Reversal Learning Deficits in Criminal Offenders: Effects of Psychopathy, Substance use, and Childhood Maltreatment History

Clark Wolf
Iowa State University
Deficits in reinforcement learning are presumed to underlie the impulsive and incorrigible behavior exhibited by psychopathic criminals. However, previous studies documenting reversal learning impairments in psychopathic individuals have not investigated this relationship across a continuous range of psychopathy severity, nor have they examined how reversal learning impairments relate to different psychopathic traits, such as the interpersonal-affective and lifestyle-antisocial dimensions. Furthermore, previous studies have not considered the role that childhood maltreatment and substance use may have in this specific cognitive deficit. Using a standard reversal learning task in a sample of N = 114 incarcerated male offenders, we demonstrate a significant relationship between psychopathy severity and reversal learning errors. Furthermore, we show a significant interaction between psychopathy and childhood maltreatment, but not substance use, such that individuals high in psychopathy with an extensive history of maltreatment committed the greatest number of reversal learning errors. These findings extend the current understanding of reversal learning performance among psychopathic individuals, and highlight the importance of considering childhood maltreatment when studying psychopathy.
Keywords Psychopathy  Childhood maltreatment  Reversal learning  PCL-R
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