Psychopathic traits mediate guilt-related anterior midcingulate activity

Coercive power has different effects on individuals, and which were unable to be fully addressed in Milgram’s famous studies on obedience to authority. While some individuals exhibited high levels of guilt-related anxiety and refused orders to harm, others followed coercive orders throughout the whole event. The lack of guilt is a well-known characteristic of psychopathy, and recent evidence portrays psychopathic personalities on a continuum of clustered traits, while being pervasive in a significant proportion in the population. To investigate whether psychopathic traits better explain discrepancies in antisocial behavior under coercion, we applied a virtual obedience paradigm, in which an experimenter ordered subjects to press a handheld button to initiate successive actions that carry different moral consequences, during fMRI scanning.


Fig: Experimental setup and scenario effect on the reaction time and guilt ratings to coercive commands. (A) Schematic representation of the paradigm for coercive commands. The experimenter ordered the participant to commit harming or neutral behavior by pressing a trigger button in a virtual computerized program along with visual feedback of moral scenarios. (B). The reaction time (RT) in harming was longer than that in neutral (P = .04). Participants showed less obedience (i.e., longer RTs) to initiate harming (3.042 ± 0.027, mean ± SE) than to initiate neutral (3.022 ± 0.024) actions. (C) While there was an overall significant correlation between reaction time and guilt ratings found in the whole group analysis, indicating that participants who obeyed harming orders more promptly (i.e., shorter RTs) were reported with stronger feelings of guilt, this effect was mainly driven from participants who scored lower on psychopathic fearlessness traits (Low vs. High psychopathy: r =  − 0.36, P = .03 vs, r =  − 0.07, P = .36). (D) Under coercion, higher guilt ratings were reported for harming (4.132 ± 0.212), as compared to neutral actions (0.971 ± 0.086).

Psychopathic traits modulated the association between harming actions and guilt feelings on both behavioral and brain levels. This study sheds light on the individual variability in response to coercive power.

Cheng, Y., Chou, J., Martínez, R.M. et al. Psychopathic traits mediate guilt-related anterior midcingulate activity under authority pressure.Sci Rep 11, 14856 (2021).

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