Why do Psychopaths Lack Empathy?

Study suggests psychopaths lack empathy because of reduced brain activity
Ted Bundy, world's most famous psychopath. Source: Getty Images

Study suggests that psychopaths struggle to empathize with fear; links their lack of empathy to reduced brain function.

In recent times there has been a huge surge in the interest in psychopaths. Whether its tv shows on Netflix or crime documentaries on YouTube, you’ll find these individuals everywhere. Moreover, psychopaths’ lack of empathy has been a source of curiosity for researchers everywhere. Likely because this particular characteristic has led to violent crimes in the past. Although researchers continue to investigate the behaviour, underlying cognitive mechanisms remain unclear.

Research has shown that psychopathic people tend not to ‘share’ another person’s emotion, or feel emotion in response to another person’s emotion. It’s less clear from prior research whether psychopathic people have difficulty with another part of empathy, that is taking another person’s perspective to understand their emotion.

Philip Deming, PhD student in the Department of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Now, a study by researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison has found evidence of reduced brain function in these individuals. The results of the study are published in the journal NeuroImage.

Prison Inmates Undergo Assessment

Researchers recruited 94 male incarcerated offenders aged between 18 and 55 years who completed a psychopathy assessment. The participants then completed a perspective-taking and shape-matching task. Functional MRI scans helped record their brain activity while they performed the tasks.

The affective perspective-taking task involved viewing images of two individuals interacting. For example, one person consoling the other, or one person scolding the other. However, one of the individual’s face was covered by a shape. Participants then had to select the appropriate facial expression out of two options. Researchers presented participants with five emotion categories: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, and neutral.

In the shape task, participants had to identify the shape in the image out of two options shown to them.

Temporal sequence of the affective perspective-taking task. Participants selected one of two emotional faces that best matched the emotion of the obscured face from the social scene. For the shape task, participants selected one of two shapes that matched the shape embedded within the social scene

Psychopaths Fail to Identify Fear

As predicted, participants who scored higher on the psychopathy assessment, performed worse on the perspective-taking task. Thus, proving that psychopaths’ cognitive deficit leaves them with a lack of empathy. Therefore, these individuals are unable to understand other people’s emotional states.

Moreover, when tasked with identifying fear in individuals shown in the images, participants showed reduced neural activity in brain regions responsible for empathy and emotions. This included the anterior insula and posterior orbitofrontal cortex; both of which are involved in processing emotions. However, when the task involved identifying happiness or sadness researchers did not observe any psychopathy-related brain activity.

In our sample of incarcerated people, those with high levels of psychopathy had difficulty taking the perspective of another person and identifying several emotion categories: fear, happiness, and sadness. But when we examined brain activity, we saw deficits specifically related to fear

Philip Deming, PhD student in the Department of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison

It is unclear as to why the reduced neural activity was only present during fear trials. Therefore, researchers call for further research into studying these brain regions and translating the findings into effective treatments for psychopathy.


Deming, Philip, et al. “Psychopathy Is Associated with Fear-Specific Reductions in Neural Activity during Affective Perspective-Taking.” NeuroImage, vol. 223, 2020, p. 117342., doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117342.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here