Individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits tend to have difficulty detecting genuine expressions of fear or sadness in others, according to a new study by researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Psychopathic traits may include lack of empathy, a grandiose sense of self-worth, lack of remorse or guilt, superficial charm, a high need for stimulation, pathological lying and manipulation.

The research involved participants looking at photographs of faces expressing different emotions. Some faces were showing real emotions while others were faking it.

The findings reveal that participants with high levels of psychopathic traits didn’t respond to genuine emotions in the same way that most people do. In fact, they responded to both real and fake expressions of sadness and fear in the same manner.

“For most people, if we see someone who is genuinely upset, you feel bad for them and it motivates you to help them. People who are very high on the psychopathy spectrum don’t show this response,” said lead researcher Dr. Amy Dawel of the ANU Research School of Psychology.

“We found people with high levels of psychopathic traits don’t feel any worse for someone who is genuinely upset than someone who is faking it. They also seem to have problems telling if the upset is real or fake. As a result, they are not nearly as willing to help someone who is expressing genuine distress as most people are.”

Interestingly, this difficulty in responding to other people’s feelings seems to only apply to the emotions of fear or sadness.

“For other emotions such as anger, disgust, and happiness, high psychopathy individuals had no problems telling if someone was faking it. The results were very specific to expressions of distress.”

Dawel hopes her research will lead to better understanding and treatments for those with psychopathy.

“There seems to be a genetic contribution to these traits, we see the start of them quite early in childhood,” she said. “Understanding exactly what is going wrong with emotions in psychopathy will help us to identify these problems early and hopefully intervene in ways that promote moral development.”

Research suggests that psychopaths make up about one percent of the general population and as much as 25 percent of male offenders in federal correctional settings. Psychopathy shares some of the same traits as antisocial personality disorder but is more severe and less common.

Source: Australian National University