Upregulating Empathic Concern in Antisocial/Psychopathic Individuals

Recent work in our lab and others suggest that the reduced empathy characteristic of some antisocial populations may not stem from a core inability to experience this social emotion. For instance, recent CANdiLab research indicates that neural systems underlying empathic concern are often intact in psychopathic individuals, and that these systems can activate normally when the psychopath is sufficiently motivated (Arbuckle & Shane, under review). This finding leads to several additional questions which may develop into core CANdiLab research priorities. First: if psychopaths are capable of empathic concern, why do they so rarely experience this emotion? And second: if they are capable of empathic concern, can they be trained to experience it more fully? Preliminary findings from our laboratory are beginning to answer these questions, with additional exploration reliant on future funding opportunities.

Characterizing the Cognitive/Emotional Abnormalities in Psychopathic Individuals

The low-fear hypothesis is arguably the most widely disseminated and most influential model of psychopathic behavior. Positing the psychopath as incapable of experiencing sufficient fear to foster avoidance learning, the low-fear hypothesis depicts the psychopath as having an emotional deficit that they are incapable of overcoming. In support of this model is a vast body of evidence, spanning behavioral, cognitive, emotional, physiological, and now also neuroscientific work, which consistently indicates that the psychopath shows a striking insensitivity to punishing and fear-eliciting stimuli. Indeed, evidence of the psychopath’s insensitivity to punishing and fear-eliciting stimuli may be their most consistently identified characteristic. However, there is a potentially important distinction between can’t and don’t; that is, there is a potentially important distinction between the psychopath who can’t experience these emotions, and the psychopath who can do so, but doesn’t for some secondary (and as of yet unidentified) reason. For instance, the psychopath who can’t do so may be untreatable, as has long been considered fact. In contrast, the psychopath who can but doesn’t may show amenability to a variety of potential treatment opportunities. With this in mind, CANdiLab has made the careful evaluation of the psychopath’s emotional and cognitive capacities a priority project. Early work in the lab, reported in The Journal of Personality, suggested that healthy individuals who were unwilling to pay attention to negatively-valent information could manifest attentional and learning patterns similar to that of psychopathic populations (Shane & Peterson, 2004). More recent work, aided by funding from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has directly evaluated psychopaths’ capacity to experience a variety of emotional states. Long-term work may focus on developing treatment programs capable of stimulating emotional states in psychopaths deemed capable of such experiences.

Facilitating Error Monitoring Processes in Healthy Individuals

Neuroscience research over the past two decades has identified and characterized a very specific neural signature that appears whenever an individual becomes aware of the fact that they’ve made a mistake. Sometimes referred to as the “oh sh#t!” response, this neural signature has been localized to a brain region called the anterior cingulate, and occurs following committed errors as well as after feedback indicating that the person has made a mistake. Of potential importance, the magnitude of this error-related anterior cingulate response has been shown to predict their ability to learn from that mistake, and to correct that mistake in the future. Thus, when people show larger anterior cingulate responses following mistakes, they become less likely to repeat that mistake again in the future. CANdiLab has recently undertaken a pilot study designed to investigate the extent to which healthy individuals with intact brain function can learn to increase their post-error anterior cingulate response. Participants performed a time-estimation task during which they received correct and incorrect feedback indicating their ability to accurately estimate a one-second duration. In press at PLoS One, we have reported that this individuals were indeed able to increase their anterior cingulate response following errors when asked to do so; moreover, these increases predicted a concomitant change in their estimation attempt on the following trial. While extremely preliminary, this research suggests that formal training to increase error-related anterior cingulate activity may hold the ability to facilitate learning mechanisms in healthy individuals.

Attentional Biases towards Positive and Negative Information

While people are very familiar with the saying ‘you are what you eat’, a greater truism may be that ‘you are what you attend to’. Indeed, a long-standing literature supports the notion that people hold attentional biases towards or away from positively- and negatively-valent information, and that this bias holds considerable relationship to your broader personality. Individuals high in anxiety, for instance, show reliable attentional biases towards stimuli that invoke an anxiety response; individuals high in depression, in turn, are more likely to show ruminative attention on sad or depressing information. Whether the person’s personality leads to subsequent attentional bias, or the person’s attentional bias promotes a specific personality disposition remains poorly understood, but recent research suggests a potentially bidirectional relationship. In either case, research in our lab and others have initiated a variety of research projects aimed at evaluating the extent to which attention modification training may serve a therapeutic role.

The Dark Side of Perspective Taking

Perspective taking is generally considered to be a positive trait, and people who are high in perspective taking are generally assumed to be thoughtful, considerate and empathetic, with an ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes. But is this always the case? What about the con-artist, who finds a way to manipulate situations towards their own gain? Or the serial killer, who finds a way to prey on the weaknesses and emotions of others? The existence of these personalities suggests that perspective taking may not always be synonymous with empathy and compassion, but rather may simple exist as a skill which can be used towards social and antisocial ends, alike. In a new line of research, just commencing, CANdiLab will undertake a programmatic line of work to investigate the various sides of perspective taking. This work seeks to provide a better understanding of one of our most valuable social skills, and to delineate when perspective taking does, and does not, occur together with empathy and concern. The psychopathic individual may serve as a particularly useful specimen, as modern characterizations of the disorder posit high perspective taking concurrent with significantly attenuated empathic concern.