Psychological Research

, Volume 81, Issue 5, pp 939–946 | Cite as

Smooth criminal: convicted rule-breakers show reduced cognitive conflict during deliberate rule violations

  • Aiste Jusyte
  • Roland Pfister
  • Sarah V. Mayer
  • Katharina A. Schwarz
  • Robert Wirth
  • Wilfried Kunde
  • Michael Schönenberg
Original Article


Classic findings on conformity and obedience document a strong and automatic drive of human agents to follow any type of rule or social norm. At the same time, most individuals tend to violate rules on occasion, and such deliberate rule violations have recently been shown to yield cognitive conflict for the rule-breaker. These findings indicate persistent difficulty to suppress the rule representation, even though rule violations were studied in a controlled experimental setting with neither gains nor possible sanctions for violators. In the current study, we validate these findings by showing that convicted criminals, i.e., individuals with a history of habitual and severe forms of rule violations, can free themselves from such cognitive conflict in a similarly controlled laboratory task. These findings support an emerging view that aims at understanding rule violations from the perspective of the violating agent rather than from the perspective of outside observer.


Target Stimulus Control Participant Movement Trajectory Antisocial Personality Disorder Criminal History 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We are grateful to Ryan Dutton for language editing and inspiring discussions. We thank Sandra Christian and Katharina Louis for the support in data collection.

Compliance with ethical standards


This research was funded by the Promotion of Junior Researchers Program at the University of Tübingen and the LEAD Graduate School [GSC1028], a project of the Excellence Initiative of the German Federal and State Governments.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.

Informed consent

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


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LEAD Graduate School and Research NetworkUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany
  2. 2.Department of Clinical Psychology and PsychotherapyUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany
  3. 3.Institute of Psychology IIIUniversity of WürzburgWürzburgGermany
  4. 4.Department of Systems NeuroscienceUniversity Medical Center Hamburg-EppendorfHamburgGermany

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