Individuals with psychopathic traits: Are they able to mimic fear and remorse

Why are individuals with psychopathic traits able to effectively manipulate and deceive others? To be successful at manipulating others, Jones (2014) has proposed that you need to be able to read cues of vulnerability in others, avoid detection by appearing to be trustworthy, and display a range of emotions even if not felt. There is a considerable amount of research suggesting that individuals with psychopathic traits are able to identify emotions in others but do not experience the same intensity of emotions as others. Some researchers have suggested that individuals with psychopathic traits have a general lack of emotional responses, whereas others suggest this attenuated emotional response is limited to fear, sadness, and remorse.  The purpose of the study by Book and colleagues (2015) was to see how well individuals with psychopathic traits can mimic fearful expressions and feign remorse. Three studies were conducted using a variety of samples and methodologies.


In Study 1, undergraduates, community members, and offenders were assessed for psychopathic traits using one of two measures: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (Hare, 2003) or Levenson’s Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (Levenson et al., 1995).  Each participant was asked to look at a photograph of someone showing a fearful expression and to reproduce the facial expression while being videotaped. A photograph was taken when the participant indicated they had mimicked the expression. A technique called the Facial Affect Coding System (FACS; Ekman & Friesen, 1978) was used to code each facial component (eyes, brows, mouth) from the photo to determine the participant’s ability to display the fearful expression accurately. The posed photos were shown to a different sample of undergraduates who rated how genuine the fearful expression appeared. Across all the groups, higher FACS accuracy scores and ratings of genuineness were most strongly related to higher levels of interpersonal and affective psychopathic traits. These results provide some support for the idea that individuals with psychopathic traits can mimic fearful expressions.


In Study 2 the emotion studied was remorse. Male undergraduates were assessed for psychopathy using the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (Lilienfeld & Hess, 2001) and were videotaped telling a true story while feigning remorse (describing an event that actually happened but when they did not feel remorse; for example cheating on their partner, telling a lie to a friend). When telling their story they were told to fake feeling remorse. These feigned remorse stories were shown to a new sample of undergraduates who were not told that the people in the video were faking remorse. Those students who scored higher on interpersonal and affective psychopathic traits (e.g., manipulative, grandiose, lacking remorse), were perceived by others as showing more genuine remorse. Interestingly, people who scored higher on the behavioral and lifestyle psychopathic traits (e.g., impulsivity, sensation seeking, poor angry control) were perceived as showing less genuine remorse.


Study 3 used a similar methodology as Study 2 but asked violent incarcerated offenders to tell a feigned remorse story while being videotaped. Four videos of feigned remorse stories were selected to represent four different combinations of Psychopathy Checklist-Revised factor scores. Factor 1 (F1) scores measure the interpersonal and affective features of psychopathy and factor 2 (F2) scores measure the lifestyle and behavioral features of psychopathy. The four videos represented the following: (1) low F1/low F2, (2) low F1/high F2, (3) high F1/low F2, and (4) high F1/high F2). These four videos were shown to a sample of undergraduates who were asked to rate how genuine they felt the remorse was expressed in each video. The undergraduates rated offenders who were high on F1 as being more genuine as compared to offenders who scored low on F1.


The results from these 3 studies offer some support for the notion that individuals with psychopathic traits are adept at feigning both fear and remorse. Individuals with psychopathic traits may use a variety of strategies to manipulate others including affective mimicry. Future research should examine whether individuals with psychopathic traits are also good at mimicking other emotions such as anger, sadness, and even happiness.


Book, A., Methot, T., Gauthier, N., Hosker-Field, A., Forth, A., Quinsey, V., & Molnar, D. (2015). The mask of sanity revisited: Psychopathic traits and affective mimicry. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1, 91–102.

Submitted by: A. Forth and Research Committee


Also referenced


Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1978). Facial action coding system: a technique for the measurement of facial movement. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Hare, R. D. (2003). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised, 2nd Edition. Toronto, ON: Multi- Health Systems.

Jones, D. N. (2014). Predatory personalities as behavioral mimics and parasites: Mimicry-deception theory. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9, 445–451.

Levenson, M. R., Kiehl, K. A. & Fitzpatrick, C. M. (1995). Assessing psychopathic attributes in a noninstitutionalized population. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 151-158.

Lilienfeld, S. O., & Hess, T. H. (2001). Psychopathic personality traits and somatization: sex differences and the mediating role of negative emotionality. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 23, 11–24.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes