Psycopaths - perceived as cold and ruthless - may be good for the society in certain situations, suggests a study which found that such individuals are more likely to sacrifice one person to save a larger group of people.
The study, led by researchers from University of Plymouth in the UK, compared participants answers to a questionnaire, with actions in immersive moral dilemmas created using a robotic device which measures force, resistance, and speed, whilst simulating the action of harming a human.
In several dilemmas, participants had to decide whether to sacrifice a person by performing a harmful action against them, in order to save a larger group of people.
While all individuals were more likely to sacrifice others in these immersive environments than in questionnaire- based assessments, people with strong psychopathic traits were more likely to generate these harmful actions with greater physical power.
Psychopathy is generally characterised by antisocial behaviour and impaired empathy. As such, it is thought that individuals with strong psychopathic traits find it less emotionally challenging to sanction utilitarian actions.
This resilience to performing actively harmful acts appears to enable these individuals to act for the greater good, researchers said.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, indicates that psychopathic traits could be considered beneficial in certain circumstances, since they can lead to a more vigorous response.
"For the first time, we demonstrate how personality traits can influence the physical power of our moral actions," said Kathryn Francis, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Reading in the UK.
"Importantly, the multidisciplinary approaches that we have used here, combining virtual reality, robotics, and interactive sculpture, places further emphasis on the need to unite the sciences and the arts when investigating complex phenomena such as morality," said Francis.
"This study opens up the possibility to assess psychopathy using novel virtual reality technology, which is vital to better understand how and why people with these behavioural traits act in certain ways," said Sylvia Terbeck, lecturer at University of Plymouth.