Psychopaths can switch empathy on and off
Conventional wisdom has it that psychopaths lack empathy, but a new study in the journal Brain suggests that’s not the case. Instead, they have the ability to switch it on and off, which, according to researchers, explains how psychopaths can be both callous and charming.
For the study, psychopathic criminals were placed in a brain scanner and told to watch videos of one person hurting another. They were also asked to empathize with the person being hurt. Researchers found that only when asked to empathize with the victim, did the region of the brain associated with pain show activity.
Empathy is considered critical to social development, particularly in a person’s ability to respond appropriately to everyday situations. Psychopaths, however, traditionally have been seen to have reduced ability to empathize with others--including their victims--along with superficial charm, an ability to lie pathologically and diminished capacity for remorse. Psychopathic criminals are also have been found to be more likely to commit crimes after release from prison.
But the researchers say that because their study suggests psychopaths are capable of turning on empathy--rather than having none at all—new therapy treatments could be developed to train their brains.