A Psychopath's Mind: Is the Lack of Empathy the Source of Antisocial Behavior?
등록일 2019년 01월 07일 수요일
수정일 2017년 11월 08일 수요일

Photo by: frankie's via Shutterstock

Cunning, seductive, and ruthless -- these are traits common among psychopaths.Unlike common murderers, the psychopath feels no guilt, remorse, or shame after committing an inhuman act.

Empathy and Psychopathy

The definition of psychopathy is not straightforward because of many factors attributed to the mental disorder.Psychopathy may be caused by early life experiences, genetics, and environmental influences.Signs and symptoms of psychopathy usually remain unnoticed until the person reaches his/her16th birthday.This is because certain signs of psychopathy, such as shallow emotions, being manipulative, lying, and need for stimulation, may be deemed as normal in the early stages of life.

"A constellation of traits that comprises affective features, interpersonal features, as well as impulsive and antisocial behaviors.The affective features include lack of guilt, empathy, and deep emotional attachments to others; the interpersonal features include narcissism and superficial charm; and the impulsive and antisocial behaviors include dishonesty, manipulativeness, and reckless risk-taking," is the definition provided by the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy.

However, psychopathy should not be defined based on physical aggression even if a psychopath has a higher tendency to be aggressive.Most psychopaths actually remain in touch with reality and hold rationality.These people can be found in both prison and communities.

Empathy may be the key to explain why psychopaths fail to feel regret after committing something bad.When we were kids, our parents and teachers told us not to hurt others and not to speak when our mouth is full.These two types of rules can be disobeyed easily by children but not with a person who has empathy.If an empathic person hurts someone, they tend to feel the pain from someone's distress, and that person will link that thought of pain whenever hurting someone.This effect is the same when helping others.An empathic person can feel happiness in the comfort and safety experienced by others.But a person who lacks empathy will never feel pain or joy from someone else.A person without empathy will hurt others and be left feeling numb; on the other hand, eating the most delicious food will only seem like he/she is chewing on bland bread.

In order to understand if the presence of empathy can explain psychopathic tendencies, a research team joined forces with a Dutch forensic clinic and gathered data from 21 convicted violent psychopathic offenders.For safety, the offenders were secured with wooden sticks sawn into their trousers and plastic handcuffs to prevent them from hurting anyone or running away.

One by one, the offenders were scanned using a functional magnetic resonance imaging while watching movies about hurting someone.They were told to watch carefully on the movies being shown.But during the second part of the test, Harma Meffert, the doctoral student who conducted the study, entered the scanner room and slapped each offender on the hands to pinpoint brain regions responsible for touch and pain.The researchers applied the same with 26 men of similar age and IQ to the offenders.

The findings revealed that the psychopathic offenders have reduced empathy and explained why they have committed terrible crimes without feeling guilty.Additionally, they found out that some psychopaths have a charming personality and are capable of communicating with normal people.Patient 13 on the study showed the researchers that they can be empathic like normal people, but they can also disable it anytime which a normal person cannot do.

While the findings may have answered the relationship between empathy and psychopathy, there are still much to understand in the mind of a psychopath, like how they are able to control empathy like a light switch or if there be changes if psychotherapies were always empathic.

Sociopathy vs.Psychopathy

Sociopaths and psychopaths are terms not found in the official handbook of mental health, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.Mental health doctors use the term antisocial personality disorder as the diagnosis of a person who is a sociopath or a psychopath.

Experts believe that these two share similar traits, such as the lack of capability to feel or understand the emotions of others and the lack of sense to determine what is right or wrong.But the key difference between a sociopath and a psychopath is the ability to have a conscience.

According to Dr.L.Michael Tompkins, a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center, a sociopath typically has a conscience but a weak one.Sociopaths may still be aware that stealing is a crime or may feel a bit of guilt after doing something wrong.They simply won't do anything about it.

According to Dr.Aaron Kipnis, author of The Midas Complex, a psychopath has no conscience because they hold less regard for others, and may use other people as objects for selfish reasons

Additional Information

- About 27 percent of the adult population aged 18 to 65 in EU countries had experienced at least one of a series of mental disorders in the past.

- At least one in five youths aged 13 to 18 experienced a severe mental disorder at some point during their life.

- More than 50 percent of all chronic mental illness begins at the age of 14 and despite effective treatments, there are long gaps between the first appearance of the disorder and when the person gets help.

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