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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Psychopathy and Moral-Dilemma Judgment: An Analysis Using the Four-Factor Model of Psychopathy and the CNI Model of Moral Decision-Making

Luke, D. M., Neumann, C. S., & Gawronski, B.
(2021). Clinical Psychological Science. 


A major question in clinical and moral psychology concerns the nature of the commonly presumed association between psychopathy and moral judgment. In the current preregistered study (N = 443), we aimed to address this question by examining the relation between psychopathy and responses to moral dilemmas pitting consequences for the greater good against adherence to moral norms. To provide more nuanced insights, we measured four distinct facets of psychopathy and used the CNI model to quantify sensitivity to consequences (C), sensitivity to moral norms (N), and general preference for inaction over action (I) in responses to moral dilemmas. Psychopathy was associated with a weaker sensitivity to moral norms, which showed unique links to the interpersonal and affective facets of psychopathy. Psychopathy did not show reliable associations with either sensitivity to consequences or general preference for inaction over action. Implications of these findings for clinical and moral psychology are discussed.

From the Discussion

In support of our hypotheses, general psychopathy scores and a superordinate latent variable (representing the broad syndrome of psychopathy) showed significant negative relations with sensitivity to moral norms, which suggests that people with elevated psychopathic traits were less sensitive to moral norms in their responses to moral dilemmas in comparison with other people. Further analyses at the facet level suggested that sensitivity to moral norms was uniquely associated with the interpersonal-affective facets of psychopathy. Both of these findings persisted when controlling for gender. As predicted, the antisocial facet showed a negative zero-order correlation with sensitivity to moral norms, but this association fell to nonsignificance when controlling for other facets of psychopathy and gender. At the manifest variable level, neither general psychopathy scores nor the four facets showed reliable relations with either sensitivity to consequences or general preference for inaction over action.


More broadly, the current findings have important implications for both clinical and moral psychology. For clinical psychology, our findings speak to ongoing questions about whether people with elevated levels of psychopathy exhibit disturbances in moral judgment. In a recent review of the literature on psychopathy and moral judgment, Larsen et al. (2020) claimed there was “no consistent, well-replicated evidence of observable deficits in . . . moral judgment” (p. 305). However, a notable limitation of this review is that its analysis of moral-dilemma research focused exclusively on studies that used the traditional approach. Consistent with past research using the CNI model (e.g., Gawronski et al., 2017; K├Ârner et al., 2020; Luke & Gawronski, 2021a) and in contrast to Larsen et al.’s conclusion, the current findings indicate substantial deviations in moral-dilemma judgments among people with elevated psychopathic traits, particularly conformity to moral norms.