Chosen and summarized by: Bethany G. Edwards, University of New Mexico & The Mind Research Network

Dargis, M., Wolf, R.C., & Koenigs, M. (2017). Reversal learning deficits in criminal offenders: Effects of psychopathy, substance use, and childhood maltreatment history. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 39(2), 189-197.

Corresponding Author:  Monika Dargis ([email protected]) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

This month’s featured study examined impairments in reinforcement learning in relation to psychopathy, substance use, and childhood maltreatment and further, tested the extent to which substance use and childhood maltreatment play a moderating role in the relationship between psychopathy and impaired reversal learning. Using a sample of 114 adult male offenders recruited from medium security correctional facilities in Wisconsin, the authors tested independent and interactive relationships among these variables by way of correlations and regression analyses. To measure performance in reversal learning, participants completed the Intra-Extra Dimensional Shift Task (IED). Psychopathy was measured using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, and substance use and childhood maltreatment were measured using the Addiction Severity Index-Lite (ASI-Lite) and Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ), respectively.

A few key findings include:

·         Higher psychopathy scores were related to a greater number of reversal learning errors among male offenders. While interpersonal-affective psychopathic traits were also related to a greater number of reversal learning errors, this relationship went away when controlling for impulsive-antisocial psychopathic traits.

·         Neither substance use nor childhood maltreatment was independently related to reversal learning performance in male offenders.

·         While adjusting for substance use severity appeared to strengthen the relationship between psychopathy and reversal learning performance in male offenders, adjusting for childhood maltreatment severity instead resulted in a weaker relationship between psychopathy and reversal learning performance.

·         Although no interaction was found between psychopathy and substance use severity, an interaction between psychopathy and childhood maltreatment severity emerged. Specifically, male offenders scoring high in psychopathy who also exhibited elevated childhood maltreatment severity performed worse in reversal learning, evidenced by a greater number of errors.

A few key implications include:

·         Results from this study lend support for impairments in reversal learning among adult male offenders with psychopathic traits.

·         This study suggests that the relationship between psychopathic traits and impaired reversal learning may depend to some degree on level of childhood maltreatment present in male offenders.

 

·         Findings highlight the importance of considering the manner in which adverse environmental circumstances, including history of childhood maltreatment, may potentially influence learning and decision-making impairments commonly associated with psychopathy.