Psychopaths are not neurally equipped to have concern for others, study shows

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. . 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 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.

The results of the study, which could help clinical psychologists design better treatment programs for psychopaths, are published in the article, " to Empathy-Eliciting Scenarios Involving Pain in Incarcerated Individuals with Psychopathy," which appears online April 24 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Joining Decety in the study were Laurie Skelly, a graduate student at UChicago; and Kent Kiehl, professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.

For the study, the research team tested 80 prisoners between ages 18 and 50 at a . The men volunteered for the test and were tested for levels of psychopathy using standard measures.

They were then studied with functional , to determine their responses to a series of scenarios depicting people being intentionally hurt. They were also tested on their responses to seeing short videos of showing pain.

The participants in the high psychopathy group exhibited significantly less activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala and periaqueductal gray parts of the brain, but more activity in the striatum and the insula when compared to control participants, the study found.

The high response in the insula in psychopaths was an unexpected finding, as this region is critically involved in emotion and somatic resonance. Conversely, the diminished response in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala is consistent with the affective neuroscience literature on psychopathy. This latter region is important for monitoring ongoing behavior, estimating consequences and incorporating emotional learning into moral decision-making, and plays a fundamental role in empathic concern and valuing the well-being of others.

"The neural response to distress of others such as pain is thought to reflect an aversive response in the observer that may act as a trigger to inhibit aggression or prompt motivation to help," the authors write in the paper.

"Hence, examining the neural response of individuals with psychopathy as they view others being harmed or expressing pain is an effective probe into the neural processes underlying affective and empathy deficits in ," the authors wrote.

Decety is one of the world's leading experts on the biological underpinnings of empathy. His work also focuses on the development of empathy and morality in children.

The study with prisoners was supported with a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Explore further

Project will study the neural basis of psychopathy

Journal information: JAMA Psychiatry

Citation: Psychopaths are not neurally equipped to have concern for others, study shows (2013, April 24) retrieved 17 September 2019 from
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Apr 24, 2013
I bet they would find a strong correlation between exposure to lead in the environment for many of them as children and their level of psychopathy.

Apr 24, 2013
topkill blurted forth
I bet they would find a strong correlation between exposure to lead in the environment for many of them as children and their level of psychopathy.
There are heaps of journals on PubMed and ScienceDirect that might well have already looked into that, why don't you pursue your bet there topkill, report & get back to us follow up on a guess that can't go anywhere except as a posture without some evidence - this is a Science reporting site after-all :)


Apr 24, 2013
"This is a Science reporting site after-all".

Oh, that would explain why there are nerds hanging around here talking big. It's easier to mouth off on the internet than to have some one beat your littler nerdy ass, rip your head off and shove it up said ass.

Apr 24, 2013
Oh, by the way, mikey...yes, I ingested lots of lead as a child. :-)

If you're actually looking for a link rather than just being an ass as a way to get your jollies:

Apr 24, 2013
topkill is showing who he is
.. an ass as a way to get your jollies:
Not a peer reviewed article but, sure read it anyway, says "..answer is probably lead." WoW ! way short of definitive, ie No actual study = no measure of lead at all, none, zero, zilch, ie A guess, just like all religions.

Claim "..evidence is very strong.." is a blatant lie, there is NO testing, read on,

There are plenty of correlative factors not associated with heavy metal poisoning, stronge contributor is education (easier to test) along with the propensity of older populations to resist education, both also fit histograms, one guess or another.

I gave you names of two key data-bases to check, your site posits with nothing quantitative, pity.

Interesting site name "Mother Jones" suggests they write about old wives tales, does fit doesnt it ;) is a Science site right, not for sharing old wives tales, ok?

Apr 25, 2013
The results of the study, which could help clinical psychologists design better treatment programs for psychopaths

How will they treat something if the fundamental wiring is deficient?
Just curious.

Why was this study done on the prison population when they should have done it on our politicians and other "leaders" who are running the country in the ground?

Good luck trying to find volunteers for such a study from THAT group.

Eric Barker published a list of jobs that attract psychopaths. Though I'm not really sure how he got those results
According to him:
Most attractive to psychopaths

1. CEO
2. Lawyer
3. Media (Television/Radio)
4. Salesperson
5. Surgeon
6. Journalist
7. Police officer
8. Clergy person
9. Chef
10. Civil servant

Surgeon? Clergy?

Least attractive for psychopaths:

1. Care aide
2. Nurse
3. Therapist
4. Craftsperson
5. Beautician/Stylist
6. Charity worker
7. Teacher
8. Creative artist
9. Doctor
10. Accountant


Apr 25, 2013

@AP: First, it is an fMRI study so warning for lack of predictivity. (I don't know if they have it at 80 individuals, no independent controls and no double blinding, just that fMRI has been heavily criticized lately despite being a promising technology.)

Second, they don't report deficit of "wiring", they report deficit of response. Massen mentions learning as known (?) strong correlates. (The armchair response, and it is late here, is that it is a claim in need of references albeit implicit such are mentioned. I don't know this field and I'm out of time.)

Apr 25, 2013
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM responded
Massen mentions learning as known (?) strong correlates.
Indeed, recollections from my 1st uni days in 70's (the only one at my uni to want to do psychology as an elective in electronic engineering), the main correlative factor as to whether people from the same socio-economic group would be incarcerated related to their level of consistent education practices, influenced also by mentorship. Sure, its always possible heavy metal exposure has simple and complex combinatorial factors but suffice it to say education with essential communications was by far the most important to avoid risk of prison, it doesnt mean they might not have been more cunning though ;)

These days the confluence of changes in Lead etc in the environment could also be studied but as I hope 'topkill' who made claims should come to realise that correlation is not proof of cause & effect and the area of psychopathy is developing & fMRI has a long way to go too...

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