Psychopathic individuals exhibit reduced brain activity when taking the perspective of another person who is experiencing fear, according to new research published in NeuroImage. The findings shed light on the underlying neurobiological mechanisms linked to psychopathy.
“Psychopathy takes an enormous financial and human toll on society. Lack of empathy is thought to be a key characteristic that contributes to psychopathic people’s behavior that victimizes other people,” said study author Philip Deming (@phil_deming), a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Research has shown that psychopathic people tend not to ‘share’ another person’s emotion, or feel emotion in response to another person’s emotion. It’s less clear from prior research whether psychopathic people have difficulty with another part of empathy, that is taking another person’s perspective to understand their emotion.”
In the study, 94 incarcerated offenders first completed an assessment of psychopathy and took an intelligence test. They then completed a perspective-taking and shape matching task while the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to record their brain activity.
In the task, participants were shown images that portrayed two individuals interacting, but one of the individual’s faces was obscured by a shape. Sometimes, the participants were shown two shapes and had to select which one matched the shape in the image. Other times, the participants were shown two facial expressions and had to select the most appropriate one for the obscured face.
The researchers found that those who scored higher on the measure of psychopathy tended to perform worse on the perspective-taking task, suggesting that psychopathic individuals have social cognitive deficits that impair their understanding of the emotional states of others.
“In our sample of incarcerated people, those with high levels of psychopathy had difficulty taking the perspective of another person and identifying several emotion categories: fear, happiness, and sadness. But when we examined brain activity, we saw deficits specifically related to fear,” Deming told PsyPost.
The researchers found that people with high levels of psychopathy had reduced activity in brain regions involved in empathy and emotion when taking the perspective of another person who was afraid. Unexpectedly, perspective-taking for sadness and happiness was unrelated to psychopathy-related brain activity.
“Not only have activations in anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex been linked to empathy and emotional processing, but our analyses showed that the affective perspective-taking task was effective at activating anterior insula and posterior orbitofrontal cortex. (There was greater activation in these areas during affective perspective-taking than during shape processing,)” explained co-author David Kosson.
“So the reduced activations we saw in these areas suggest that, in our sample, these brain regions are not activating normally on the fear trials in psychopathic offenders the way they do on the other emotion trials. These findings provide additional evidence consistent with the possibility that reduced activation in these areas may underlie psychopathic offenders’ reduced understanding of other people’s fear reactions.”
It is unclear, however, why psychopathy was only related to reduced neural activation during fear trials.
“Since people with high levels of psychopathy had difficulty identifying fear, happiness, and sadness, it’s surprising that reduced brain activity was specifically related to fear. It will be interesting for future studies to test whether certain aspects of fear, like the uncertainty or the presence of threat, help explain the fear-specific brain deficit we found,” Deming explained.
“There’s a need for effective treatments for psychopathy,” he added. “It’s difficult to translate fMRI findings like this into treatment. Future research will help to understand how exactly the anterior insula contributes to our experience of emotion. Hopefully we can harness that knowledge to develop more effective treatments.”
The study, “Psychopathy is associated with fear-specific reductions in neural activity during affective perspective-taking“, was authored by Philip Deming, Monika Dargis, Brian W. Haas, Michael Brook, Jean Decety, Carla Harenski, Kent A. Kiehl, Michael Koenigs, and David S. Kosson.