According to new research from Australian University (ANU), individuals with high levels of psychopathy are unable to respond to sincere emotion in the same way as most people, reports Science Daily. The study also showed that this same group of people experienced difficulty in reading facial expressions to determine if the other person was genuinely upset or faking their sadness.
The findings were published in the journal, APA PsychNet.
ANU’s study, lead by researcher Dr. Amy Dawes of the ANU Research School of Psychology, is hopeful that her team’s findings might one day be used to foster a better understanding of psychopathy, as well as better treatment options.
For the purposes of the study, participants were directed to look at photographs of people and determine which were genuinely upset and which were faking it, based on their observations of the facial expressions in the photographs.
For people who do not display symptoms of the psychopathic spectrum, the natural response is two-fold, Dawel explained. The initial response is typically to feel badly for the other person in distress. Empathy then kickstarts our motivation to do what we can to help the person. This natural response is not observed in individuals very high on the psychopathy spectrum, Dawel added.
“We found people with high levels of psychopathic traits don’t feel any worse for someone who is genuinely upset than someone who is faking it. They also seem to have problems telling if the upset is real or fake. As a result, they are not nearly as willing to help someone who is expressing genuine distress as most people are.”
It is interesting to note, however, that the difficulty observed in those on the psychopathic spectrum, when trying to read facial expressions to determine genuine or faked sadness, was not observed when they attempted to read facial expressions for other emotions.
“For other emotions such as anger, disgust, and happy, high psychopathy individuals had no problems telling if someone was faking it,” Dawel said, adding that she believes genetics somehow contributes to the traits of psychopathy. “The results were very specific to expressions of distress.”
Dawel and her team hope to understand the role that emotions (or lack thereof) play in psychopathy. Once science can explain this concept, it would be possible to identify those in need of treatment much earlier.