Socioemotional processing of morally-laden behavior and their consequences on others in forensic psychopaths

Hum Brain Mapp. 2015 Jun;36(6):2015-26. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22752. Epub 2015 Jan 30.


A large body of evidence supports the view that psychopathy is associated with anomalous emotional processing, reduced guilt and empathy, which are important risk factors for criminal behaviors. However, the precise nature and specificity of this atypical emotional processing is not well understood, including its relation to moral judgment. To further our understanding of the pattern of neural response to perceiving and evaluating morally-laden behavior, this study included 155 criminal male offenders with various level of psychopathy, as assessed with the Psychopathy Check List-Revised. Participants were scanned while viewing short clips depicting interactions between two individuals resulting in either interpersonal harm or interpersonal assistance. After viewing each clip, they were asked to identify the emotions of the protagonists. Inmates with high levels of psychopathy were more accurate than controls in successfully identifying the emotion of the recipient of both helpful and harmful actions. Significant hemodynamic differences were detected in the posterior superior temporal sulcus, amygdala, insula, ventral striatum, and prefrontal cortex when individuals with high psychopathy viewed negative versus positive scenarios moral scenarios and when they evaluated the emotional responses of the protagonists. These findings suggest that socioemotional processing abnormalities in psychopathy may be somewhat more complicated than merely a general or specific emotional deficit. Rather, situation-specific evaluations of the mental states of others, in conjunction with sensitivity to the nature of the other (victim vs. perpetrator), modulate attention to emotion-related cues. Such atypical processing likely impacts moral decision-making and behavior in psychopaths.

Keywords: decision-making; emotion; empathy; insula; moral evaluation; psychopathy; temporoparietal junction; ventral striatum; ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Criminals / psychology*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*
  • Motion Perception / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Social Perception*
  • Video Recording
  • Young Adult