Psychopaths are better at learning to lie

Psychopaths may not be naturally better, or more believable, liars but practice makes perfect. 

Research by scientists from Hong Kong University has used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show how the brain activity of those with high psychopathic traits differs from those with low indicative traits during the act of lying.

During a repeated task that prompted participants to provide untruthful answers, those with high psychopathic traits became more adept, responding more quickly. Those with low psychopathic traits, on the other hand, showed no change in response time.

The act of lying requires “true” information to be suppressed and reversed, says Tatia Lee, who co-authored with Robin Shao the study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry. “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. By contrast, in individuals with low levels of psychopathic traits this lie-related brain activity increased. The additional ‘effort’ it took their brains to process untruthful responses may be one of the reasons why they didn’t improve their lying speed.” 

The 52 subjects involved in the study – all HKU students – were recruited for their high and low psychopathic traits on the basis on a questionnaire used to assess psychopathy in a non-clinical setting. Given pathological lying is one of the key traits of psychopathy – along with lack of remorse or guilt, impulsiveness and manipulativeness – tested for by the standard diagnostic tool, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL), the greater alacrity for lying by those who scoring high for psychopathic traits is hardly surprising.

What is interesting about their results, suggest Lee and Shao, is the potential answer to a question about which the scientific evidence has so far been unclear: whether high-psychopathic individuals tend to lie more or better than others. “Our findings,” Shao says, “provide evidence that people with high psychopathic traits might just be better at learning how to lie.” 

The test set to measure lying dexterity involved showing study participants photographs of familiar and unfamiliar faces. Participants were prompted to give an honest or a dishonest answer to whether they knew a particular person in a photograph. Response times were measured along with monitoring brain activity using fMRI. Participants completed a two-session training exercise before repeating the task.

“The stark contrast between individuals with high and low levels of psychopathic traits in lying performance following two training sessions is remarkable,” Lee says, “given there were no significant differences in lying performance between the two groups prior to training.”

While they caution the limited nature of the study means further research is needed to be able to generalise the findings, an aptitude for learning to lie does help to explain why, according to previous research, higher proportions of people with psychopathic traits can found in certain jobs, such as CEOs, lawyers, salespeople and (ahem) in the media – occupations in which a lack of compunction at telling untruths can prove profitable.

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