Whoa! My kid’s a Psychopath?!

Image courtesy of SOFAMONKEZ

My son. Psychopath?

Ever noticed that more boys than girls seem to be psychopaths? And not just the axe-wielding type or the criminal mastermind type, but the politician, car salesman, and con man type as well.

While great grist for the Hollywood mill, the psychopath is alive and well and working at a car sales yard near you. Or in your office. Or sleeping in the lovely baby bed in the back bedroom…

Simply, the psychopath is characterized by lack of empathy, guilt, remorse and regard for others, and a motivation for personal gain even if at the expense of others. There’s more, but we don’t need it here. They key thing for us, as we continue to think about emotional intelligence, is their lack of empathy.

But when we’re talking about empathy, we need to understand it a little more deeply.

Psychopaths don’t have it – at least as empathy is generally understood, even though they do seem able to understand people extremely well. Boys are more likely to be psychopaths, so are they also lower in empathy than girls? Does lack of empathy in boys suggest the possibility of future problems?

What about your kids?

Girl empathy vs boy empathy

Studies do  tend to show gender differences in empathy, with women generally outperforming men. No prizes if you guessed. But it gets better.

Yes, it’s true that sons who show little emotional reaction to seeing their own mothers in distress are far more likely to end up with a criminal record. No, gender differences alone don’t mean your son will grow up to have the emotional capacity of a tree stump, or that he is a psychopath with training wheels, but that we are, as they say, wired differently.

Take a 2006 study*, for example. The participants, both men and women, had their brain activity recorded while they received a mild electric shock, or while they witnessed someone else receiving a similar, mild electric shock. As with most social psychological experiments, the “someone else” was a confederate of the researchers.

Now you’d expect a couple of things to happen here, including activation of the watcher’s brain’s mirror neurons. Remember we talked about these last time? They’re activated when we watch someone else do something, giving us as if brain activity.

But there’s always a twist in social psychology…

The twist, and what made the study revealing, was the way the researchers manipulated how much the subjects liked the confederate.

They set it up so that subjects would watch the confederate play a kind of gnarly prisoner dilemma game. They’re fun but mind-bending. The liking bit came because the confederate had been instructed to play the game fairly or unfairly, causing the subjects to like or dislike them.

Later, both men and women showed activation of the pain-related centres of the brain when they received a shock themselves, and when they saw a “fair” confederate receive a shock.

But, and maybe you can guess where this is going, when the subjects watched an “unfair” confederate getting a shock, the whole game changed.

Now, only the women showed the same activation pattern.

And before you think of men as tree stumps with no emotional response, it isn’t that the men showed no response. Nuh uh. There was plenty of brain activity, just not in the pain-related areas. By contrast, when men watched the unfair confederate get an electric shock, they showed activation of the reward-related areas.

Even if they weren’t prepared to say it aloud, their brains fairly screamed “Woo hoo! Yeah! Let him have it!” Or something like that.

Does that make him a psychopath?

Different kinds of empathy

Although there’s a bit of argument, there are three main types of empathy. The first, often called cognitive empathy, is the ability to understand what another person is thinking. You can see their perspective or viewpoint. Kids tend to get to this at about 3, maybe 4 years old.

Emotional empathy is most probably where mirror neurons kick in, as this is the capacity to feel what another feels. It helps build rapport and understanding. Note that it’s feeling with, but nothing to do with any concern for them, which we’d call compassion.

Empathic concern, which includes compassion, is the ability to understand how someone else thinks ands feels as they experience something, and to want to do something to help.

How empathy looks different in practice

Psychopaths? Great at cognitive empathy, because they can certainly understand how you might see things, but lacking in compassion so, while they get your viewpoint, they don’t care. Salespeople and politicians too are overrepresented in the literature on psychopaths for this reason.

What about emotional empathy alone? Certainly able to feel your pain, which is great, but if all you do is feel another’s pain without being able to think through the situation, you’ll burn out from emotional exhaustion.

Compassion and empathic concern? A great skill. This lets you understand another’s pain, and their view, and want to do something. It’s a trait recognized in top executives who can share a worker’s position, detach themselves when necessary and still manage to get the best out of their teams. Staff feel valued and respected and perform better overall.

It’s a strong trait in good leaders, teachable, and one you can notice even in young children. And importantly, in top managers and execs, no significant gender difference in empathy.

So here’s the take home bit

Boys are hardwired to be less empathic than girls, but empathy, as a strong element of emotional intelligence is a good indicator of later high performance and leadership.

It’s perhaps not surprising therefore that top leaders show strong empathy, regardless of gender, and people with strong empathy become leaders. On the flip side, people with less empathy tend to be worse leaders, and less likely to end up in leadership positions.

While boys have less empathy and are more likely to be psychopaths, less empathy alone does not a psychopath make. You can relax about your son.

But we can teach our kids to be better able to develop empathic concern – think, feel, act.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Psychopath, cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, empathic concern, compassion

What do you think?

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*Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others, in Nature 439, 466-469 (26 January 2006).


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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2 Responses to Whoa! My kid’s a Psychopath?!

  1. Dinah Roberts says:

    I found that really interesting B. Would it be beneficial to actively encourage this in your kids i.e. “look at that poor old lady standing over there without a seat, she must have sore legs, you could help her by going and getting her a chair” or …..are they limited by their wiring?

    • Hi D

      I’ds definitely encourage it. From about three to four kids develop the ability to understand another person’s point of view – what researchers call Theory of Mind. That is, I understand that your mind is different from mine and I can take your view. Consequently, encouraging kids to take another perspective and then act helps build this ability, and ties in empathy on the way. Go for it.

      Nice to hear from you.


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