A New Understanding of Psychopathy's Core

New study goes beyond empathy and deep inside the personality of the psychopath.

Posted Aug 01, 2020

One of the key defining features of psychopathy is a lack of empathy as exemplified in an inability or unwillingness to understand how other people are feeling. People low in empathy lock themselves out of any insight into the emotions and perspectives of others. In part, it’s this lack of empathy that can help explain how psychopaths can be so manipulative and hurtful. If they can’t understand how their actions affect others, then why should they care?

Lack of empathy isn’t unique to psychopathy, however. People high in narcissism also seem impervious to the feelings of others as their egocentric view of the world gives them tunnel vision when it comes to relationships. More generally, lack of empathy may be part of a broader set of personality traits that develop abnormally early in life, when children typically develop their prosocial side, in part from modeling their parents. 

(You can see an example of this process in a July 2020 New York Times article, in which Annie Karni and Katie Rogers suggest President Trump as an example of how a father can derail a child’s ability to gain this key ability. Referring to what appeared to be a general lack of empathy for COVID-19 victims, Karni and Rogers maintain that this is part of a larger pattern, evident throughout his life, and that its source was father Fred Trump's early training, at least according to friends and family who noted that “In Fred Trump’s world, showing sadness or hurt was a sign of weakness.”)

If a lack of empathy can stem from early life experiences, it remains a quality that isn’t unique to psychopathy. What other qualities need to be taken into account in explaining the psychological makeup of individuals high in this trait? In a new study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Rebecca Waller and colleagues (2020), these other qualities include impairment in the ability to form social bonds, at least in part through deficits in what’s known as the “affiliation” motive. As the authors note, “Individuals high on psychopathy show deficits in the motivation and capacity for generating lasting and deep social bonds with others." In other words, they lack empathy because they lack a general need to affiliate.

In part, as Waller et al. point out, low affiliation motivation and poor social bonding could account for the relational problems shown by people high in psychopathy, including their higher rates of infidelity, an avoidant (distant) attachment style, and lack of a feeling of communion with others, or sense of connectedness. The need to affiliate with others, the Penn team notes, stems not only from what parents teach their children through modeling, but also the basic mother-infant bond that helps ensure the infant’s survival. All of this goes wrong in people who go on to become high in psychopathy. Empathy alone, then, isn't enough to account for the development of psychopathy.

To test the idea that a need for affiliation adds to the psychological makeup of the psychopath, Waller and her colleagues used an unusual experimental method in which they could observe in real time the way people feel about displays of social bonding through touch. The online sample of 407 adults (ages 18 to 81) first completed a standard questionnaire assessing psychopathy along with a measure of callousness, or lack of sensitivity to the emotions of others. A measure of “pleasure in affective touch” asked the sample members to rate their agreement with items such as “I like the feeling when my skin touches the skin of a person I love” and “I like the feeling of using body lotions or moisturizers on my skin.” To assess empathy, the authors asked participants to rate their agreement with items such as “It makes me feel cheerful to see children running around having fun” and others that asked participants to rate their ability to experience emotion contagion, or the tendency to laugh when other people laugh and cry when they do.

The videoclips that served as the key measure testing social affiliation depicted pairs of individuals (torsos only) showing a variety of interpersonal interactions involving positive expressions of physical touch such as hugging, shaking hands, and affectionately touching the shoulder. Neutral clips depicted two people next to each other without touching at all. (Thanks to the open science framework of the study, you can view the clips here if you’d like to test yourself.) Participants provided ratings both of their interest in seeing the video, or “preference for affiliation,” and the extent to which the clip affected them, or “sensitivity to affiliation.”

If an affiliation deficit adds to the explanation of psychopathy, then ratings of sensitivity and preference for affection-depicting videos should relate above and beyond lack of empathy to scores on the psychopathy measure. As it turned out, the findings were consistent with this prediction. Specifically, people who scored low on the affective component of the psychopathy test (e.g. “never feel guilty over hurting others”) were most likely to have lower scores on a statistically derived measure of overall insensitivity to affiliation based on those videoclip-derived measures.

These findings add uniquely to the understanding of psychopathy as a deficit in the ability to read the emotional cues of others or to learn from experiences in which they can be punished or hurt as a result of their behavior. A deficit in these affiliative mechanisms of cohesion and bonding, the authors maintain, gets into the core of the psychopathic individual’s personality.

If the core of psychopathy involves deficits in social bonding, then the individual’s fate would seem to be sealed even before children reach their first birthday. However, the authors hold out hope that something can be done to change the course of the individual’s subsequent development even when social bonding goes wrong.

As the authors conclude, “Given the striking financial and emotional toll that individuals high on psychopathy confer on society, knowledge about the affiliative mechanisms underpinning psychopathy could help to inform transformative interventions that begin early in childhood." In other words, once a child begins to exhibit some of the early signs of this trait, the broken affiliative bonds may potentially be restored.

To sum up, if you’ve been affected by the actions taken by a psychopath toward you, particularly in your close relationships, it may be difficult for you to view the individual as someone whose early life began under such problematic conditions. However, the insights gained from the Penn study may help you see the individual in a fuller light.


Waller, R., Corbett, N., Raine, A., Wagner, N. J., Broussard, A., Edmonds, D., Reardon, S., Jones, C., Itkin-Ofer, M., Schell, T., & Neumann, C. S. (2020). Reduced sensitivity to affiliation and psychopathic traits. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. doi: 10.1037/per0000423.supp (Supplemental)