A student views brain scan imagining and analysis on a computer screen.
A doctoral student reads brain imaging results at the VCU Social Psychology and Neuroscience Laboratory. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Inside the brains of psychopaths: VCU research aims to understand antisocial empathy

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Imagine this: You’re walking down the street in the middle of the day when you encounter a stranger crouched and crying on the sidewalk. Is your instinct to comfort the person or to use their emotional vulnerability to hurt them?

“Most people can sense when others are in pain,” said David Chester, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Whereas non-psychopathic people use that information to console the person, a psychopath might use it to hurt them.”

This conduct — something Chester refers to as “antisocial empathy” — is a trademark behavior of psychopaths. “Psychopaths use antisocial empathy all the time in the real world,” he said. “They possess the ability to feel empathy. They just use it to hurt, whereas everyone else uses it to help.”  

Chester runs the Social Psychology and Neuroscience Laboratory in the College of Humanities and Sciences, where he leads a research team that investigates the dark sides of human behavior, trying to discern the underpinnings of traits like violence, aggression and revenge. A leading scholar of aggression research, Chester has committed his career to understanding why people inflict pain.

“I spend most of my time studying what is going on in the brain when people are hurting one another,” he said. 

Chester recently received a $25,000 grant from the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research to investigate the brain systems that allow psychopaths to use empathy for harmful ends. Supported by funds from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the Pilot Imaging Fund supports innovative imaging projects that use the Wright Center’s research-dedicated magnetic resonance imaging facility. The one-year award is intended to provide researchers with the time and money they need to collect preliminary data that will support future external grant applications.

“For this study, I’m shifting my focus from studying the act of violence to look at what is going on in the brains of psychopaths before they cause harm,” Chester said. “The idea is that once they’re in the act of hurting someone, you’re already too late. If we want to prevent violence, we need to understand what happens beforehand.”

Most people can sense when others are in pain. Whereas non-psychopathic people use that information to console the person, a psychopath might use it to hurt them.

Incentivizing empathy

For centuries, psychologists and neuroscientists maintained the conventional wisdom that psychopaths could not feel empathy. “For a really long time, the prevailing viewpoint was that psychopaths were born without empathic ability,” Chester said.

It wasn’t until advancements in brain imaging technology enabled researchers to investigate the physiological mechanisms that underlie human behavior that scientists began to question that commonly held belief.

“When we started getting better at brain imaging and being more subtle with our experimentation, we realized that psychopathic individuals can be empathetic,” Chester said, noting recent studies in which psychopaths were motivated to feel empathy for others.

In the studies, psychopathic individuals, while in MRI scanners, were shown videos of people experiencing pain. Without incentive, the signature biomarkers of empathy that can be read on a brain scan remained dim in the psychopaths’ brains, but when motivated to empathize, the psychopaths’ brains displayed the same levels of empathy as normal individuals.

“So it’s not that they can’t empathize, it’s just that they don’t,” Chester said. “It’s more a lack of motivation than a lack of ability.”

Building from the foundation that psychopaths can choose to feel empathy, Chester’s research team will be the first to investigate the inner workings of the brain when psychopaths are motivated to feel antisocial empathy. “We are trying to understand what is going on in the brain to cause psychopaths to choose not to use that function,” he said. He hopes the research will fill a gap in the scientific understanding of psychopathic behavior.

A group of doctoral students posing for a photo. Brain scan imaging is displayed on the computer screen behind the two left figures.
Doctoral students Samuel J. West, Alexandra Martelli and Emily Lasko with David Chester in the Social Psychology and Neuroscience Laboratory. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Deceptively designed

“If you give psychopaths a reason to feel empathy that fulfills their selfish goals — because that is all they really care about — then they can turn empathy on,” Chester said. “Just giving psychopaths something like money will incentivize them, but really what psychopaths want is to harm other people. That is what they are really motivated to do.”

Chester designed the Pilot Imaging Fund research study to do just that — motivating participants to empathize with others, with a reward of causing harm if they did. 

For the pilot study that was conducted at the Wright Center’s Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging facility, the researchers recruited 46 adult male participants. Half of the men were at the low extreme of the psychopathy continuum and half at the high extreme, as determined by results from a questionnaire that identifies degrees of psychopathic traits.

While undergoing neuroimaging in the MRI, the research participants were shown scientifically validated images of faces of individuals who are simulating being hurt in various ways and to varying degrees — through shocking, burning and poking. The images were from a database of painful expressions collected by Peter Mende-Siedlecki, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware.

“He took pictures of people pretending to experience pain,” Chester said. “Sometimes it looks like it’s just a little bit of discomfort, all the way to excruciating pain.”

The VCU research participants thought they were participating in a study on how the brain makes decisions. They were told the images were of separate groups — VCU and University of Richmond students — to manufacture an “us versus them” mentality, and they were instructed to assess the degree of pain that they thought the people in the photos were experiencing. For example, by analyzing their facial expression, is it possible to discern if the University of Richmond student feels more pain from shock or from burning? At the end of the study, the participants were told to apply the most painful stimuli to the University of Richmond students and the least painful to the VCU students.

“The study participants are motivated to be accurate because they want to find the thing that hurts the University of Richmond students the most and the VCU students the least,” Chester said. “They are trying to be empathic in both conditions, but the difference is that in one condition, they are trying to be empathic so they can hurt others, and in the other condition they are trying to be empathic so they can help — antisocial versus prosocial empathy.”

An antidote to antisocial empathy

The researchers predict that psychopathic individuals will access the brain’s cognitive empathy network when doing so facilitates antisocial goals, such as harming a competitor, and that this neural recruitment will predict greater aggression toward their targets.

“If supported, this novel approach would readily translate into new motivation-focused interventions and would inform biological and psychological models of the monumentally costly phenomenon of psychopathic aggression,” said study co-principal investigator Nicholas Thomson, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist with VCU Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program and an assistant professor in the VCU School of Medicine Department of Surgery.

Thomson recently published a textbook on the development of psychopathy. In addition to costing society in lives, injury and trauma, psychopaths consume billions of dollars every year in incarceration fees, hospital visits and legal costs, Thomson said.

It’s not that they can’t empathize, it’s just that they don’t. It’s more a lack of motivation than a lack of ability.

Chester and Thomson expect the findings to forge a potential new frontier for research on psychopathy, empathy and aggression.

“The great thing about pilot studies is that they fund projects that are groundbreaking,” Chester said. “We have predictions of how we think it is going to go, but it is so new and innovative that we really don’t know what is going to happen. The point of the pilot study is that by the time we’re done with this, we will have an initial idea of what the effects are and how strong they are.”

The researchers plan to apply for federal funding from the National Institutes of Health to launch a larger study after the pilot study concludes next year. “The idea is that we are going to take our findings and turn them right into a much larger grant application,” Chester said, adding that they hope to recruit men and women from diverse backgrounds to capture the nuanced, continuous nature of psychopathy.

Ultimately, the team hopes to discover an antisocial empathy circuit in the brain, which could be targeted with pharmacological therapies aimed at reversing antisocial empathy behavior. “We can identify people who are at risk for violence, but these risk assessments rarely include biomarkers,” Thomson said. He hopes the study reveals better targets for preventing violence among psychopathic individuals.

“The idea is that this research, hopefully in the future, will lead to the development of biologically informed treatment strategies that might be able to change activation in empathy circuits in the brain.”