25 December 2023

Can Psychopathic Individuals Feel Emotion?

One of the most consistent findings in research on psychopathic individuals is that they are less reactive to negative/punishing information. This occurs when they are presented with negative facial expressions (e.g. Bagley et al., 2009; Dawel et al., 2012), with negative vocal intonations (e.g. Blair et al., 20022004), with negative performance feedback (Newman et al., 1990), with punishment (Flor et al., 2002; Birbaumer et al., 2005; Rothemund et al., 2012), with impending punishment (Hare et al., 1978; Hare, 1982) and with indications of others’ distress (Blair et al., 1997; Verona et al., 2013).  Moreover, it can be seen behaviourally, physiologically, neurally (e.g. Birbaumer et al., 2005; Decety et al., 2013a,b; Seara-Cardoso et al., 2016; Soderstrom et al., 2002; Harenski et al., 2014 , and also through self-report (REFs). This has led most researchers in the field to propose that psychopathic individuals can’t process negative/punishing information properly (e.g. Lykken, 1957; Fowles, 1980; Patrick, 1994; Lykken, 1995; Blair et al., 1995; Soderstrom, 2003; Blair, 2005; Patrick, 2007; Rothemund et al., 2012; Marsh et al., 2013).


There is an important distinction between can’t and don’t, however; and in in this regard, it is important to note that while the existing research consistently indicates that the psychopath does not manifest normal responses to emotional stimuli, it does not similarly indicate that they cannot do so. 


A major focus of work in the lab thus focuses on this distinction between ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t’; on the possibility that psychopathic individuals can process negative/punishing feedback normally, even if they do not do so in most everyday (and laboratory) situations (for the most comprehensive review of our thoughts on this matter, see Shane & Groat (2020)). Much of this work has utilized neuroimaging (e.g. fMRI) to evaluate neural responses in psychopathic individuals under passive viewing, or when explicitly asked to try to process the negative/aversive information fully. Groat & Shane (2018), for instance, measured neural responses while participants viewed a wide variety of emotionally-evocative images: when simply passively viewing negatively-valent images, psychopathic individuals showed a ‘classic’ reduction in neural reactivity; however, when explicitly asked to try to maximize the emotion that the images naturally evoked in them, they showed significantly increased neural reactivity that approached that of non-psychopathic individuals (see also Meffert et al., 2013; Arbuckle & Shane, 2017). These finding suggest that psychopathic individuals are capable of processing negatively-valent information, even if they appear to rarely do so. This then leads to several additional questions, which have developed into core CANdiLab research priorities: if psychopaths are capable of emotional processing, why do they so rarely do so, and what can be done to increase their tendency to do so? Current research projects are leveraging a combination of psychological and neuroscientific methods to investigate these, and related, questions.


CANdiLab is the Clinical Affective Neuroscience Laboratory for Discovery and Innovation at Ontario Tech University