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Psychopaths have a strange allure about them. We enjoy reading their stories, talking about them, and watching them in Hollywood movies. It’s almost as though we are fascinated by their utter lack of care for our feelings. Mystery drives curiosity, even when the mystery is not particularly good for us. The simple fact that they lack empathy — a typical human trait that the rest of us automatically experience — makes us want to learn more about them.

Psychopathy (or the related diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) is characterized by selfishness, callousness, impulsivity, and a lack of empathy. Less than 5% of people truly meet the criteria to be properly diagnosed as psychopaths. But like with many other psychological characteristics, psychopathic traits sit along a continuum, and a person is diagnosed when their symptoms exceed some predefined threshold. So even if we don’t personally know a real psychopath, it probably is true that most of us know someone who is a bigger psychopath than we are.

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Empathy is a pivotal feature for telling apart a psychopath from a typical person, but we can study empathy from several perspectives. The first relates to what scientists call “theory of mind”, which refers to our ability to reliably attribute mental states to other people. It allows us to read their behaviors, intentions, and beliefs. Without it, we struggle to understand what people are doing and what they are likely to do next.

Psychopaths do not seem to have much difficulty with theory of mind. Depending on how you look at it, their normal function in this domain may sound surprising. If theory of mind is a critical feature of empathy, then you would predict that selfish psychopaths lack that capacity for reading minds; after all, how can we understand other people’s beliefs and motivations without empathy? 

But what if you consider theory of mind as just one facet of empathy rather than its critical core? Then, it’s less surprising to know that psychopaths are good at reading people. In fact, much of their callous manipulation of others probably depends on an intact theory of mind. People are much harder to manipulate if you cannot understand and predict their thoughts and behaviors.

The truth is psychopaths understand other people’s feelings perfectly well, but simply don’t care too much about them. Therein lies another facet of empathy. If our conscious comprehension of other people’s mental states is one half of the story, then perhaps the other half is our unconscious reaction to those perceptions. How deeply do other people’s intentions and experiences — their thoughts, pains, and pleasures — affect us?

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In early 2018, one study investigated this unconscious perspective of empathy in the context of psychopathy. They took over 100 male convicts in a high-security prison and ran through a standard psychopathy checklist with them. The prisoners then completed a computerized task that featured a human character standing in a room; the right and left walls of that room had a number of red dots painted on them and the computer character faced one of those walls.

The task itself was straightforward: participants had to report either how many dots they could see painted on the walls from their own perspective, or how many dots the computer character could see from his animated perspective.

Consistent with previous research using this type of task, the researchers first found that participants were faster in judging how many dots they could see themselves versus how many dots the computer character could see. Even with our decent theory of mind ability, it’s still easier to judge the world from our own perspective than somebody else’s perspective.

Participants were also faster to judge the number of dots when their own perspective matched the perspective of the computer character. If both they and the character could see the same number of dots, they responded quickly. If they could see a different number of dots to the character, then it would take them longer to indicate the correct number of dots because of the interference from the inconsistent perspectives.

The interference patterns overall differed depending on whether the participants judged their own perspective or the character’s perspective at the time. We can consider two types of interference: altercentric interference is when the number of dots that the computer character sees disrupts our own assessment of how many dots we can see; egocentric interference is when our own perspective interferes with how we count the other person’s dots. In other words, you could argue that egocentric interference is an automatic sign of human selfishness, while altercentric interference is an automatic sign of human empathy.

On the whole, participants experienced both types of interference, consistent with the behavior of non-criminal populations who have previously completed the task. However, the researchers found a more unique pattern when they analyzed the data depending on each prisoner’s level of psychopathy. 

The more serious psychopaths were less affected by altercentric interference, that is, they were less affected by the perspective of the other person when reporting how many dots they could see themselves. There was no such effect for egocentric interference. So psychopaths were perfectly unencumbered by the other person’s perspective when judging their own perspective, but they could not block out their own perspective when trying to judge how many dots the other person could see. They lacked the automatic sign of human empathy that characterizes a non-psychopath, but showed no such deficit in automatic human selfishness.

Unsurprisingly, a participant’s level of psychopathy as measured by the researchers’ checklist predicted the number of assault charges on their criminal record. But here’s a more interesting question: could their performance in the computer task also predict their real-world behavior? The answer is yes. A lower score on altercentric interference (automatic empathy), combined with a higher psychopathy score, predicted a larger number of assault charges. Their lack of an automatic empathy reflex did not just improve their ability to selfishly count dots in the computer task; it also made them more likely to violently assault other people.

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We will all continue to be intrigued by a psychopath’s total disregard for our welfare. Our eyes and wallets remain open for terrifying stories about Mansons, Bundys, Geins, and Dahmers, but it’s also worth studying the less dramatic details of their psychological profiles if we want to understand their behavior. We may never intuitively relate to their severe callousness, but we can at least begin to explain it.

Psychopaths can read our minds and behavior as well as anybody, but when you look for the more unconscious and uncontrollable signs of empathy, you begin to see their depravity through clearer glass. That’s when they can no longer fool us. Only the very best actors can control their unconscious impulses well enough to mask their ordinary nature. The rest of us struggle to hide our thrills, desires, and automatic empathy. 

When we notice that psychopathic killers lack the immediate unconscious reflex of absorbing other people’s perspectives, their cold blood becomes less mysterious, even if it becomes no warmer.