Can psychopathic offenders discern moral wrongs? A new look at the moral/conventional distinction

J Abnorm Psychol. 2012 May;121(2):484-97. doi: 10.1037/a0024796. Epub 2011 Aug 15.


A prominent view of psychopathic moral reasoning suggests that psychopathic individuals cannot properly distinguish between moral wrongs and other types of wrongs. The present study evaluated this view by examining the extent to which 109 incarcerated offenders with varying degrees of psychopathy could distinguish between moral and conventional transgressions relative to each other and to nonincarcerated healthy controls. Using a modified version of the classic Moral/Conventional Transgressions task that uses a forced-choice format to minimize strategic responding, the present study found that total psychopathy score did not predict performance on the task. Task performance was explained by some individual subfacets of psychopathy and by other variables unrelated to psychopathy, such as IQ. The authors conclude that, contrary to earlier claims, insufficient data exist to infer that psychopathic individuals cannot know what is morally wrong.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Criminals / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Judgment*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Young Adult