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Criminal psychopathy can be both repulsive and fascinating, as illustrated by the vast number of books and movies inspired by this topic. Offenders diagnosed with psychopathy pose a significant threat to society, because they are more likely to harm other individuals and to do so again after being released.
A brain imaging study in the Netherlands shows individuals with psychopathy have reduced empathy while witnessing the pains of others. When asked to empathize, however, they can activate their empathy. This could explain why psychopathic individuals can be callous and socially cunning at the same time.
There might be two sides to these findings. The darker side is that reduced spontaneous empathy together with a preserved capacity for empathy might be the cocktail that makes these individuals so callous when harming their victims and at the same time so socially cunning when they try to seduce their victims.
Whether individuals with psychopathy autonomously switch their empathy mode on and off depending on the requirements of a social situation however remains to be established. The brighter side is that the preserved capacity for empathy might be harnessed in therapy.
Instead of having to create a capacity for empathy, therapies may need to focus on making the existing capacity more automatic to prevent them from further harming others. How to do so, remains at this stage uncertain.
May 2, 2013 — When children with conduct problems see images of others in pain, key parts of their brains don't react in the way they do in most people. This pattern of reduced brain activity upon witnessing pain may serve as a neurobiological risk factor for later adult psychopathy, say researchers who report their findings in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 2.
The brain images showed that, relative to controls, children with conduct problems show reduced responses to others' pain specifically in regions of the brain known to play a role in empathy. The researchers also saw variation among those with conduct problems, with those deemed to be more callous showing lower brain activation than less callous individuals.
Apr. 24, 2013 — Prisoners who are psychopaths lack the basic neurophysiological "hardwiring" that enables them to care for others, according to a new study by neuroscientists at the University of Chicago and the University of New Mexico.
"A marked lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy," said the lead author of the study, Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at UChicago. Psychopathy affects approximately 1 percent of the United States general population and 20 percent to 30 percent of the male and female U.S. prison population. Relative to non-psychopathic criminals, psychopaths are responsible for a disproportionate amount of repetitive crime and violence in society.
"This is the first time that neural processes associated with empathic processing have been directly examined in individuals with psychopathy, especially in response to the perception of other people in pain or distress," he added.