Most psychopaths neither have Hannibal Lecter’s brilliant mind or they don´t try to killtheir family with an ax such as Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”. For example, Lecter’s character only illustrates one of the mysteries of psychopathy: they can be socially clever if they want to. Most murderers act pushed by a passion, and later they feel guilty about what they have done, but a psychopath doesn´t feel remorse.
So far, the dominant understanding of psychopathy was that they basically lack emotions such as fear or distress. If you clap your hands behind someone’s back, she will startle, and you can measure how her palms get sweaty. If you do that with individuals with psychopathy, experiments have shown that their response is flattened. They barely startle and their hands stay dry. Now, think about it, if you had never felt real fear or distress or any other emotion, how could you empathize with the emotions of others?
Empathy is the key to our normal moral development. Each time we hurt someone, that person’s pain becomes our pain, and then you start to associate your pain with hurting others. As kids, we were bewared to don’t hurt others. Kids quickly come to feel very different about violating this type of rules. Empathy is what makes the difference.
If you were to lack empathy, this would never happen. Hurting others would leave you indifferent, and be as trivial as eating with your mouth full . In that case, the only reason for doing neither would be fear of punishment – not guilt or compassion. If an unempathic man would be alone in a dark alley with a beautifull and attractive woman and no one to punish him, what would stand in the way of his lust?
How can psychopathic individuals switch their empathy ” on and off ”? All of us have such a switch. We are more empathic towards the pain of our friends, than towards the misery of the people on the other side of the globe. Our default mode, however, seems to have our empathy on. Individuals with psychopathy seem to have a slightly different switch: their default mode seems to be off. But much still needs to be understood about why and how individuals with psychopathy seem to have the potential to empathize sometimes but have this capacity switched off by default. For therapists, they already seem capable of empathy. Instead, therapies may need to learn to be empathic always. How to do so is unclear, but it might be best to start such training early, before violence has become a way of life.
By: Álvaro Molina Crespo
Thanks to: Carlos Alemany Costela