Current Research Priorities

Can Psychopathic Individuals Feel Emotion?

One of the most consistent findings in research on psychopathic individuals is that they are less reactive to negative/punishing information. This occurs when they are presented with negative facial expressions (e.g. Bagley et al., 2009; Dawel et al., 2012), with negative vocal intonations (e.g. Blair et al., 20022004), with negative performance feedback (Newman et al., 1990), with punishment (Flor et al., 2002; Birbaumer et al., 2005; Rothemund et al., 2012), with impending punishment (Hare et al., 1978; Hare, 1982) and with indications of others’ distress (Blair et al., 1997; Verona et al., 2013).  Moreover, it can be seen behaviourally, physiologically, neurally (e.g. Birbaumer et al., 2005; Decety et al., 2013a,b; Seara-Cardoso et al., 2016; Soderstrom et al., 2002; Harenski et al., 2014 , and also through self-report (REFs). This has led most researchers in the field to propose that psychopathic individuals can’t process negative/punishing information properly (e.g. Lykken, 1957; Fowles, 1980; Patrick, 1994; Lykken, 1995; Blair et al., 1995; Soderstrom, 2003; Blair, 2005; Patrick, 2007; Rothemund et al., 2012; Marsh et al., 2013).

There is an important distinction between can’t and don’t, however; and in in this regard, it is important to note that while the existing research consistently indicates that the psychopath does not manifest normal responses to emotional stimuli, it does not similarly indicate that they cannot do so. 

A major focus of work in the lab thus focuses on this distinction between ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t’; on the possibility that psychopathic individuals can process negative/punishing feedback normally, even if they do not do so in most everyday (and laboratory) situations (for the most comprehensive review of our thoughts on this matter, see Shane & Groat (2020)). Much of this work has utilized neuroimaging (e.g. fMRI) to evaluate neural responses in psychopathic individuals under passive viewing, or when explicitly asked to try to process the negative/aversive information fully. Groat & Shane (2018), for instance, measured neural responses while participants viewed a wide variety of emotionally-evocative images: when simply passively viewing negatively-valent images, psychopathic individuals showed a ‘classic’ reduction in neural reactivity; however, when explicitly asked to try to maximize the emotion that the images naturally evoked in them, they showed significantly increased neural reactivity that approached that of non-psychopathic individuals (see also Meffert et al., 2013; Arbuckle & Shane, 2017). These finding suggest that psychopathic individuals are capable of processing negatively-valent information, even if they appear to rarely do so. This then leads to several additional questions, which have developed into core CANdiLab research priorities: if psychopaths are capable of emotional processing, why do they so rarely do so, and what can be done to increase their tendency to do so? Current research projects are leveraging a combination of psychological and neuroscientific methods to investigate these, and related, questions.

Identifying Neural Abnormalities Associated with Psychopathy versus Substance Use

By some accounts, as many as 93% of individuals diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) or psychopathy also meet criteria for some form of substance use disorder (SUD). This high level of comorbidity, combined with an overlapping biopsychosocial profile, and potentially interacting features, makes it very difficult for researchers to delineate the shared/unique features associated with each disorder. Making matters more difficult still, few labs collect systematic data on both disorders (which essentially removes any ability to compare/contrast/parse causes/consequences of the two disorders.

With these difficulty in mind, one of CANdiLab’s core priorities is to identify neural features that are most associated with psychopathy from those that are most associated with history/severity of substance use. To this end, we have undertaken equally detailed assessments of both psychopathy and SUD within a large forensic sample, and have an existing NSERC Discovery Grant to engage a variety of data-driven approaches to help differentiate between neural features that are most associated with an individual’s level of psychopathy, and neural features that are most associated with the severity/length of their substance use histories. Simard, Denomme and Shane (2019) for instance, used hierarchical regression analyses to demonstrate that instability in resting-stating network connectivity were more closely associated with participants substance use history than with their level of psychopathy. In contrast, Denomme, Simard & Shane (2018) demonstrated that differences in sensitivity to reward cues was more associated with participants level of psychopathy than with the severity of their substance use history. While still early in its development, these respective findings highlight how careful parcellation of the neural features associated with one or the other disorder can help better inform the underlying features of both disorders. Currently, CANdiLab researchers are employing sophisticated machine learning techniques to further bolster our approaches (see Denomme & Shane (2021) for a comprehensive overview of our thoughts on this issue, and on some of the techniques we believe can be employed).

Virtuous versus Nonvirtuous Empathy

Empathy – the feeling of what another person feels – is commonly defined in virtuous terms, somewhat akin to the manifestation of concern, sympathy, compassion (e.g. Decety et al., 2016; Spinrad & Gal, 2018). This definition may be a misnomer, however, as there is nothing that explicitly suggests virtuosity, only an emotional contagion of sorts (see Jordan, Amir & Bloom, 2016). Moreover, one could conceive of many less virtuous reasons for wanting to share the feelings of another: to influence, to manage, to mediate, to manipulate (see Bloom, 2017; Bubandt & Willersley, 2015). Within this vein, CANdiLab researchers are engaging in several lines of research – utilizing both psychological and neuroscientific methods – to carefully evaluate the extent to which the manifestation of empathy can emerge as a result of either virtuous (e.g. for concern, compassion) or non-virtuous (e.g. for influence, manipulation) motives.

One line of work has led to the development of The Motivation to Empathize scale (Carrington, Groat & Shane (2021), which is a survey instrument designed to evaluate one’s self-reported tendency to engage in empathy for either virtuous or non-virtuous reasons. A second line of work has made use of a modified Empathic Choice Task to evaluate one’s tendency to actually engage in empathy for either of these reasons. Currently we have a neuroimaging study (funded via a SSHRC Insight Development Grant) that is designed to evaluate the neural systems underlying virtuous and non-virtuous empathy. Future work is planned to evaluate the extent to which psychopathic individuals engage in empathic processing for either of these underlying motive reasons.

Additional Research Priorities

CANdiLab researchers are engaged in a variety of additional research studies that combine a variety of available psychological and neuroscientific methods, including:

  • Detailed personality assessments
  • Detailed clinical/forensic assessments
  • Cognitive/Affective assessments
  • Psychophysiological measures: HR, GSR, EMG
  • Neural measures: sMRI, fMRI, [fNIRS coming soon]
  • Neurostimulation protocols: tDCS
  • Facial affect analysis: AI-based FACS analyses