Do Psychopaths Genuinely Lack Empathy, Or Are They Feeling You?

The most common observation made about psychopaths is that they feel no empathy. I have said it myself in Courtroom testimony, repeating a truism I picked up years ago: “they fail to empathize and are therefore prone to victimize.”

Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. 

As noted in an essential text (The Psychopathic Mind by J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D.) the science unequivocally “supports the hypothesis that psychopathic individuals” (i.e., those with “antisocial personality disorder”) “are autonomically hyporeactive.”  In other words, their biology is such that they do not experience emotions as intensely as others, and therefore, it is thought that they are not inhibited by guilt, fear, anxiety, self-doubt, or remorse. 

This does not mean that con men and criminals have no feelings at all.  As Meloy observed, in situations where an emotional reaction would be expected from “a more socialized, empathic individual,” they might feel little or nothing. But at the same time, they can can display “intense, unmodulated affect that is dramatized by its unpredictably.” 

It is readily observed that psychopaths experience feelings such as anger, resentment, envy and jealousy. Narcissism - a core element of the sociopathic character type - can produce powerful feelings of self-righteousness and entitlement. When caught and in custody, many will feel distress - not every one of them is a cool customer. 
Psychopaths certainly have the capacity to feel a range of emotions. The description of them as having reptilian (snake-like) brains is mostly a metaphor. When you consider how they are able to control, manipulate and dominate people, it is apparent that they are quite adept at understanding and sharing the feelings of others. 

Lack of “empathy” or not, they are typically quite skilled at “feeling you.”

How does a hardened male prisoner convince a female correctional officer to bring him nude photos of herself? How could that happen? An unrepentant killer once explained it to me. Over time, he connected as a real person and engaged her emotions. He shared her feelings, obtained her trust, created an emotional dependency, and then corrupted her. He had done this before, relying on his mastery of empathy to exploit the needs and feelings of others. 

It is no different with the sociopath selling a pyramid-scheme, a Ponzi investment, or a get-rich seminar. They can feel their victim’s greed or desperation, and the potency of their hopes and dreams. Showmen and carnival barkers feel their audience to entice and seduce them, as do all charlatans, hucksters and snake-oil peddlers. 

It is also no different with an aggressively domineering psychopath (aka, “bully”). Bullies operate by exploiting a power differential. It can be real or perceived, and either social or physical. In the interest of dominating, they seek to evoke feelings of shame, frustration, terror or fear. Their attacks are informed by their ability to sense the emotional vulnerabilities of their victims - to feel them and to know how they can be intimidated or twisted, provoked or incited. 

Psychopaths can have rich emotional lives. As narcissists, they strive for love, admiration, and self-indulgent gratification.  As predators, they are aroused by the hunt and the suffering of their prey. They may obtain pleasure in seeing others shamed and may find gratification in an opponent’s misery. It is thought that because they are emotionally hyporeactive, they seek excitement and stimulation. It takes more for them to feel alive, and so it makes sense that they would feed off the emotions of others. 

To say that a psychopath lacks “empathy” is to reach for a broader definition of the term. It is a definition of empathy that involves sympathy and an unselfish, altruistic impulse. It is an emotion that guides us towards feeling the pain of others and treating them as we would wish to be treated. 

When it is said that a psychopath is lacking in empathy, what is actually meant is that they are lacking in compassion, kindness, and a shared vision of morality. It means they reserve justice for themselves and believe that fairness is measured by what is good for them.
Whether in a dark alley or a high-rise tower, the psychopath seeks to dominate others in order to satisfy their own desires. To deploy fear, shame or deceit to acquire your submission, the psychopath needs to know how you feel and how you will react. They do not care about you or empathize in that sense, but you should never doubt that they are feeling you.