One of the more common questions that gets asked about psychopaths is whether they can experience emotions like the rest of us. Can a psychopath feel angry, sad, remorseful or happy like a normal human being?
There can be some confusion on this topic, as most normal people will find it hard to conceive that someone is literally incapable of feeling any emotions whatsoever. Is is literally true that psychopaths can feel no emotions at all? Or is this going a bit too far?
Whilst it may be an exaggeration to say psychopaths experience no emotions, they have at best a very limited and and narrow range of emotion and therefore cannot feel in the way most of us do. Brain scans of psychopaths show that the parts of the brain involved in feeling and emotional processing do not function properly.
This goes some way to explaining the lack of remorse and concern for others that psychopaths are renowned for. They also don’t respond to emotionally charged events in the same way normal people.
Something which would horrify or upset someone with a full range of emotions is just seen as a non event to a psychopath. They cannot feel like a normal human being can.
Psychopaths, Emotion & Brain Function
The Science Behind a Psychopath’s Lack of Emotion
Scientific study of psychopaths has revealed that this aspect of emotional stuntedness is reflected in the structure and function of their brains. See the video just below from lifelong psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare which articulately sums up the issue of emotions and brain function with psychopaths.
When normal people experience an emotion or process an emotional event or stimulus, certain parts of the brain which have been designed to handle emotion function in a predictable way.
In a psychopath these parts of the brain don’t function properly. They are unable to process emotional events any differently from neutral ones.
The parts of the brain normally responsible for emotional processing and feeling, such as the amygdala and hippocampus, do not function properly as shown by various brain scans done on psychopaths. Events or pictures which normal people find upsetting or horrifying are completely neutral and non emotional events to the psychopath.
The brain of a psychopath does not function the same way as for a normal person when processing emotional events or stimulus
The debate continues as to whether this emotional deficit is down to genetics or environment. More likely, it is a combination of both factors, with a genetic predisposition “loading the gun” metaphorically, and a bad environment or deep life trauma “pulling the trigger” and converting a dormant genetic trait into full blown psychopathy.
Some Psychopaths May Have a Limited Emotional Range
“Planet Narco (The inner world of a psychopath or narcissist):
A broken, tempestuous mess. Barren, toxic and stormy. Baseline state is panic and emotional dysregulation. Power and emotional-reaction fixated”
Richard Grannon, Spartan Life Coach
Despite these apparent biological and genetic defects in psychopaths, it is perhaps going a bit too far to say that they experience no emotions at all.
Rather, some psychopaths can experience a very limited amount of emotions, usually ranging from boredom to envy and occasional anger.
It is important to note though that their emotional range is very stunted and shallow, with nowhere near the depth or breadth that normal people have.
The limited emotions they do experience tend to be on the negative side, which explains a lot about the provocative nature of their personality.
Their baseline state tends to be either very dull and flat (boredom), or else agitated and irritated, and one very common characteristic of the psychopathic personality is that they seek to regulate this toxic emotional state not internally, but externally, by provoking and creating conflict with others.
This should click something into place for those who have dealt with psychopaths in everyday life. It is the reason why relationships with them can be so dramatic and up-and-down, filled with conflict. They are injecting this into interactions to regulate their own toxic or barren emotional state and add some excitement to their day.
This can be in the form of verbal conflict with non violent psychopaths, or actual physical violence with the more criminal and dangerous psychopaths. The point is that psychopaths need to reach out to others to manage their own barren and limited emotional state, and this explains so much of their toxic and reaction seeking behavior.
“The best way to describe a psychopath when dealing with emotions like guilt or shame or remorse, which don’t exist for them, is that emotions are colors, and they’re color-blind.
Regular people in the normal population, we can look at a traffic light and see red for “stop”, yellow for “caution”, green for “go”. (For) the psychopath, they learn that “OK, the light at the top means “stop”, the light in the middle means “caution”, the light at the bottom means “go”. But they don’t see the colors.
They’re just following the norms and customs and laws in society, which if you’re a psychopath, don’t apply to them”
James McNamara, Ret. FBI Agent
Psychopaths Can Learn to Fake and Mimic Emotions
Despite this clearly identifiable biological defect psychopaths have in their emotional brain, some are still more clever than others in that they learn to mimic or copy the outer signs of emotions they see in others.
Some psychopaths learn that it is better to at least give the appearance of displaying emotion, even if they are not actually feeling anything internally. It is part of the mask of sanity they must present to the world, of being a normal, feeling individual just like everyone else. Some are better than others at disguising themselves and blending in to society.
Dr Hare sums up this deceptive ability some psychopaths have, where they are able to intellectually grasp that certain expressions and intonations of voice are connected with certain emotions that normal people display, and over time they learn to mimic and copy these expression to give the appearance that they also experience emotions.
How Psychopaths Mimic Emotions
The psychopath is using facial expressions, hand movements, body language that seems appropriate to an underlying emotional state, but it’s fake…The psychopath has learned that there are certain facial expressions, body language that is associated with what other people say is a particular emotion”
Dr Robert Hare
As a good example of this general principle Dr Hare also describes how he helped actress Nicole Kidman prepare for a role in the film Malice, where she was going to play a psychopath. He created a scene for her which demonstrates exactly this tendency for psychopaths to mimic, but not actually feel, real emotions they see in others.
“This is the scene I gave her. You’ve left your apartment and you’re walking down the street and there’s an accident. And then you look at the child who’s hit by the car, on the floor, bleeding, probably dying. But kneeling beside the child is his mother, and she’s emoting; she’s going through every possible emotion that would be appropriate for that particular scene.
And instead of watching the child and being horrified by the whole thing, you’re passive and clinical, you just watch the mother. And then you look at the child and then back at the mother. And then you just walk away, unconcerned.
And then you walk back to your apartment, walk into the bathroom, stand in front of the mirror, and mimic the mother’s expressions”
Dr Robert Hare
This is a brilliant depiction of how psychopaths can develop a purely intellectual grasp of the emotions other people experience and learn to mimic and copy the expressions associated with these emotions in order to appear as a normal person.
There is however a fundamental disconnect in the psychopath in that there is no underyling emotional state to which these expressions are connected, as there is in normal people. The whole thing is a surface level act by the psychopath to conceal the fact they actually have no emotional connection to what they are experiencing or witnessing.
The Lack of Emotional Reactions in Psychopaths
That being the case, some psychopaths are better than others at mimicking and faking emotions, and even the smartest ones will still give themselves away over time. Knowing how to mimic certain emotions is not the same as knowing when to display emotions and you will still see an inappropriateness to the way psychopaths express (or don’t express) these faked “emotions”.
To demonstrate our point on this we will pull back a little and widen our definition of emotions to displaying an emotional reaction that is appropriate to a given situation.
This is the way that a psychopath’s extremely limited emotional range will actually manifest and reveal itself to more observant people, since they simply will not respond emotionally to certain events in the way others do.
This tendency will be most apparent when dealing with upsetting or disturbing news or events that normal people will be emotionally affected by, and their reactions will show this. There will be facial expressions, tones of voice and even a change in mood which reflects a genuine emotional reaction to the upsetting thing they have heard or seen.
By contrast you will find the psychopath couldn’t care less about such events. Because of their lack of empathy they will even tend to laugh or joke about distressing things. Again, knowing how to mimic emotions does not save the psychopath here, since they often still have no idea when to appropriately display these emotions, and this is what will give them away if you look more closely.
Here is an example of this dynamic playing out in a work scenario:
An employee is dismissed from a company due to the revelation of past criminal convictions which he did not disclose when applying for his position.
The convictions concern previous heinous offences and are deeply disturbing. News of this spreads around the company and most normal people are genuinely horrified and upset by the revelations, especially those who had worked extensively with the person and thought they “knew” him. Some are genuinely upset and are off color for a number of hours in terms of their mood.
The workplace psychopath by contrast treats the whole thing as a joke, revelling in gossiping and spreading the news as far and wide as possible. He grins, smirks and jokes his way through the entire affair, with no signs of compassion, care or empathy for the people harmed by these offences.
The entire incident seems to make him feel better rather than worse. He takes pleasure in joking and gossiping about it and displays no emotional reactions actually appropriate to the situation.
These are the kind of things to watch out for when trying to spot psychopaths in a work or personal setting. There will be an inappropriateness to their behaviour and complete lack of emotional expressions that are appropriate to certain situations and which normal people naturally have.
This is also how a lot of psychopathic killers and serial killers end up giving themselves away to police and other investigators. Trained observers will see how the person seems strangely detached and unemotional when being interviewed regarding horrific events, like they aren’t bothered at all by traumatic things that happened often quite close to them in their lives.
The most recent example I’ve seen of this is when browsing through retrospective coverage of the horrific UK serial medical killer Lucy Letby – police interviewers (and fellow staff in retrospect) realized how un-bothered she seemed to be by the horrible things happening under her watch. But you’ll find this all over with other accounts of psychopathic killers – there’s a lack of emotional engagement with traumatic subject matters that’s a huge red flag to investigators. Perhaps if the middle management responsible for early investigations into these people’s actions before police are involved are also trained to spot these red flags, some of these horrible incidents could be stopped earlier.
Some psychopaths are better at hiding than others but all of them will give themselves away sooner or later and it is important to watch for subtle clues like this.
Despite the mask of sanity they put up to the world to convice others they are normal people, they are profoundly abnormal people and signs of this will leak out over time if you are watching closely enough.
Even for those psychopaths who have somewhat learnt how to mimic and fake certain emotions, it is still important to watch for a disconnect between what they are saying and their body language or tone of voice. They may get some of the mimicking right but there is still something that seems “off” in the sense that their demeanor doesn’t fit with what they are talking about.
For instance a psychopath may be talking about a certain horrific event and may get the intonations of voice somewhat correct, but their whole body language and posture is still completely cold and unemotional.
Incarcerated serial killers for instance may talk about the murder of one of their victims, and at least try to verbally express some sense of remorse or regret to deceive the interviewer.
Dennis Nilsen – Matter of Fact Killer
However they will still talk about the event in a completely cold, unemotional, matter of fact way, the same way a normal person would talk about about tying their shoelaces or buttoning a shirt, and it is this disconnect between the subject matter they are talking about and their actual overall body language that gives away a lack of underlying emotion.
Other psychopaths will often leak out a smirk when talking about something bad or admitting or confessing to something; this is sometimes referred as duping delight as the psychopath is getting a kick out of deceiving the person they are talking to.
More generally, it involves looking for a more general disconnect between what the psychopath is saying and other accompanying non verbal cues which don’t fit or match what they are talking about.
Psychopaths approach the entire issue of emotions and mimicking robotically and intellectually, since they cannot actually feel emotions normally, and this will eventually come across in the way they try to express themselves.
The Cold Empathy of Psychopaths (Reading The Emotions of Others)
This is another important point to bring up when discussing psychopaths and emotions. Whilst we have already covered how they can feel only at best a very limited and stunted range of emotions, it is well known in the literature that they have no emotional (real) empathy for others.
In other words, they can’t feel the emotions of others, or authentically put themselves in the emotional shoes of another person. See our article on psychopaths and empathy for more on this.
This explains the horrendous and horrific things that both violent and non violent psychopaths can do to others without feeling any remorse, guilt or shame. They can’t put themselves in the emotional place of someone else and feel the full consequences of their actions on others. This emotional brakecheck that normal people have is missing with psychopaths.
However, there is nuance to this issue of empathy with psychopaths. Whilst they cannot emotionally empathize with others, they have a very sharp, finely tuned sense of cognitive or “cold”/intellectual empathy.
In other words, they are very good at reading the emotional state of others, even if they have a very limited emotional range themselves.
They are very good at seeing where a person is “at” emotionally; the problem is that they use this cold empathy purely in a calculating, self serving and manipulative way, and not to actually authentically engage with the person emotionally.
Here are some ways this finely tuned cognitive empathy can manifest in psychopaths:
- They are in general very good at reading people, even within the first few minutes of meeting them.
- They can spot a person’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, vanities and vulnerabilities in very quick time.
- They often find these weaknesses through a series of probing but cleverly worded (and seemingly innocent) questions when you first meet.
- They can very adeptly read body language, quickly able to spot when others are distressed, upset, vulnerable, happy, irritated and so on.
- Most importantly for personal relationships, they can also spot unresolved emotional wounds from childhood, which they often prey on and exploit as toxic relationships unfold.
- They often aggressively mirror others early on in romantic relationships, creating the idea of a couple “moving as one”, walking and talking in rhythm, finishing each other’s sentences, the “manufactured soulmate”.
- Some people also report it was “as though I’d known them my whole life”, or some other cliche, despite only just having met them.
- Using this robotic mirroring, psychopaths are able to create very powerful, addictive bonds with their victims, that keep them locking in this relationhip despite them knowing on some level that it’s toxic and abusive.
- As they get to know you, they’ll also very quickly be able to predict how you’ll react to certain things, and they can use this cold empathy to set up toxic situations, able to plan three or four steps in advance how it’s going to play out.
- Because of these abilities, psychopaths are very good at manipulating and controlling people in workplace settings, often using their ability to read others to “climb the ladder” by telling others what they want to hear and feeding their egos.
- See this very informative video by Sam Vaknin on the cold empathy of psychopaths and narcissists.
From all this, we start to understand more how the psychopathic mindset is often referred to as a predatory worldview. They are able to observe the emotions of others very well, and they use this perceptual superpower to better manipulate and control others for their own ends.
In summary then, we actually see that a psychopath’s relationship with emotions is not as straightforward as one might think. They feel very little emotion themselves; they feel nothing of the emotions of others, but they can very quickly intellectually or cognitively read the emotions of others for self serving purposes.
The inner world of the psychopath is indeed very bizarre!
See this British documentary, also featuring Dr Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, for more discussion of the relationship between body language and emotions in psychopaths.
See our Resources page for more books and videos on psychopathy by Dr Hare and others.