Monthly Archives: August 2017

A Conversation with Essi Viding

Psychopathy is a dark topic and a brave choice for a BBC2 Horizon programme. This was to be a serious and not sensationalist account of this complex personality disorder. It is remarkable how often this topic has been aired and how regularly it appears in the movies. Was another documentary needed? Yes, because there is a great deal of new research. We also need to get rid of the entrenched idea that most violent criminals are psychopaths.

Director-producer Rebecca Harrison wanted to create a ‘noir’ feeling with a somber visual mood. I loved this idea. I also had to feel brave to be the presenter. This is not a field I am an expert in, but I wanted to learn more, and it was highly satisfying to be able to delve underneath the surface with the help of renowned researchers from different fields*. Here I talk to my friend Essi Viding, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at UCL, whose advice I drew on continuously while making the programme.


Uta: We asked ‘What makes a psychopath?’ Were we too ambitious to ask this question? Continue reading A Conversation with Essi Viding

Essi: I don’t think so. There are now widely agreed diagnostic criteria and you discuss them in the documentary. The documentary also touches on development and that is where I came in. What I am most interested in is what makes some children vulnerable to developing psychopathy. We can identify children who have so called ‘callous and unemotional traits’ and who share features with adult psychopaths. We now know more about the genetic and brain basis of these traits. We also know that not all children with these traits grow up to be adult psychopaths, so that is interesting and challenges us to find the right interventions.

Uta: I find it easy to believe that psychopathy is a neuro-developmental disorder just like autism. It took a massive effort to remove the blame from the parents in the case of autism and to get people to understand that these children are different from the start. I feel the same might need to be done for psychopathy.

Essi: Psychopathy is indeed a neuro-developmental disorder. Still, these children often grow up with many adverse social factors and this is why people are often keen to draw links with parenting – but it is not that simple. A problematic child can evoke problematic reactions. We need to keep in mind that the majority of the children from adverse social circumstances do not have a callous-unemotional traits, while a few children with loving parents and ample resources do.

Uta: Here is what I remember most from my involvement with the film: how different analysing the mind of the psychopath feels from analysing the mind of the person with autism. And yet there is the presumption that both conditions involve a profound failure of emotional development.

Essi: There is a glaring difference. Psychopaths excel in something that is lacking in autistic individuals. They have normal or even superior mentalising skills (the ability to track the invisible mental states of others – their desires, intentions, beliefs). It is clear that psychopaths use mentalising to manipulate, deceive and torment others.

But there is another social mechanism that seems to have failed in psychopaths – the normally strong desire for affiliation, that is, the wish to belong and to be part of a group.

Uta: Interesting! But this desire for affiliation has also been supposed to be missing in autism!

Essi: I think we both agree that this is absolutely not true for most individuals on the autism spectrum. There are too many observations that testify to empathy and a desire for inclusion. Also there is evidence from empirical studies documenting the ability to resonate with other people’s emotions in autism.

Uta: So, simply put, mentalising failure captures autism, and failure to affiliate emotionally captures psychopathy?

But what is affiliation – and what cognitive mechanism would support it? Does it have to do with our liability to be infected by the behaviour of others?

Essi: We can think of it as a primitive capacity to resonate with others. Presumably it has its origin way back in our evolutionary history and is probably found in all group living animals. Affiliation gives us positive feelings of belonging to a tribe or a fan club. It imparts the meaning we find in identity and in loyalty.

Uta: I take we agree that the mechanisms that underlie ancient components of our social nature must have a basis in the brain. So it is conceivable that abnormal brain development might interrupt affiliation?

Essi: There is a lot of excellent work from multiple research groups that has shown difficulty in resonating with other people’s distress in psychopathy. There is less work looking at positive affiliation, but it is something that my group and others are really interested to look at more closely. We want to know if cues that are known to support social cohesion and belonging, such as genuine laughter, are processed in a different way in children at risk of developing psychopathy. Laughter is one of the most contagious emotions. We join in when we hear genuine laughter and laughter is thought to promote bonding between individuals. There is reason to believe that processing of laughter is compromised in children at risk of developing psychopathy – you have to watch this space, as the study will only be out later this autumn.

Uta: We tend to hold on to other people when we feel fearful, and this seems to lessen our fear. Do you think that psychopaths in similar circumstances would not experience such benefits of affiliation?

Essi: That is an interesting suggestion. We would need to test it out. Some data suggest that individuals with psychopathy experience less fear themselves. If this is the case, they may need less support from others and that might reduce the motivational drive to affiliate.

Uta: I remember asking you before whether psychopaths can be found among gang leaders and mafia bosses, whether they can be particularly brave soldiers. You had some interesting arguments against this idea.

Essi: I think there probably are some who have high levels of psychopathic traits. These might be the ones who are highly narcissistic and shamelessly use others, without ever returning loyalty in any way. Psychopaths can happily dispense of other people the minute they cease to be useful. They don’t have regret. The suffering of others means very little to them.

But I am not sure whether such individuals would make the most successful gang leaders, mafia bosses or soldiers. They are not team players. One of the hallmarks of psychopathy is that they tend to act in line with purely selfish urges. This is often not compatible with the best interests of the team.

Uta: I am still hoping to find the ‘good’ psychopath, untrammelled by emotions and with strictly utilitarian morality, but law abiding. Could it be that in times of extreme conflict and crisis it is the psychopath who can save the group? By carrying out the unspeakable deeds that nobody else would be prepared to perform?

Essi: I wonder why would they bother? I think doing a heroic deed would still require buying into ideology, putting yourself into danger or discomfort for others. These people do not typically do this.

Uta: For me, the bleak insight from making the programme is that we don’t know how to change psychopaths. Will they ever be able to feel genuine remorse, empathy and belonging?

Essi: Changing ingrained emotional traits is very difficult. There is an example of a study of individuals with anxiety. In contrast to psychopaths they feel and worry a lot. There are interventions that help individuals with anxiety, but they will never become the most chilled out people on the planet. And these are individuals who feel so rotten that they have a huge motivation to change how they feel! Psychopaths don’t feel bad themselves, so it will be harder to achieve motivation to change for them and the extent to which they can ever feel for and with others is going to be limited. On the other hand, I am confident that we can change their behaviour!

As shown in the documentary, there are some promising treatment approaches with young people. One important insight is that psychopaths do not learn well from punishment, but they can learn from rewards. In other words, we can capitalise on their desire to look after number one. That can be used to promote prosocial behaviour. It is something I would like to work on in the future. I hope that we might eventually be able to put the moral development and social behaviour on the right track from an early age. This is worth striving for on behalf of children at risk of developing psychopathy and their families.


Kent Kiehl, Jeremy Coid, Gregory van Rybroek, Molly CrockettScott Lilienfeld. I was fortunate also to draw on advice from James Blair and Estelle Moore.

If you want to read one book, Kent Kiehl’s The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of those without Conscience is fascinating. There is also an excellent short BBC iwonder guide by Claudia Hammond on the topic.





We need to know more about how groups make decisions

Uta: As chair of the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee I have struggled with communicating the biases that enter into decisions made by selection committees. There is a strong commitment to increase diversity at the Royal Society at all levels, but nothing convinces scientists more than evidence. So it seemed a good idea to collect evidence on how group decisions are made. Not being a specialist in this area myself, I pleaded with Dan Bang and Chris Frith to write a review, and here I am asking them about what they found.


The review has taken over a year and refers to 203 publications. It just appeared in the Royal Society journal Open Science.

Dan, was this the first ever comprehensive review of the literature on decision-making in groups?

There are other excellent reviews which we refer to in our paper, but I think ours is the first to draw on computational modelling of decision-making, and to bring together findings from economics, psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

 Our article is not a review in the classic sense, we do not calculate the effect size of different group interventions or treatments. Instead, we use a general model of decision-making as our starting point, and then ask how individuals and groups solve each of the relevant computations. Continue reading We need to know more about how groups make decisions

Uta: For some reason the question of how we make decisions has always been of great interest to experimental psychologists. Why?

For experimental psychologists decision-making is a very useful framework for studying all kinds of cognitive processes, particularly those we are not aware of. For example, my perception of the letter A is a decision because I choose this interpretation of what I see instead of any other, such as the number 4. So, decision-making is something we do all the time but are usually unaware of.

 Uta: Why has there been a recent upsurge in studies on decision-making?

I think this is due to developments in computational modelling. Computational models allow us to break decision-making down into its component processes, generate predictions for what happens if we tweak one of the processes, and for understanding exactly where decision-making goes wrong or right. I like to think that experimental psychologists have gotten over their fear of maths and have begun to realise what computational approaches can offer.

Your favoured model is Bayesian Decision Theory (BDT). Can you explain what this is, briefly?

BDT describes how to make optimal decisions in an uncertain world. A key aspect is the integration of past experience (prior beliefs) and new evidence (likelihood). It turns out that many decisions, whether made by individuals or in groups, go wrong because of excessive reliance either on past experience or on new evidence.

 Is there a mathematical formula telling you how to make a good decision?

BDT provides the formulas for finding the best action. But the calculations required are often intractable, or too complex and time consuming, to be useful in practice. We can think of the task of finding the best action as one of finding the highest peak in a hilly landscape. BDT requires that you know the contours of the entire landscape. An alternative ‘quick and dirty’ strategy is to visit just a few different points in the landscape; this is often sufficient to get a good idea of where the peak might be. This strategy is called sampling. We can sample from our memories of past actions; we can sample from the internet; we can read about the goodness of some of the most obvious actions; we can ask our friends for advice.

 When is the right time to make a decision?

Somehow you have to recognise whether you have enough knowledge to make a good decision. Do I have taken enough samples or should I take more? If I stop sampling, I may miss a higher peak. If I go on sampling too long, my decision may come too late.

Uta: In the figure, we see a schematic landscape with different peaks and we see people who are ‘explorers’ or ‘exploiters’. I believe this distinction comes from the study of foraging behaviour in animals. If I know where apples are to be found, I exploit this knowledge by going to that tree. But eventually all the apples will have been eaten, and I need to explore to find a new tree. How does this play out in group decision-making?

Explorers and exploiters point us towards the advantages of group decision-making over individual decision-making. In many animals, such as honeybees, there are individual differences in the drive to explore or to exploit. Most bees in the hive are exploiters who go where they know that nectar bas been found. But about 4% are explorers (scouts) who look for new sources of nectar. The scouts can guide others to new sources of food. Among humans, it is perhaps the risk takers and sensation seekers who are the equivalent of these scouts.

Chris, since this is our ” socialminds” blog, can you explain in what way group decision-making is part of the social mind? Are there processes that you identified that are specifically social, rather than general cognitive processes?

The special social feature of group decision-making is that members of the group interact with one another. For example, we are typically unaware of our own biases, but very sensitive to those of others. By interacting with others we can discover our biases and try to overcome them. We prefer to justify our own immediate solution to a problem rather than considering other options. When we interact with others we may be forced to consider these other options.

 Is there a downside to group discussions?

One example is that the biases of one individual might spread through the whole group. Another problem can occur with perceived confidence. When people make decision together, they will often discuss how confident they are in their choice. In many cases, better decisions will be made when the solution of the more confident person is chosen. This is because confidence correlates with competence. But there are exceptions. Group decisions might be dominated by a vociferous and confident individual who is also incompetent.

 Some examples immediately spring to mind…

Dan, what do we know now from the research that you reviewed that we didn’t know before? Was there a finding that surprised you? Is it all common sense, really?

Well, common sense is always easier to spot in hindsight! What we have tried to do is to provide an evidence base for common sense.

 I think the most surprising challenge for decision-makers is living with and accepting uncertainty. We hate uncertainty. So, even if you make the optimal decision, you still may not get a good result. Then, it’s easy to say: oh, I shouldn’t have taken this particular action, but the other action. But this is hindsight bias! Actually, given what you knew at the time, you did take the best action.

 On the other hand, you might sometimes be lucky: you made a poor choice, but through random luck, there was a good outcome. In this case, you might fool yourself into thinking that you actually took the best action and receive praise from your colleagues.

 So it was a new insight that choice and outcome have to be kept separate? Are there any practical implications?

 Indeed – I think that innovation and exploration is often discouraged because people focus too much on outcomes. Especially in groups, people are too afraid to get it wrong. This is because they know they’ll be evaluated on outcome, and not on a careful consideration of the grounds for their choice. This is one important reason why groups tend to stick with business as usual. We feel much more regret after making an unusual choice that turns out to be wrong. When doing business as usual, others can’t point the finger at us.

 Chris, what ideas are ripe for exploring further? What is the next question that the review urges to be studied?

We need to learn more about the role of group leaders. We can think of a group of people with different areas of expertise as a super-brain. The group members are like populations of neurons which perform different functions, but whose output is brought together to make sense of the world. The brain has solved the problem of competition for influence and relies on a central executive system to coordinate information processing. Group leaders need to emulate such an executive system to overcome some of the dangers associated with group decision-making. Here are some practical examples: applying the rule that each member can only speak for a fixed amount of time. Another is pointing out bias where it occurs.

Uta: Here is a puzzle for me. Equality bias is one of the causes you identified as potentially leading to poor decision-making in groups. Do we really assume that all members of our committee are equally good at decision-making? If we have such a bias, how does this square with our irrational tendency to feel that we are better drivers/teachers/parents than other people. Why has it not helped us towards more diversity?

 Equality bias means that equal weight is given to all opinions. It is part of the more general belief that others are more similar to us than they really are. Since not all group members are of equal competence, the bias results in too much weight being given to the opinions of less competent members of the group. If anything, this bias should work in favour of diversity. The difficulty for achieving diversity arises because we feel much more comfortable with people who are really like ourselves. Our shared expectations make them easier to communicate with. But this does not necessarily lead us to make better decisions than we would have made by ourselves.

Uta: I am just speculating, but this equality bias makes me think that if we believe, rather egocentrically, that others are more similar to us than they really are, then we get an unpleasant jolt when we notice the discrepancy between assumed and actual similarities. However, the discomfort is worth it when it leads to better decision-making by pooling diverse opinions.

Dan, are you convinced by your review that groups really make better decisions than individuals?

Yes, absolutely. We discuss many benefits in the paper: more accurate knowledge from pooling of knowledge, better inferences from pooling cognitive resources, better coverage of hypothesis space from mix of exploiters and explorers. But checks and balances must be in place for groups to work.

Uta: What are the hottest recommendations for this committee’s work?

One new idea that is gaining strength is the use of lotteries in decision-making. When choosing which projects to support it is usually easy to pick out the good ones and the bad ones. But there will always be a middle range of equally good projects, only some of which can be supported. Selection at this stage could be done by a lottery. This would eliminate the effects of unconscious biases and would eliminate a lot of fruitless discussion.

Uta: The whole point of the review was to give evidence-based recommendations so that selection committees and panels can make better decisions. Therefore, I’m listing some of them here.

                                   ——————-7 RECOMMENDATIONS——————–

  • Strive for diversity among group members, both in terms of expertise and background. This will allow you to explore the full hypothesis space and avoid narrowing of ideas.
  • Don’t be afraid to weight opinions. Give more weight to the opinion that is based on better knowledge.
  • Be sensitive to differences in expressed confidence. Talking time rarely correlates with expertise. Consider allocating a fixed speaking time to each member and enforcing a no-interruption rule, the latter benefitting people who have minority views, or who are in a minority.
  • Ensure independence of opinions. For example, do not express a preference for candidates before everyone has discussed them. Opinions are subject to contagion effects.
  • Avoid shared information bias. Do not focus discussion on information that everybody is familiar with, such as track record. Sometimes only one member has pertinent information. They may not reveal it as they assume others know too.
  • Balance exploration and exploitation. Business as usual is not always the best decision. Changes can be beneficial even though there is risk attached.
  • Appoint a meta-champion who keeps a check on process, is aware of the pitfalls and can point out common biases. Promoting independence among opinions is probably the most helpful service that the champion can provide.