Do you know what is empathy is?

What, in your understanding, is empathy? Is it an ability, an attitude, a behaviour?

Psychopathic lack of empathy
Once we know what empathy is we can make sense of what the psychopath’s famed lack of empathy is.

As you may know, ‘callous/lack of empathy’ is one of the twenty items on Hare’s Psychopath Checklist – Revised (PCL-R). (The full the list is reproduced below.)

But, does the slash (/) mean ‘and’ or ‘or’ or ‘and or or’?

  • Are ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ synonyms (callous, in other words, lack of empathy)?
  • Or are ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ distinct (callous plus lack of empathy)?
  • Perhaps ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ are fused (callous implies empathy)?

Consider this article abstract:

‘Callous and unemotional traits in children and adolescents living in Great Britain’, by Paul Moran, Tamsin Ford, Georgia Butler, and Robert Goodman

Few studies have assessed psychopathic traits in community samples of young people. We investigated the predictive utility of callous and unemotional traits in a representative sample of 5770 young people from Great Britain. Teachers provided information on the presence of callous and unemotional traits and parents completed the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire to determine the level and impact of psychiatric problems at baseline, 12 and 24 months later. Baseline callous and unemotional trait scores independently predicted the number and intensity of conduct, emotional and hyperactivity symptoms at follow-up. Callous and unemotional traits are longitudinally associated with the level and impact of childhood psychiatric problems.
British Journal of Psychiatry (2008) 192: 65-66.

Now, where does lack of empathy fit, if at all?

  • Is lack of empathy the same thing as callous and so only the former was named?
  • Conversely, is lack of empathy something else entirely, not considered in this study?
  • Perhaps lack of empathy is covered by ‘unemotional’?
  • Or is this study measuring two criteria from PCL-R: callous/lack of empathy and shallow affect, calling them callous and unemotional?

Feeling? Caring? Doing?

  • Sometimes people mean by lack of empathy that the person is incapable of feeling what what one feels (‘He has no idea what it’s like’).
  • Sometimes they mean the other does not care about what they feel (‘He just unmoved by the fact that I’m hurt’).
  • Sometimes the mean that the person does not act in accordance with how we feel (‘He behaves cruelly’).

Help folks!
Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of molehill. What is your understanding of empathy and lack of empathy. How do you judge whether empathy is present or not?


Photo: Attention Inspectors, originally uploaded by M. A. C. Kingsley.

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Psychopath Checklist – Revised (PCL-R)

Glibness/superficial charm
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Pathological lying
Lack of remorse or guilt
Shallow affect
Callous/lack of empathy
Parasitic lifestyle
Poor behavioral control
Promiscuous sexual behaviour
Early behavior problems
Lack of realistic, long-term goals
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Many short-term marital relationships
Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Criminal versatility

38 thoughts on “Do you know what is empathy is?

  1. I guess I judge from verbal and non-verbal cues. Sometimes even a silence can have empathy.

    With non-verbal there is a softness and the eyes are important.

    With verbal: it is when I’ve felt, “Yes, that’s it”.

  2. Steve,

    Great topic that deserves more extensive treatment than it usually receives. I’ll try not to embark on too long of a discourse here, but I’m reminded of many discussions I had with a long-time supervisor who spoke about empathic connection even when he felt anger toward a patient. How could that be?

    Let me speak in terms of the therapeutic relationship, although these observations are applicable to minds and relations in general.

    Suppose a patient is manifestly feeling persecuted. In that situation, the internal persecutor is, to some extent, treated as if it is a foreign or external persecutor. But it is, in actuality, a part of the self contained in self-object relations complete with representations internal to the patient’s mind. Anger toward such a patient could arise in connection with identification between our own internal persecutors and the patient’s internal persecutors. Heinrich Racker called this arrangement complementary identification.

    Alternatively, I could have a concordant identification with the persecuted patient, feeling allied with the persecuted side. In everyday parlance, this is what most people consider empathy while complementary identifications are not considered empathy. But is that really a complete understanding of empathy?

    Perhaps our identification with disavowed or alien aspects of the patient’s self is a kind of empathy with a part of the self that the patient treats as not-the-self, as, for example, (internal) persecutory objects are treated when the patient consciously feels persecuted. But, remember, the patient is persecuted by internal objects, apart from whatever is occuring in the external world. The psychic salience resides with the activated internal persecutors.

    In the case of complementary identification, our awareness that we are identified with one side of the patient’s object world can help us to appreciate sides of the patient that the patient him/herself can’t identify with, fully recognize, explore, challenge and integrate as a part of the self. Think about the passive-aggressive patient who feels put upon while actually behaving quite aggressively without consciously recognizing that they are behaving aggressively. When we feel anger toward such a patient, we’re experiencing a complementary identification because we’re identified with a part of the patient that is treated by the patient as not-me.

    If, on the other hand, we identify concordantly with such a patient’s feeling that they are abused, we might meet the layman’s definition of empathy, but we would also be colluding with the patient’s denial of a part of the psyche that is feared, disliked, disavowed and expressed only in symptomatic disguise. If we get stuck in that that collusive identification, are we being most deeply empathic?

    Our challenge is to come to grips with both sides/all elements of the object relational universe of the patient — not just the manifestly vulnerable side (layman’s empathy) and not just the persecutorial side. It is the latter that the psychopath habitually identifies with… making him, literally, your worst nightmare. Given the psychopath’s need for power, it’s not surprising that psychopathy emerges from very early object relational disturbances that rule out concordant identification with manifest feelings of vulnerability in others. Perhaps because of this one-sided capacity to identify with disavowed, aggressive, persecutorial, omnipotent objects, the psychopath has a particularly powerful, “empathic” entrée into the mind of his/her prey. Consider that defensively naïve people (who most disavow aggressive elements in their psychic world) prove the easiest victims for the psychopath’s brand of empathy.

  3. Empathy is a mountain that has been made into a molehill. It is an immensely complex subject; I’ll try to be as brief as I can in saying what I think empathy is. The following comments owe great deal to the late Joseph Church, whose Language And the Discovery of Reality is one of the best “little books” in developmental psychology that I have read. Church describes empathy in terms of the old philosophical concept of participation. He observes that we participate in our experience immediately in two major ways: imitationally and reciprocally. This view ties in with Dr. X’s observation of therapeutic relationships. When we respond to another with behavior like theirs, things are the same on both sides of the transaction. As Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson comment in The Pragmatics of Human Communication, this relationship tends to escalate. If we are being silly, we will get sillier and sillier, or angry and angrier, or when you are telling me something shocking I respond as shocked, in facial expression as well as in the usual verbal expressions of “no!” “He didn’t!” or “I can’t believe it!” In reciprocal participation, you’re angry and I’m apologetic, which shuts down the escalation. Or, you’re hurt and I’m comforting, etc.

    That participation is an involuntary physiological response is very observable in everyday behavior: you see it when people body english pool balls or bowling balls; when people lower their shoulders and drop their heads while watching fullbacks charge the line, or boxers slugging it out; when people move their lips to another’s words and finished the other’s sentences; and the more obvious scenario still, people crying in movies, weddings and so on. We extend empathy without being aware of it to people we fear or dislike. The authoritarian-submissive learns reciprocally how to submit as he is learning to tyrannize. Another example is the John Houseman paper-chase law professor whose students assimilate his perpsective of law even while they are burning under his discipline and wrath. Here again, I’m touching ground covered by Dr. X in the therapeutic relationship.

    I think the “Attention Inspectors” is wrong. Empathy is not a distinctly human trait; empathic behavior can be observed in animals as readily as in humans. For example, consider the spread of fear, flight, defense, or aggression behaviors in Packs or herds of animals. What are distinctive human empathic responses are responses to representations, whether in discourse, images, or dramatizations. Animals do not seem to score high in symbolic or representational acts, and so it is not surprising that their empathy is reserved for the real world stuff. The human on the other hand has lived in virtual reality since acquiring language.

    I prefer to think of empathy less as a thing or state than as a mode of information processing, a very basic mode. Contrary to traditional psychology, there are no “channels” of information in the human sensory system. The human is an organism and information is generally processed holistically. That is, what we are seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, tasting (exteroception) is all mixed up in what we are physically doing (proprioception) and our drive states and affect (interoception). It all constitutes a single plane of experience. Have you noticed how different a steak looks and smells when you’re hungry as opposed to when you’ve just stuffed yourself? In this basic mode of processing, people and things are responsed to in terms of how we feel and what we are doing–the immediate relevance of experience. The friend who was entertaining when they stopped by your office to chat yesterday are infuriatingly inconsiderate today as they babble on while you are rushed for time. It takes a real act of will to differentiate between how you feel and how you respond to that person. Even after you’ve recognized you’re irritable, he’s not irritating, you continue to experience him as irritating. Is this the dark side of empathy? It’s the same processing mode as when you enjoyed your friend immensely.

    How is your friend to know how to behave? Well, for one thing, you’re probably not participating in his communication cues. You may try to fake it for a while, but it’s very difficult to fake empathy. For one thing, the timing is crucial. Gestures/expressions typically precede verbal content and look weird when they’re out of sync. (Lyndon Johnson’s speeches are classic–his expressive affect is always about ten beats late.) However, the world is full of “impervious” communicators who never seem to get the signs. The highly sympatico individual, however, knows it’s not a good time for chatting as soon as they look in the door.

    That is how I think empathy works–when we are in our everyday state of mind responding to things and events in terms of immediate relevance, how they “make” us feel. Sometimes its good and unites us against evil and inhumanity. Perhaps sometimes it unites us in evil.

  4. evan – Empathy for you has something to do with softness. Can you say more? What in your view is happening during empathy? An example would be most helpful.

  5. Such great discourse here, and such a complicated subject!

    To me, in general terms, a lack of empathy is when someone is unable to put themselves into another person’s shoes, **remove their own emotional biases**, and attempt to understand the true core of another.

    I believe normal healthy people can empathize on many levels, if they are in control of their emotions and are able to differentiate them from logic, but of course, it is not nearly as simple as it sounds.

    I think emotions are our biggest road block to being empathic, personally. They wall us away from others, and aren’t easy to dismantle and set aside. Few people practice doing this yet it is powerful.

    When we feel wronged, rarely are we able to put our emotions aside to understand the reasoning of the one who hurt us. Most of us only empathize when it is easy to do so.

    I think there are many, many ways one can judge how empathic another person is. If a person can control their emotions, and set them aside to logically look at a scenario — that is one indicator. Another indicator is the ability to have compassion and sympathy for others. And last is one’s ability to accept and face the truth.

    If a person can turn away from a cruel scenario and feel no sympathy for another — that’s a big red flag empathy is not touchable. Also, the more one lives in the denial, the less empathic he or she will be. Empathy, at times, requires the ability to look the truth straight in the face which isn’t always easy. Because sometimes, it is our lack of empathy that causes us to get hurt in the first place.

  6. My 2 cents. Callous is absence of feeling, a coldness, a lack of sympathy, indifference toward something. Empathy is an ability to feel, to be able to understand why/how someone else feels.

  7. dr x – So according the Racker-model psychopath and his victim ARE empathically attuned.

    I believe this goes a long way to addressing our problem. It is certainly very different, as you say, of the more vulnerable identifications people usually mean by empathy. The psychopath cannot/will not feel his internal dread and finds one means or another of getting another to feel it.

    You will know very well the holes that this model leaves, though. The problem of therapists depending too heavily on countertransference results in every feeling, thought, fantasy the therapist has being attributed to client. The issue of the therapist’s own transference goes out the window.

    You’ve heard this (apocryphal?) story, perhaps:
    Supervisee: I felt confused so clearly the patient was feeling confused.
    Melanie Klein: No my dear, you WERE confused!

    Anyway, your contribution helps a lot. It suggests that the criterion for the PCL-R needs rephrasing, I’d say.

  8. dm-smith – Empathy as a basic mode of information processing. I like it! If I understand right, non-sympatico people are being poor information processors, then?

    Some clarification – for you empathy does not necessarily involve two or more parties? (Maybe I have gone astray with you examples of steak, etc. which I know were made for another purpose.)

    What about the psychopath who is tormenting his victim who is responding, say, with fear or hurt. Can you say what is happening/not happening empathically here?

  9. eyes – Empathy putting oneself in another’s shoes. Yes.

    Your criteria are clear: “If a person can control their emotions, and set them aside to logically look at a scenario — that is one indicator. Another indicator is the ability to have compassion and sympathy for others. And last is one’s ability to accept and face the truth.”

    A query – a psychopath would presumably do poorly by these standards. Are you saying, then, that a psychopath does not have the ability to put himself in another’s shoes (i.e is incapable of empathy)?

  10. benzthere – Thanks.

    A query, is it possible, do you think, to simultaneously be both empathic and callous? E.g. to “feel, to be able to understand why/how someone else feels” hurt while one is hurting them. In other words to be able to put oneself in another’s shoes AND not care?

  11. Dr. Steve, I wouldn’t say they’re poor information processers, but for whatever reason lack affective linkages for communication cues. If we tested them we might find they were very perceptive in observing cues, but lacked the participatory affect most of us experience.

    What I’m trying to say is that what we call empathy in human relationships is part of a much larger field of behavior. Perhaps for clarity it would be better to call the larger field a primary or participatory mode of information processing with the attributes I’ve already listed. To extend a bit, traditional psychology has studied primarily exteroception and reified it as the objective world, and upon that idea rests the subject-object dichotomy. However, that dichotomy is not given in experience, but rather depends upon socialization–representation–and mediation between how one feels and what one does. For example, we probably all accept the maxim that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But none of us ever experiences it that way. To the extent we experience beauty at all, we experience it as intrinsic to the object, and not down in our livers, kidneys or elsewhere.

    The mediation between what we feel and do requires representation–we have to be able to represent our experience to ourselves, typically through language, and act towards that representation rather than towards our feelings. The reverse situation is found in the dog that day after day barks at the letter carrier’s sounds at the letter box. The meaning of the experience is how the dog feels about it–threatened or defensive. Could he represent his experience to himself, he’d probably say, “That guy’s been coming and going for years and never amounted to anything. To hell with barking, I’m going back to sleep.” This secondary level comes into play principally in instances of dysfunction, new learning tasks, etc. It’s why student-teacher relationships are difficult. The teacher knows the subject matter well enough to process it in the more participatory mode–to the extent the physicist can find beauty in a formula–while the student limps along in the slower “piece-at-a-time” mode.

    The unmediated participatory mode of processing is quite fluid, spontaneous, and driven by relevance. This sort of spontaneity is the essence of relationship. If we do not spontaneously participate with each other, the relationship dies. Or, as one person said, “When the hug is one-sided, you know you’re in trouble.” The need also underlies the response, “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you,” i.e., if it’s not spontaneous, it’s no good. (Of course if you do tell the person, they are in a double bind: if they do it after you ask, it doesn’t mean much, or the other hand, if they don’t do it even after you’ve asked, they are really in for it.)

    So that is the mode of processing in which I think empathy occurs. And I should also note I think it underlies all communication, from the way it is acquired to the way it is used. So, what about the psychopath? In a communication context, we can designate two phases, an expressive and a receptive phase. It’s a false dichotomy because communication is a process and both are going on all the time. But generally, one holds the floor expressively and the other is in the receptive phase. I think as the term empathy is used in this blog, it refers essentially to the ability of one person to participate with the other person receptively, to respond with appropriate affect to another’s expressive behavior. I think I said before here that in a limited number of observations of interviews with psychopaths, they seemed to distance themselves, to have none of the kinesics suggesting they were participating with the other. But in their turn at expression, they were quite animated. So it would seem to me the psychopath participates only in his own affect. In the receptive phase does the psychopath turn to the more mediated, secondary mode of processing to contemplate, anayze and strategize regarding his victim? Does he feel negative affect and hide it behind a dead-pan expression? I have no idea, nor any real commitment to lack of receptive affect in communication. I don’t have enough data to argue it.

    I have much more faith in the bimodal processing model I’ve laid out as it has analogues in studies of hemispheric processing, etc.

  12. Dr. Steve,
    Yes I do. I think empathy is an ability, that is it can be learned or at least a very convincing facsimile (what’s actually going on in the brain and related sensations, that distinction I must leave to you pro’s), but it comes across to me as empathy.

    They keenly empathize, whether they feel what you feel or detect what you feel, they know it. Then they use it, with precision, for their own benefit and not only do they not care about your pain, they can enjoy it.

  13. “You will know very well the holes that this model leaves, though. The problem of therapists depending too heavily on countertransference results in every feeling, thought, fantasy the therapist has being attributed to client. The issue of the therapist’s own transference goes out the window.”

    You’re absolutely right, Steve. Racker isn’t the whole story, but he represents a way to understand the notion of resonance to multiple levels of experience in the patient. (I don’t know that Racker equates this with empathy — I do.) Some, but not all, of the concern you have is mitigated by the idea of resonance “between” the patient’s object world and the therapist’s object world. Racker does think about this in terms of the therapist’s own object world and mutual influences.

    I should add here that I’ve been heavily influenced by the ideas of Merton Gill, Robert Langs and self psychology (both Kohut and the intersubjectivists). I think Racker’s work represents a line in this thinking and it’s a helpful one for exploring the complexity of empathy. I probably didn’t do it justice to it in my post. I think Racker is much too sophisticated to kid himself via the more limiting lens of transference-countertransference.

  14. BTW, I appreciate the serious discussion you’re generating here and I especially appreciate that you draw intelligent lay readers, academics and clinicians into the discussion. You’ve got an inviting blend of relevance, pragmatism, theory and analytically-informed insight. I wasn’t sure that an analytically-oriented blog devoted to questions of mind and relationships could accompish all of that.

  15. Dr.Steve ~ I actually am not sure whether a psychopath can put themselves in other people’s shoes or not. I’ve given it lots of thought, and I waffle in my answer. I am by no means an expert on psychopaths 🙂

    What are your answers to the questions you asked in your post. I’d love to know what you think!

  16. dm-smith – Psychopaths, you suggest, are “very perceptive in observing cues, but lacked the participatory affect”. This and the bimodal processing model of communication make a lot of sense to me.

    I wonder, though, whether the examples you cite are more narcissistic than psychopathic. “That’s enough about me, what you you think of me!”

    The mystery that – for me – the PCL-R list doesn’t help explain is that of the universally recognised ability of the psychopath to con people. For me to con you I need to be able to imagine myself into your head. And it means not letting you know anything real about me. This seems like the converse of the narcissist who has no interest in you and can’t wait for you to shut up so he can talk more about himself.

  17. benzthere – You’re very much on the right track, in my view.

    I’m going to spend a few posts trying to capture what I think goes on for them and what that teaches us about empathy. Though I haven’t figured it out properly yet, the essence is as you say.

  18. dr. x – I really should read Racker again – it’s been a while. Thanks.

    To clarify: for you empathy and countertransference are two ways of talking about something similar. What would be your guess about the psychopath: a. what it’s like to sit with one? and b. what it’s like for them to be with another person?

  19. dr. x – Cheers! I’m delighted by the nature of the discourse here. I particularly like the way the more theoretical readers, the more clinical, and the readers who’ve been forged in the fire talk with each other and seem to take each other’s contributions on board. Needless to say, my own thinking is benefiting enormously.

  20. eyes for lies – Time for me to pony up, you reckon!

    I have several notions which I’m hoping that over a series of posts will develop into something coherent. The comments from readers have been a great help so far. I’ll be tackling the issue of empathy/psychopathy in smallish bites forthwith.

    Please do keep the comments coming – they help me so much to see when I’m spinning my wheels, when I’ve taken a wrong turn, and when I don’t have enough gas to make the next stop!

    As for the question about whether “a psychopath can put themselves in other people’s shoes or not”, my answer is Yes. As I say in a reply to DM-Smith above, that’s how come the psychopath is such a good con artist.

    Now, how we talk about that in terms of ’empathy’ is the ball of wax I’m interested in.

  21. Dr. Steve, I’m a bit confused: I didn’t intend to exemplify any psychopathy, only processing modes.

    I finally found my copy of _Without Conscience_ to skim through and my memory seems to have been correct: my impression is that Hare considers the psychopath to be of flat affect and unable to “feel” another’s pain. He knows the words, but not the melody. So he probably cannot put himself in another’s shoes if that requires the affective components of empathy. I’m not sure it does.

    I think Hare somewhere–I didn’t find it in the skim–says that psychopaths are good actors. By the time one reaches adulthood he’s probably been exposed through life and media to the scripts for almost any situation. Hare also emphasizes the volubility of the psychopath. It may be the psychopath is throwing out a barrage and watching to see what hits the target and adapts to suit the feedback. When you think about it, the scripts for jealousy, betrayal, infidelity, etc., are pretty stockl; I think we all know them and that may in part enable our actual empathy and have probably used them to fake empathy upon occasion. If you’re told what you want to hear, and what you expect to hear, and more of the same, it’s easy to imagine the other person empathizes with you, knows what you’re going through, etc.

  22. Maybe I’m hung up on the wording ==

    Empathy – understanding another feels (Theory of mind)

    Compassion – Caring about how the other person feels (frontal cortex lights up – psychopaths don’t do this, or not as intensely).

    I think physical empathy has to be a separate thing. This could be mirror neurons, different wiring from a moral center. Moving like a bowler while watching bowling, or cringing when seeing someone get a flu shot, or even porn. (hey, Evan, now that’s a dissertation! Mirror neurons and porn – your advisor will love that one) I digress. Anyway, mirror neurons seem to be different wiring from compassion.

    Are psychopaths are a form of autism? Psychopaths have “theory of mind” just fine — that’s how they con.
    But they lack the return connection to feel compassion. (Although they can be pretty obsequious).
    Autistic spectrum, if I understand, has difficulty with “theory of mind” — they need to template to know how to socially interact.

    On the other hand, a narcissist? psychopath? I knew couldn’t understand why all his employees kept quitting after he would scream at them for a few hours. I asked him, “what did you think they would think?” and he was stumped. I don’t think it dawned on him that they would think something. So maybe the short frustrational tolerance neurotransmitter storm overwhelms the “theory of mind” cells.

    I could do this analysis all day. 🙂

  23. I am not sure that I agree that “Moving like a bowler while watching bowling, or cringing when seeing someone get a flu shot, or even porn” is empathy. One could simply recall how he himself felt, but he may have no connection to how another is feeling. I see this all the time–pseudo-understanding, and it can be way off the mark!

    I do tend to agree, Dr.Steve, that psychopaths can put themselves into other people shoes, but to what degree is the question, and to what emotional lengths.

  24. When I read Dr. Hare’s book, I interpreted callous to be without feeling and lack of empathy to be without sympathy.

    Then I found the top two inches.

    The dictionary defines callous as made hard or hardened; insensitive; indifferent; unsympathetic.

    The dictionary defines empathy as intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Also the imaginative ascribing to an object, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.

    To me I think Dr. Hare was saying hardhearted and unsympathetic, closely relational and so “/” denotes and/or. I think he used lacking in empathy incorrectly, and is something else entirely as Dr. Steve seems also to be saying.

    The dictionary definition says intellectual, that tells me empathy can be learned, or can be gained vicariously through taking the place of someone/something else, that tells me “in someone else’s shoes.”

    Back to the dissection of empathy.

    You asked me if someone can be both empathic and callous. Absolutely, I believe that even more so now. You can understand either intellectually or vicariously (all the ways you are discussing) how someone else feels and still not care via whatever degree of hardened heart is possessed.

    One step farther, does the psychopath feel exactly what you feel, and how? Pure conjecture based on nothing but experience says, I know he/she can differentiate between pleasure and pain. Everything else is askew in that heart and mind so, exactly what someone else is feeling, I doubt it. Can he fake it? Sure. I am certain pain is something they can relate to very well, even if repressed or denied. The same with pleasure.

    How? Between a mixture of what made them who they are, just like everyone else, learned, felt, and inherited. With time I’m also sure they are able to perfect their game.

    Now, this layman will leave you to the intricacies at hand. Whew, you tax my brain but I find it so very interesting.

    Well, maybe just a couple more comments.

    Dr. X, I think that the psychopath does have a particularly powerful, “empathic” path into the mind of the prey, maybe similar to the blind person who develops acute hearing. In my experience, he said little, but missed nothing, either verbal but also non-verbal. With the seeming trend of successful and educated women being deceived and fleeced, I don’t disagree in general but question your comment about those disavowing aggressive elements. Perhaps instead I suggest that two aggressive elements result in a different sort of relationship that is not aggressive avoidance but just the opposite, it’s welcomed.

    DMSmith, your information processing makes good sense to me. I’m not sure if I think it’s difficult to fake empathy though. It depends what you’re about and who you are. I think most people usually just don’t try very hard, having little motivation other than good manners and human kindness. The psychopath has a different goal from most so I think they learn how, that and like with lies, it’s the whole picture they present that helps convince even though they usually lack in participation, both out of fear of exposure to weakness and their desire for secrecy I’d imagine. But when necessary, in my experience he performed well, but only in his own affect just as you stated. As I said above, he gave away little but enough, missed nothing. When pressed, if it suited his purpose he responded appropriately. All part of the game.

    Dr. Steve, I’m confused about your comment about dm-smith’s examples observing but not participating possibly describing narcissistic behavior. Don’t her examples instead enforce the psychopathic traits? He gathers information not tipping his hand or giving anything, he doesn’t care about you but wants to know all about you so he can use it later, but can respond when required or when it benefits him. With him it’s not all about me now, it’s all about you not knowing me, just quietly playing my game and gathering info about you, and I’ll pounce when I’ve got you where I want you and take my pleasure then, when it is all about me dominating you and getting what I really want.

  25. Benzthere, I think you’re right about faking it. After re-reading Hare, I think I’ve been too hung upon (a) the normal affective participation in communication, and (b) my observations of the lack of participatory behaviors by the psychopath in their receptive phase of communication. Hare seems to emphasize the affective component in his discussion of the psychopath’s flat affect and lack of empathy. But we’re stuck with the fact of the psychopath’s success in “psyching out” his victims.

    Perhaps the answer is that the psychological measure of empathy and the social perception of empathy are quite different. It may be, for example, that in our social transactions we guage empathy not by the cues of other person in his receptive behavior, but in his expressive behavior. In short, the psychopath may be incapable of empathy in its affective dimensions; however, he may be a great actor and know the scripts, as I said earlier. I’d very much like to see some naturalistic communication (not interviews). I’ve had one interaction with a psychopath (in a judge’s chambers) and I was already biased by interviews of psychopaths I’d seen and by the knowledge he was a psychopath. So that was a long ways from a normal interaction on my part.

  26. Eyes for lies — Thank you for the comment, your blog is great.

    Agree, the physical “empathy” — watching another get a flu shot — is not emotional “empathy” at all. Different circuits.

    That was my point about porn — I mean, what is the wiring that makes people want to watch other people (not to be too indelicate about it)? It is purely physical, my guess. Like extreme sports.

    But, an emotional movie — that goes to a different part of the brain, where we can emotionally bond with the characters.

  27. DM-Smith,
    Once again I think you’ve summarized all this very well.

    In my experience and from only a social perception (his only diagnosis is my attempted arm chair version) in his receptive behavior, he was as you described, almost dead pan, very hard to read, yet attentive. In his expressive behavior he didn’t waste words, was succinct and direct, concentrated on facts rather than feelings whenever possible. From a “whole picture” perspective I didn’t recognize emotional vacancy.

  28. dm-smith – This is all pretty spot on, I’m sure of it.

    One thing though: “flat affect and unable to ‘feel’ another’s pain.” This seems to be bunching things up far too much.

    Shows flat affect or only feels low level of affect? What does flat affect have to do with empathy – is it saying that the psychopath is simply unable to feel emotions, his or another’s? Unable to feel any or much of the other’s pain?

  29. swivelchair – the distinction between empathy and compassion is getting at what bothers me about the truism: the psychopath lacks empathy. According to your definition that’s simply false.

  30. benzthere – So you think that in fact the psychopath has highly developed empathy. (I agree, but it’s rather odd that precisely the other is the common statement.)

    Interesting observation about aggression + aggression.

    Without going all the way back to DM-Smith’s examples let me just say, yes, I’m with you. The psychopath reveals little but observes carefully; the narcissist exposes and pays no attention. (Perhaps some of the horror stories on lovefraud are actually cases of narcissism not psychopathy – this would be a way to test.)

  31. dm-smith – What do you think of Swivelchair’s theory above?

    All readers: Can anyone point us to some naturalistic communication (not interviews)? This would be of great help.

  32. benzthere – I wonder if this is part of what Hare is getting at with ‘flat affect’. I’ve also encountered this – I kind of I’m-not-going-reveal-anything-here. However, this isn’t a permanent state at all – I mean who would be conned by an automaton – more a strategy like playing possum.

  33. Dr. Steve, What do I think about Swivelchair’s theory? I’m no longer sure I think anything. But I just poured two fingers of Black Johnny to butress my high density lipids and things will be clear shortly.

    I think we’re on the same page in some places. What he called physical empathy is the baseline of my general category of participation, which I think probably gives rise to paychological empathy. That kind of behavior–in the form of imitative tongue thrust and lip pursing–has been reported by developmental psychologists (Church and I think Flavel) as early as three months–and certainly argues the behavior is hardwired and involves something like the mirror neurons suggested by Swivelchair. I think participation is still more complicated because it also involves reciprocal as well as symmetrical behavior. I would expect that to be hard-wired as well, and that we have “complementary” as well as mirror neurons.

    I would see participation as generally more than just the behavior. I think there’s a large chunk of voodoo also. You watch a bowler or pool shooter trying to telekinetically steer a critical ball, and it’s apparent he or she is in it up to their soul with wishing, wanting, needing. I’m not going to call it (or anything else ever again) empathy, but it survives the test of fusion of perception, kinesis, proprioception and affect. Cringing when someone else gets an injection is the same fusion of affect, kinesis and perception. So I would describe it also as participatory mode processing. (Is it empathy only if the cringer feels just like the injectee?)

    I wonder how much farther down the road we’d be if “empathy” had never reared its hydra heads.

  34. dm-smith – 1. “Is it empathy only if the cringer feels just like the injectee?”- nope. When the funeral director accesses just enough of a mourner’s sorrow to get onto the same wavelength, that’s empathy – he doesn’t need to wail or anything.

    2. Hang in there, I think we can retrieve the term by narrowing its meaning in one direction and expanding it in another.

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