Mental Health

Study: Psychopaths Can Turn Empathy On and Off Like A Switch

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht
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Psychopaths are not completely unable to empathize with others, it is just that they can turn it on and off like a switch, a new study suggests.

Often categorized by an extreme lack of empathy, conscience and behavioral control, many believe that psychopathys are unable to be rehabilitated and might not even have the capacity to feel empathy for other human beings. But new evidence showing they are capable of empathy could change the way we feel, not only about rehabilitating psychopaths, but about their culpability in the crimes they commit.

Researchers studied prisoners in the Netherlands. Functional MRI’s were given to those diagnosed as “psychopaths” – otherwise known as “sociopaths” or in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “antisocial personality disorder.”

The subjects were shown video clips of hands touching in different ways, either painful, loving, rejecting or neutral. At first the subjects with psychopathy did not register any emotion on their brain scan. Researchers then asked that they watch the video again and this time try to feel what the person in the clip is feeling. Suddenly they started seeing empathy centers in the brain lighting up on the fMRI.

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The senior author in the study, Christian Keysers from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, said psychopaths can empathize, but it is not their primary way in relating to others.

"The predominant notion had been that they are callous individuals, unable to feel emotions themselves and therefore unable to feel emotions in others,” Keysers told BBC News. "Our work shows it's not that simple. They don't lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off."

The ability to empathize with others is tied closely into social development and how we behave in society. Those without empathy display antisocial behavior and end up, most often, incarcerated.

Jail is not always the future for a psychopath. In Jon Ronson’s 2011 book "The Psychopathy Test" he explores Robert O’Hare’s checklist for psychopathy and discovers that many individuals who fit the bill as a psychopath are actually some of the most successful and powerful people in the world. In a nutshell, the smarter the psychopath the more sophisticated they are at manipulating and gaining power of others.

"The notion psychopaths have no empathy at all was a bleak prospect," Keysers said. "It would make it very hard for them to have normal moral development. Now that we've shown they have empathy – even if only in certain conditions – we can give therapists something to work with.”

But how can therapists to tap into that empathy if psychopaths refuse to use it? Can psychopaths be rehabilitated or will they just have a field day manipulating their therapist?

Sources: BBC, Medical Daily