An Investigation of Self-Report and Psychophysiologic Empathic Responses In Non-Psychopathic and Psychopathic Individuals
AuthorKirsch, Laura G.
AdvisorBecker, Judith V.
Committee ChairBecker, Judith V.
MetadataShow full item record
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractA lack of empathy is considered to be a hallmark feature of psychopathy. However, remarkably little research has specifically examined the relationship between psychopathy and empathy, and what does exist relies solely on self-report measures, which is problematic given psychopaths' propensity for dishonesty. This research signifies an attempt to develop an objective measure of empathy, using psychophysiological indices of emotional experience as indicators of an empathic response. Specifically, corrugator and zygomatic facial muscle activity, event-related heart rate, and acoustic startle reflex responses were measured while participants viewed brief films of individuals experiencing happy and sad emotional events.Pilot investigations of the films suggest they are appropriate for eliciting happy and sad empathic emotion, and the pattern of responses by undergraduates with high and low trait levels of empathy indicates the validity of the approach, and the promise of utilizing psychophysiological indices of emotional responding to measure situational empathy in an objective manner. In particular, participants demonstrated patterns of psychophysiological responses to the empathy-inducing films which both matched their self-reported emotional experiences as well as the emotional valence of the stimuli. Moreover, several of the psychophysiological indices were able to discriminate high and low empathy individuals, whereby low empathy participants exhibited less facial expressiveness and less modulation of the acoustic startle reflex to the empathy-inducing stimuli than their high empathy counterparts.The paradigm was then extended to a sample of male undergraduates with high and low levels of psychopathic traits, as assessed by the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised. Results suggest a significant negative relationship between self-reported psychopathy and self-reported dispositional empathy, with high levels of psychopathy associated with low levels of dispositional empathy, particularly with respect to affective empathy. However, despite differences in dispositional empathy, psychopathic and non-psychopathic undergraduates were not easily discriminated on subjective or objective measures of situational empathy, with the exception of an anomalous pattern of zygomatic EMG activity exhibited by the psychopathic participants. The implications of these findings are discussed with respect to the nature of the empathic capabilities of psychopaths, as well as considerations of the methodological limitations of the current study and directions for future research.