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Psychopathic Criminals Have "Empathy Switch" 347

Posted by timothy
from the why-some-people-think-I'm-nice dept.
dryriver writes "Psychopaths do not lack empathy, rather they can switch it on at will, according to new research. Placed in a brain scanner, psychopathic criminals watched videos of one person hurting another and were asked to empathise with the individual in pain. Only when asked to imagine how the pain receiver felt did the area of the brain related to pain light up. Scientists, reporting in Brain, say their research explains how psychopaths can be both callous and charming. The team proposes that with the right training, it could be possible to help psychopaths activate their 'empathy switch', which could bring them a step closer to rehabilitation. Criminals with psychopathy characteristically show a reduced ability to empathise with others, including their victims. Evidence suggests they are also more likely to reoffend upon release than criminals without the psychiatric condition."
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Psychopathic Criminals Have "Empathy Switch"

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  • by i kan reed (749298) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:23AM (#44380719) Homepage Journal

    How about we hold their eyes open and force them to watch horrific, violent videos, preferably multiple at a time.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:32AM (#44380863)

      They'll be cured all right.

      • by davester666 (731373) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @12:24PM (#44383111) Journal

        So why don't we do that instead of electing them to public office or making them executives in the banking industry?

        • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @01:14PM (#44383639)

          So why don't we do that instead of electing them to public office or making them executives in the banking industry?

          Because there is evidence that psychopaths actually make better leaders. There was an article about this [economist.com] a couple months ago in the Economist. By ignoring the suffering of individuals, psychopaths are able to focus on bold action for the greater good. This is especially apparent in war time, where compassionate leaders are often dithering and indecisive, leading to a prolonged war and many more deaths and wounds than needed.

          • by Sabriel (134364)

            Not this again. Psychopaths do not make better leaders, and they do not "focus on bold action for the greater good", because psychopaths don't have a greater good: by definition, they are antisocial, having "a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others". Any benefit to the greater good as a result of their actions is game theory in action, survival camouflage.

            Let's take the example given in that Economist article you cite: "there are five railway workmen in the path of a ru

      • How about we hold their eyes open and force them to watch horrific, violent videos, preferably multiple at a time.

        They'll be cured all right.

        Inspector: Dr. Brodsky, that boy you were treating... I have to inform you that he's just killed another man and committed serious assault and sexual violence against a further twelve people.

        Brodsky: What?!

        Inspector: Even worse, he told us that he'd really enjoyed the treatment, and that all those films you showed him got him "ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence".

        Brodsky: What? This can't be... we forced him to watch acts of bloody sadism and violence for a fortnight.

        Inspector: You *assured* us

    • by Immerman (2627577) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:38AM (#44380939)

      Isn't the whole point the fact that they can turn off empathy/have it off as a default state? Without empathy what would be the point of horrific imagery other than discouraging them from turning it on, and maybe give them a thrill if they get off on violence?

      It seems to me the whole idea of "rehabilitation" here is shaky at best - as a general rule our society rewards psychopathy quite readily with power, wealth, and sex. So what's in it for the self-interested psychopath you want to rehabilitate? It may be that they can learn to "turn on" the switch for sustained periods to get themselves cleared as rehabilitated, but unless the switch were somehow magically locked in place why wouldn't they just "turn it off" again once they were free?

      • by Githaron (2462596)
        That is what I was thinking. There are a lot of both emotional and logical reasons to turn the emotions back off. This is especially true if they have already killed, murdered, and/or raped people. Why feel guilty or sad when you don't have to?
      • Indeed. We seem to have entire professions; like the legal system and upper management, dedicated to sociopathic individuals.

      • by MickLinux (579158) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @10:50AM (#44381895) Journal

        Nonetheless, empathy training does work.

        When one of my children got caught bullying -- and that is one psychopathic behavior that MANY practice -- I searched for the right response, and came up with a book called "Small criminals among us: how to recognize and change children's antisocial behavior, before they explode." [amazon.com]

        The methods -- and there are multiple -- are all about empathy training.

        My experience? Between that, and allowing a heavy use of the (Catholic) confessional, and a focus on the Christian aspects, that child is much improved. The book was very helpful.

        • by Immerman (2627577)

          A fair point, and a good reason to further study empathy so it can be effectively promoted in our children and ourselves*. But I'm not sure how applicable it is to psychopathic criminals. It sounds like you used a behavior-modification technology backed by social and mythological indoctrination to help deflect a malleable still-forming mind onto a more empathic path. Fine, the tools and goals may change but that's what every culture does - children by and large accept our word on how the world works, so w

          • by sjames (1099)

            They've been trying to turn off empathy in soldiers since forever. In recent decades they've gotten somewhat better at it, which is why more soldiers end up with PTSD once empathy reasserts itself.

            I wouldn't be too down on the church. For all it's faults, perhaps it's why we weren't overrun with psychopaths before and it's waning position in society may be why we have such a problem with corporate psychopathy now.

      • by jythie (914043)
        And part of the reason they hit that switch is there is significant social advantage to OTEHR people being empathic but the individual not. One thing that tends to get left out of discussions about psychopathy is that the vast majority of such people are not criminals or engage in illegal acts. They do tend to do pretty well in life though.
    • by Type44Q (1233630) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:42AM (#44380991)

      How about we hold their eyes open and force them to watch horrific, violent videos, preferably multiple at a time.

      I doubt that would've caused them to vote differently yesterday...

    • We are the causes of our own suffering

      THINK ABOUT

      YOUR LIFE

      • by JeanCroix (99825)
        Jacob always did love you best...
      • "We are the causes of our own suffering..."

        I don't know about that, really. I am pretty sure I can trace most of my suffering directly back to the action of others.

    • Watch it? They live it!

  • Where have we seen this before...
  • by NickDanger3rdEye (1206476) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:26AM (#44380759)

    ...for politicians?

    • by Hatta (162192) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:48AM (#44381059) Journal

      They already know how to turn empathy on and off. When campaigning, turn empathy on. When legislating, turn empathy off.

    • While I see this as a joke.

      The problem with Politicians and Empathy is that often they deal with issues that are more complex then the average Political internet ranter can rant about.

      For example: Tax the rich 90%. That sounds good to me, it should solve a lot of problems... However... if these people are taxed too much they will move to more tax friendly areas, move jobs out of the area, and in general make things worse in the long run. Trickle down doesn't work when you give the rich more money. But i

      • by Digital Vomit (891734) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @10:55AM (#44381977) Homepage Journal

        For example: Tax the rich 90%. That sounds good to me, it should solve a lot of problems... However... if these people are taxed too much they will move to more tax friendly areas, move jobs out of the area, and in general make things worse in the long run.

        Funny...that's exactly what happened after we reduced the tax burden from the rich down from 90%.

        I was going to say you sound like you've fallen for some propaganda, but then you said the following and now I don't think you know what you're talking about at all:

        Trickle down doesn't work when you give the rich more money. But it does work if you take it away from them.

        Trickle-down economic policies don't work, but they do work when you don't implement them???

        • by Firethorn (177587)

          Funny...that's exactly what happened after we reduced the tax burden from the rich down from 90%.

          Only because during the time that the tax rate was 90% there was not only far more exemptions, so nobody actually paid 90%, but we were effectively a closed economy - You couldn't just move somewhere else and maintain(most) of your wealth.

          With the development of alternate economies, globalization, etc... Moving your wealth is easier than ever, so reducing the tax rates works to slow the bleed, if not completely stop it.

          Personally, I'd settle for a flat tax system. With the current tax system the ultra-ric

      • by sjames (1099) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @12:45PM (#44383343) Homepage

        As long as you make sure that gone is gone, that is, they don't get to leave and still do business here, the vacuum left by their departure becomes an economic opportunity for the rest. It's not as if these people are the only ones who possess the ability to run a business and employ people.

  • by iggymanz (596061) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:28AM (#44380789)

    kind and good normal people have been known to turn it off under certain conditions, too fight or defend against that which they believe "evil"

    maybe studying that reaction could help with the psychopath problem

    • by RCL (891376)
      Maybe normal people just have that switch broken - the same way as we lost controls over our ears :)
    • kind and good normal people have been known to turn it off under certain conditions

      the euphemism is "political sophistication".

    • Good point. It seems like we must all have the ability to empathize, or else we couldn't understand anyone's motives. We must also have the ability to turn it off, or we would be constantly overwhelmed by empathy, and I would suppose we'd be much less violent.

      It seems like, in a general way, we sort of divide people into "us" and "them", feeling empathy for "us" and not so much for "them". Maybe psychopaths are just very restrictive in who they include in "us"?

  • How would you know if they have been rehabilitated? If they can control it at will then they can just turn it on in the sessions. When they are out of prison they can go back to living how they want.
    • by i kan reed (749298) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:35AM (#44380917) Homepage Journal

      Well, if they don't want to go back to their seat in congress after the treatment, they're better.

    • by Viol8 (599362)

      Exactly. But then the fluffy rehabilitation brigade are pathalogically wedded to their arrogant almost religious belief that everyone is a good person at heart and can be rehabilitated given the right circumstances. They simply won't accept that some people are born evil and need to be locked up for life or executed for the safety of the public. And many people have paid the price for that arrogance.

      • by Type44Q (1233630)

        They simply won't accept that some people are born evil and need to be locked up for life or executed for the safety of the public.

        That's hardly the majority of those incarcerated, however. In fact, the kind of person you're talking about is the dominant lifeform in charge of the very system that we're supposed to be able to rely on to deal with them! How effective...

      • by i kan reed (749298) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:55AM (#44381125) Homepage Journal

        They simply won't accept that some people are born evil and need to be locked up for life or executed for the safety of the public. And many people have paid the price for that arrogance.

        You dismiss religious absolutism, but you're willing to accept the idea of someone being unavoidably "evil"? Do you realize how subjective that is? How hypocritical? Not everyone who disagrees with you does so because they are incapable of compromise, sometimes it's because you are.

    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      How would you know if they have been rehabilitated?

      That's easy: Make them sit on the Group W bench and fill out a form with the following words:
      "KID, HAVE YOU REHABILITATED YOURSELF?"

  • why? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:31AM (#44380857)

    Why would anyone ever voluntarily suffer on behalf of another?

    • by dj245 (732906)

      Why would anyone ever voluntarily suffer on behalf of another?

      That is a question that hundreds of very smart people have studied for at least a 150 years. In fact, Charles Darwin [phys.org] struggled with it because it was a big hole in his theories. And it is not limited to humans or even mammals.

      The simple answer is that it always seems to benefit the individual, somehow.

      • Re:why? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ShieldW0lf (601553) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @11:02AM (#44382113) Journal

        The answer is, populations with the compulsion to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the group are more likely to reproduce themselves and abide, while populations without this compulsion are more likely to see their population decline and cease to exist.

        The existence of human beings is a testament to this. We, ourselves, are a culture of cells that work together and sacrifice themselves for the good of the culture. When they stop doing so, the composite being that we are dies, and ALL the cells that make us up also die.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Not a parent, are you? Probably never had a girlfriend either.

    • Why would anyone ever voluntarily suffer on behalf of another?

      Why? Love.

      A vast majority of parents in Western cultures (and possibly world-wide) would gladly give their life to save the life of their child.

    • Re:why? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Digital Vomit (891734) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @11:06AM (#44382153) Homepage Journal
      Because that sort of behavior has evolutionary advantages for the species. [wikipedia.org]
    • by steelfood (895457)

      Enlightenment.

      No, seriously.

  • That reminds me of (Score:4, Insightful)

    by GeekWithAKnife (2717871) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:33AM (#44380891)

    ...how soldiers can kill people without remorse and then still be good dads

    Is being a "psychopath" really just an old term that means "sociopath" and is apparently 1 in 200 men? -often ruthless and in leadership positions?

    Trailing thought, are internet trolls like this?
    • by i kan reed (749298) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:41AM (#44380977) Homepage Journal

      Military killing depends a lot on dehumanizing foes. Battlefield terminology for foes almost always takes the form of a very non-human noun, whether it's "targets", "hostiles", or "alpha", the words that are used are never words that inherently imply personhood. There's a well-researched book [amazon.com] about how this corresponds to good people being capable of terrible things.

    • Is being a "psychopath" really just an old term that means "sociopath"

      Yes they are both old terms that mean the same thing that describes people who wind up in prison.

    • by hodet (620484)
      I don't think internet trolls are like this. I think that has more to do with a feeling of powerlessness. Beta status individuals now on an equal footing letting out some steam. Well that's my hypothesis anyway, I have never proven or dis-proven it.
  • Interesting (Score:5, Informative)

    by bigsexyjoe (581721) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @09:56AM (#44381145)

    Robert Hare http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_D._Hare [wikipedia.org] is an expert in psychopaths. He said that was asked to work on therapies for psychopaths to get them to rehabilitate. He said he wanted to develop a program that appeals to their self-interest to not engage in criminal or bad behavior. If they do have an "empathy switch" that would be a good thing. You would have to convince the psychopath that it is in their best interest to leave it on.

    • Mod parent up. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by bussdriver (620565) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @10:55AM (#44381967)

      Furthermore, psychopaths NEED to be identified as mental cases and not criminal cases! We lock people up in an overly simplistic system that fails to work with the real world; we never address the root problem: The criminal system needs to deal with mental illnesses (that includes addiction) as disease and not as debts to be paid to society. It is not business nor should it ever be thought of like a business. Pedophiles for example, should be put into mental hospitals and NEVER released until safe... not automatically released after their "debt" has been paid.

      • Read Small Criminals, mentioned elsewhere in this story. It isn't mental illness, it is a criminal outlook. That said, it is possible to train people to care.

      • by Artifakt (700173)

        I agree that paedophilia is a consequence of some sort of mental illness, but that "NEVER" is difficult to quantify - it would seem the only way to achive it is to keep the person in for life. Would it change your opinions any to know that back in the 1960's there were a number of programs to treat paedophiles in prison and then monitor them long term after release, and what sort of numbers they produced. These were studies in the US and Canada, involving in total over 10,000 subjects that were in the priso

  • It's funny that the slant here is about rehabilitation. It seems to show how they can fool those doing the rehabilitation long enough to get back out in the world to screw it up some more.

  • They "cured" the murderous criminal guy with the defective empathy switch in his brain...

  • This is really going to put a damper on all that 'science' going on in Dexter.

  • Obligatory (Score:5, Interesting)

    by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @10:11AM (#44381321)
    Data: Captain, I believe I am feeling... anxiety. It is an intriguing sensation. A most distracting...
    Picard: Data, I'm sure it's a fascinating experience, but perhaps you should deactivate your emotion chip for now.
    Data: Good idea, sir.
    [beep]
    Data: Done.
    Picard: Data, there are times that I envy you.
  • by coldsalmon (946941) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @10:16AM (#44381399)

    A lot of occupations require a suspension of empathy. I would be interested to see if "non-psychopaths" have a similar "empathy switch" ability regarding tasks associated with their daily occupation.

    • Yeah, I was going to say that bank managers are good at this. They can not give a shit about your problems, but can't imagine their home life is the same.
  • Is there a reasonably reliable medical test that can determine whether or not someone is a psychopath? Maybe a fMRI or something like that? While it would be nice if we could somehow cure sociopaths, I think just identifying them would be a good start. Maybe we could even prohibit them from running for public office or holding executive positions in publicly traded corporations...

  • I looked over the article and abstract, and note that they compared criminal psychopaths with non-criminal non-psychopaths.

    The study seems to equate psychopathy with criminality; ie - they didn't compare non-criminal psychopaths with non-criminal normals, nor did they compare criminal-psychopaths with criminal-normal.

    I strongly believe that psychopathy by itself is not a problem; only the immorality, and then only when the immorality leads to actions that hurt others. Psychopaths could learn and practice et

  • by PPH (736903) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @10:23AM (#44381503)

    People with Aspergers (ASD) display limited empathy with others. Not the psychopaths' ability to switch it on and off. It is just lacking.

    Fake empathy is often used by con artists and sociopaths to manipulate people. And in some cases, people with Aspergers are more able to see through such social engineering than other people. There is an interesting story in The Big Short [wikipedia.org] about an investor/fund manager who saw through the Wall Street bullshit surrounding mortgage backed securities and shorted them, making millions of dollars for himself and his clients.

  • this totally makes sense in an evolutionary way...its easy to imagine how important an adaptation like this would be in a species that for 10's of thousands of years lived in a permanent state of war where you had to be bathed in blood and kill everything on week and then chill at court and amuse the kings and females.

    how else could people reconcile this?

    • Constant war like that is a new invention though. Before agriculture there was much less need to defend any particular piece of land and people moved around too much to claim resources. (Random source: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/07/23/1225878/-Study-of-Hunter-Gatherers-Shows-War-Not-Inherently-Human [dailykos.com] )
      • really?? you actually believe that mankind hasn't been killing each other for scarce resources and sexual conquest since the dawn of time?

        it sure is something i would *like* to believe, like santa claus or the easter bunny, but irregardless of the current trend in anthropology to claim homo sapiens were a gentle, non-warlike species back before civilization i just haven't seen much definitive proof of it. FTA

        It shows us that societies that are closer to bare subsistence were unlikely to war over resources

        well, right...because why kill and steal from a group that actually has much less then you do?

  • Cosmopolitan society selects for psychopathy due to a phenomenon called, by evolutionary medicine, horizontal transmission. Horizontal transmission evolves virulence. Horizontal transmission occurs when a pathogen is transmitted between hosts without regard to lineal descent of the hosts (peer-to-peer rather than parent-to-child). Horizontal transmission evolves the greatest virulence when the host can infect peers without the host being healthy.

    When viewed as group organisms, societies, corporations,

  • by anyaristow (1448609) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @11:07AM (#44382171)

    Way OT but I'm really sick of this...

    A script on the fsdn domain is causing command-click on links to load both the new tab and the original tab with the destination URL. Both firefox and safari.

  • Explains how many companies, like Verizon, Comcast, RIAA, etc seem to not care. They're just all psychopaths that turn off their empathy switch while doing business.
  • by david614 (10051) on Thursday July 25, 2013 @04:58PM (#44385917) Journal
    So, these people were diagnosed as psychopaths in advance ...

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