Influencing motivation to empathize in individuals with heightened psychopathic traits: neural and behavioural assessment of empathizing with others
Groat, Lindsay L.
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Central to psychopathy is a purported lack of empathy for others. However, recent literature suggests that the decreased empathic responses of psychopathic individuals may be a result of aberrant motivations, rather than incapacities. To further consider the validity of these motivational hypotheses, a series of three studies was completed using a modified Empathic Accuracy (EA) task to assess whether empathic responses across conditions designed to influence empathy differed as a function of psychopathic traits. Studies 1a and 1b employed fMRI to assess whether community members with varying levels of psychopathic traits would show changes in EA as a function of the target’s social distance. There were no overall significant differences in neural or behavioural metrics of EA. However, EA functioned as a result of psychopathic traits such that those higher in psychopathic traits demonstrated decreased, rather than increased, EA for those closest to them. Study 2 assessed whether students with varying levels psychopathic traits would show changes in EA as a function of the utility of the emotional information. Contrary to study hypotheses, EA functioned as a result of psychopathic traits such that those higher in psychopathic traits demonstrated decreased, rather than increased, EA scores in the implicit motivation (i.e., high utility - emotional Lie Detection) condition. Study 3 expanded on Study 2, assessing the effect that influencing explicit (i.e., increase condition) versus implicit motivations had on the EA scores of individuals with varying levels of a psychopathic traits. Psychopathic traits influenced EA scores in the implicit, but not explicit, motivation condition, in line with results from Study 2. Overall, support for hypotheses was mixed. Empathic responses in those with heightened psychopathic traits did appear influenced by the various motivational manipulations, but not always in the expected direction. Supportive of motivational frameworks, these results suggest that empathic responses fluctuated across targets and contexts; however, more research is required to identify the specific drivers of empathy in those with heightened psychopathic traits. These findings may help further the identification of motivations deemed relevant to those high in psychopathic traits for use in the potential development of empathy-based treatments.