Current literature seats “a lack of empathy” as one of the most distinguishing symptoms of psychopathy (APA, 1994). Commonly found amongst the factor one items of diagnostic criteria, it is valued as part of the ‘core’ psychopathic personality; essential to understanding the disorder (Kantor 2006). It is, for example both common and plausible to attribute the recidivistic violation of social, moral and legal norms (characteristic to psychopathy) to a distinct lack of empathy. Paradoxically, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are also claimed to lack empathy, yet the discrepancies between the disorders (psychopathy and ASD) raise questions as to whether such claims are fully justified. Some of these discrepancies include (a) the inability to form attachments in psychopathy versus the ability to do so in ASD (b) Amorality in psychopathy vs. a degree of morality in ASD (Frith & de Vignemont 2007) (c) Sadistic, premeditated and inexcusable antisocial behaviour in pyshcopathy vs. ‘innocent’ and ‘excusable’ antisocial behaviour in ASD (Hansman &Hummelen 2006).
This essay will explore the great extent to which Psychopathy (compared to ASD) reflects a significant disorder of empathy. It will selectively and briefly address (a) the role of empathy in typically developed individuals (b) the definition of empathy and the type of empathic deficits present in Psychopathic and ASD populations (c) Empathic dysfunction as an essential determinant of psychopathic tendencies.
Empathy is said to be the ‘cornerstone of morality’; central to the development and maintenance of friendships and romantic relationships. The ability to understand another person’s perspective and share in their emotional state (Baron- Cohen 2003) puts constraints on impulsivity, inhibits violent and aggressive behaviour and hence strengthens sociability (Stoff, Breiling & Maser 1997). Simultaneously the absence of empathy produces adverse/opposite effects (stoff et al 1997), most of which (in its entirety) are manifest in Psychopaths .Empathy has not escaped the common setback of being defined and used in an range of ways by an range of authors (Hoffman, 1987) but for the purpose of this essay, empathy will be acknowledged in terms of its cognitive, affective (and motor) components.
The cognitive component of Empathy “encompasses Theory of mind or mind reading”, which entails the capacity to understand another person’s feelings and take their perspective (Baron- Cohen 2008 pg 62). Interestingly, Psychopaths do, to a certain extent possess the ability to understand the feelings and perspective of others, in fact they must do: to be so successfully manipulative. Consistent with this, Psychopaths are unimpaired on measures of theory of mind, even when tested on the Advanced theory of mind test (Blair 2005).They are superb mind readers enabling them to deceive and swindle other people( Frith 2003) as well as mimic empathy for their own gain (motor empathy). Dangerously mistaken for being ‘charming’, ‘likable’ and ‘a great success with the ladies’ (Cleckely), psychopaths possess ‘skills’ (if I may call it that) to superficially blend into society and cognitively identify (not emotionally) with the perspective of others. At this superficial level of interaction and continuous ‘masking of sanity’, psychopaths can never form genuine attachments : empathic deficits result in self centeredness ,disregard for others emotions , “impulsivity”, “behavioural problems” and a “lack of remorse”; confirmed by an inability to sustain long term relationships, “parasitic lifestyle” and “promiscuous sexual behaviour” (Hare 1991).
Autistic individuals however, differ from psychopaths on both cognitive and behavioural levels (Rogers, Vidina, Blair, Frith & Happe 1997). They lack theory of mind profoundly, have difficulty in interpreting /predicting the intentions, behaviour and thoughts of others (Frith 2003) and therefore cannot socially interact, even on the superficial level that psychopaths do. The observed lack of empathic behaviours in ASD may be attributed to the inability to mentalize or correctly evaluate social situations (e.g. distress in others), resulting in antisocial behaviour (e.g. social withdrawal,) misinterpreted as uncaring (Rogers et al 1997). According to Blair (1999), once autistic individuals are aware of others mental states, appropriate emotional responses are given. Autistic individuals can also form strong attachments to caregivers (Sigman &Capps 1997). There is no cognitive empathic deficit in psychopathy; only the manipulation of their intact form, to their own ends. The antisocial behaviour (comprising factor two of diagnosis) is often premeditated, exploitative and repetitive (Hansmen &Hummelen 2006); indicative of a Psychopaths inability to empathise with the emotional impact on their victims.
Psychopaths lack the emotional component of empathy which is defined as ‘an affective response more appropriate to someone else’s situation than to one’s own’ (Hoffman, 1987: p.48). However, through manipulation of cognitive empathy, psychopaths are able to exercise motor empathy in order to substantiate and disguise the reality that they are without emotional empathy. This lack of emotional empathy equates to the inability to connect emotionally with ones perspective, thus producing impaired/inappropriate responses as a result. Psychopaths have selectively impaired emotional processing (Hare 1991); (relative to controls) they show significantly reduced autonomic responses to expression of fear and sadness as well as aversive events (Blair 1999). Supporting evidence is the dysfunction (hypo activation and reduced volumes) of the amgydala (key in emotional processing) and orbio frontal cortex observed in Psychopathic populations. Autistic individuals however, show physiological responses to others distress, indicative of intact emotional empathy, possibly accounting for their ability to distinguish between moral and conventional rules whilst psychopaths cannot (Blair 2005).
Impairments in emotional empathy predispose Psychopaths to the characteristics that are the bedrock of the disorder e.g. Shallow affect, callousness, behavioural problems, and lack of guilt, and the extent to which this is true become magnified when Psychopathy is compared to ASD. Without Depreciating the cognitive, social and emotional deficits present in ASD; “autistic individuals are loveable and respond to love, affection, fear and anxiety” (Quinn & Quinn 2006 pp), suggesting emotional empathy may not require the ability mentalize. Critically speaking, Psychopathic tendencies do reflect biologically predisposed deviances in emotion, personality traits and behaviour and may stem from an array of (other) deficits in e.g. (a) processing of general emotions but specifically negative affect , (b) passive avoidance learning , (c) behavioural inhibition , and (d) violence inhibition mechanisms (Herve &Yuille 2007). Yet although investigators place varied emphasis on individual deficits, empathic dysfunction has its (cause or effect) role to play in many of them. Appreciating the unlikelihood for any one explanation, of any disorder to suffice; we conclude on the note that psychopathy is a disorder of empathy to a very great extent; yet not without additional and intermingling deficits.