People with psychopathy can empathize with others, but this process is less automatic

25 July 2013

Psychopathic serial killers such as Hannibal Lecter and Jack the Ripper have the power to fascinate and repel at the same time. The huge number of films and books based on cases like these are the living proof. But are individuals with psychopathy simply ruthless criminals, or is the reality actually far more complex?

New research carried out by the Social Brain Lab in the UMCG in association with the Dr S. van Mesdag Forensic Psychiatric Centre shows that people diagnosed with psychopathy are able to empathize with other people’s feelings, but that this is by no means an automatic process. For the first time in the Netherlands, MRI scanners were used to monitor the brains of patients with psychopathy. The research findings are published in today’s edition of Brain.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that occurs in one percent of the population as a whole, and ten percent of the male prison population. The high risk of harming others and reoffending on release makes criminals diagnosed with psychopathy a real danger to society. One of the main characteristics of psychopathic individuals is that they show no empathy.

The researchers were trying to find out whether this lack of empathy could be related to brain regions which are activated not only when you experience emotions, feel sensations or perform actions, but also when you see other people experiencing these emotions, sensations or actions. It has already been shown that the extent to which this ‘mirror neuron system’ is activated, is associated with how empathic a person is. This research project explored whether the lack of empathy in people with psychopathy could be put down to reduced activation of this ‘mirror neuron system’ while they observe others.


The research was divided into three parts, all of which were carried out while the participants’ brain activity was monitored in an fMRI scanner. Participants were first shown films of two people touching each other’s hands in a loving, dismissive, painful or neutral way. They were then shown these films again, but this time they were asked to empathize with the feelings of the people in the film. Finally, one of the researchers actually performed similar hand interactions with the participants while in the scanner, in order to locate the brain regions that are involved in processing these interactions.

When participants watched the films without any specific instructions, the individuals with psychopathy showed less activation in brain regions involved in processing movement, emotion and touch compared to a control group. However, when asked to empathize with the feelings of the people in the film, the brain activity of the psychopathy group showed very little difference with that of the control group in these same regions. This would seem to suggest that people with psychopathy have the capacity to empathize with others, but that this process is less automatic compared to the control group.


There are two sides to these findings. On the one hand, the combination of capacity and suppressed activation could be the ‘cocktail’ that enables psychopaths to be ruthless when causing their victims harm or grief, and sly when practising the art of seduction. Further research is needed to find out whether people with a psychopathic disorder are capable of switching their empathic faculties on and off, depending on the social situation in which they find themselves. On the other hand, the findings could be an important new lead for therapists working with psychopaths. Rather than trying to develop their patients’ capacity for empathy, the emphasis could be shifted to consciously mobilising their existing capacities. The researchers are stressing the need for more research before the results can be used to develop new therapies.

The research was conducted by Harma Meffert at the UMCG, and supervised by Christian Keysers and Valeria Gazzola from the Social Brain Lab, part of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

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