Psychopathy scores were negatively associated with self-reported empathy levels and attenuated responses to empathy induction, according to data published in Psychiatry Research.
Male adults (≥18 years) convicted for violent crimes were recruited from a German correctional facility (n=42). Control participants were recruited from the general population and matched by age and education level to offenders (n=33). At baseline, participants completed the Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition to assess deficits in cognitive empathy. Intelligence and self-reported psychopathic traits were captured per subsequent questionnaires. Experimental empathy measurements were conducted in 2 parts: empathy induction and an “empathic dictator” game. First, participants were instructed to watch sequences of empathy-inducing or control videos and provide empathy ratings for each clip. After this, participants were asked to complete a “standard dictator game,” in which they distributed monetary units between themselves and a hypothetical other player per their own discretion.
Participants were then reexposed to the video sequences and instructed to distribute monetary units to the subjects of each video as they saw fit. The final stage of the game was intended to capture empathy for video subjects, based on the number of units offered.
The case and control groups did not differ significantly by intelligence level, although violent offenders consistently scored higher on all measures of psychopathy and aggression. Violent offenders did not differ from control participants in the number of errors made on the Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition, suggesting no impairment in empathetic competencies among those with high psychopathy scores. However, per self-reports, psychopathy scores were negatively associated with self-reports of cognitive and affective empathy levels. In addition, psychopathy scores in violent offenders were negatively associated with empathy ratings in the empathy induction test. On this same test, significant between-group differences were observed for affective (P =.029), but not cognitive (P =.179), empathy. Performance scores also differed between groups for each phase of the dictator game, with lower offer rates observed among offenders compared with control participants (all P ≤.047). Psychopathy scores were negatively associated with altruistic sharing behavior across all participants for both the standard dictator game (P =.023) and the video-based dictator game (P =.001).
These data suggest that although violent offenders may not have significantly impaired empathy scores on the Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition, psychopathy scores are negatively associated with empathy. Per responses to the video sequence activity, researchers also hypothesized that empathy induction activities could increase prosocial behavior among violent offenders.
Mayer S, Jusyte A, Klimecki-Lenz OM, Schönenberg M. Empathy and altruistic behavior in antisocial violent offenders with psychopathic traits. Psychiatry Res. 2018;269:625-632.