Much has been written about psychopaths and much has also been written about empathy, but how do the two subjects intersect? What relationship do psychopaths have with empathy? Do they have the ability to empathize with others?
This can be confusing to those who have been caught up with these characters in daily life, since they can at first seem very charming, polite and attuned to the needs of others. They can also behave in appalling ways which show a complete lack of concern for the feelings of others.
So which is it? Do psychopaths have empathy or not? As with many issues, the answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”, but it has more nuance to it than that.
Here would be a good way to summarise a psychopath’s relationship with empathy:
Psychopaths have no ability to authentically, emotionally empathize with others, in the sense they have no connection with the emotional consequences of their actions on others. However, psychopaths do have an intellectual or “cold” form of empathy, where they are very good at reading the emotional state of others in order to better manipulate them.
They are completely incapable of putting themselves in the emotional shoes of another, and this explains why their behavior towards others can be so disturbing at times.
This characteristic of low emotional empathy has been proven in brain scans done on psychopaths. The parts of the brain which are responsible for empathy are not active in the same way they are for normal people who do have some ability to empathize. See this article for an example of some research on the topic.
This total lack of empathy causes a multitude of problems both for the psychopath themselves but more pointedly for those they interact with on a regular basis. Empathy acts as an important fail-safe on the way we relate to and treat others and without this all sorts of problems will emerge. Let’s look at some of these problems below.
Psychopaths, Emotions & Brain Function
Psychopaths Have No Emotional Empathy For Others
Lifelong psychopathy expert Robert Hare articulately sums up the issue of empathy in relation to a psychopath in the embedded video below, see from the 1 minute mark. A psychopath may intellectually understand that someone is going through what is known as an emotion, but they don’t actually feel what that person is going through and this is crucial to understanding their lack of empathy.
Robert Hare on Empathy
The consequences of this lack of empathy are numerous. Firstly, a psychopath will come across to more observant eyes as being someone who is very “tuned out” to others, not picking up on certain emotional cues nor being a good source of support in times of stress and distress.
In fact, one huge red flag to watch out for in spotting a psychopath is that they repeatedly respond to a person’s clear suffering or distress by making a joke out of it or mocking them.
They are unable to actually empathize and do that humane thing that anyone with a conscience will eventually do and come in to comfort the person and make sure they are alright.
The psychopath has no interest or ability in doing that. As Dr. Hare says, they simply don’t get it in this regard. They cannot feel what the other person is feeling. They may have a narrow range of their own feelings but they have no concept or feeling about your feelings. This is a glaring character trait to look out for.
Secondly, without empathy there are no limits on the extent to which they will mistreat or abuse someone who they want to target or consider a threat. They are incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of the other person and so cannot comprehend the emotional consequences of their action on others.
Before a normal person does something which would harm another person, empathy kicks in and says “I wouldn’t want someone to do this to me, so I shouldn’t do it to someone else”.
Psychopaths completely lack this fail-safe mechanism and their actions simply don’t go through this filter. There are no barriers to what they will do to others in this regard.
This has some startling consequences if one stops to think about it. Without the filter of empathy, how does a psychopath see tragedies? Hundreds dead in a terrorist attack? Nothing. Thousands of investors lost their life savings? What a laugh. We pushed a guy out of the company and made him lose his livelihood? Stuff happens.
This is the way psychopaths think, though some of them may have learned this is not an acceptable position to take publicly and so keep their real opinion to themselves.
However if you observe psychopathic characters over time you will see they are not at all concerned about the suffering of others, even suffering they are responsible for. There’s no guilt or shame in their mindset. It’s nothing to them.
Psychopaths are completely tuned out to people and cannot put themselves into the emotional space of another. They also target people who do have this quality.
Psychopaths Have No Empathy For Themselves
This idea of psychopaths having no empathy for others is fairly well known among even those partially interested in psychopathy. However, not many resources on this trace empathy back to where it really should be traced, which is in the empathy one has for oneself.
One of the only resources to do this is the excellent Unslaved Podcast on psychopathy, which correctly traces empathy back to it’s source and therefore makes the logical conclusion that if psychopaths have no empathy for others, it is because in the first instance they have no empathy for themselves.
In other words, they are shut off emotionally not just from others, but from themselves. They have lost this connection with oneself that any healthy person with active empathy has to some degree. Hence they have no true respect or care for themselves on a psychological level.
It is from this fundamental deficit that all the poor treatment and manipulation of others by the psychopath emerges. How can we expect them to understand how to treat others properly when they don’t even care for themselves psychologically?
This fundamental disconnect with the psychopath is why they cannot feel the emotional consequences of their actions on others. Normal people have this empathic connection, and so when we hurt someone else, we also hurt and feel bad, and we should because this is normal empathy kicking in and placing a limit on what we will do to others.
The psychopath has lost this internal connection with themself, and so doesn’t have this emotional safeguard. This is why they can keep doing ever more horrible and outrageous things to people without flinching or feeling bad. The self empathy which would allow this has been shut off in them.
Psychopaths Do Have a “Cold” Empathy (Cognitive Empathy)
However, in spite of everything we have said so far about a psychopath’s lack of real empathy, it is also true that they do have a very sharp, well tuned form of intellectual or cognitive empathy.
In other words, they are very good at reading people’s moods, wants, desires, needs, likes and vulnerabilities in very quick time, but they only use this to better manipulate and exploit others. It is a self serving, purely intellectual and emotionless form of empathy.
This insight allows us to complete our understanding of psychopathy, since some readers who have actually dealt with psychopaths in real life will know how initially charming, warm and seemingly well attuned they came across as at first, and be confused when we say psychopaths have no empathy.
“Hang on”, they may think, “It doesn’t seem true to me that they have no empathy. My ex seemed really empathic at first, perfectly tuned to my wants and needs. He seemed like the perfect partner”.
This is because they were using their “cold” empathy to read you and deliver you what you wanted, but only as a means of manipulating and gaining your trust. There was no real emotional engagement there. They were just going through the motions like a robot, having learned from a lifetime of manipulation what works in gaining the trust and confidence of others.
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.
Sam Vaknin on Cold Empathy
Key points from video:
- “Narcissists and psychopaths tend to abuse their empathic skills by employing these capacities exclusively for personal gain”
- “They regard their ability to (coldly) empathize as merely another weapon in their arsenal”
- “Cold empathy has an intrusive gaze, but is devoid of compassion, and there is no feeling of affinity with one’s fellow humans”.
- If you are not able to provide them with narcissistic supply, or some other benefits, then the psychopath or narcissist is not likely to empathize with you. It’s a quid pro quo”.
- “The absence of empathy…predisposes people to exploit and abuse others”.
It is this “cold”, calculating form of empathy that explains why psychopaths are so adept at drawing in and manipulating people, since they can come across as very charming, engaged and empathic when they first meet people.
They can say all the right things, finish your sentences, appear very interested in you as a person, but the important thing to realize is that with a psychopath, there is no real, authentic emotional engagement. They are simply going through the motions, having spent a lifetime practising how to read, manipulate and control others for their own ends.
In other words, this simulated form of empathy is not put on out of any care or concern for others. It is a counterfeit form of purely cognitive empathy designed to conceal their true nature and exploit others.
Psychopaths Can Fake Empathy To Triangulate (Selective Empathy)
We should also mentioned that psychopaths can extend a kind of synthetic or faked empathy, not because they really mean it, but simply to play mind games against a person and triangulate, making them feel inadequate by comparison with someone else.
See our article on selective empathy for more on this.
This really comes under the umbrella or the “cold” of cognitive form of empathy we discussed in the section above, but it is a particular way that psychopaths use this simulated empathy to toxically and undermine a specific target in workplace or personal settings.
What we mean by this is that the psychopath will attempt to manipulate and isolate a certain person in a work or social setting, by being hostile, cold or denigrating to them and them only, whilst being seemingly fine with everyone else, playing the perfect roles expected of them (appearing empathic, charming, interested in others etc).
The psychopath is trying to isolate and make a scapegoat out of their target, making them feel there is something wrong with them, otherwise the psychopath wouldn’t be treating them this way.
In reality the psychopath has already decided they are going to target this person no matter what, and proceeds forward with their plan, chipping away at the person psychologically by withholding this empathy from them and them only, whilst turning on the charm with everyone else.
In way, a psychopath can understand how to fake and mimic empathy and general interest in others, but only does so as a manipulative tool to undermine someone psychologically and does not care about empathy for it’s own sake.
This dynamic is not uncommon in smaller scale work scenarios and can can be a clever and subtle way to slowly isolate someone from the rest of their team, so middle and upper management should be on the lookout for people using this tactic.
It can also happen in romantic relationships, when the psychopath gets bored with their current target and drops them coldly and abruptly to move onto someone else, but often flaunts their new romance in the old person’s face.
Now the new prospect is bombed with fake empathy and charm, whilst the other person is protrayed as the “crazy ex”, just as the one before was to them, and so the cycle starts over again with the new unsuspecting target, who will themselves be cast as the crazy ex when the psychopaths gets bored and moves on again.
Psychopaths Target Empathic People
Another interesting aspect to the relationships psychopaths have with empathy is that whilst they don’t have it themselves, they are also initially attracted to, but usually later target and attack, individuals with a high degree of empathy.
There are a number of ways to look at this. Psychopaths are arguably attracted to empathic people because they can see this trait of empathy in the person that they don’t have themselves and are fascinated and interested by it. Some may even want to have it initially, hoping they can just copy or clone it by being around the person.
This interpretation holds that after a while the psychopath realizes they can’t have this empathic quality themselves, and out of envy they then seek to attack the person who does have it. In typical destructive fashion they cannot be happy for someone to have a quality they don’t so they want to destroy that person instead.
Another explanation though is simply that the psychopath sees highly empathic people as a direct threat, since by definition these people are strongly attuned to others and usually also have a strong sense of right and wrong. They are also quick to spot people who do not seem to have empathy in the way they relate to others, and in this regard the psychopath will be one of the first to be exposed by the empath.
In other words, the empathic person represents everything the psychopath is not, and the psychopath feels threatened by this. For this reason they immediately set about undermining the empath and doing whatever they can to target them and isolate them from a group, particularly in work settings.
The Sociopath-Empath-Apath Triad (or SEAT for short) is a conceptual model developed to explain exactly this dynamic of how psychopaths target empaths. Sociopath and psychopath are interchangeable terms for this purpose.
In brief, the empath will have no problem spotting and calling out a sociopath on their toxic behaviour, since they are intelligent, observant and well attuned people able to spot red flags in a person’s character and behaviour very easily.
The sociopath lacks all these qualities and is manipulative and deceitful by nature. They are aware that the qualities the empath possesses are a threat to him. The apaths are the “in the middle” people who are not psychopathic but also not particularly strong or moral in the way the empath is and are also easily influenced by others.
The SEAT dynamic unfolds as the empath confronts the sociopath on something unacceptable they have done. The sociopath immediately blame shifts and wriggles out of the situation and diverts attention and blame away from themselves and onto the empath instead. They try to flip things on their head.
To successfully do this they enlist the help of the apath, through sweet talking, charm, lies, half truths, flattery or some other manipulative tactic. The apath is easily taken in by the sociopath and corroborates their version of events against the empath.
The empath is left isolated and undermined despite having correctly called the sociopath out on something.
The sociopath has used manipulation and apathy on the part of onlookers to effectively turn reality on it’s head and shift blame for something that was their fault onto the empath. This is a tactic used in workplace environments especially for the sociopath to undermine, isolate and eventually push out high quality, empathic people they consider a threat.
Empathy, or the lack of it, is crucial to the entire dynamic. The sociopath has none, the apath has little and the empath has a lot of it, yet comes off worst in the scenario.
Sociopaths exploit this deficit in empathy time and again and do not feel any remorse for the damage they inflict on empathic people. See our article on this dynamic for more information.
Testing For Empathy In Others
Given this lack of empathy that psychopaths have and the damage they can cause to others as a result, it is important to be able to test for empathy, and the lack of it, in potential colleagues, friends and partners.
Empathy is a crucial requirement of being fully human and anyone without this quality needs to be approached with caution.
Of course not everyone with low or zero empathy is automatically a psychopath. Some people are just naturally tuned out to others. As always it is important to watch out for a lack of empathy in conjunction with other psychopathic traits over a period of time in a person before making a diagnosis.
See our Checklist page for some other psychopathic traits to be on the lookout for.
It is however useful to step back and take a broader look at someone in your life you are not sure about. Psychopaths are masters at manipulating and trapping us in such a narrow viewpoint with constant lies, excuses and justifications that we can no longer see the wood for the trees. Here are some good testers for lack of empathy:
- Does the person care for the suffering of the world or others? Or do they not give a damn basically?
- Do they regularly say or do grossly insensitive things towards others?
- Do they constantly joke about or brush off tragedies in life without any real compassion?
- Can they tell when you or someone else is angry, upset or experiencing some other emotion? Do they step in and respond appropriately without needing to be asked?
- When someone is distressed, do they attempt to help and support the person emotionally or just make fun of or mock them?
- Do they help someone when they are down in life or do they disappear as soon as the fun times stop?
- Are they able to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, either in discussions or disagreements about things or just reading what emotion another person is feeling?
- How do they treat others in life? Treating others as one would like to be treated is a classic manifestation of empathy. People who don’t do this and regularly treat others poorly lack this ability and are showing they lack empathy.
- How do they treat themselves? Do they have care and empathy for themselves, in terms of deeper introspective, vulnerable and vocational traits? Or do they live a purely shallow, hedonistic, unreflective life, constantly needing entertainment and immersion in the “crowd” (hedonistic psychopath)