Psychopaths have a strange allure about them. We enjoy reading their stories, talking about them, and watching them in Hollywood movies. It’s almost as though we are fascinated by their utter lack of care for our feelings. Mystery drives curiosity, even when the mystery is not particularly good for us. The simple fact that they lack empathy — a typical human trait that the rest of us automatically experience — makes us want to learn more about them.
Psychopathy (or the related diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) is characterized by selfishness, callousness, impulsivity, and a lack of empathy. Less than 5% of people truly meet the criteria to be properly diagnosed as psychopaths. But like with many other psychological characteristics, psychopathic traits sit along a continuum, and a person is diagnosed when their symptoms exceed some predefined threshold. So even if we don’t personally know a real psychopath, it probably is true that most of us know someone who is a bigger psychopath than we are.
Empathy is a pivotal feature for telling apart a psychopath from a typical person, but we can study empathy from several perspectives. The first relates to what scientists call “theory of mind”, which refers to our ability to reliably attribute mental states to other people. It allows us to read their behaviors, intentions, and beliefs. Without it, we struggle to understand what people are doing and what they are likely to do next.
Psychopaths do not seem to have much difficulty with theory of mind. Depending on how you look at it, their normal function in this domain may sound surprising. If theory of mind is a critical feature of empathy, then you would predict that selfish psychopaths lack that capacity for reading minds; after all, how can we understand other people’s beliefs and motivations without empathy?
But what if you consider theory of mind as just one facet of empathy rather than its critical core? Then, it’s less surprising to know that psychopaths are good at reading people. In fact, much of their callous manipulation of others probably depends on an intact theory of mind. People are much harder to manipulate if you cannot understand and predict their thoughts and behaviors.