Psychopaths and Empathy

I’ve been posting on the important role empathy (or the lack thereof) plays in character disturbance (see also: Empathy and Character Disturbance and Empathy and Character Disturbance – Pt 2: Nurturing Empathy).  And as I’ve written about in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome and discussed in several articles (see:  What is a Psychopath, Predators Among Us:  The Psychopaths, and What Psychopaths Can Do That Everyone Else Can’t) psychopaths are the most empathy-impaired individuals among us.  They are the heartless predators that either lack the capacity to care about others or have the uncanny ability to mentally wall-off (i.e. “compartmentalize”) any care or concern they might have when they want to victimize.  As the great researcher on the topic, Robert Hare, has said, this makes psychopaths capable of the most “callous, senseless, and remosrseless” use, abuse, and exploitation of others.

We know that empathy capacity varies in human beings.  But we also know that the mere capacity for empathy does not make a socially conscientious human being. Empathy must be nurtured.  That’s often a very challenging task for individuals who lie somewhere on the character disturbance spectrum (for more on this topic see: Character Disturbance Exists along a Continuum).  And there’s mounting evidence that it’s most likely an impossible task for those at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Times were when empathy training was a required component of most treatment programs for sexual offenders and predators. But the evidence indicated that providing such training had no effect on recidivism rates.  Moreover, some evidence emerged that teaching psychopathic predators about empathy only gave them increased knowledge about the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of others, which, in turn, they were prone to use to become even more adept predators.

Now there are a lot of misconceptions about just how hard-wired psychopaths are for heartlessness.  We know their adult brains are different from normal brains (even different from the brains of antisocial and sociopathic individuals who aren’t psychopaths) both structurally to some degree and in inter-neuronal communication patterns.  But the human brain is a remarkably plastic organ.  Environmental shaping influences and learning patterns greatly influence both its structural development and its inter-neuron communication network development.  So the real challenge for both clinicians and researchers is to come up with ways to more reliably assess at the earliest stages of development when empathy capacity is lacking in a person as well as what learning strategies might be the most effective in enhancing empathy capacity.

This week’s Character Matters program will be a pre-recorded program as I will be taking a much-needed break for a week.  But we’ll be back live on October 11 at 7 pm ET (4pm PT) so I can take your calls then.  Information about the Cross-Country Seminar venues and the fall webinar will be posted as soon as the details are known, and again, I apologize for the delay in finalizing these details.

24 thoughts on “Psychopaths and Empathy

  1. Glad to hear of serious efforts to detect and prevent apathy. Apathy is becoming much too prevalent. I am appalled to hear there is yet another school shooting, this time in Oregon. I wonder if the shooting is truly apathy-related? It could be the person was clinically insane and can’t be held responsible. Not sure. I didn’t hear the latest details.

  2. I just want to say that Dr. Simon did a fantastic job in his book CHARACTER DISTURBANCE as he described the psychopath. I am constantly returning to many of my adventures with the psychopath. I missed so many of the signs in my children because I had never dealt with that kind of evil before.

      1. The signs that I missed were- my son could not even look me in the eye. He started sleeping with his door locked, and he lost all zest for life. He was very sensitive kid and I would notice a different kind of look on his face when he heard a loud noise. Afterwards I realized that he got a look of pain on his face because he was suffering from PTSD and the loud noises brought back all the pain. He became very addicted to video games because they would take him to a different place.
        My daughter was always very strong and all I noticed with her was a little more clingiiness and she locked her door. She also spent an excessive amount of time in her bedroom playing songs on her violin.
        My youngest son and I are in a different state dealing with different monsters but he is becoming very addicted to video games.

        1. Thanks for replying. It sounds like they were trying to shut off a painful reality. It can be very subtle I guess. Thanks for sharing it helps to know what kind of thing to look out for.

          1. That is why it is important to share. If we can get.more knowledge to people it also helps with healing. Any addiction usually originates from some kind of pain. They were very sad. I tried to get help but it didn’t work out.

  3. Wouldn’t surgeons need to have the capacity to compartmentalise in order
    to perform their surgeries? Morticians? Those who perform autopsies? It is a
    mystery to me how anyone can do all of those necessary procedures. Merely
    seeing the sight of surgery on t.v. makes me want to faint and have to turn it
    off. Same thing with battle scenes. Therefore only pg for moi.

  4. Hi Lady Vigilant,

    I think a LOT of people who have to deal daily with people in tremendous amounts if pain, have to be able to temper their empathetic response. Otherwise they would be ineffective. Feeling others pain all of the time would be draining overwhelming and could lead to grosse incompetence. So there is that to consider.

    And we need the empathy challenged to break ground, do adventurous things, perform dangerous surgeries, as you suggested. As long as psychopathic traits CAN be channeled productively, it’s okay…and probably why the genes persist in the gene pool. I think it might actually be that it is the sheer volume of genes that code for these traits, built up over time, that us the problem.

    I wonder if we have a proliferation of psychopaths, at this time, because we haven’t had the warrior gene reduced in the general North American population, in a major war, for close to 3 generations. In times past there were many more opportunities for the adventure bound psychopath to rub himself out in a gold rush, ship wreck, not wearing a motorcycle helmet, for example…and at a very young age.

    The heavy emphasis and admiration for go it alone ‘mavericks’ and celebrities, currently, may even reflect the genes persisting, in the general population, well into reproductive years.

    Even collective spiritual activities that used to encourage quiet reflectivity have given way to show boating egomaniacal preachers who push zealotry, appealing to the narcissism of their congregations.

    So…there is no escape in most social systems. The political, interpersonal and the spiritual are all heavily influenced by the persistence of these genes.

    This is why I am totally for base jumping, wing suiting, and all extreme sports that allow the psychopath to do what he should be doing–voluntarily removing himself from the gene pool, in a way that harms nobody but him/herself.

    Sorry if I offend with these remarks. It sounds like advocating for eugenics programs.

    1. Hi Gobsmaked,

      Is that why it always seemed to me that people who paid to bungee jump or
      jump out of flying airplanes seemed insane to me? Stunt men/women too?

    2. “because we haven’t had the warrior gene reduced in the general North American population, in a major war, for close to 3 generations.”

      ??? WW2 had a draft, as did Vietnam. I see no reason to think any possible psychopath genes would be weeded out preferentially. Psychopathy doesn’t necessarily indicate risky decisions in wartime, just as non-psychopaths can sign up and even take great risks for the ideals of comrades or country.

  5. “…when they want to victimize.” Intent is the other half of the equation.
    On a daily basis, physicians pour poison into people’s veins, bring them to the brink of death, use heart bypass machines to take over the cardiac functions of the patient and perform many other procedures that in another setting would constitute torture. The instruments used would fit very comfortably in a dungeon. The patient must provide Informed Consent before any interventions are attempted. In an Emergency situation without benefit of a Health Care Proxy or Living Will they will pull out all the stops to keep the patient alive, even if the result is a vegetative state. There are Ethical Panels, Death Panels and various checks and reviews. To become a physician is to be socialized into a Total Institution starting with Medical School (and dissection of a cadaver.) The intention is to do no harm, to help, to heal, not to victimize.
    Mortitions are part of a socially sanctioned tradition that dates back millions of years (ex: sky burials, the pyramids etc.) and reflects the culturally proscribed manner in which death (and the after-life, if that is consistent with their beliefs) interfaces with life and the living. Through the senses of sight, scent and touch the reality a cadaver is not “alive” becomes very clear. The intention is to provide ritual, comfort, respect-and a helluva party if you’re Irish ;)
    The military is also a Total Institution where individuals are compelled to subsume their personal identity in service to a Traditional Warrior Ethos. This is one of the two groups of Sanctioned Killers in our society. It is *very difficult* to over come the average human’s aversion to killing another human. The repititious nature of Basic Training is an effort to overcome this aversion by instilling muscle memory so the combat soldier will save not only their own life but the lives of their cohorts, or if necessary sacrifice their own life to save their fellow soldiers. To the extent they sign a contract when they enlist, this constitutes a type of Informed Consent-although it is unlikely no matter how realistic, how sophisticated their training, there is anything that can genuinely prepare one for combat. The military wishes to attract primarily those between 18-25 as they are generally more physically fit or can be trained into the best physical condition of their lives. Equally a consideration is Dr. Simon’s above discussion of the brain/neuroplasticity. You can inculcate desirable military qualities (a willingness to take orders, a relatively black and white world view, appeal to their more idealistic beliefs etc.) in an 18-25 yr. old far more easily than older individuals. While the conduct of war obviously involves killing, the intent of the military is to vanquish rather than victimize the enemy, the perceived threat within the context of war.
    I’ve read a number of Posts and comments here involving individuals who consented to become involved with a partner, the intent of which was to build a relationship and a future together. Later, one of the partners becomes increasingly aware their consent wasn’t quite as informed as they believed previously. Dr. Simon’s work provides a plethora of information for the partner who finds themself not only less than informed but often blaming themselves for not seeing the wolf In Sheep’s Clothing. The intention is to inform as well as to provide comfort to those who have indeed been victimized. He readily states CD individuals can flummox even seasoned experts. Having a framework in which to conceptualize how and why these events took place assists in creating order out of disorder, in confirming the partner’s sense of having been duped by an individual who is CD’d, and hopefully know who to be wary of in the future.
    Overall the intention of a Physician, a Mortition and the Military/soldiers involves a greater good beyond the individual. The CD’s intention always serves themselves at the expense of others.

    1. I thought a lot of important ideas were brought out here. I have a few things to add. My ex-psycho was in the armed forces and his training was exceptional. Unfortunately he used his wonderful tactics that were meant for good for evil! He was forced to sign up with the military when he was seventeen. It was right after the Vietnam War so the numbers of soldiers was low and exceptions were made. He was given the ultimatum by the judge GO TO THE SERVICES OR GO TO PRISON. Of course he signed up and went of to boot camp.  Since the aggressor was in constant trouble while he was growing up his parents were more than happy to sign for him. He was able to put of the fake facade  for several years. I’m not quite sure how everything else went but he ended up being an instructor at a survival camp. I am sure it was the psycho’s dream job.  He got to teach the young boys how to survive in a prisoner of war camp. I am not sure but I bet he did more harm than good.
      When we started dating and moved in together he did everything he could to convince me that he was honorably discharged. The psycho often used the form number that was given to them at discharge. He wanted to make sure and flaunt the numbers so we all would think he was wonderful. The CD had a heart attack and would not go to the VA hospital. The bill was over $60,000. I never could understand way he would not go and get help and he was willing to leave us financial strapped.  After we divorced and all the haze had cleared I figured out that he had been dishonorably  discharged. I don’t know the circumstances but the psycho used so many of the tactics he used in survival school on us. My two older kids show signs of complex PTSD. The psycho would wait until they were fast asleep and then go and yell in their face. My youngest son also shows some signs of this but will not say anything. He is scared that he will not get to see his dad again. He gave them PTSD along with other things.
      I knew that there is always huge confidentiality in the military but I also wonder how they can release a monster on society. I know that we were not the only victims of this monster.

      1. Your post touched me.
        I still struggle with some guilt and regret that because, by me not leaving my children suffered through some crazy and abusive shit. I do not beat myself up as much as I used to but I see in them at times the trauma and damage that was done to them. Part of what kept me stuck in my marriage was fear for my children and fear that I would not be available to them as much to mitigate. I was constantly weighing leaving and staying. In the end I left but it was after way to long and my children were already hurt by what they had lived.
        I don’t know how to change it I do try though I talk with them (all adults) I try to show a different way. I celebrate when I see that something I am trying to teach them begins to show if even a little because it is something to build on. One of the main things I try to get across to them is being accountable, to yourself to others and to God and that behaviors that people use to “get your way now” do not benefit them for their futures.
        Most of the time I am speaking to the non hearing but it feels good when I see that some of it seeps in.
        You try to love your children and protect your children and it is a kick in the gut when you see the damage done to them by a “monster”. My heart goes out to you. Just keep being the best mother you can to them and give them the type of loving they deserve.

        1. It is all done and we should be able to forget. Easier said then done, right?! I still wake up at night shaking. I can still see the look of humiliation on my son’s face.
          The psycho had many victims and he needs to be in prison. I would like to see the look of humiliation on his face as Big Bubba chases him around. I know he is still on the prowl.
          I have good kids. My older boy who took the brunt of the abuse is still insecure. Both of the boys are so soft-hearted.

          1. E and Susie Q

            We don’t know it all, can’t do it all, don’t always know the next right step and we have to stop looking backwards beating ourselves up.

            Stop blaming ourselves, we did the best we knew how at the time. That’s the best that anyone can be expected to do.

            I often look back in the past, I just don’t stare.

  6. How do we know if someone is a full blown psychopath as apposed to disturbed aggressive character? When does that line get crossed?

    1. Psychopaths are very violent. They love to use humiliation. They use sexual aggression a lot. Malignant narcissism is the base but a psychopath magnifies is by ten. Dr. Simon is wonderful as he describes the psychopath in CHARACTER DISTURBANCE. Pedophiles are usually psychopaths.
      My sister is a psychopath and she uses her aggression on the basketball or volleyball court.

    2. Valencia, I forgot to tell you that after I divorced the psycho he looked at me and asked me how my kids were doing. He had a sly look on his face. I knew he just wanted the pump to his tiny ego if he found out they were struggling. I just told him that my son was graduating from high school early and my daughter was working at Disneyworld after she graduated with her BS degree. He was bummed because he knew that PTSD is the gift that keeps on giving. He is such a douchebag!! The woman that is with him right now his no idea what kind of a monster she is dealing with. She has grandkids that come over to their house once in a while. Keep them in her prayers!!

  7. I just got through hearing a very disturbing piece on the news from Gabrielle Giffords’ husband. Gabrielle Giffords is the former U. S. Representative from Arizona. Gabrielle Gifford’s and her husband are both strong advocates for gun control. Mark Kelly, her husband, was talking about the shooter in the Oregon shooting. Kelly said that there was a responsibility that the people around the mentally ill, especially the parents, should take.
    My opinion is that the shooter was not mentally ill. He had enough thought to say, “Are you Christian?” before he shot them in the head. The only responsibility lies with the shooter. He was just another psychopath who slipped through the cracks. I feel that the ‘mental ill’ plea is often a way for DC individuals to get away with more. It would definitely be beneficial for people to do some research on the multi-demensional way of viewing these DC’S. It might change the way our legal system operates.

  8. Intent to do harm to others….that’s want I want to believe. Although my gut has always told me that occasionally there are exceptions. I’ve straddled both side of the fence on this issue.


    The recent neuro-biological research is showing that the brains of some are showing deficits in the emotional circuit[s] of the brain. Yes, they think they’ve find the empathy circuit, it’s a distinct part of the brain.

    For the past 20-30 years parents have been diligently trying to teach and train children on the spectrum to compensate for problems in this area. An exhausting 24×7 structured way of raising children. By adulthood many do become independent and functional and do well with happy lives.

    Then there are others who never seem to be able to grow emotionally, as if there’re stuck and can’t get unstuck. Many are functional although lack the ability to form the necessary healthy emotional bonds with family and love ones. Their emotional bonding is a disaster. Their lack of compassion and empathy manifest as abuse, occasionally leading to domestic violence, illegal activity and extremely dangerous situations.

    Strange thing is they can’t understand why what they do is harming others. Explanations don’t offer much in changing their perceptive because they can’t attach feelings to the words. Sometimes they do seem to be trying and eventually most will just give up. They are rigid and don’t back down. It becomes to frustrating and annoying for them with the constant dealing with the feelings and emotions of others. Feelers impose stress and burdens. We are annoying.

    The lessons in common decency and respect turn out to be acting lessons. They learn how to perform, how to pretend and mimic although with no feelings attached. The public square is a stage for performance and people-pleasing, use and abuse. Full of tricks, lies and manipulation. The constant performing eventually becomes draining and exhausting. So they may decide to just act themselves and not care what others think.

    Sounds similar or perhaps exactly to what Dr. Simon mentions here:

    “Times were when empathy training was a required component of most treatment programs for sexual offenders and predators. But the evidence indicated that providing such training had no effect on recidivism rates. Moreover, some evidence emerged that teaching psychopathic predators about empathy only gave them increased knowledge about the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of others, which, in turn, they were prone to use to become even more adept predators.”

    Clearly the potential for a child’s growth, both the intellect [IQ] and emotional [EQ] can be severely stifled and damaged by desensitizing and poor training by both the environment we grew up in and the society in which we live. There’s a great deal of wisdom in the old saying: “Genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger”.

    I contend that you can nurture and teach common decency and respect but you can’t teach the fine art of feeling towards others, compassion and empathy. The highest level that any human can reach is dependent on the level of the IQ and the EQ that we are born with.

    Last week Dr. Simon said: There are some among us who are innately impaired in their capacity to empathize. Some autistic spectrum children, especially those at the more severely autistic end of the continuum have a diminished capacity to empathize.

    And this week Dr. Simeon said: “And there’s mounting evidence that it’s most likely an impossible task for those at the extreme end of the spectrum.”

    Perhaps as with the psychopath and those with this deficiet are a low percentage. I don’t know. I agree with Dr. Simon that all those children on the bus were not budding psychopaths. They were more likely products of a severely desensitizing environment. The environment does not always mean the parents. It can also be the social environment in which we live.

    You just have to be a witness to how a grown man, now an old man, can be in puzzlement over the fact that his Grandmother was devastated over the death of his Mother. A puzzlement like I would have trying to figure out why the kitchen sink got clogged for the second time in a short period of time. He has not been able to attach any feelings to my countless explanations and examples. Some 50+ years later he’s still puzzled. Doesn’t care, but puzzled. He spends his spare time trying to figure out the puzzles of others behavior. Logical and common sense situations are a real stumbling blocks also. And he still thinks his Grandmother’s behavior was rude and extremely strange. She was a wonderful, caring, dear person although he doesn’t like her, she was strange.

    This is a small occurrence, imagine the larger occurrences. The parents and/or spouses are on a painfully difficult journey. A 24 x 7, no weekends and no holidays. Pushing the hidden wheelchair uphill all the way. Sometimes 60, 70, 80 years, until death does us part.

    No question abusers all sound alike to me.


    the zero-negative and zero-positive empathy research what does it mean for the love ones in this situation? If there is no intent to do harm….then what?

    I really can’t see that there is much good news in their findings. I don’t know, I wish I understood all this stuff better.

    For the unfortunate on the spectrum that have not been able to get unstuck….Perhaps it means we forgive for they know not what they do.

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