January 26, 2011
Psychopaths Like Brain Injured With Low Empathy

Some day neurosurgeons could offer to turn you into a psychopath if you so desired.

People diagnosed as psychopathic have difficulty showing empathy, just like patients who have suffered frontal head injury. This has been shown in a new study from the University of Haifa. “Our findings show that people who have psychopathic symptoms behave as though they are suffering frontal brain damage,” said Dr. Simone Shamay-Tsoory, who conducted the study.

At the risk of stating the obvious: If an injury to a specific part of the brain reduces empathy then empathy is a product of that part of the brain.

Do you think of psychopathy as a disorder?

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that finds expression in extreme anti-social behavior and intentional harm to others, including a lack of compassion and empathy.

My guess is psychopathy is not a disorder but, rather, a trait that exists due to selective pressures. In other words, psychopathy increased reproductive fitness.

Not all psychopaths lack the ability to comprehend emotions felt by others. It isn't that they lack the ability to model the emotions of others. Rather, their emotional reaction to their own modeling of others is different than it is in most people. This is, by the way, why I fear future artificial intelligences. I do not expect they will have behavior-restraining empathy.

An existing explanation for such behavior suggests inability to comprehend the existence of emotions in others. However, the fact that many psychopaths act with sophistication and deceit with intention to harm others, indicates that they actually have a good grasp of the mental capacity of others - and are even capable of using that knowledge in order to cause them harm.

Adrian Raine has previously found that psychopaths can be divided into successful and failed (i.e. jailed) types. The successful ones do not have an asymmetry in the hippocampus that the unsuccessful ones have.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 January 26 11:47 PM  Brain Society

Deb Platt said at January 27, 2011 10:10 AM:

Just a couple comments. I once was in a graduate program in clinical psychology. One day I was talking about class with one of my fellow students when he confided to me that he didn't actually believe that there was such a thing as "empathy". I ended up leaving the program, but he's probably a practicing clinical psychologist now. Whether you think that psychopaths are normal or disordered, I still find his choice of profession to be rather disturbing.

I disagree with your underlying cognitive model for empathy. I don't believe that non-psychopaths develop a "model" which explains to them what others are feeling. I think that what happens in non-psychopaths is that they almost reflexively put themselves in the other person's shoes. And the fact that they have an emotional response themselves from identifying with the situation allows them to infer what the other person might be feeling. However, I am guessing that successful psychopath do create a cognitive model of how people respond emotionally to situations. So they don't actually feel empathy. However they can deduce what others might be feeling based on a cognitive model that they have constructed. And I would guess that unsuccessful psychopaths perhaps lack the intellectual muscle to engage in this kind of deductive process.

An interesting research angle for investigating this might be to have pyschopaths watch films that are tear-jerkers and examine their galvinic skin responses when compared to others. And let's look at people with damaged frontal lobes while we are at it. My hypothesis would be that psychopaths don't respond autonomically to the same degree as non-psychopaths. Even if they intellectually understand the emotions of others, they don't feel them. And I would guess that people with frontal lobe damage do respond autonomically. I think that's because these brain-damaged individuals do have impaired impulse control, whereas a psychopath can potentially exercise good impulse control, but not have any motivation causing them to refrain from certain actions due to a lack of empathy.

Chuck said at January 27, 2011 2:13 PM:

You wrote:

"At the risk of stating the obvious: If an injury to a specific part of the brain reduces empathy then empathy is a product of that part of the brain."

All that brain injury studies show is that the proper functioning of certain parts of the brain is necessary to the proper functioning of certain aspects of the mind. They don't do anything to show that these brain parts are sufficient to the related facets of the mind, or that brain and mind are identical for that matter. Perhaps better to say that the part of the brain in question is necessary to the production of empathy, rather than that it produces empathy?

Lou Pagnucco said at January 27, 2011 6:17 PM:

Unfortunately, it does seem that all personality traits correlate with physical brain traits (or chemistry or regional activity.)

A subtype of empathy neglected by many studies, though, is the absence of empathy by members of affinity groups (family, ethnic, religious, nation, class, sports fans, ...) feel for members of out-groups. Non-psychopaths can often show very little regard for those who they see as dissimilar - probably a legacy of Darwinian selection. See, for example:

"The closed circle of empathy: mirror neuron system activation and anterior EEG asymmetries in response to outgroup members"

Lono said at January 28, 2011 10:28 AM:


You are correct about psychopaths not showing normal responses to such stimulus - Scientifc American recently had an excellent article about such testing that has been recently done:



As to whether psycohpathy is a defined trait, or a disability, this same above article provides interesting evidence that it is indeed a feedback failure in the brain (caused by phenotype) that may be able to be re-initiated through medical or even medicinal intervention.

This is all very cutting edge stuff and I believe this latest research may produce most amazing results.


I agree - it seems further analysis will be required to see if head injuries only short-curcuit empathetic behavior - rather than the capacity for empathy itself.

cthulhu said at January 29, 2011 10:09 AM:

Shouldn't that be, "Some day neurosurgeons could turn you into a psychopath if your government-run healthcare system so desired."?

An Observation said at January 29, 2011 10:36 AM:

It never seems to occur to most people, but the perfect place to get away with psychopathic behavior is in the legal system - as a prosecutor, or even more ideally as a judge; but - trust me -it does occur to the psychopaths. Most people find it bizarre that Ted Bundy - before he was caught and convicted - was studying to be a prosecutor. The difference between a serial killer like Bundy and some prosecutors I have seen is that the prosecutors are better able to delay gratification than Bundy was. For that type of prosecutor the sweet meat is convicting somebody who is obviously innocent - destroying their life just because the prosecutor can - now that is torture at the extreme. At Bundy's sentencing the judge lamented that Bundy had thrown away a promising career in the law. Hmmmm - if you were a doctor or an engineer would you lament that a psychopathic serial killer had "thrown away a promising career" in your field? I don't think so - but the judge hearing the case did - which in my opinion is a strong indicator that the judge was a psychopath himself.

Nobody tests anyone in the legal profession for psychopathy - the world would be a better place if we did.

Michael Kennedy said at January 29, 2011 10:54 AM:

There is a lot of evidence of a hormonal role in empathy. Hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin play a role. The most interesting research is with two species of ground squirrel, one of which has strong mothering and familial behavior and the other has much less. For example: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1764849/

Most of the work is with autism but psychopathic behavior could also be related. The hypothalamus controls release of ADH and other stimulating hormones for the pituitary. The brain areas in psychopathy might have some similar functions, either as secretors or receptors.

Steve Skubinna said at January 29, 2011 11:19 AM:

Observation, your comment about psychopathic prosecutors is a good one - I often wonder how it would be possible for a whole person to deliberately railroad innocent people, destroy their businesses, reputations, and lives in, for example, a witch hunt for nonexistent ritual child abuse. Incidentally, that's how Janet Reno made her name in Florida.

On the other hand, don't discount the ripe fruit available to psychopathic defense attorneys. What sort of thrill do you think one gets from gaming the system to get a guilty person acquitted? Look at O.J. Simpson's "dream team." Go ahead, tell me there weren't any psychopaths in that shining jewel of the profession.

Finally, I would not focus unduly on the legal profession as offering rewards to psychopaths. Law enforcement, politics, even bureaucracy would give fine scope for inflicting damage to others and reveling in one's own cleverness and superiority. In short, any endeavor that permits one to exercise power should attract a psychopathic personality. One exception I can think of is the military - while there's plenty of potential for personal mayhem, military service requires self discipline, something psychopaths appear to generally lack. I doubt many could stand the requisite structure and behavior for more than one hitch.

gs said at January 29, 2011 11:43 AM:

Not all psychopaths lack the ability to comprehend emotions felt by others. It isn't that they lack the ability to model the emotions of others. Rather, their emotional reaction to their own modeling of others is different than it is in most people.

Think of the actors, directors, comics, etc who have moved us to our depths, and turned out to be monsters in their personal lives.

This is, by the way, why I fear future artificial intelligences. I do not expect they will have behavior-restraining empathy.

IMHO this piece by Steve Wolfram, noting that computermj5sgxs and humans do mathematics differently, has that implication.

Brian said at January 29, 2011 11:47 AM:

"If an injury to a specific part of the brain reduces empathy then empathy is a product of that part of the brain."


It might mean that empathy is dependent on a a network of brain activity with multiple loci in the brain; thus injury to any one part will impair the capacity to empathize. And even that is too simplified. Given the plasticity of the brain, researchers would have to study the injured individual over time, to see whether other areas of the brain have taken over and now provide the physical substrate for empathy.

So there.

Miriam said at January 29, 2011 12:51 PM:

Personal story:

I sat at a discussion group in DC and listened to a new member speak. He was talking about how humans did not have the right to exist because of their disregard for animals. He stated or implied that humans should be eliminated. Talked about over-population. He seemed intelligent, but also strangely self-referential.

I turned to the group facilitator and scribbled on a paper 'this guy's a sociopath'.

After the group, I recommended to him a book on over-population ('the empty cradle' - it's actually about falling birthrates across the world and how this affects our ability to provide and produce for the planet). He took my email and later when he emailed me, it was again some rant about the destruction wrought by humans. I was disturbed by the tone and my perception of him earlier and I blocked his address from being able to contact me further.

Months later, someone took hostages at the Discovery building in Maryland, just outside of DC. Later he was shot and killed by police sharpshooters and the hostages were freed. They said he was motivated by his 'radical environmental beliefs'. His face looked familiar. It took me a moment, but I recognized him as James, the guy who had so unsettled me at the discussion group.

I learned from that experience that psychopaths/sociopaths are not always hidden. Sometimes they are right there in plain sight. Btw, I don't think anyone else in the group percieved him that way, my impression was that they just saw him as a bit of a crank.

Another experience: I was friends with a guy, alot younger than me, who was deaf. Other than that he was attractive, intelligent, articulate and successful (he spoke quite well, thanks to his mother who made sure that he grew up able to speak perfectly and read lips too (he drew the line at a cochlear implant, which he did not want - perhaps because he would then have had to compete in the world on everyone else's terms - better to be at the top of the deaf community).

Although he had a girlfriend, he chased after me quite determinedly when she was not around. (Admission - I had flirted with him before knowing he was in a serious relationship with someone). I remember telling him that I was not going to fool around with him because he had a girlfriend. He replied 'she's not here so she's not going to know'. His response chilled me - I realized then (as I realized with the guy at the discussion group) that he was at least in some aspects, a psychopath. I avoided him from then on, even though his mother and her partner remain my friends. Psycopathy in the most normal-seeming person.

Lastly, my ex-husband was someone who had very strong psycopathic tendencies (along with alot of rage). While he seemed to be a pillar of the community who helped others alot (he was a member of the clergy as well), nonetheless, he had a strong streak of bully and lack of caring regarding the situation of others. Two examples: Once (when I had a newborn baby), I accompanied one of my older kids who was going with a friend to buy a used computer. When they got to the address, it was in the roughest sections of the city. They dissappeared into the building and I waited in the car. After an extremely long period of time, I drove home and told my then-husband that I was afraid for them. I asked him to please go and find them. He retorted to me 'you do it - you took them there'. I realized that he did not care if I (the mother of his newborn, and his other children) went into a situation that could get me killed. It stunned me at the time. Examples of his rage (putting fist through wall by my head) could be explained away as his anger, but this was said in a calm and casual way.

The other example with my ex, was when I finally got the courage to leave him, demanded half of my food stamps, which I was using to feed his children when they were with me. I gave them to him (until someone told me that it was illegal for him to do this). It was apparent to me (but I did not understand it) that he was willing to take away my only means of feeding his children. Until I was told it was illegal, I fed them with charity that the community gave to me (he was not aware of how I got by during this time). I never understood how someone could take away the ability of the other parent to feed their very own children. This is a man who swears to be the best and most caring of parents. Again - I was totally bewildered by how he was able to do this - and I told him explicitly at the time that if he took away half my food stamps, I would not have money to feed the children (I had no income, child support money or alimony). A terrifying time.

I'm writing all of the above - about people close to me and people I just met, to show that pschopathy amd sociopathy are much more common than we think and are sometimes right under out noses, if we just pay attention to the signs. Btw, the only person of the above three examples who I do not think comprehended human emotion was the sociopathic hostage taker. The others seemed to 'comprehend' the feelings of others just fine, but did so on the level of mental conception, rather than (as most of us do) by actually -feeling- the feelings of others (i.e., feeling sad when we know others are sad, rather than just 'knowing' on a mental level that the person is sad).

On a side note (boy, this post is getting lengthy, but hey, I'm in the mood to share on the topic) - I once told my oldest son that I knew he did not give a sh-t about others. When I said this, he looked at me with an almost guilty expression - like someone had his number and he was caught in the act. I then told him that those who deep down don't care about others can either become the people who are leaders that exploit others - or, conversely, they can become the greatest leaders of others. If they make the decision, they can be the ones who actually (consiously decide to) care about everyone (at least in action, if not in deepest emotion). Precisely because they lack the emotion, they also lack subjective favoritism. Where a normal person will sincerely care about person A but not person B, someone who doesn't give a sh-t about others, can decide to act in ways that are caring to all people - because their actions arise from an objective decision to act in a caring way to all, rather than a subjective emotional reaction. I like to think my son took this to heart - he is now a clergy person like his father, but has heard many lectures from me about how his first responsiblity is to care for the physical, emotional and (lastly) spiritual needs of his congregation. He knows that this is not dependent on his needing to 'feel' it as an emotion, but rather is his duty to act this way as a leader responsible for the well-being of others. Btw, he's also an excellent husband and father - his coldness and dryness is expressed in his being very helpful in a rather level-headed, deadpan and dry fashion (but I still see him hugging, kissing and joking with his toddler kids, so he's not that dry).

Finishing this rather long post (thanks for reading). The sum of these experiences have taught me something - something that I teach to others. I was a college instructor (communications) while in grad school (after leaving said charming ex). One of my students (it was a rough, urban community college in a rough area) said to me 'I really don't care about others'. It was during a discussion about the value of reallly listening to people. I told the class - along with him - 'caring is not an emotion - caring is a muscle'. I told the student to try and listen and verbally empathize with someone (disregarding what he is 'feeling' - i.e, a lack of interest) and to see how long he can do it for without becoming tired. He came back to class and reported that he had asked a bank teller how she was, and when she actually told him, he listened to her and responded for a couple of minutes. He had never done this before - and by the way, it tired him out. I was super impressed. At the end of the semester, he reported that a friend of his was on the phone with him, crying about her lousy situation at home (no, it wasn't a girlfriend, so there was no sexual motivation). He acually listened and responded to her for the better part of an hour - something that he would not have had either the knowlege to do or the stamina for, prior to his realization that he could decide to act in caring ways, whether he felt it initially at the time or not. The whole class applauded him (including me - I was blown away) - and he and the other students agreed that, indeed, caring is not an emotion, it is a muscle (powered by a mental decision).


Thanks again for reading.


Mike said at January 29, 2011 1:43 PM:

Just to add my two cents:
I addition to the above considerations, I think a lot of people neglect the contribution of culture. It doesn't just affect the clothes we wear, or our haircuts! It also provides an entire intellectual and emotional framework, by which we understand and give meaning to our experiences. Doubt it? Then just consider Nazi Germany. Or better yet, Ancient Rome. Normal people paid their own money to watch men beat one another to death. The actually enjoyed watching unarmed people get eaten alive by wild animals! If someone did that today, they would be considered worse that Bundy or Dahlmer.
I'm sure that there are many countries today (in Africa, parts of Asia) where "normal" people walk by starving children with a mere shrug.

John Moore said at January 29, 2011 2:16 PM:
My guess is psychopathy is not a disorder but, rather, a trait that exists due to selective pressures. In other words, psychopathy increased reproductive fitness.

I think this is unlikely. Evolution is not a clean process - it produces lots of results that do not add to fitness. The low incidence of psychopathy is an argument against selective pressure, unless one presumes that having a few psychopaths around is good for the survival of the group (keeping in mind, natural selection is not about fitness of the individual, but the fitness of the group).

This also raises the question of how much psychopathy is caused by, or enhanced by genetic factors. I don't know the latest research on this, but last I checked, it was not a strong genetic trait.

You imply that selected traits cannot be a disorder, which to me is an odd definition of disorder.

Tedd said at January 29, 2011 3:15 PM:
This is, by the way, why I fear future artificial intelligences. I do not expect they will have behavior-restraining empathy.

I've often wondered whether that might be a problem for AI in another way. It seems to me that an intelligent biological being has built in motivation to learn and adapt, stemming from the survival instinct (and probably other instincts, as well). But a machine would only have whatever motivations it's programmers figured out how to give it. It might seem natural to worry that an intelligent machine would harm humans without concern, but if it lacks any sort of motivation of the biological sort then we have to ask whether it would bother to harm humans in the first place. I see no reason why it would even bother to defend itself.

Of course, one could argue that those kinds of motivations were themselves aspects of intelligence, so that a machine would have no intelligence unless it had them. But I don't find that very convincing.

Wacky Hermit said at January 30, 2011 5:37 AM:

I would be interested to see how these results would apply to people on the autism spectrum. My experience with my boys suggests that autistic people who are "mindblind" are capable of empathy, but have trouble understanding that the skinbags around them have feelings not in sync with theirs. Once they come to the realization that their peers and family aren't extremely realistic mind-reading androids, they can empathize with them. Of my two sons with Asperger's, one has a great deal of empathy but just can't read people's emotional signals, and the other believes everyone knows his thoughts and should do what he wishes, and doesn't think any more of smacking a "malfunctioning" person than you would of smacking the side of an appliance that needed a little "percussive maintenance".

Lou Pagnucco said at January 31, 2011 1:12 PM:

A recent relevant video:

The Coming Era of Brain-Based Law through the Eyes of David Eagleman (video)


...So is all criminal behavior the product of neurally-based automatisms decoupled from the will of the subject? Are we supposed to blame the person or the brain? Dr. Eagleman finds the distinction between the brain and the self to be arbitrary and based on false assumptions...

BioBob said at February 2, 2011 9:11 PM:

@ John Moore who said "natural selection is not about fitness of the individual, but the fitness of the group"

Actually, natural selection is ALWAYS about the fitness of the individual. However sometimes that individual fitness is affected by "group fitness" considerations, sometimes referred to as the "SuperOrganism". However, the individual is always the unit of selection. The group continues but the individual is gone - long live the group lol.

Patricia child of a psychopathic mother said at August 28, 2011 2:22 AM:

Not all psychopaths are criminals, although they may have committed criminal deeds. I read today that there are psychopaths and mean psychopaths. All that said in consideration of this article and the comments above, I wish there were more studies on the effects of psychopath's children, especially mothers that are psychopaths. What happened to the serial killer's children, did they have psychological problems from being raised and "nutured" by the psychopath? There is so much focus on the criminals and serial killers, but what havoc have they left to their own offspring(s) which were also manipulated and abused in all forms? Do some of the children become substance abusers and psychopaths and do others lead what appears to be "normal and productive lives" living with the years of all forms of abuse which damage their souls? Obviously, psychopaths are too "smart" for therapy. How about the fireman that starts fires and runs to the scene to be the hero, or the fireman in charge of the community drowning prevention program
that does not put a fence around his own pool and lives within 1/4/ a mile from an elementary school? I thinks the lady who spoke at length above was right, they are among us and coyly manipulating until they are undone. I also think some of them make choices to be evil regardless of "brain" differences. Thank you.

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