Study Suggests Psychopaths Can Intentionally Empathise

Psychopathy is a personality disorder associated with a lack of empathy, along with an increased likelihood to display aggressive and anti-social behaviour.  Classical models of psychopathy have viewed the disorder as a permanent affective defect, making it impossible for suffers to”mirror” the emotions of others: a process known as ‘vicarious representation‘.

However,  a study published last year in Brain suggests that when psychopaths are instructed to intentionally empathise with others – when presented with an emotional scene of hands touching – participants are in-fact capable of vicarious representation.

This suggests that psychopathy is not characterised by an inability to empathise, rather it is a lack of spontaneous or non-intentional empathy.

Such research provides a promising insight into potential treatment options to help rehabilitate offenders affected by psychopathy.

ABSTRACT:

Psychopathy is a personality disorder associated with a profound lack of empathy. Neuroscientists have associated empathy and its interindividual variation with how strongly participants activate brain regions involved in their own actions, emotions and sensations while viewing those of others. Here we compared brain activity of 18 psychopathic offenders with 26 control subjects while viewing video clips of emotional hand interactions and while experiencing similar interactions. Brain regions involved in experiencing these interactions were not spontaneously activated as strongly in the patient group while viewing the video clips. However, this group difference was markedly reduced when we specifically instructed participants to feel with the actors in the videos. Our results suggest that psychopathy is not a simple incapacity for vicarious activations but rather reduced spontaneous vicarious activations co-existing with relatively normal deliberate counterparts.

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