Psychopaths do possess empathy, but they need to intentionally feel it in order for it to trigger. This is according to research published in the journal Brain: A Journal of Neurology.

Psychopathy is a type of mental illness used to describe an individual who is incapable of feeling guilt, remorse or empathy for their actions.

Researchers from the Netherlands used modern “high-field functional magnetic resonance imaging” in order to analyze the brains of psychopathic criminals while they watched other people’s emotions.

The study, which was conducted in three parts, involved 18 participants with psychopathy alongside a control group of 26.

The researchers explain that all participants watched a series of short movie clips of two people interacting with each other, zooming in on their hands.

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The researchers performed hand interactions with the participants to see how they would emotionally respond to touch. Photo credit: Dr Keysers

The clips showed the two hands touching each other in four different ways:

  • painful
  • loving
  • socially rejecting
  • neutral.

The participants were then instructed to view these scenes just as they would when watching one of their favorite movies.

In the second part of the experiment, the participants were then asked to watch the same movie clips again, but this time the researchers asked them to empathize with one of the actors in the movie and attempt to feel what the actor might be feeling.

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The participants’ brain patterns were monitored while watching a series of emotional movie clips. Photo credit: Dr Keysers

In the third part of the experiment, the participants were asked to lay down as a brain scanner actively measured their brain patterns while the researchers performed hand interactions with the participants themselves.

Harma Meffert, first author of the study, explains:

“We wanted to know to what extent they would activate the same brain regions while they were watching the hand interactions in the movies, as they would when they were experiencing these same hand interactions themselves.”

Results of the experiment reveal that by default, psychopathic individuals feel less empathy compared with the control group. However, when the psychopaths “try” to empathize, they have the ability to switch to “empathy mode.”

Dr. Keysers looking at brain patterns on a computerShare on Pinterest
Dr. Keysers analyzed the brain patterns of the participants to determine their state of empathy. Photo credit: Dr Keysers

The researchers explain that the human brain consists of a “mirror system.” This is when the brain automatically copies the movements or emotions of others.

They add that it has been suggested psychopaths may have a “broken” mirror system, meaning they are unable to empathize with their victims.

Christian Keysers, senior author of the study, says this research revealed that the individuals with psychotherapy did, in fact, use their mirror system less: “Regions involved in their own actions, emotions and sensations were less active than that of controls while they saw what happens in others. At first, this seems to suggest that psychopathic criminals might hurt others more easily than we do, because they do not feel pain when they see the pain of their victims.”

The researchers add that although the psychopaths are not using this mirror system spontaneously, they can use it when asked to.

Valeria Gazzola, second author of the study, says:

When explicitly asked to empathize, the differences between how strongly the individuals with and without psychopathy activate their own actions, sensations and emotions almost entirely disappeared in their empathic brain.

Psychopathy may not be so much the incapacity to empathize, but a reduced propensity to empathize, paired with a preserved capacity to empathize when required to do so.”

The study authors say this research suggests that the limited spontaneous empathy found in psychopaths alongside the ability to “turn on” empathy, could “be the cocktail that makes these individuals so callous when harming their victims, and at the same time so socially cunning when they try to seduce their victims.”

They add, however, that the fact psychopaths appear to have the ability to experience empathy is something that could be used in therapy.

The researchers suggest that therapies for psychopathic individuals should focus on making their already-existing empathy ability more automatic in order to prevent them from harming others, rather than creating a capacity for empathy. But, they add, it is uncertain how this would be done.