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Psychopaths can empathize, but the process isn’t automatic

"Theory of mind" enables all people to naturally infer other people's mental states. Psychopaths don't seem to put much effort into the process.
Abstract portrait. (Credit: alexkoral via Adobe Stock.)
Key Takeaways
  • Most people can automatically infer someone's mental state by interpreting certain cues, such as the direction of their gaze.

  • It is commonly assumed that psychopaths are incapable of this kind of empathy, described by the "theory of mind."

  • Although psychopaths are capable of theory of mind, they don't seem naturally inclined to care about the minds of others.

Poker is not merely a game of luck. The reason that certain players routinely make it to the final stages of the World Series of Poker has less to do with the cards they are dealt than how well they can read the table. Champion poker players can spot a bluff. And while few people reading this are going to be winning millions in Las Vegas any time soon, this capability isn’t restricted to poker players. We can read each other’s minds — or at least we all regularly try to.

To navigate the social world and collaborate effectively, we have to have some sense of what others are thinking. We have to predict and infer what’s churning in other people’s minds. This is no small feat. Very few other animals demonstrate this so-called “theory of mind” capability (ravens and chimps being some exceptions). However, humans learn to judge other’s intentions from a surprisingly young age, at around three years old.

Not everyone masters the ability. Some people are very good at it, demonstrating a kind of emotional intelligence beyond their peers or years, while others struggle to read others’ minds and intentions at all — some forms of autism tend not to weigh intention and outcome in moral reasoning, for example.

And then there is one type of person who can do it but needs to work much harder at it: psychopaths.

Theory of mind

Scientists still don’t fully understand how we predict what other people think or intend. The process likely involves projecting our own minds onto others. After all, we have only our mind to work with. Broadly speaking, there are three skills we each (often unthinkingly) employ during the process:

Intention. When we see other humans, we can’t help but assume there’s a reason or intention behind what they’re doing. We understand that people have goals and that their behaviors are likely goal-oriented. We even do this for nonhuman things, like animals, or even sometimes with inanimate objects, like when we see a leaf falling to the floor.

The gaze. It’s for good reason the eyes are called “the window to the soul,” because where we direct our gaze is the primary indicator of what we want. When caring for preverbal children, we infer what they want from where they look. Meanwhile, a person who casually looks at their watch while you’re speaking suggests they’re bored, while having your body looked over, even for a second, can feel horribly invasive.

Shared attention. Around 12 months, a baby knows that when an adult moves their eyes from them, they are looking at something else. At this developmental stage, we also learn that we can join in when someone points or nods. By tracking gaze, we can share our attention. It becomes hard not to join in. Even as far back as the 1960s, a team with Stanley Milgram (yes, that one), discovered that if people are standing at a street corner just looking up at nothing, random passers by will happily join in.

Psychopathic tendencies

The average person will have no problem applying all three of these to form some kind of theory about how someone’s mind operates. But for psychopathic individuals, this doesn’t come easily.

In a 2018 paper from Yale University, Drayton et al. showed just how “psychopathic behaviors may be rooted in a cognitive deficit, specifically an inability to automatically take another person’s perspective”. The established wisdom and research had seemed to show that psychopaths simply lacked the ability to enter another’s mind, or to read their intentions. Or, that psychopaths could infer someone’s mental states, but lacked the corresponding empathy required to do something about it e.g. I can tell you want this chocolate, but I’m not going to give it to you.

But psychopaths behave subtly different even to this. It’s not that psychopaths lack the ability to form a theory of mind of other people, but rather that they fail to use it. The team at Yale discovered that, when they need to, or are told to, psychopaths have no problem at inferring people’s wants or attention. The problem is that they have to direct it at all.

Because, for most people, theory of mind comes automatically. For instance, if someone looks at the wine bottle, you can’t help but think they want a top up. It’s part of being human — unthinking and habitual.

You’re not that interesting

A psychopath, though, is perfectly capable of picking up the same cues, or spotting the same direction of gaze, and so on. They just don’t bother to infer anyone’s mental states from it. It’s as if they don’t think it’s worth the effort to think about someone else’s thoughts. It’s not necessarily that they don’t care about anyone else, but simply that their everyday starting position is so fixated on something else that others’ mental states aren’t interesting enough to be automatically concerning, as they are for most people.

So, perhaps we should appreciate just how easily and automatically we can demonstrate prosocial theory of mind. Without much effort, most of us can work out what others are thinking or intending by subtle cues. For psychopaths, it both requires directed effort, and it might simply be not that important to bother.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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