First, participants played the “Ultimatum Game,” in which two players got to split an amount of money (for example, $10) if they could agree on how to split it. But if the “responder” rejects the offer, both players got nothing. A rational responder would accept any amount of money, Koenigs explained, because the alternative means getting nothing. That is how most of the prisoners played the game.
But people who had been diagnosed with primary psychopathy “reacted with anger to what they regarded as unfairly low offers.” They were much more likely to reject these offers, leading to both players losing everything.
Next, prisoners played the “Dictator Game.” In this game, the first player decided the split, and the responder had no choice in the matter. Thus, offers made in this game were seen as being determined by the players’ “pro-social emotions,” such as empathy and guilt. Again, the primary psychopaths made abnormally low offers compared with prisoners who were not psychopathic.
In both games, the reactions of the psychopaths closely mirror the responses of patients with damage to the vmPFC.
“While we have done this study before with vmPFC patients, it had never been done before with psychopaths,” Koenigs says.
Interestingly, the economic decision-making game also pointed out a sharp difference between primary psychopaths – who have an innate dysfunction with their ability to feel the pain of others – and secondary psychopaths, whose dysfunction seems to be rooted in abusive childhoods, drug use or other social factors.
“Primary psychopaths are just not wired to feel guilt and shame,” Koenigs says. “Primary psychopathy allows you to do horrible or thoughtless things to others to achieve your goals.”
The study bolsters the notion that primary ps
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