Psychopaths, negative empathy and the stigmas of mental illness: Q&A with grant-winning psychology professor

Anya Sczerzenie, Contributing Writer

David Chester received a $25,000 grant from the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. Photo courtesy of David Chester

Soon, a psychology professor will begin researching the brains of psychopaths and what makes them different from the average person, thanks to a $25,000 grant from VCU’s Wright Center. David Chester is attempting to study the empathic abilities of psychopaths and change the common stereotype that they don’t feel empathy.

Answers have been edited for length and grammar.

Q: What made you choose the topic of psychopaths?

A: Who doesn’t want to talk about psychopaths? I like, just as much as the next person, to watch a crime documentary or listen to a podcast on true crime. On a more serious note, people who are high in psychopathy, those we call psychopaths, inflict some pretty heavy costs on our society. They disproportionately hurt and kill people and disproportionately commit violent crimes, so if we want to make our society a less violent place, we need to study psychopathic individuals so that we can better treat them and intervene early to make sure they don’t actually engage in these behaviors.

Q: What do you plan to do with the grant money?

A: Science, and a lot of it. Our goal is to run a big study that we proposed, where we will recruit people who are high or low in psychopathy — psychopathic individuals and a control group [of non-psychopaths]. And we’re going to bring them into the MRI center on campus — the CARI [Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging] center — and look at their brains. The goal of this study is to understand the psychological construct of antisocial empathy. It’s a new thing that psychologists are starting to look at.

Q: Tell me more about the “negative empathy” concept.

A: Typically, empathy is what we call ‘prosocial.’ It makes people want to help each other. Empathy is ‘I see you in pain, and I feel your pain.’ People always talk about it in this warm and fuzzy way. But some research has come out to suggest that people don’t always use it in a helpful way. Psychopaths might also use empathy to hurt people. That’s why we call it antisocial empathy. If you want to inflict pain on someone, you need to know what causes them pain. Psychopaths are a very diverse group of personalities. Some of them certainly don’t feel empathy, but recently studies have come out showing that some can, it’s just that they don’t want to. They have the capacity, but not the motivation. If they have a motivation — say, somebody pays them — they can be just as empathetic as you or I.

Q: How will the study work?

A: For this specific study, we’re bringing in people with psychopathic traits and then our controls, who are just typical caring folks. Then we’ll put them in an MRI scanner, which will look at their brain and how it’s working while they’re doing some computer tasks. A great way to study empathy is to show pictures of people in pain, and ask subjects how much pain they’re in. We know there are parts of the brain that tend to be active when a person is feeling empathy. In normal people, these parts of the brain light up during this, but in psychopaths, they normally don’t. Psychopaths don’t have that brain response. What we’re going to do differently is give psychopaths a motivation to feel empathy. So we tell them that at a later point in the study, they’re going to have the opportunity to hurt the people in the pictures. Because psychopaths are motivated to hurt these people, they’ll all of a sudden start having empathy, if they think they will be able to use it later to decide what kind of pain hurts [the person in the picture] the most. They don’t actually get to hurt anyone, we just tell them that they do.

Q: What if the people going into the study know that researchers aren’t actually going to let them hurt people? How do you account for that?

A: A lot of studies show that people are very willing to believe, in the context of a psychology study, that you can hurt someone. We make sure that no one ever does, but we’re very good at making people believe that that is the case. We talk to them at the end of the study, once they know everything, and we ask them if they felt like we were tricking them. So far, no one’s really guessed.

Q: How is a psychopath different from a sociopath?

A: In psychology, psychopathy is an established construct with an established group of personalities. Sociopathy is kind of an old, outdated term. Psychologists just think that it falls under the umbrella of psychopathy.

Q: Do you think that psychopaths are unfairly stigmatized in society, or do you think the negative view of them is fair?

A: I do feel like it’s acceptable to portray them negatively in the media, and that’s because they hurt people. They’re stereotyped that way very scientifically accurately. If you have higher psychopathic traits, you are much more likely to be violent. But that doesn’t mean you should treat them with stigma, that’s not effective. Shunning them from society is not likely to have good effects. Instead we should give them treatment. We should have interventions. That’s why we’re doing this study, to understand what went wrong so we can fix it.

Q: What kind of treatment?

A: There are some promising family-based therapies for children and teenagers who show psychopathic tendencies. But by doing brain research, we might be able to make some drugs or use drugs that are already out there to reduce antisocial empathy, and steer it back toward prosocial empathy.

Q: Do you feel like mental health terms are being thrown around too lightly in the context of mass shootings in the media?

A: Yes. Mental illness is often a scapegoat for explaining human violence. You could wave a magic wand and get rid of every mental illness on this planet, and you’d still find people hurting each other. People who have mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence.

Q: Have you ever personally known any psychopaths? What were they like?

A: One of the hallmarks of a psychopath is that it’s really hard to figure out that they are a psychopath. I certainly have known some in my life, and they were able to lead very successful lives. Being a psychopath isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the psychopath. They can really move up the ladder in a corporation, or get away with crimes better because they’re better at manipulating people. That’s why when you look at psychopathy rates in CEOs, they’re very high, higher than the general population. And it’s not black and white either, there’s not just psychopaths and non-psychopaths. Everyone has psychopathic tendencies, most people just have very low amounts.

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