Psychopaths’ behavior similar to that seen in brain-damaged patients

MADISON – Psychopaths play some games in a way that mirrors the behavior of patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), an area of the brain responsible for feelings such as empathy and guilt.

Dr. Michael Koenigs, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, reported the findings recently.


Koenigs and colleagues had prison inmates play economic decision-making games involving negotiations with another person. They played for the chance to win money they could exchange for items in the prison store.

Prisoners diagnosed with primary psychopathy were quickly angered by what they felt were unfairly low offers, were much more likely to reject offers and made abnormally low offers compared with prisoners who were not psychopathic.

“There are interesting parallels between psychopaths and our vmPFC patients,” says Koenigs. “This is an important hint that the vmPFC may be involved in the development of psychopathy.”

Primary psychopaths are 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,” he says.

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