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Psychopaths really DO find it hard to understand other people’s feelings despite appearing charming and thoughtful

  • Psychopaths are cold, calculated people capable of doing terrible things 
  • Scientists claim that they are also capable of understanding people's emotions
  • They use this understanding and knowledge to manipulate other people 
  • Psychopaths are only interested in the feelings of others when they can use it to benefit themselves

Psychopaths can understand people's thoughts and feelings, but only when they have a goal in mind. 

That's according to a new study that aims to understand a key paradox about people with the personality trait. 

We know that psychopaths have problems understanding the emotions of others.

This explains why they can be so selfish and why they are up to three times more likely to commit a violent crime. 

But they can also be extremely charming and manipulative – which suggests that when they want – they can understand what other people think, want, or believe.  

 

Say word psychopath and most people think of a character like Hannibal Lecter

Famous images of a cold, calculated killer such as the fictional Hannibal Lecter (pictured) can be misleading. They can also be extremely charming and manipulative – which suggests that when they want – they can understand what other people think, want, or believe

'Psychopaths can be extremely manipulative, which requires understanding of another's thoughts,' said Yale's Arielle Baskin-Sommers, professor of psychology and senior author of the study published March 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

'But if they understand the thought of others, why do they inflict so much harm?'

Baskin-Sommers received permission from the Connecticut Department of Correction to study inmates in maximum security prisons.

She recruited 106 prisoners and, using a standard mental health questionnaire, found that 22 of them were psychopathic, 28 were definitely not psychopathic, and the others had some psychopathic traits.

Along with colleagues Lindsey Drayton and Laurie Santos, she had inmates play a computer game in which they were asked to perform a task from either their own perspective or that of an avatar on the screen dressed as an inmate.

Most people find it difficult to ignore the perspective of the avatar entirely, even if they are charged with playing the computer game from their own viewpoint, Baskin-Sommers said. 

'It is like speaking in front of a class: Your attention should not be on the audience, but it is impossible to ignore social cues such as eye rolling or yawning,' she said. 

'That reflects our automatic process of considering the thoughts of those around us.'

Psychopaths do not automatically pick up such cues, the study suggests.

Hitler is responsible for numerous atrocities during his reign atop the Nazi party. The psychopath was able to win trust and manipulate people to win an election and take charge of Germany
Ivan the Terrible was the first Tsar of Russia and is known to have struck his daughter-in-law whilst she was pregnant and forcing a miscarriage. When his son found out, Ivan struck him too, which resulted in his son's death

Famous world leaders such as Adolf Hitler (left) and Ivan the Terrible (right) ruled their nations/empires with brutality and terror. These empowered psychopaths were both responsible for the deaths of millions of people 

Also, inmates who scored high on psychopathic traits and showed the greatest degree of this deficit were more likely to have been convicted of assault crimes. 

However, when asked specifically to perform a task from the perspective of the avatar, even psychopaths showed they can accurately understand the perspective of others.

Psychopaths seem to have the ability consider the thoughts of others—only if there is a specific goal they want to accomplish, Baskin-Sommers explained.

Researchers say the hope is to understand the complexity of the psychopathic mind. 

WOULD YOU KNOW HOW TO SPOT A PSYCHOPATH?

Psychopaths display different traits depending on their disorder.

Common signs include superficial charm, a grandiose notion of self-worth, the need for stimulation and impulsiveness, pathological lying, the ability to manipulate others and a lack of remorse and empathy.

But despite the popular association, not all psychopaths become killers.

Experts claim people usually find psychopaths intriguing, but can't put their finger on why. 

This is down to incongruous behaviour because psychopaths tend to do a lot of acting to deceive, or mimic normal reactions, sometimes changing their views and reactions quickly.

For example, Self-professed psychopath Jacob Wells said that upon meeting someone, he tries to become 'the most interesting person they know' and presumably adopts suitable interests and responses to do this.

His response also gives away another common trait – a grandiose notion of self-worth – in that he can be the most interesting person in the room.

Psychopaths occasionally tend to exhibit unconvincing emotional responses, with slip-ups including tone of voice or body language.

This may be because they are unable to understand emotions such as fear and love, but can mimic them.

Psychopaths display different traits depending on their disorder, but common signs include superficial charm and the ability to manipulate others. Despite the popular association, not all psychopaths become killers (stock image)

Psychopaths display different traits depending on their disorder, but common signs include superficial charm and the ability to manipulate others. Despite the popular association, not all psychopaths become killers (stock image)

Generally psychopaths' 'emotions' are shallow and short-lived and there is a manipulative ulterior motive to showing them.

For example, Mr Wells said he offers to do favours and tells false secrets to people to gain their complete trust.

He also displays insincere charm – another trait associated with psychopaths.

He says: 'I keep secrets, and tell them fake secrets to further gain their trust, and once they trust me enough, I ask for favours, reminding them of the favours I did them. I can get literally anything from them, which is incredibly useful.'

Psychopaths typically display an incredible ability to manipulate others and sometimes take pleasure in doing so. 

Psychopaths often have an air of superiority about them, perhaps shown by Mr Wells' belief he can spot other psychopaths

Even expert Dr Hare, who came up with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) used as a diagnostic tool to determine where someone lies on the psychopathy spectrum, warns that anyone can be duped during a short interaction with a psychopath.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR celebrityrave

Journalist, writer and broadcaster, based in London and Paris, her latest book is Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English. Read more articles from Agnes.

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