Is the Psychopathic Brain an Artifact of Coding Bias? A Systematic Review

Frontiers in Psychology 12 (2021)
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Abstract

Questionable research practices are a well-recognized problem in psychology. Coding bias, or the tendency of review studies to disproportionately cite positive findings from original research, has received comparatively little attention. Coding bias is more likely to occur when original research, such as neuroimaging, includes large numbers of effects, and is most concerning in applied contexts. We evaluated coding bias in reviews of structural magnetic resonance imaging studies of PCL-R psychopathy. We used PRISMA guidelines to locate all relevant original sMRI studies and reviews. The proportion of null-findings cited in reviews was significantly lower than those reported in original research, indicating coding bias. Coding bias was not affected by publication date or review design. Reviews recommending forensic applications—such as treatment amenability or reduced criminal responsibility—were no more accurate than purely theoretical reviews. Coding bias may have contributed to a perception that structural brain abnormalities in psychopaths are more consistent than they actually are, and by extension that sMRI findings are suitable for forensic application. We discuss possible sources for the pervasive coding bias we observed, and we provide recommendations to counteract this bias in review studies. Until coding bias is addressed, we argue that this literature should not inform conclusions about psychopaths' neurobiology, especially in forensic contexts.

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