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The Emotional Lives of Psychopaths

What do they really feel?

Key points

  • Psychopaths are commonly portrayed as having hearts of stone.
  • Some research has examined the emotional responses of psychopaths.
  • Revising our sense of psychopathic offenders might benefit treatment plans.
K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

People often ask me if psychopaths can love someone. Research has confirmed their skill at faking it, but can they actually feel it? Although it’s difficult to know for certain what anyone truly feels when we’re not inside their skin, the idea that psychopaths underreact to others’ pain and feel no remorse suggests they’re made of stone. That’s how fiction persistently presents them.

Lately, we’ve seen research results that feature psychopathic brain disorders and deficient emotional processing. This relates mostly to the way psychopaths process fear and anxiety—a small percentage of the emotional spectrum. They do feel satisfaction when they reach their goals, concern about family, anger over humiliation, competitive excitement, and even depression. (Ted Bundy expressed all of these in various interviews.) They also feel regret and disappointment, albeit more in retrospect than as part of the anticipation of future acts.

Psychopaths Might Be Callous, But They're Not Devoid of All Emotion

A number of self-described psychopaths have weighed in via social media. One such person insists that psychopaths like herself do feel things. It's just low-key. “We enjoy things, get excited about things, like adrenaline—that’s great.”

In another article, several “psychopaths” describe how they try to imitate the emotional connections they see in others or use emotional language they don’t feel. They’ve learned what relationships “should look like” in order to pass as normal. One of them states that anyone who wonders whether they might be a psychopath should use the “bereavement test”: When you lose someone, do you feel upset, or are you relieved at being free of “one more ball and chain?”

These notions are overly simplistic. People can be indifferent or narcissistic without being psychopaths. They can be antisocial, manipulative, vile, and even lacking in remorse without being psychopaths. They might have brain structures similar to those found in psychopaths without qualifying as a psychopath. If we really want to understand psychopathic emotionality, stereotypes won’t help. Yet, a full assessment is complicated.

Measuring Psychopathy

Dr. Robert Hare and his associates began to develop diagnostic criteria for the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) nearly 50 years ago. Its revised form (PCL-R) is now the most popular such assessment in multiple countries. They included 22 items (revised to 20) to be evaluated by clinicians working with potential psychopaths.

The list relied on both personality traits and antisocial behaviors. Psychopathy emerged as a disorder characterized by a lack of remorse or empathy, shallow emotions, deception, egocentricity, glibness, low frustration tolerance, episodic relationships, parasitic lifestyle, and the persistent violation of social norms. Since then, there have been refinements.

Some researchers, like psychologist Craig Neumann, say that to qualify as a psychopath, individuals need to show traits or behaviors from each of four distinct “factors” of the PCL-R: interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and antisocial. This four-factor model turns out to be a more sensitive measure. Interpersonal and affective components include traits like grandiose, callous, manipulative, and lacking remorse. Lifestyle and antisocial behaviors cover aggression, impulsivity, irresponsibility, and a tendency to seek sensation-producing experiences.

Psychopaths also show reduced brain function when trying to view an experience from another’s perspective. Researchers administered an fMRI-associated task to 94 incarcerated male offenders and tested them for specific emotional deficits. The participants viewed images of two people interacting, with a shape obscuring the facial expressions of one.

The subjects were asked to predict from two options the emotion of the person they couldn’t see. Target emotions from which they could choose included anger, fear, happiness, sadness, and neutral. Those who tested high for psychopathy had more difficulty with the task. These same subjects showed reduced brain activity in regions associated with empathy.

Misjudging Emotions Doesn't Equal Not Feeling Them

Two decades ago, psychiatrist Willem H. J. Martens studied the emotional lives of two serial killers, Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, both of whom kept the bodies and body parts of male victims in their homes. He learned that both had expressed feeling deeply lonely, alienated, and insecure. As they lost their connections to the normal world, Martens found, their sadness increased.

Their aggression also grew more bizarre as they avenged their rejection, humiliation, and neglect. “They believe that the whole world is against them and eventually become convinced they deserve special privileges or rights to satisfy their desires.” He proposed that poor self-esteem, depression, and loneliness can be risk factors for violence, adding that when we fail to consider a psychopath's vulnerability, we overlook “hidden suffering” and thus fail to spot potential ways to treat them.

In their own way, says Martens, they can love certain people, even pets. They also hurt from divorce, loss, and self-dissatisfaction. They wish to be accepted, even loved, and they can view with burning envy the bonds others have. “They see the love and friendship others share and feel dejected, knowing they will never be part of it.” Those who’ve established a seemingly normal family life will be grieved over losing or disappointing them.

I had noticed this in the “BTK” Killer, Dennis Rader when I worked with him for Confession of a Serial Killer. Although some researchers question his status as a psychopath since he wasn’t formally diagnosed, the psychiatric team who evaluated him for competency scribbled a question on one page: “Psychopath?” Given the callousness of his 10 murders (including two children) and his indifference to harming others, his emotional life is of interest within the context of this post.

Rader might experience the “hidden suffering” to which Martens alludes: He has protected his family from media, describes regret over causing them embarrassment, and mourns his loss of contact with them. In his first letter to me, he wrote, “I ask a couple of things… that the private matters of my family remain that way. My crimes hurt them terribly.” He also mentioned that he misses his wife “so much, it still hurts if I dwell on the memories too long.” (Years later, he repeats this sentiment in nearly every letter.) In response to news of a mass murder, he asked, “Why is it that I can have normal emotions, sudden tears, yet do what I did?” He has also described an infatuation he'd experienced, and he's shown anger, pride, emotional identification with TV characters, and even moral indignation.

So, there’s evidence that psychopaths (or near-psychopaths) can feel a range of emotions, especially when the emotion is attached to a goal. Yet, compared to normal experiences, their responses seem deficient.

Confusion Over Situations That Elicit Emotional Complexity

In a study undertaken by the neuroscientist Joshua Buckholtz, participants were asked to pick between two wheels of chance that had different probabilities of winning or losing money. They showed greater regret over choices that had disadvantaged them than during the anticipation of a potentially poor choice. Even after doing worse than they'd anticipated, they weren’t able to use the emotion to adjust their decision-making. The same holds for decisions about crime: They can regret it afterward, but this doesn’t factor into what they might do in the future. This seems to be related to viewing the impact on only themselves, without regard for their victims.

Again, I saw this with Rader. Instead of considering how getting arrested for murder might devastate his family (with virtually no regard for the victims’ families), his response was simple: He didn’t think he’d be caught. That I might question his commitment to his family in light of what ultimately happened had annoyed him. He could envision the consequences only so far—as they related to him.

Is This Narcissism—or a Cognitive or Emotional Limitation?

Aside from satisfaction or elation at success, an emotional consequence is generally not part of a psychopath’s planning or primary goal. So, they can seem devoid of feeling. But they're not that one-dimensional.

As Martens points out, if we want to develop effective risk evaluations and treatments for psychopaths, we need to evaluate the more subtle aspects of their emotionality. We might discover they can love, even if it's not as devoted, selfless, or passionate as we might expect.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock


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Reuell, P. (2017, Feb. 2). Study finds that they do feel regret, but it doesn’t affect their choices. The Harvard Gazette.

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