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.
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.
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.
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.