-making, and furthermore, whether either subtype exhibits similar performance to patients with vmPFC lesions. Comparing primary psychopaths (n=6) to secondary psychopaths (n=6) and non-psychopaths (n=22), we found that primary psychopathy was associated with significantly lower acceptance rates of unfair Ultimatum offers and lower offer amounts in the Dictator Game. Moreover, primary psychopaths were quantitatively similar to vmPFC lesion patients in their response patterns. These results support the purported connection between psychopathy and vmPFC dysfunction, bolster the distinction between primary and secondary psychopathy, and demonstrate the utility of laboratory economic decision-making tests in differentiating clinical subgroups.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Brain Injuries* / pathology
  • Brain Injuries* / physiopathology
  • Brain Injuries* / psychology
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Crime / psychology
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Economics*
  • Games, Experimental
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology*
  • Psychopathology*
  • Reward
  • Young Adult