Mind & Body

One Trait Separates Psychopaths From Everyone Else, According to a Yale Study

If you believe movies and TV, psychopaths are always one step ahead. They always seem to know exactly what everyone else is thinking and exactly how to use that information to their advantage. But in reality, psychopaths aren't especially good at getting in other people's heads. It's not that they can't — it's that they don't.

Theorizing Mind

Before we get into what differentiates psychopaths from other people, let's talk about theory of mind. Basically, this refers to your ability to imagine what's happening in the minds of other people. We're not born with a theory of mind, but most people develop one around age four. Here's a classic test for little ones. You show little Oscar an Oreo box and ask him what he thinks is inside. "Oreos!" he says, but he's disappointed when he learns that it's actually full of carrot sticks. Then, you show Oscar another child, Daisy, seeing the box for the first time. "What does Daisy think is inside the box?" you ask Oscar. If he's got a robust theory of mind, he knows that Daisy thinks there are Oreos, even though he knows the horrible truth. But if he's not quite there yet, he might think Daisy knows about the carrots since he knows about the carrots.

Using that skill is also known as perspective taking, and it's commonly believed that a lack of perspective taking is a hallmark symptom of psychopathy. But in fact, it's not necessarily that psychopaths can't do it as much as that they don't. A lot of the antisocial, callous, and cruel behavior that defines psychopaths can be ascribed to a lack of understanding about what other people think or feel. At the same time, when a psychopath is told to take on the perspective of one of the characters in a story, they're perfectly capable of intuiting what's going on in the heads of those (fictional) people.

Now, all that is pretty much in line with the devious, Hitchcockian psychopath of mass media. Someone who can guess what you're thinking, but can turn off that empathy at will? Sounds pretty scary. But the story's not as simple as that.

Sympathy for the Devil

We'll admit, the thought that psychopaths are people who could choose to empathize but don't is a little ... annoying. Is it even a disorder if you can just stop doing it? Well, a new study shows that there really is a difference between how psychopathic brains and neurotypical brains process emotions, and it might not be as easy as toggling your sympathy on and off. If psychopaths know they're being asked to step into someone else's shoes, they can do so as easily as anyone else. It's when they're tested on their empathy without realizing it that they start to differentiate themselves.

If you took the test, it would work like this. First, you see an image of a room with an assortment of dots on the walls. In the middle of the room is a person facing one of the walls. The researcher asks you, "How many dots do you see?" If the person in the image can see the same number of dots that you can, it takes about one second to answer that question. But here's where it gets interesting. If the person in the image can't see all of the dots (because some are on the opposite wall, for example), it actually takes non-psychopaths about 100 milliseconds longer to answer. The non-psychopath automatically places themselves in the shoes of the person in the image and imagines how many dots that person can see instead of simply answering how many dots they themselves can see. But for a psychopath, the presence of the person and the direction they're facing makes no difference at all.

There you have it: Normal brains automatically place themselves in the perspective of others, while psychopaths have to actually make an effort to do so. Huh — now we're actually feeling sorry for their inability to feel sorry for us.

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If you haven't read Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test" yet, you're in for a treat (it's free with your trial membership to Audible!). It's an eye-opening look into not just the minds of psychopaths, but the minds of those who decide what psychopaths are. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 11, 2018

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