Intrigued by the high reviews and surrounding hype, I recently started watching the show The Black List. Among other shows popular in current media such as Criminal Minds and Law and Order, The Black List features various characters with psychopathic personalities. In particular, many of these shows focus on diverse forms of serial killers and mass murderers; further sparking my interest I wondered what distinguishes those types of people from normal humans that would feel far too much guilt and pain to kill another human.
An evident trend in analyzing various types of killers is that their morals are obviously skewed in comparison to the rest of society. The term “psychopathy” refers to a personality disorder associated with a profound lack of empathy and elevated reactive and instrumental aggression (Meffer et al., 2013); thus, their lack of empathy motivates the impaired moral development that distinguishes psychopaths’ from normal human beings. Generally, we learn specific behaviors when we are children that develop our moral code of right and wrong; throughout life we live based on these beliefs such that violating them brings feeling of guilt. When we are young, we learn that hurting others is not acceptable and violence becomes innately bad. Further, when physical pain is inflicted upon someone, the person inflicting it as well as others viewing it, take on their pain due to the concept of empathy. In regard to psychopaths, their conceptualization of empathy for others as well as their association with violence is distorted.
Empathy is derived from specific neural systems within the brain, which have been studied and identified in recent years. Mirror neurons in the brain function to activate brain regions that are triggered due to our own experiences as well as witnessing others experiences. The insula and cingulate cortex are specific regions that are activated when we feel emotion; thus, they are also activated when viewing others that are experiencing emotion—the neural mechanism of empathy.
Previous research indicated reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy; so rather than an inability to feel empathy at all, it is postulated that they lack activation in situations where normal people feel empathy, further enabling their ability to dissociate with normal, morally wrong feelings such as murder.
Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., Den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 136, 2550-2562.