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New research on psychopaths and empathy

Psychopaths are typically described as lacking in empathy. New research from the Netherlands, however, suggests that psychopaths have the capacity for empathy, but it’s usually turned off.

The study was just published in Brain: A journal of neurology. I heard the first author, Dr. Harma Meffert, present the research when I attended the conference sponsored by the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy in June.

The researchers asked convicted criminals, who had been diagnosed as psychopaths, to view short video clips while hooked up to fMRI machines, so that the activity in their brains could be observed. The videos showed two hands interacting in ways that were painful, loving, socially rejecting and neutral. As they watched the videos, the psychopaths’ brains did not show activity in the areas generally associated with empathy.

However, in the second part of the experiment, the psychopaths were instructed to empathize with one of the actors in the video. This time, they did show activity in the brain regions linked with empathy to approximately the same degree as the control group.

The researchers interpreted this to mean that psychopaths have the ability to feel empathy, but it is not automatic. Psychopaths only feel empathy when they consciously focus on it.

The lead author, Dr. Christian Keysers, explains the research in the video. The following articles also provide good summaries:

Researchers study brains of violent psychopaths, find empathy, on LATimes.com.

Criminal psychopaths flip a switch to ‘turn on’ empathy, on MedicalNewsToday.com.

Clears up confusion

Many Lovefraud readers, myself included, have experienced what we thought was empathy from the psychopaths in our lives. They seemed to understand how we felt. They not only said the right words, but we felt the appropriate “vibes.”

This is certainly what we saw in the beginning of the relationship when we were being seduced, but it slipped away, either slowly or suddenly. The glimmers of empathy would occasionally reappear, so that we’d hope the person we first met was returning, perhaps this time to stay.

Of course, it didn’t last very long, and they were soon back to the cold, calculating and remorseless persona that we so frequently saw. But those glimmers of empathy may have been enough to for us to think that the psychopaths really could change. Deep inside they were caring and empathetic, we thought, and if we could just show them enough love, that person could return.

So no, we weren’t imagining things. We did see empathy. But empathy is not a normal state of being for these people. Empathy is only present when psychopaths are using it to manipulate us.

Opportunity for therapy?

In the video, Dr. Keysers mentions that the finding that psychopaths may, in fact, have the capacity for empathy may provide a direction for therapy. Of course, other research has shown that asking psychopaths to empathize with their victims doesn’t do any good, and may actually make them into more cunning psychopaths.

Lovefraud has heard from several self-identified psychopaths who sneered at the emotions and empathy felt by people who aren’t disordered. Since they view themselves as superior, I don’t know what would motivate psychopaths to develop their capacity for empathy.

But there may be hope for children who are at risk for developing psychopathy, if they can get the right treatment early enough. That would certainly be a step that could benefit not only them, but the human race.

More information

Here’s the original scientific study, which is not easy reading. The “Discussion” section, about halfway through the article, contains the researchers’ conclusions.

Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy, on Brain.OxfordJournals.org.

 



51 Comments on "New research on psychopaths and empathy"

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  1. Corinne says:

    Here’s another good video on Narcissism. There seem to be a lot of resources on youtube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7k-q21pJzQ



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    • flicka says:

      Thanks; seems NBD, narcissists and phychotics are all interrelated. Wish an expert could differenciate the three categories for me clearly.



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      • Babs94540 says:

        I’m not an expert, but there’s a pretty good breakdown and description of all the personality disorders at Wikipedia.

        Pds are grouped into three sets: Cluster A, Cluster B, and Cluster C. (Based more on the earlier edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: DSM-IV, instead of the newest edition, DSM-V)

        “Cluster B”, the dramatic, erratic group of pds, includes the 4 personality disorders that LoveFraud members encounter a lot: histrionic pd, borderline pd, narcissistic pd, and antisocial pd.

        Each personality disorder (in the DSM-IV) has about 9 diagnostic criteria, but a minimum of 5 (any 5 or more) are needed in order for a psychiatrist or psychologist to diagnose an individual patient.

        (There is also a set of “general criteria” for personality disorder that must also be present for a formal diagnosis to be made.)

        There are overlapping features common to the Cluster B disorders, like “high impulsivity” and “dramatic emotionality”, but each has key, distinguishing features as well:

        histrionic pd:
        tends to act out sexually and engages in other attention-seeking behaviors.

        borderline pd:
        features emotional disregulation or mood swings that are much more frequent and intense than even rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Tends to fear abandonment, and tends to assign other people as “all good” or “all bad.”

        narcissistic pd:
        Tends to be totally self-absorbed. Feels superior to others and therefor entitled to special, deferential treatment. Tends to lack (affective) empathy for others.

        antisocial pd:
        Tends to disregard rules & laws, and violates the feelings and rights of others. Lacks the capacity to feel remorse for the harm they do. Tends to lie often and easily, and is highly manipulative with the goal of deception for self-gain.

        Antisocial pd is just the current term for sociopathy; its the same thing, basically.

        Dr. Robert Hare, however, believes that “psychopathy” should be a separate disorder than antisocial pd, and if I understand his reasoning correctly, its because he views psychopathy as the most extreme (most serious, most deadly) version of antisocial pd.

        As another member posted, he created the “Hare Psychopathy Checklist” which is a diagnostic tool for psychopathy developed for use in forensic populations (incarcerated criminals.)

        Also (if I understand correctly, again) according to Dr. Hare, all those with psychopathy also have narcissistic pd. BUT not all those with narcissistic pd are psychopaths.

        So, for a more detailed description and full set of diagnostic criteria for all the pds, check out the “personality disorder” article at Wikipedia.



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  2. flicka says:

    This shows ittle resemblance to the real Hare checklist.



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