Shedding a few tears won’t help you win over a psychopath. When it comes to fear, distress, and sadness, people with psychopathic traits are not able to respond to genuine emotions in the way most people do.
Based strictly on facial expressions, psychopaths are unable to tell whether someone is genuinely upset or just shedding crocodile tears. Publishing their work in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, researchers asked participants to look at photographs of people expressing different emotions, some of which depicted genuine feeling while others were faked.
Participants who exhibited more psychopathic traits did not feel any worse for someone authentically upset than someone who was faking it. What's more, they also had difficulty telling whether or not someone was faking their distress, meaning that psychopaths are less willing than most to help someone who is genuinely distressed.
"For most people, if we see someone who is genuinely upset, you feel bad for them and it motivates you to help them," said Amy Dawel of the Australian National University (ANU) in a statement. "People who are very high on the psychopathy spectrum don't show this response."
On the other hand, when it comes to other emotions like anger, disgust, and happiness, psychopaths have no issue telling if someone is faking it.
Listed under Antisocial Personality Disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), psychopathy diagnoses fall to those who fail to show remorse or guilt, have a tendency toward violent behavior, and disregard laws, social morals, and the rights of others. They tend to be very charming and take big risks while being master manipulators who don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Rather than genuinely feeling emotions, they learn to mimic appropriate responses to others.
A variety of biological factors contribute to the making of a psychopath, including a combination of genetic and environmental features along with differences in brain structure. In a psychopath, parts of the brain that are associated with feeling empathy or concern for others don’t fire in the same way as they do in other people.
Because people with psychopathic traits can’t imagine how others experience pain, it could help explain why they can’t spot people who are truly upset. Dawel hopes her research will help us better understand and treat those with psychopathic tendencies.
"Understanding exactly what is going wrong with emotions in psychopathy will help us to identify these problems early and hopefully intervene in ways that promote moral development,” she said.