Empathic responding has been associated with a number of positive outcomes including: more satisfaction in peer relationships, lowered aggression, fewer instances of rule-breaking and disregard for the rights of others (antisocial behavior), and greater general social competence (Eisenberg, 1997).  This greater social competence, especially the ability to “stand in another’s shoes” also has broader social and systemic consequences.

Although each person is bound by a particular body, skin color and hair texture, through empathy individuals can say if not “I can understand where you are coming from,” at least “I understand that your experience is different than my own and that it is different does not make it any less human than my own.”  From this understanding of experiential mirroring and validation, individuals, families, communities and nations can move toward a more peaceful coexistence.

The positive effects of empathy are not doubted either actually or academically.  However, noticing that positive behaviors are resultant from empathy, does not mean that the reverse is also true.  Prosocial behaviors do seem to have a cascading effect, in which they spread throughout existing social networks and onward into the wider world.  But, what happens though when an individual member of an existing social network is “immune” to “catching” prosocial behaviors?

As Eisenberg suggested, empathy development seems to be largely related to both temperament/heredity and learned behaviors, like emotional regulation/socialization.  If an individual is born with genetic material from two people with severe and untreated mental illness, lacks early attachment objects, does not experience any tangible benefits to using emotional regulation and engages in coercive processes with both family and peers, they may be more likely to develop Antisocial Personality Disorder (1997; American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Granic, 2006).

Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder lack the ability to feel empathy.  For a variety of reasons, they lack the neurological connections required to engage sympathetically with others, and instead engage in highly manipulative ways.  When these individuals experience negative consequences as a result of negative behaviors, they may demonstrate negative affect, but under further investigation it becomes clear that the emotional upset has more to do with “getting caught” and having to deal with the consequences than remorse or shame (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Maddux, 2008).

In an interview with a young man diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder and serving a life sentence for raping and murdering two prepubescent girls, Dr. Bruce Perry described the man’s version of the story as being one in which he fell victim to the girls’ unfulfilled insinuations of sexual activity, and that his actions were, in turn, understandable given their provocation.  During the interview, Perry noted the young man’s lack of affect while describing the crime in detail, but apparent affect while speaking about his current prison sentence.  The young man’s upset was due to the consequences he currently experienced, and was entirely divorced from the anguish he caused (2006).

Although the adjective “antisocial” is somewhat overused and sensationalized in popular media, Antisocial Personality Disorder is a distinct, pervasive mental illness characterized by a consistent disregard for the rights of others.  Although all brains demonstrate plasticity, these individuals’ brains seem to lack much of the required structural development needed for advanced planning and social interest.  Additionally, the axiom “use it or lose it” is quite descriptive when it comes to general brain function; if an individual has been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, the individual has been operating without empathy for many years and did not learn or practice the skill during developmentally critical periods (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Maddux, 2008; Perry, 2006).

Proposing to teach individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder empathy, as in true relational mirroring and validation, is by definition a lost cause.  Instead, if systems and practitioners want to increase prosocial behaviors in individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder, they should focus on behavioral reinforcements and the idea that looking out for oneself is not ultimately best served by hurting other people in the process.  Increasing inhibition and conscientiousness, if possible, would also be an effective step toward decreasing antisocial behaviors.  When teaching new skills, it is important that instructors scaffold learning from the same theoretical foundation as the person they are trying to teach.  Since individuals dealing with Antisocial Personality Disorder are not standing on a foundation of empathy, clinicians must stand with them on the foundation of self-interest.  Perhaps this unique population can not only decrease antisocial behaviors, but also increase prosocial behaviors.

American Psychiatric Association (2000) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (text revision). Washington, DC: Author.

Eisenberg, N. (1997) The development of empathy-related responding. Gender and Motivation, 45, 73-117.

Granic, I., Patterson, G.R. (2006) Toward a comprehensive model of antisocial development: A dynamic systems approach. Psychological Review, 113(1), 101-131

Maddux, J.E. & Winstead B.A. (eds.) (2008)  Psychopathology: Foundations for a contemporary understanding. New York: Routledge.

Perry, B.D., Szalavitz, M. (2006) The boy who was raised as a dog: and other stories from a child psychatrist’s notebook. Basic Books: New York, NY

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