Criminals with psychopathy show impaired cognitive empathy

According to Brook and Kosson (2013), an empathic interaction between people is comprised of three different types of exchanges, emotional, motor and cognitive.  While the emotional and motor components of such an exchange allow individuals to share feelings and mirror each other’s movements at a subconscious level, the cognitive component of the exchange allows individuals to consciously process and understand the other person’s emotional and mental states.  The cognitive component of empathy is split by neural pathways and function, allowing an individual to: understand other people’s feelings/emotions, or understand other people’s intentions and predict their behavior (a person’s ideas about the nature of someone else’s mental processes is also called a person’s theory of mind).

Surveying the scientific literature, Brook and Kosson (2013) reviewed a number of prior experiments measuring the various parts of empathy, using stimuli to elicit a reaction at the conscious or subconscious level.  Past methods for measuring cognitive, emotional and mental states have included: participants looking at pictures of people with different facial expressions, listening to another person’s speech, listening to stories or looking at pictures of just other people’s eyes.  Experiments using static pictures of different facial expressions have shown that psychopaths make the same number of mistakes identifying expressions as nonpsychopaths, but those mistakes are concentrated for certain expressions, such as happy, disgust, anger, and/or fear, depending on the study. Experiments using a series of pictures with increasing facial expression have typically shown overall deficits in recognizing emotional states, while theory of mind studies using simple stories have shown no deficiencies in understanding others mental  states.  Brook and Kosson (2013) posited that the mixed results seen in different experiments could be due in part to the different approaches taken and that no previous experiment in the area of psychopathy used a method that simulated a natural empathic interaction, where all three components were required at the same time.  So they decided to measure cognitive empathy with a more holistic approach, which entailed showing male participants, who were incarcerated, videotapes of naive people sharing an emotional time in their lives, and then asking the inmates to identify the emotion expressed.

Brook and Kosson (2013) found that the higher participants scored on the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), the less accurate they were in determining the emotion displayed by the naïve people in the videotapes.  More specifically the behavioral/antisocial and lifestyle features had a larger affect on emotional inaccuracy than the interpersonal and affective features of the disorder.  Their results agree with past results from experiments that used a series of pictures that showed more facial expression with each successive picture, or used speech as the prompt.  Results from past experiments that showed only a single picture of a person’s face generally did not correlate with the current experiment’s results.  Brook and Kosson (2013) thought that the differences in results could be due to the varying amounts of information the participants had to process.  Psychopaths may not be able to recognize salient emotions as well as the rest of us in a dynamic emotional interaction with someone else, but may be able to recognize the non-abstract features.

To learn more about cognitive empathy dysfunction you can read:

Brook, M., and Kosson, D. S. (2013).  Impaired cognitive empathy in criminal psychopathy: Evidence from a laboratory measure of empathic accuracy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122, 156-166.

Written by Sandy Michels and the Research Committee

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