Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy

Featured Published Manuscript of the Month:      April, 2019

Chosen and summarized by:                                        A. Michelle Poston

Pletti, C., Lotto, L., Buodo, G., & Sarlo, M.   (2017).   It’s immoral, but I’d do it!  Psychopathy traits affect decision-making in sacrificial dilemmas and in everyday moral situations.   British Journal of Psychology, 108, 351-368.

Corresponding Author:  Carolina Pletti ([email protected]), University of Padova


This study examined choice of action and corresponding affective states during decision making and moral judgement within sacrificial moral dilemmas and everyday moral situations in relation to trait psychopathy based on the primary psychopathy scale of the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (LSRP).  Of 281 undergraduates at the University of Padova, 51 were selected for this study based on LSRP primary psychopathy scale scores at or above the 75th percentile (high trait psychopathy; HP; n = 26) and at or below the 25th percentile (low trait psychopathy; LP; n = 25).  Choice of action, moral judgement, and self-reported valence and arousal were assessed within Trolley and Footbridge type dilemmas as well as harmful and harmless everyday moral situations.


 A few key findings were:

·         Those with HP

o   More likely to sacrifice one person in Trolley and Footbridge dilemmas (compared to LP)

o   More likely to choose to act in harmful everyday moral situations (compared to LP)

o   Experienced less unpleasantness during decision making (compared to LP)

o   Equally likely to act in harmful and harmless everyday moral situations

·         Those with LP

o   More likely to act in harmless than in harmful everyday moral situations

o   Experienced greater unpleasantness during decision making for harmful than harmless situations

·         Despite differences in likeliness to act and experienced unpleasantness during decision making, there were no differences in the overall moral judgments ascribed to various situations between groups. 

Some key implications:

·         Those with HP are able to cognitively distinguish between choices of action within moral situations when making moral judgements equally as well as those with LP.  However, they do not experience the same affective alterations when deciding whether to act in such situations and are more likely to choose to act, despite having cognitively appraised the action to be less morally acceptable.

·         This suggests that those with HP may explicitly learn the moral rules of society, but may not have internalized or personally adopted them and, as such, their own gain feels more important than not harming others.

·         Emotional experience may be the driving force of decisions to act in everyday moral situations regardless of whether an individual cognitively understands the difference between “right” and “wrong.”