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

  • Monika DargisEmail author
  • Richard C. Wolf
  • Michael KoenigsEmail author


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.


Psychopathy Childhood maltreatment Reversal learning PCL-R 



We thank the many individuals at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections who made this research possible, and are especially indebted to Warden Judy Smith, Warden Randy Hepp, and Dr. Kevin Kallas.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Conflict of Interest

Monika Dargis, Richard C. Wolf and Michael Koenigs declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Experiment Participants

This study received approval by the university’s Institutional Review Board.


This work was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health grant number 5T32MH018931.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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