Psychopaths cannot spot real facial emotions of sadness or distress, new research finds.
It may partly be why psychopaths are unlikely to help others in distress.
Dr Amy Dawel, who led the study, explained:
“For most people, if we see someone who is genuinely upset, you feel bad for them and it motivates you to help them.
People who are very high on the psychopathy spectrum don’t show this response.”
For the study, 140 people looked at photographs of others displaying different emotions, like sadness, happiness and disgust.
Sometimes, though, the person in the photo was faking it and sometimes it was a genuine emotion.
Dr Dawel explained the results:
“We found people with high levels of psychopathic traits don’t feel any worse for someone who is genuinely upset than someone who is faking it.
They also seem to have problems telling if the upset is real or fake.
As a result, they are not nearly as willing to help someone who is expressing genuine distress as most people are.”
Psychopaths had difficulty with the emotions related to distress, Dr Dawel said:
“For other emotions such as anger, disgust, and happy, high psychopathy individuals had no problems telling if someone was faking it.
The results were very specific to expressions of distress.”
It is clear that psychopaths do not respond to emotions in the same way other people do.
Dr Dawel said:
“There seems to be a genetic contribution to these traits, we see the start of them quite early in childhood.
Understanding exactly what is going wrong with emotions in psychopathy will help us to identify these problems early and hopefully intervene in ways that promote moral development.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment (Dawel et al., 2018).