Psychopaths have been romanticized across TV and film to appear as cold, calculating, and often villainous people that only care for their own interests. Indeed, these individuals are characterized by antisocial behavior and a "diminished capacity for empathy and remorse". However, while they many associate "psychopath" with Hannibal Lector, they may not necessarily be supervillains and serial killers – they could be your boss, or if you have a propensity to torture SIM characters, you may even be one.
However, psychopathy is extremely difficult to study. The brain is complicated and finding actual psychopaths is a difficult feat, so this so-called lack of empathy has never been fully understood.
Now, researchers have provided the first clear evidence that psychopaths have a reduced brain function when trying to empathize with a peer. Those thought to be psychopaths had difficulty completing tasks related to taking the perspective of another, with brain scans highlighting areas of the brain related to empathy were under-active. The results are published in the journal NeuroImage.
The study involved 94 incarcerated offenders, all adult males, trying to predict the emotions of someone in a social interaction, effectively judging their capacity for empathy. They were asked to look at images of two people having a specific interaction (such as one consoling the other), but one had their face blocked by a shape. After judging the scene, participants had to pick which facial expression they thought was behind the shape from two options.
Each participant was also interviewed and tested for psychopathy, which was then compared to fMRI (a real-time brain scan) data from the shape task to see any differences between psychopaths and the other participants.
In line with their expectations, the researchers saw those who scored highly on psychopathy performed worse when trying to identify the correct emotions in the scene. They particularly struggled with fear, happiness, and sadness. When trying to empathize with the people in the picture, psychopaths had reduced brain activity in multiple different regions associated with empathy, suggesting that there was a biological dysfunction preventing the psychopaths from understanding which emotion is correct.
The authors do acknowledge limitations in their study. Despite performing poorly on happiness and sadness-related tasks, the psychopaths had no less brain activity than the other participants, which was unexpected. The authors believe this could be to do with how they measured the brain activity, which may have been less accurate in some emotions.
These results add to the mounting evidence that psychopaths struggle to take on the perspective of another person. Psychopaths appear to have distinct difficulties empathizing with fear, which may explain their ability to climb corporate ladders and become leaders more effectively than most.