A lack of empathy for others is one of the key characteristics associated with psychopathic behavior. But on the flip side, numerous cases showed psychopaths are able to engage in effective manipulation. A new study has now added more depth and nuance to understanding the mind behind such tendencies.

"Psychopaths can be extremely manipulative, which requires understanding of another’s thoughts," said Arielle Baskin-Sommers, professor of psychology at Yale University and senior author of the study. “But if they understand the thought of others, why do they inflict so much harm?"

At a maximum-security prison in Connecticut, Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues Lindsey Drayton and Laurie Santos studied 106 male inmates. A standard mental health questionnaire revealed that 22 of them were psychopathic, 28 were not psychopathic, and the rest could be categorized somewhere in the middle.

Theory of mind (ToM) refers to our ability to understand the intentions, desires, and beliefs of others in a social world. The quality develops in children by the time they reach the age of 4. Referencing how prior research on psychopathic tendencies relied on controlled ToM tasks (when someone intentionally considers the perspective of another person), the study chose to look at automatic ToM processing (when someone unintentionally represents the perspective of another person) instead.

The participants were given a simple computer-based test where they had to count the number of dots in a room. However, there was also an avatar standing in the room who may or may not have been able to see all the dots, depending on the direction he was facing. The participant was to verify how many dots either they or the avatar could see.

Typically, people are slower when answering how many dots the avatar can see if there are dots behind the avatar. This refers to "egocentric interference" as our perspective interferes with the avatar's perspective. But people are also slower in identifying how many dots they can see if the number differs from how many the avatar can see. This refers to "altercentric interference" as we are automatically affected by the avatar's perspective and find it difficult to ignore.

"It is like speaking in front of a class: Your attention should not be on the audience, but it is impossible to ignore social cues such as eye rolling or yawning," Baskin-Sommers explained. "That reflects our automatic process of considering the thoughts of those around us."

The results of the administered test showed that if the avatar could not see all the dots, non-psychopaths experienced a delay of 100 milliseconds while psychopaths experienced a delay of 60 milliseconds. Researchers also found that the lesser delay a participant experienced, the more assault charges they were convicted of. 

According to the study, this suggested that "psychopathic individuals have a diminished propensity to automatically think from another’s perspective," and that this may be "the cognitive root of their deficits in social functioning and moral behavior."

Baskin-Sommers added that psychopaths only have the ability to consider the thoughts of others if there is a specific goal they want to accomplish. The researchers hope to gain a deeper understanding of the psychopathic mind and develop strategies to deal with it.