Research suggests psychopaths might be able to understand other people's feelings after all - but only when it benefits them
- Psychopaths are known to be completely devoid of empathy.
- However, a new study suggests they might be able to understand how other people are feeling after all.
- Unlike most other people, psychopaths aren't in tune with others automatically.
- Instead, they can switch it on when they see the personal advantage.
Having a close relationship with someone with dark tetrad personality traits - narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism - is tough to say the least. As well as being selfish, they appear to be devoid of empathy for anyone around them, including their closest family members.
Psychopaths in particular exhibit a complete disregard for others. At the same time they can be very charming, easily working their way up to positions of power through their callous nature and skills in manipulating people around them.
This has been something of a paradox for psychologists - why would people who seemingly have no interest in anyone else's feelings have the ability to be so in tune with the intentions and thoughts of others?
Researchers at Yale University may have come up with an answer in a new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Psychopaths have typically been thought of as lacking in social awareness, but the results of the new study suggest they may simply not automatically empathise with those around them. If given good enough reason, they are likely to pick up on social cues as well as anyone else.
"Psychopaths can be extremely manipulative, which requires understanding of another's thoughts," said Arielle Baskin-Sommers, a psychology professor and and senior author of the study. "But if they understand the thought of others, why do they inflict so much harm?"
In the study, the team were given permission to study inmates at maximum security prisons in Connecticut. Participants were assessed on the psychopathy scale, then were asked to play a computer game where they played either from their own perspective of that of an avatar dressed as a prisoner.
In general, people find it difficult to ignore the perspective of the avatar, because most of us are able to pick up on subtle social cues, the researchers noted. Eye-rolling and yawning, for example, are difficult to ignore.
Psychopaths aren't so in tune with other people, so the researchers asked them to deliberately think of the avatar's perspective. The results showed that prisoners who scored highly on the psychopathic scale did have the ability to consider the avatar's point of view during the game.
The researchers concluded that psychopaths can, in fact, consider the thoughts of others, but only when there is a specific goal they want to accomplish - such as winning a game, or climbing up the ranks of a company.
The goal for further research is to better understand how a psychopath's mind works. One day, the researchers said, they could even help psychopaths consider people around them in every day life, not just when it's for their own advantage.
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