Psychopaths Aren't Natural Liars—They're Just Better at Learning How to Do It

Psychopaths are traditionally characterized as being manipulative, egotistical and lacking empathy and remorse. People with psychopathic traits often lie—compulsively and convincingly. Why this is, however, is a mystery.

Previous research has linked psychopathy with lower functioning in parts of the brain involved in social behavior, personality and decision-making. As a result, it has been suggested disruption to the brain could result in psychopathic traits, including deviation from social norms.

But there are many issues when it comes to assessing psychopathic behavior, one of which being that much research is carried out on prison inmates. Many people who display psychopathic traits lead normal, often successful lives, so that translating the findings to the general population is inherently difficult.

In new research, scientists propose that psychopaths are not necessarily better liars naturally. Instead, they appear to be far better at learning how to lie. This key difference indicates psychopaths have "superior functioning" in the neural networks needed for executive cognitive processing.

Tatia Lee and colleagues from the University of Hong Kong carried out a small-scale study on 52 students, looking at people with psychopathic traits and their ability to lie. Of the participants, 23 had low levels of psychopathic traits, while the others all scored highly.

The students were asked to take part in a test in which they were asked to lie. In a practice test, participants were shown a series of photographs, and the participants were asked to say if they recognized the person in the image. Their answer was dependent on a cue given by the researchers—they either had to say they did recognize the person (a lie) or they did not recognize them (the truth).

Scientists found that in subsequent tests, which were recorded with fMRI, people who scored highly for psychopathic traits were far faster at lying than those who scored low. While psychopaths sped up in their response time—i.e., they got faster at lying—the response times for the nonpsychopathic people did not change.

Lie detector
A policeman takes a lie detector test in New Jersey, 1937. New research suggests psychopaths learn to lie faster than other people. Keystone/Getty Images

"The stark contrast between individuals with high and low levels of psychopathic traits in lying performance following two training sessions is remarkable, given that there were no significant differences in lying performance between the two groups prior to training," Lee said in a statement.

Robin Shao, study co-author, added: "High psychopathy is characterized by untruthfulness and manipulativeness, but the evidence so far was not clear on whether high-psychopathic individuals in the general population tend to lie more or better than others. Our findings provide evidence that people with high psychopathic traits might just be better at learning how to lie."

Lying is a complex task, requiring memory, control and attention. Researchers say the findings, which are published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, indicate psychopaths have a better ability to process lies in the brain. This makes it easier for people with high levels of psychopathic traits to lie.

The authors note that the findings are from a small sample, so generalizing them to a wider population is difficult. However, they say the study could have real-world applications: "The translational clinical implication is that certain phenotypes of psychopathy, such as higher potency to lie, may be the consequence of joint influence of innate mechanisms and life experiences, and early life behavioral interventions may be effective in altering behavioral manifestation of psychopathy."

Commenting on the study, consultant psychologist Harriet Garrod says the findings are interesting and that they support previous neurological research that indicates the brains of psychopaths are "wired up differently.

"Their neuron pathways—some don't exist, which creates this condition for a lack of empathy and a complete disregard for others in terms of being able to pathologically lie without giggling or any other things we might do if we lied," she tells Newsweek.

"The other thing to think about is they also believe their own lies. There is this sense of being deluded. That they are superior and that actually they're above the law, above any kind of explanation, so feel justified in lying and believe in the justification and the lie." She adds the sample was very small and future studies would benefit from qualitative research, including interviews that allow us to understand the experience of a psychopath.