Take the 2-minute tour ×
Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. It's 100% free, no registration required.

It is often claimed that psychopaths lack a conscience. There was even a book named after the claim. A review of that book states:

As the title suggests, psychopaths are qualitatively different from other people, literally having no conscience.

This website which seems to be an information resource for psychopathy states:

Imagine - if you can - not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken.

I think it is well established that psychopaths lack empathy, which has been shown with differences in brain structure and/or activity, although I don't think it is necessarily valid to conclude that psychopaths have no conscience from that.

The definition for conscience is not dependent on empathy, bur rather knowing or having a sense of what is right or wrong. Even with a complete lack of empathy or remorse, why could there be no sense of right and wrong?

Is there any validity to the claim that psychopaths lack a conscience? Why would they be unable to have the same values of wrong and right instilled as other people, or to sense how people will morally view their actions?

share|improve this question
@Chad What? I'm not redefining anything. The definition refers to a sense of right and wrong, not necessarily guilt. The claim that psychopaths lack a conscience seems to have more to do with them lacking a sense of right and wrong then being incapable of remorse or guilt. –  Sonny Ordell Feb 21 '12 at 16:40
I'm with Chad here. I know of no definition of "conscience" that reflects societal convention. The definition you provided includes whatever the individual feels is "right" or "be[ing] good". If those values are "what is right is whatever I feel like doing, and being 'good' is me doing whatever I feel like doing", then a psychopath could indeed have a "conscience". Just not one that is at odds with society. –  Beofett Feb 21 '12 at 20:39
@chad , Beofett - I don't think it matters if it is a personal sense of right and wrong or a societal one. I think the issue is whether or not a psychopath can sense that something may be right or wrong, whether personally or in line with societal values. Not feeling remorse or guilt does not mean they may not be able to see something as wrong or right, which is what I think the claim is getting at. –  Sonny Ordell Feb 21 '12 at 22:55
@Chad, I somehow missed the relevant sentence in my question. Fixed. –  Sonny Ordell Feb 22 '12 at 1:44
add comment

2 Answers

Psychopathy is measured through a scale known as "Hare Psychopathy Check List, Revised (PCL-R)". It is not simply a paper but a whole book on psychopathy. It is very, very well tested experimentally, and hugely cited - Google Scholar reports 3000+ citation.

Unfortunately, the book is not freely available, but, since this is a non-controversial subject, I'll simply use Wikipedia. See the voice for PCL-R. There are 2 main factors identified in psychopaths:

Factor 1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
  • Callousness; lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Factor 2: Case history "Socially deviant lifestyle".

  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavioral control
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Early behavior problems
  • Revocation of conditional release

It is clear from this that lack of conscience (or remorse, guilt) and lack of empathy are part of the same factor and thus they are strongly correlated.

So - to answer your question in full - lack of a conscience is a common trait of psychopaths, but it's not, strictly speaking, necessary, for a psychopathy diagnosis.

share|improve this answer
I think you are conflating a lack of conscience with a lack of remorse/guilt when they are not necessarily tied to each other. In fact the definition for conscience mentions neither remorse nor guilt. –  Sonny Ordell Feb 21 '12 at 1:32
I know this isn't a place for criticism of established references, but the PCL-R seems to be missing the dimension of willful cruelty. Ronson's The Psychopath Test establishes that the PCL-R can rank a corporate CEO as a psychopath (including Factor 2 questions), but, in my opinion, there's something qualitatively different between a thrill-killer and a sentiment-free CEO. Ronson ends the book skeptical of the PCL-R. –  Larry OBrien Feb 21 '12 at 4:50
From that definition: "the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good". Seems very tightly coupled to remorse and guilt to me. –  Oddthinking Feb 21 '12 at 8:23
@ Larry OBrien - I believe that willful cruelty is classified as sadism, not psychopathy. For psychopaths, cruelty is more like a means to an end, not a pleasure in itself. But that's just the current classification. I read about this recently in Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature. –  Ana Feb 21 '12 at 12:46
@sklivvz And I was agreeing with you. But making it clear that it has actually happened not just theoretically possible. –  Chad Feb 21 '12 at 13:59
show 14 more comments

Edited to make it more clear

From the dictionary defintion of conscience that you provided:

Breaking these down individually:

a : the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good

In other words, being able to determine if one's actions are right or wrong and feeling a need to do good.

b : a faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts

In other words something inside of you that tells you to do good.

c : the part of the superego in psychoanalysis that transmits commands and admonitions to the ego

In other words something that tells the individual they are doing a good thing, i.e. a feeling of positivity also known as a "warm, fuzzy feeling. Or warning them that they are doing a bad thing i.e. a sense of guilt or remorse.

As you noted psychopaths lack empathy. The conscience is what supplies the feelings of guilt or remorse i.e. empathy. With no conscience there can be no empathy.

share|improve this answer
You've given an interpretation of the definition, but now how it relates to psychopathy -- you haven't answered the question... –  Sonny Ordell Feb 21 '12 at 2:50
Edited to make it more clear. –  Legion600 Feb 21 '12 at 2:58
-1 - Your interpretation is not properly referenced. Thus it is not an acceptable answer in this SE. Not to mention you did not answer the question. –  Chad Feb 23 '12 at 13:59
add comment

This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this post by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.