By | August 5, 2013 51 Comments

New research on psychopaths and empathy

Psychopaths are typically described as lacking in empathy. New research from the Netherlands, however, suggests that psychopaths have the capacity for empathy, but it’s usually turned off.

The study was just published in Brain: A journal of neurology. I heard the first author, Dr. Harma Meffert, present the research when I attended the conference sponsored by the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy in June.

The researchers asked convicted criminals, who had been diagnosed as psychopaths, to view short video clips while hooked up to fMRI machines, so that the activity in their brains could be observed. The videos showed two hands interacting in ways that were painful, loving, socially rejecting and neutral. As they watched the videos, the psychopaths’ brains did not show activity in the areas generally associated with empathy.

However, in the second part of the experiment, the psychopaths were instructed to empathize with one of the actors in the video. This time, they did show activity in the brain regions linked with empathy to approximately the same degree as the control group.

The researchers interpreted this to mean that psychopaths have the ability to feel empathy, but it is not automatic. Psychopaths only feel empathy when they consciously focus on it.

The lead author, Dr. Christian Keysers, explains the research in the video. The following articles also provide good summaries:

Researchers study brains of violent psychopaths, find empathy, on

Criminal psychopaths flip a switch to ‘turn on’ empathy, on

Clears up confusion

Many Lovefraud readers, myself included, have experienced what we thought was empathy from the psychopaths in our lives. They seemed to understand how we felt. They not only said the right words, but we felt the appropriate “vibes.”

This is certainly what we saw in the beginning of the relationship when we were being seduced, but it slipped away, either slowly or suddenly. The glimmers of empathy would occasionally reappear, so that we’d hope the person we first met was returning, perhaps this time to stay.

Of course, it didn’t last very long, and they were soon back to the cold, calculating and remorseless persona that we so frequently saw. But those glimmers of empathy may have been enough to for us to think that the psychopaths really could change. Deep inside they were caring and empathetic, we thought, and if we could just show them enough love, that person could return.

So no, we weren’t imagining things. We did see empathy. But empathy is not a normal state of being for these people. Empathy is only present when psychopaths are using it to manipulate us.

Opportunity for therapy?

In the video, Dr. Keysers mentions that the finding that psychopaths may, in fact, have the capacity for empathy may provide a direction for therapy. Of course, other research has shown that asking psychopaths to empathize with their victims doesn’t do any good, and may actually make them into more cunning psychopaths.

Lovefraud has heard from several self-identified psychopaths who sneered at the emotions and empathy felt by people who aren’t disordered. Since they view themselves as superior, I don’t know what would motivate psychopaths to develop their capacity for empathy.

But there may be hope for children who are at risk for developing psychopathy, if they can get the right treatment early enough. That would certainly be a step that could benefit not only them, but the human race.

More information

Here’s the original scientific study, which is not easy reading. The “Discussion” section, about halfway through the article, contains the researchers’ conclusions.

Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy, on


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This is a fascinating breakthrough on better understanding the way the minds of sociopaths operate. For years, during my marriage, I had waited for my now ex husband to “return” as the sensitive and caring person I had first perceived him to be.
There were many brief occasions when he showed empathy that sort of blew me away. When our youngest was 3 or 4, he would bite his nails (anxiety as probably a result of my divorcing my husband), and his dad found a smooth shiny small stone for my son to hold before he went to sleep – for some reason, it calmed my son down. I never would have thought of that!
I did learn later that my ex could turn the empathy on when he wanted to attract someone – a new love interest, or a potential business partner – but these empathic spells never lasted.
Also, oddly enough, I found my ex to be highly gullible. He was a bit of a salesman himself, and was frequently seduced into buying things we didn’t need, possibly because he was attracted to the idea of fantasy – and certain products would promise a fantastic life. (He’s in advertising, not so surprising)

It seems that there seriously is arrested development ( and I don’t mean the TV show) in the mind of the sociopath – But it’s taken me 20 years to learn how to NOT become obsessed with the way his mind works. In the same way that Ariel Castro’s bizarre comments after the trial baffled reporters like Anderson Cooper (“I just don’t GET it!”) I really have to leave the studies up to the professionals because trying to figure the sociopath out is a gigantic time waster.

Thank you so much for passing this article along!


In a way, that makes the whole issue of psychopathy even worse, seems to me.

Its one thing to *lack the capacity to feel affective empathy* for the pain of others (I see that as a kind of unfortunate handicap, like being born lacking the capacity to see or hear) but its another thing entirely to be *able* to feel another’s pain and yet consciously choosing when and how to inflict pain so you can manipulate a person to do your will, or so you can “feed” off of their agony. That shows a high degree of sadism. So, a psychopath couldn’t possibly care less if you are happy or not, but giving you pain and observing your agony gives a psychopath observable, measurable pleasure; its a kind of perversion of empathy.

Hopefully these amazing new technologies that show researchers exactly where a living human brain processes information and emotions in real time, will eventually yield more effective new treatments (or even cures?) for the horror of abnormal, dangerous conditions like psychopathy.


Excellent point. I agree completely!


Hear, hear! Read my story below, about “the blonde,” for what that kind of “sadism” looks like. Emotional blackmail: “If I show you empathy, you have to show me empathy in return, even if I’m screwing you over (and your boyfriend, more like literally).

By the way, the spath in this story complained to me once that her stepmother asked her father to go No Contact on her. Funny how you remember details like that at a time like this.


It is all so sad, I can relate to it all, even the 20 year thing. I am having a terrible time recovering. His empathy never lasted, only until he got what he wanted. It was just all a game for him.


I can relate… mine also used empathy whenever I would leave him… then, once I returned and did what he needed, he was vicious all over again. I left him after he told me he would have sex with other women and I would never know. He tried finding me all week and txtd me until I agreed to meet for coffee… it turned out, as he told me 2 days later, and after the party at home we had planned and I was not going to be at, he only wanted me home for the party so it looked like we were ok. Really… so glad its in the past.


Salvation, That is not empathy, it is a manipulation tool psychopaths use to get what they want. They can feighn love, empathy, self pity, anything toget what they want. Then it is gone and the evil returns to make you question your sanity in believing them. I am glad he is in your past too.


Novice, That was not empathy, my dear. It was feigned empathy and pure manipulation. There is a world of difference that these scientists do not get.


Faked emotions can show up on an MRI as well!

Just want to preface this comment by saying I don’t write under my married name so the comments I make don’t divulge his identity. Regardless of the harm, he’s forever my baby, just a morally deficient one.

I observed my son’s lack of empathy at a very early age. At 4, he pounded his rabbit’s head against the stairs to see what would happen. His lack of concern or remorse was chilling. In a hospital elevator, he tried to close the door so a suffering patient couldn’t enter. He laugh when others hurt themselves.

I feel that psychopaths have very little or no affective empathy. Yes, there are moments when they act as if they’re caring but I think that’s in response to their motive to put on the “caring” show. I don’t agree that they have it, but turn it off. I experienced it as he didn’t have it but could pretend he did when it suited him.

Sounds to me very much like the debate between the glass being half empty or half full.

I also believe that predators fall somewhere on the Belle Curve or spectrum. Some my be more or less disordered than others.



I agree with your insight about it being acting. In the study they were told to empathize and since they know how to pretend to, they can turn that on. It must be very difficult watching your son… I hope you have a strong support system. I see things sometimes in my son that alarm me… he had his first 5 years with a father who pushed him away much of the time but allowed play only sometimes, and treated mom (me) poorly in front of him. Then, my second brief marriage was to someone whom we all fell in love with and it turned out he was the classic psychopath… thru us all for a loop. My daughter never got to see her father mistreat me bc I left when she was very young, and she doesnt recall even much of the second only the good parts and her very practical mindset is “you dont be around people who are mean to you.” I wish my son could develop that too. Its a long worrisome journey I know you know about… I worry about what he could become down the road, and then put it aside so I can be present with him. Hugs…


Did anyone else hear the author say that anyone could lure a woman into a dark alley but the difference between a normal person and a psychopath is that a normal person would feel empathy or guilt and not resort to vionlence but the psychopath could turn off his empathy and so he could become violent? This audio is full of red flags if you listen carefully. A normal person would not lure a woman into the alley to begin with.

It is disheartening to hear such misinformation from scientists who have no idea what a psychopath is. It is like the three blid men trying to describe an elephant by touching one part. One feels the trunk and says that an elephant is a snakelike creature, another feels a leg and says the elphant is like a tree and yet another feels the ears and says the elephant is soft and warm like a puppy.

What is this part of the brain that fires when we feel empathy? Is it the empathy or is it the calculation of how to help? In a psychopath is it the calculation of how to manipulate? We are more than our brains…at least those of us who are not psychopaths are more than our brains even if it is only chemical reactions called emotion.

Of course we have the ability to turn off our empathy when we experince anger or fear. It is self defense. And we can even question our empathy when we feel we are being deceived or manipulated. This too is a form of self defense or just plain common sense. A psychopath may fire the brain the same as someone with empathy but that does not mean they have empathy set in the off position and can turn it on at will.

I do not know which is worse, a creature with no empathy or a creature who is capable of empathy and chooses not to use it. Evil is evil. Psychopahty is evil, it is not merely a lack of empathy or turning empathy on or off. Psychopathy is taking joy in evil and huring others. There is no such thing as a “pro-social psychopath’. There are only people who have never experienced a psychopath and cannot fathom the degree of evil involved in a creature with no empathy who enjoys causing pain to others.

I have seen it as we all have here and we did not want to accept it either, until we were forced to accept it because there was no other explaination. Someone who has not seen psychopathy cannot study it and come to any logical conclusions. They are merely blind men studying a part of the elephant.


Okey-dokey. Well. Ahem. Let’s call it Empathy for Cash.

My little “investigation” of two people who seemed to be up to something confirms my original hypothesis — one is a female spath, and the other is just her poor, alcoholic, male victim, also known as my eternal admirer and former lover.

So . . . Let’s begin with “empathy,” shall we? This woman can indeed turn off her empathy when it suits her. But wow, can she turn it on. It’s called emotional blackmail, people!

So he admits to crying on her shoulder, it’s all so hard, this public injustice they’re fighting together. And nobody else out there understands — duly noted that one of the “nobody elses” was ME. (Exhibit A is an e-mail from the empathetic blonde, telling me I lacked said said empathy and reporting back to me that I had shown such a lack with this guy. That’s funny, he doesn’t remember ever telling her about that. No need: She was taking notes while lying next to you at the hotel just before midnight, when I called to ask you questions you didn’t want to answer.)

Does the story so far lack sufficient entertainment value? Wait, there’s more . . .

The other night, said blonde with lots of “empathy” called him wanting some empathy in return, for being thought of as a whore. (Now who would think that?) Because the guy downstairs is young and gorgeous, and she’s tempted to become a fallen woman at his hands. No problem, he said, put on your stilettos, put on your perfume, put on your charm, and get to it, sweetie. Alcoholic guy is done.

Need more details? Comin’ right up . . .

After all the thousands of dollars he gave her! The psychopathic b–! How could she do that? Oh, well, she’s gone. So, . . . how ya doin’, sweet lips? We sure did have fun, didn’t we?

Dude: Number one, you’ve been had by a spath. Number two, you owe me $270 for some work I did for you that you just didn’t have time to put in the mail while you were crying on the blonde and fighting injustice and lack-of-empathy together.

I’m sending him the bill. And it’s more than $270. The going rate for a dominatrix in New York City is $200 an hour, and I’m on the clock while I kick your butt, big-time. . . . But at least I’m not the high-priced Manhattan call girl/spath. That was one VERY expensive mistake.

Please rate on the amuse-o-meter, folks. Scale of 1 to 10.

Spaths preying on alcoholics for money and “empathy.” He’s got one brain cell left, but it’s a damn good one; he at least had the discernment to leave at this point. As for me, I’m going to suggest that his next donation be a tax-deductible one to the organization I do work for, for nearly free, since it’s clear that he’s got some cash lying around. This non-spath is about to get paid for an honest day’s work, even if I didn’t put out enough “empathy.”

As we say here, TAWANDA! COWABUNGA!


My exhusband could mimic empathy too. But only when he’d had the opportunity to study OTHER people. He did not know (how to mimic) empathy if it was a situation he had never seen before.


That’s interesting. So these people have to take some time to study people. . . . Another friend told me that the “blonde” in my story above showered her with interest when they first met at a conference. She called it the “15-minute zipless f–” (read “Fear of Flying” for the metaphor). And then she was done and didn’t even notice her the whole weekend we were there.

What is also true of such people is that others will leap to their defense at the slightest hint that they’re not legit. They haven’t been burned yet, and they’re still basking in the Love Bombs. (Or: Empathy Bombs.)


Sistersister, thanks for some really good posts, and really this whole thread had some great comments. Relating to your thought process here I think it’s important for us to pay attention to these kind of interactions and to not underestimate the power that is often obtained through these highly focused interactions. The social predator by feigning deep personal interest in their subject right out of the gate establishes themselves as ‘ incredibly special ‘ actually taking the time to not just scratch the surface but taking deep interest into why and how and really wanting to know you as a person, what makes you tick, what you’re really about. Once these magic seeds have been planted the heavy work is done and the small effort required to cultivate them through mirroring, love bombing, ect is richly rewarded immediately with tasty narcissistic supply, and until it is deemed more useful to eat or annihilate the clueless fawning fan, this probable future victim will go to great lengths to protect their precious one. Keep in mind too that if they are really good they may never let their masks slip around those who are useful to them.


Thanks for the analysis Lightshine. The one I’m dealing with is a master. I couldn’t get through this without all the help I’ve had here.


Corinne, mine too is masterful at what she does. Without educating myself I would have been destroyed by now. If my posts have helped or encouraged you in even a small way I am thrilled. This site is a tremendous resource. I just finished with 10 pages of articles from Steve Becker many of which I suspect could be helpful to you since your adversary sounds formidable. Thanks for saying hello and hang in there my friend.


they can feign empathy to manipulate, derail you as part of the crazy making. I was married to a malignant spath who loved to torture me to come within minutes of death so that he could repeat his reign of terror over and over. LF helped me to have the courage to pick up the few fragments that were me. It is amazing what we can do after a few years of no contact.
If you want coaching to have a wonderful life again I recommend a book: Stop Caretaking the borderline or narcissist (how to end the drama and get on with life) by Margalis Fjelstad

lost everything

Sociopaths that can emulate empathy very well are very successful in their quest to be accepted in non-spath society. Hunters need to wear camouflage to get close enough to their prey before moving in for the kill. No different for the sociopath; spaths wear emotions just like hunters wear camo. Just like clothing, their emotions come on and off, depending on the situation. They need to move in on their target before they can snare it. Camo allows people to blend in with the outdoor landscape, to make them unnoticeable. Emotional emulation offers the same ‘cloak of invisibility’ to sociopaths.

I never saw the latespath show any emotion, in any circumstance and I first met him when he was 8. He always said he was purely logical, unemotional. When I re-met him in the early 70’s, I needed that, as my emotions were in overdrive from a bad, for me, college experience. I needed to be emotionally grounded if I was going to succeed in the new university. Also lack of emotion was nothing new to me,as my mother rarely expressed them. She could cry and on occasion get angry but no outward good feelings. I was to eventually find out that she was the victim of childhood sexual abuse by clergy; and recently learned that many such victims protect themselves by refusing to show any vulnerability, believing that happiness lowers their guard as does allowing anyone to comfort them when they are sad. So his rational-all-the-time behavior raised no keep away signs.

After he died and I found out his screen name and gained access his emails, my one and only reaction was ‘who is this person’. I didn’t recognize him at all. Others saw him as charming and personable. They told of his great love for EscortM. They wrote about his sensitivity and his having no fear of openly expressing his feelings, his ‘realness’. In a phone conversation, EscortM’s daughter told me of his behavior at her mother’s funeral, how he continued to visit EscortM’s parents and the rest of her family. My only response, in my mind and verbally is “who is this person”. From the comments of others and well as the latespath’s own words

This was not only the reaction of people in the sub-world of internet escorting, many of whom ‘knew’ him for 5 years. I got the same type of reaction from real world people. A dog breeder called me after the latespath picked up a puppy for me (I could not make the trip because of my mother’s health)to tell me, her words,: “a charming, caring man”. He managed to convince the ‘stock broker’ , a 35+ year respected professional, that he cared about my mother had her best interests paramount.

Actors must master the art of emulating emotions for roles, sociopaths must master the act for life.


I think we play a part in the play. We put out a radio frequency of sorts that says, Life Sucks, but we’re here for you. We’re trying to make life better, through empathy and activism and justice. Don’t. Just BE better, is my motto these days. Just GO LIVE THERE, in that better place. I’d like to help my friend the alcoholic move out of range of people like this female spath. (I like to tell him, “Don’t sleep in the subway, darling.” His world is so dark and brooding, serious and “loving” — in sum, b.s. He says I’m “mean.” So be it.) Then again, I have no responsibility to be a “caretaker,” as the book title recommended above says. I struggle against the urge to do that. I try to distract myself from the temptation to “win” against this witch, against his beloved red wine. Don’t win; live.

Just put it out there — light and life, joyousness. Let ’em all drown in their own struggles, for all I care; there are better folks to hang out with.

Make room for those.


yep, I helped my drunk sociopath out of a slum, homeless cycle and he took over everything and I lost everything. Never feel sorry for a homeless drunk.





My ex was drawn to the Buddhist philosophy.

Here’s the quote he uses in his online dating profile:

“I am all about mindfulness, and compassion. Nobody wants to hurt, and I want to make the world feel better.”


Corinne, did your ex ever actually do any Buddhist meditation? It’s one thing to read the philosophy in a book. It’s another thing to actually meditate, especially in a retreat setting, for days, weeks, or even months. This is not easy to do and requires a very strong mind and focus. Empathy for others is a natural consequence of doing this practice, as retreatants come face to face with their ego (defenses) and eventually strip them away. It doesn’t happen just from reading a book. If someone is really serious about studying Buddhist philosophy, the books eventually lead them to a retreat where they learn to practice mindfulness meditation.

The retreats I’ve done have ranged anywhere from 10 days to 2 weeks. If a person there was unable to do the practice, it was usually apparent by the first few days, and they would leave. Since there is no interaction amongst participants – not even eye contact – there is no opportunity for a sociopath to manipulate anyone. As a general rule, a person who is disordered will have a difficult time practicing for any length of time.

Anyone can call themselves a “Buddhist” or a “Christian” or what have you. But if they’re not walking the talk, then it is just a part of their ego. I don’t even call myself a “Buddhist” though I’ve meditated for years in the Buddhist tradition. The term doesn’t have much meaning for me. It’s just a word.


Obviously, his comment is an empty lie.

I helped him turn his life around and once his was restored, he used that position to destroy mine.


Sad that Buddhism is just another word for you; for many of us, it is a springboard to further serious study.


Flicka, I was not discounting how very profound the Buddhist teachings are and how the practice and teachings literally saved my life when I was in my early 20’s and still play a central role in my spiritual development. This is a matter of semantics or terminology. I have never found anywhere in Buddhist texts where it says it is important what you call yourself (or that you should call yourself a “Buddhist”). In fact, central to the Buddhist teachings is that there really is no separate self to label in the first place. I believe a person can be deeply spiritual without calling themselves anything. The main message I have gotten from all the Buddhist teachings can be summed up in two words: “Pay attention.” This is another way of saying “Be mindful in everything.”

I feel that rather than sociopaths having the capacity for empathy;they are just really good actors.I know All mankind was created in God’s image,but at some point they use their God-given gift of free will and make a choice.A choice of whether to act as they were created,or to act independently and stubbornly.

My husband knew how he SHOULD act;how he was EXPECTED to act…and he ACTED well…except when at home! Then he ‘let his hair down’so to speak.It must have been a great relief to be himself! Atleast to him…certainly not to me!It always amazed me to watch him in action!If I could have afforded a Charisma Award,I would have awarded it to him!But it hurt my heart to see only others be the beneficiaries of his kind words and acts!


As I am 5 years done with the spath I dated, it really doesn’t matter to me whether he had momentary empathy for me or not. I just know that the behaviors and games were totally intolerable. The fact that sociopaths are capable of empathy at all…..I’m not sure what implications it has. They apparently are “capable” of changing if they can feel empathy. But they don’t see the value in it except as a tool for manipulation. So what difference does it make?


Not being an expert on Buddhism, I merely used the label to communicate that I thought it’s philosophy represents compassion and empthy as I understand it. If the researchers deductions are correct, I’m merely suggesting that it might be interesting to research whether psychosis exists among practicing Buddhists or monks. As Donna suggests, perhaps teaching compassion and empathy would only work on youths displaying psychotic traits. For example, my children were wonderful human beings until they left home and entered a dog-eat-dog society where emotions are shunned. This leads me to question whether modern life doesn’t somehow encourage this affliction.

You mention an interesting thought.Because life is such a struggle these days,people are busy thinking about themselves and how “to make it” and how to have “down time” (what is that like?!).Yes,modern life is definitely controlled by and encourages sociopaths!


Flicka, I would never consider myself as an expert on the Buddha’s teachings. I can only speak to my experiences being involved in the practice and community for many years. I have lived the life of a Buddhist monk for weeks and even months at a time in my 20’s, and I almost ordained as a monk at one point, so devoted was I to the practice.

There are different lines of Buddhism and they focus on different qualities. There is a meditation called “metta meditation” which means “loving kindness”. The meditation causes one’s heart to open and it encourages empathy and compassion for all beings. There is also the “Bodhisattva vow” that one can take. The person taking this vow promises that if they were to become enlightened and have no further need for a human body, they would still reincarnate on earth in a human form until all beings become enlightened. The premise of this, of course, is reincarnation, and that when a person dies, they just shed their body but come back in another body to complete their karma. The idea is that when your karma is complete (and you become enlightened), you have no further need to reincarnate into a human body. Does this make sense? I’m not trying to offend anyone with different beliefs. I’m just explaining the Buddhist philosophy as I understand it.

The type of Buddhism I studied is call Theravada Buddhism or “lesser vehicle”. In Mahayana (greater vehicle) Buddhism, there is more focus on rituals and chanting and involvement with community and relationships. In theravada practice, it is about simply being quiet and focusing inward in mindfulness meditation practice. These are the monks who go off into caves to sit in quiet contemplation. The practice is not designed simply to develop compassion. It is to directly touch one’s own experience, to know one’s own nature, to directly experience what is real. What is real is the opposite of what we “think” it is. This is because what our minds “think” is a product of the ego. The ego tells all kinds of stories about who we are and what we are about. This is not reality, in the Buddhist teachings. When one sits in quiet meditation for a period of time, one can observe the ego as if watching a movie. They can disidentify from it, and for periods of time, it can even fall away. We’ve all known people who seemed completely egoless. One of their key traits is compassion. Without many of the mental barriers and defenses we put up, we can often feel another’s pain.

It was very common when I was on long retreat for me to feel the suffering of the person sitting next to me, even though I never spoke with that person or even looked at them. It is also common on retreat when one person starts laughing for the whole room to burst into laughter. This is a form of immediate empathic response. When one is open and not running any ego games or mental babble, this experience of connectedness with others is the default state of existence. What we call the “self” that separates us from others truly does not really exist.

Whether a sociopath can arrive at that state remains to be seen. The sociopath would need to have the capacity for inner directed awareness and introspection. The literature is mixed on whether a sociopath is capable of that. Without that ability, they cannot meditate. And if they cannot meditate, they will spend their time at retreat plotting and scheming how to exploit the other retreatants when the retreat is over.

People with personality disorders have a difficult time meditating because they are busy running their defense mechanisms as a form of their survival. For instance, borderlines will split. However, some borderlines can actually observe their splitting pattern. If they can observe it, they can change it. This is VERY powerful. I don’t know how this works with sociopaths.

Sorry for the long post – I don’t often have the opportunity to discuss my experiences with Buddhist practice. As a final note, I just wanted to say that it is my understanding that ALL of the world’s religions have compassion either as a goal or as a byproduct.


Watch this episode of 48 Hours to get a perfect portrait of a sociopath!


Corinne, Sorry but this video is no longer carried by TWC…my carrier! However, my 40+ years of dealing with 5 of them has taught me a lot. Of course no therapy will be effective unless the psychotic WANTS it and all those I’ve found believe themselves already perfect. As my ex used to say, “you go see a counselor if you feel the need, but I do not need it”!


If I understand correctly, there are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy is that ability to “read” emotions in others; being able to tell from a person’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language whether another person is sad, upset, or happy, or anxious, etc.

Psychopaths (sociopaths, antisocial pds, etc.) seem to have a high degree of cognitive empathy, even to the point of being able to “read” a person’s hidden desires, weaknesses or vulnerabilities. That gives a psychopath a tremendous edge as a predator.

(At the opposite end of the spectrum, those with Autism or Aspergers have great difficulty reading the emotions of others.)

Affective empathy is the ability to experience another’s emotions or feelings with them, as though they are your own, AND wishing to comfort someone who is suffering and help them feel better.

Some people are so sensitive to the feelings of others that just hearing about an injury or seeing a wound on another’s body makes their own body respond with a kind of “sympathy pain”, like the sensation of crawling/shuddering of the flesh on the corresponding part of their own body, or like tearing up when your friend is crying, etc.

I think my own borderline pd/narcissistic pd mother had great cognitive empathy, to the point where it felt to me sometimes like she was reading my mind, but I think she had little if any affective empathy. Mother didn’t really care about my feelings, didn’t respond with compassion when I was hurting, sad, upset, etc. However, she had learned how to say the right things in the right tone of voice in social settings, in public, for the purpose of appearing to be normally empathetic and kindly. Delivering the correct condolences or best wishes in the appropriate tone of voice made it sound like she cared, but I think it was just an act.


Great explanation Babs!




Thanks for your scientific explanation of empathy, Babs. However, I wonder if this isn’t overanlyzed to the point of more confusing psycho-babble? It strikes me that “cognitive empathy” is nothing more than good acting abilities as oppposed to true empathy.I.e. I recall when my son got divorced and my daughter drove 4 hrs. out to spend the weekend with him so “he wouldn’t feel so lonely”. She demonstrated “knowing” how lonely he might be feeling at the time but he was living at the beach in a mansion and that weekend was just another “fun” vacation trip for her. Yet 2 years later, she had no qualms kidnapping her own niece for 10 days during which time, my daughter-in-law became frantic, not knowing where her little 4 year old daughter was. She finally had to call the police to have her returned. My daughter is a very good actress!
Just pondering…


Defining *affective empathy* works for me because it explains that psychopaths really could not care less if you are happy or sad or frightened, unless it benefits them or impacts THEIR AGENDA in some way. They can tell if you are happy or sad, or scared, etc., because they can easily read/intuit emotions in others (cognitive empathy)… they just plain old don’t care about your feelings.

(Unless you are dealing with a sadistic psychopath, a true monster, who actually enjoys your pain. These monsters get a kick out of causing terror and pain and feed off of the anguish of others.)

Psychopaths only care about their own happiness: their own comfort, their own needs, their own ego. Other people are like candy bars to them; something to give them a little sweet taste, and then they’ll go have another candy bar. Other people are just things for them to use, and then discard.

Psychopaths are great mimics: they can ape the *appearance* of compassion, or love, or sincerity, if it furthers their own agenda. But its all fake. Its just an illusion, and its done in order to gain your trust so they can use you more easily.

In fact, Dr. Robert Hare, an expert on psychopathy, said that giving psychotherapy to a psychopath is like sending them to acting school; it just teaches them how to come across as even more sincere and more believable when they mimic compassion, love, caring, remorse, etc. The proof he gave: diagnosed criminal psychopaths who have undergone therapy while in prison have an even higher recidivism rate than diagnosed psychopaths who have not undergone psychotherapy.

The documentary “Psychopath” goes into this. I found it on “YouTube”. Here’s the link to part 1 of 5:


babs, Love your phrase about other people being merely candy bars to them! So very true and practically described!

I really appreciated your explanation of cognitive and affective empathy.

It creeps me out that our emotions can be read so easily by sociopaths…NC rule is all the more important!

I can testify that spath only cared for his own happiness,comfort,needs and agenda!Each time we were apart he suddenly could do for himself the things he had made me do!


Here’s another good video on Narcissism. There seem to be a lot of resources on youtube:


Thanks; seems NBD, narcissists and phychotics are all interrelated. Wish an expert could differenciate the three categories for me clearly.


I’m not an expert, but there’s a pretty good breakdown and description of all the personality disorders at Wikipedia.

Pds are grouped into three sets: Cluster A, Cluster B, and Cluster C. (Based more on the earlier edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: DSM-IV, instead of the newest edition, DSM-V)

“Cluster B”, the dramatic, erratic group of pds, includes the 4 personality disorders that LoveFraud members encounter a lot: histrionic pd, borderline pd, narcissistic pd, and antisocial pd.

Each personality disorder (in the DSM-IV) has about 9 diagnostic criteria, but a minimum of 5 (any 5 or more) are needed in order for a psychiatrist or psychologist to diagnose an individual patient.

(There is also a set of “general criteria” for personality disorder that must also be present for a formal diagnosis to be made.)

There are overlapping features common to the Cluster B disorders, like “high impulsivity” and “dramatic emotionality”, but each has key, distinguishing features as well:

histrionic pd:
tends to act out sexually and engages in other attention-seeking behaviors.

borderline pd:
features emotional disregulation or mood swings that are much more frequent and intense than even rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Tends to fear abandonment, and tends to assign other people as “all good” or “all bad.”

narcissistic pd:
Tends to be totally self-absorbed. Feels superior to others and therefor entitled to special, deferential treatment. Tends to lack (affective) empathy for others.

antisocial pd:
Tends to disregard rules & laws, and violates the feelings and rights of others. Lacks the capacity to feel remorse for the harm they do. Tends to lie often and easily, and is highly manipulative with the goal of deception for self-gain.

Antisocial pd is just the current term for sociopathy; its the same thing, basically.

Dr. Robert Hare, however, believes that “psychopathy” should be a separate disorder than antisocial pd, and if I understand his reasoning correctly, its because he views psychopathy as the most extreme (most serious, most deadly) version of antisocial pd.

As another member posted, he created the “Hare Psychopathy Checklist” which is a diagnostic tool for psychopathy developed for use in forensic populations (incarcerated criminals.)

Also (if I understand correctly, again) according to Dr. Hare, all those with psychopathy also have narcissistic pd. BUT not all those with narcissistic pd are psychopaths.

So, for a more detailed description and full set of diagnostic criteria for all the pds, check out the “personality disorder” article at Wikipedia.


Thanks for everyone’s information and input. All very helpful and interesting. I have Dr. Hare’s checklist as published in his book “Dangerous Instincts” and I know the danger in lay people trying to apply these traits to people they know.
I personally don’t hold Wikipedia in the same authentification category as other encyclopedias since any lay person can add or alter it’s contents very easily. Many thanks to all who have offered information about what I feel is a growing mental illness in our present-day society. Knowledge never hurts.


You can double-check the information RE the classification and diagnostic criteria for all the personality disorders at BehaveNet:

or at Counseling Resources:

or at Out of the Fog:

But I have bookmarked the Wikipedia article on the Classification of Mental Disorders for handy reference because its so comprehensive, and I like the way its organized: in an overview format (that includes both the ICD-10 and the DSM-IV) with links to each specific disorder.


Good one Corinne.


This is apparently the Robert Hare basic test? Try taking it:


This shows ittle resemblance to the real Hare checklist.

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