What’s wrong? Moral understanding in psychopathic offenders



Eyal Aharoni, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Kent A. Kiehl

Journal of Research in Personality

18 October 2014






•Revised Moral/Conventional Transgressions task administered to 139 incarcerated offenders varying in psychopathy.

•Classification accuracy of moral transgressions was not associated with psychopathy, controlling for age, gender, or race.

•Consistent with argument that psychopathic individuals can demonstrate normal knowledge of wrongfulness.


A prominent explanation for antisocial behavior in psychopathic offenders is that they cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Using a modified version of the classic Moral/Conventional Transgressions task that minimizes strategic responding, this study evaluated the hypothesis that psychopathic traits are negatively associated with moral classification accuracy. The task, which presents moral and non-moral hypothetical violations, was administered to 139 incarcerated offenders from three U.S. correctional facilities, 41 of whom met clinical criteria for psychopathy. No associations for classification accuracy were found as a function of psychopathy total score or its facets, controlling for age, gender, and race. This finding supports the argument that psychopathic offenders can demonstrate normal knowledge of wrongfulness. Implications for criminal responsibility are discussed.









Human Services and Justice Coordinating Committee