Psychopaths Can't Tell If a Person Is Genuinely Sad or Afraid, Study Suggests

People with psychopathic traits find it harder to tell the difference between genuine and fake emotions, a study has suggested.

Researchers based in Australia arrived at this conclusion by asking people to look at photographs of faces showing different emotions, such as fear or sadness.

Study author Dr. Amy Dawel, of the Australian National University Research School of Psychology, explained in a statement: "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."

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by amoral behavior, such as callousness, poor empathy skills and shallow affect:—the inability to experience deep emotions even when in scenarios where the average person might be distressed. They might lack remorse or guilt in appropriate situations, and have a disregard for social conventions and law. Balancing this is their superficial charm and ability to mimic emotional behavior, which can help them function in society. Patrick Bateman, the murderous Wall Street banker in American Psycho, is one of the most famous fictional depictions of psychopathy.

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People with psychopathic traits could have trouble telling when someone is genuinely afraid or upset according to research. Getty Images

The team behind the study published in the journal Personality Disorders recruited 140 participants, and tested them for psychopathic traits. They were also shown photos of facial expressions. In some images, the emotions where genuine, while others were faked.

Those who scored low on the psychopathy report were better able to pick up genuine and fabricated emotions. The higher a participant scored, the harder they found it to differentiate between genuine and fake feelings of sadness or fear. They could, however, detect genuine happiness, anger, and disgust.

"The results were very specific to expressions of distress," said Dawel. "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."

The researchers hope their paper will form the basis of further work into pinpointing and treat psychopathy, particularly by identifying it in childhood.

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"There seems to be a genetic contribution to these traits, we see the start of them quite early in childhood," said Dawel.

"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."

The research is the latest to delve into psychopathic traits. Last year, Harvard University researchers published the results of a study into almost 50 prisoners. They found the brains of those with psychopathic traits were wired to value immediate reward, while not considering long-term consequences.

Commenting on the paper published in Neuron, study author Josh Buckholtz, associate professor of psychology at Harvard University, said in a statement: "For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that's why they do all these terrible things.

"But what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don't have, it's the choices they make. Psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime, and this crime is both devastating to victims and astronomically costly to society as a whole."