Do Psychopathic Individuals Possess a Misaligned Moral Compass? A Meta-Analytic Examination of Psychopathy’s Relations With Moral Judgment

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Psychopathic individuals are often characterized as lacking a moral sense. Although this hypothesis has received ample experimental attention over the past decade, findings have been inconsistent. To elucidate the relationship between psychopathy and abnormal moral judgment, we conducted a meta-analysis of the research on psychopathy and morality-related variables (k = 23, N = 4376). A random effects model indicated a small but statistically significant relation between psychopathy and moral decision-making (rw = .16) and moral reasoning (rw = .10) tasks. These results reveal at best modest support for the common perception that psychopathic individuals fail to understand moral principles. A secondary meta-analysis (k = 9, N = 4294) of the growing body of literature on the relationship between psychopathy and moral reasoning on moral foundations measures provides preliminary evidence that psychopathic individuals may possess a differential set of “moral taste buds” than less psychopathic individuals. We discuss the implications of the results from both meta-analyses for models of the etiology of psychopathy and the criminal responsibility of psychopathic individuals.

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