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?
The short answer is no. Whilst it may be an exaggeration to say they experience no emotion, psychopaths 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.
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 from around the 6 minute mark of the embedded video above for a discussion of the scientific findings on this by psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare.
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.
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:
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 – see embedded video above
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. See the 9 minute mark where he explains:
“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
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 sexual 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 contast 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.
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.
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 emotion, and this will eventually come across in the way they try to express themselves.
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.