Study finds psychopaths may not remember emotionally negative events accurately
New research suggests that those with psychopathic personality traits are less susceptible to creating false memories of negative events. The findings indicate that individuals high in the psychopathic trait of fearless dominance were less likely to produce false memories when exposed to negative stimuli. Likewise, individuals high in the psychopathic trait of cold-heartedness tended to have fewer true memories of neutral and negative events. These findings may be relevant to law enforcement, mainly when gathering witness or suspect testimony from individuals high in psychopathic traits.
A significant amount of memory research in the last few decades has focused on memory construction and retrieval. Of particular interest has been the formation of false memories. False memories can have consequences in the justice system, as eyewitness reports are often crucial to investigations and convictions. In addition, individuals with psychopathic personality traits often intersect with law enforcement, making research on how they process memories relevant to determining the reliability of remembered events.
One hundred and twenty participants were recruited from undergraduate programs at the University of Bari, Italy. The participants were between 18 and 65 years old, with slightly more than half being female. Participants took the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, with the research team using data from three scales: self-centered impulsivity, fearless dominance, and cold-heartedness. Subjects were also asked to take measures of working memory, anxiety, and depression.
After these assessments were completed, subjects began the memory testing. In order to induce false memories, the researchers used the Emotional False Memory paradigm. This process exposed participants to photos depicting nine scenarios, including things like a birthday party, rock climbing, or playing a slot machine.
The scenarios progress in photo representations and end in either a positive or negative way. Participants viewed all nine scenarios in a sequence without interruption. When this phase is completed, participants are surprised with a recognition memory test where they are to identify photos they saw in phase one.
This series of photos contains images they initially saw and some that depict different outcomes. As they were exposed to each photo, subjects were asked to report if they remembered the photo or if it looked familiar.
The researchers found differences in how those with psychopathic traits process negative events versus those without those traits. Those with high fearless dominance scores were much less likely to falsely remember negative events. Chiara Mirandola and colleagues hypothesized that this outcome is because those “individuals high in psychopathic traits do not encode the episodes with negative content to the same extent as individuals with low psychopathic traits.”
These findings align with previous research that found psychopathic individuals had distinct differences in autobiographical memory for emotional life experiences. In particular, emotional events are remembered with less detail than those who lack psychopathic traits.
Participants who scored high in the psychopathic trait of cold-heartedness were less likely to accurately remember the negative events they were exposed to but demonstrated no differences from the control group in their memory of the positive events. The research team suggests that individuals high in cold-heartedness may struggle to process strong emotions and consequently fail to encode relevant information in negative situations.
Some limitations of the study include the demographics of the sample. For example, undergraduate students may not reflect the experiences of those clinically diagnosed with psychopathology. Additionally, the memory test asked individuals to remember photographs that were not personal and may not reflect lived experiences.
Despite the limitations, Mirandola and colleagues explained that their work is important in the quest to find the truth in criminal investigations. As those with psychopathic traits may be at greater risk of interacting with law enforcement, understanding their capacity for accurate memory recall is crucial. The research team concludes, “By shedding light on the conditions of their emotion-processing difficulty, future research should be directed to the understanding of the specific mechanisms that impair memory (in particular, the encoding of the event) in individuals high in psychopathy.”