Person who lacks empathy

A neurological basis for the lack of empathy

image: This is response in the right amygdala across groups of low (L), medium (M) and high (H) psychopathy participants, when they adopted an imagine-self and an imagine-other affective perspective while viewing bodily injuries. Groupwise effects (bars at the bottom of the figure) are expanded to show the contribution of continuous PCL-R subscores on factor 1, which encompasses the emotional/interpersonal features of psychopathy. view more 

Credit: Decety. J, Chenyi. C, Harenski. C, and Kiehl. K, A. <i>Frontiers in Human Neuroscience</i>, 2013.

When individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and be connected to other important regions involved in affective processing and decision-making, reports a study published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow affect, glibness, manipulation and callousness. Previous research indicates that the rate of psychopathy in prisons is around 23%, greater than the average population which is around 1%.

To better understand the neurological basis of empathy dysfunction in psychopaths, neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the brains of 121 inmates of a medium-security prison in the USA.

Participants were shown visual scenarios illustrating physical pain, such as a finger caught between a door, or a toe caught under a heavy object. They were by turns invited to imagine that this accident happened to themselves, or somebody else. They were also shown control images that did not depict any painful situation, for example a hand on a doorknob.

Participants were assessed with the widely used PCL-R, a diagnostic tool to identify their degree of psychopathic tendencies. Based on this assessment, the participants were then divided in three groups of approximately 40 individuals each: highly, moderately, and weakly psychopathic.

When highly psychopathic participants imagined pain to themselves, they showed a typical neural response within the brain regions involved in empathy for pain, including the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. The increase in brain activity in these regions was unusually pronounced, suggesting that psychopathic people are sensitive to the thought of pain.

But when participants imagined pain to others, these regions failed to become active in high psychopaths. Moreover, psychopaths showed an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain.

This atypical activation combined with a negative functional connectivity between the insula and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex may suggest that individuals with high scores on psychopathy actually enjoyed imagining pain inflicted on others and did not care for them. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a region that plays a critical role in empathetic decision-making, such as caring for the wellbeing of others.

Taken together, this atypical pattern of activation and effective connectivity associated with perspective taking manipulations may inform intervention programs in a domain where therapeutic pessimism is more the rule than the exception. Altered connectivity may constitute novel targets for intervention. Imagining oneself in pain or in distress may trigger a stronger affective reaction than imagining what another person would feel, and this could be used with some psychopaths in cognitive-behavior therapies as a kick-starting technique, write the authors.



Prof Jean Decety
Department of Psychology and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience
University of Chicago, USA
E-mail: [email protected]

Gozde Zorlu
Press Manager, Frontiers
gozde. [email protected]

Note to Editors

To request a copy of the embargoed paper, please contact Gozde Zorlu: [email protected]

Please cite "Frontiers in Human Neuroscience" as the publication and include a link to the paper, which will become available on the following active URL:

Article title: An fMRI study of affective perspective taking in individuals with psychopathy: imagining another in pain does not evoke empathy
Journal: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00489

List of authors: Jean Decety, Chenyi Chen, Carla Harenski and Kent A. Kiehl.

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Lack of Empathy: What it Means and How to Deal

Empathy is a fundamental part of building meaningful social connections. For some people, though, developing it may be a challenge.

Understanding another person’s feelings and experiences, even if opposite to ours, may allow us to respond in a supportive way and regulate our own emotions.

What happens when you don’t feel it? Is it possible to lack empathy altogether? And if so, is this a sign of a mental health condition? There are many possible answers to these questions, even though this is still an evolving area of research.

In general, empathy is the ability to understand or sense another person’s perspective, feelings, needs, or intentions, even when you don’t share the same circumstances. It can sometimes involve acting on that understanding, including offering help.

But empathy doesn’t always lead to action. It may depend on the type of empathy you’ve developed.

According to psychologists and researchers Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman, there are three main types of empathy:

1. Cognitive empathy

This type of empathy is an intellectual understanding of someone else’s feelings. It’s the ability to consider other perspectives without sensing or experiencing them yourself.

For example, if a colleague loses their job, you may recognize what emotions they could be feeling. You could also understand how their emotions might affect their behavior. This doesn’t mean you experience distress yourself.

2. Affective or ‘emotional’ empathy

People who have emotional empathy tend to feel another person’s emotions. Although not always the case, this may also include physical sensations consistent with such emotion.

For example, if you see someone under great distress after losing a loved one, you feel sad yourself and could experience chest or stomach pain while sensing that emotion in the other person.

3. Compassionate empathy or ‘empathetic concern’

Compassionate empathy is a combination of cognitive and emotional empathy. You recognize and understand another person’s emotions and also feel them.

Taking on another person’s challenges and hurt may end up taking a toll on you. This is why some people may not develop this type of empathy.

However, relating to other people’s suffering may also lead you to consider helping. And research suggests that when you do help, your body produces more dopamine — a “feel-good” hormone. This then leads and motivates you to continue acting on your cognitive and emotional empathy.

Examples of compassionate empathy include stopping your car to help if you see someone fall or donating to a cause after a natural disaster.

Can you have one type of empathy only?

Not everyone develops compassionate empathy, and there are also different levels of emotional or cognitive empathy.

For example, you could feel sad that your partner is experiencing a challenge (emotional empathy). It hurts you to see them hurt.

Yet, you may not really understand why they feel this way. Or you may even feel that their reason for feeling sad isn’t serious enough to warrant these emotions. You may have difficulty seeing the situation from their perspective (cognitive empathy).

Because of this, you may not experience compassionate empathy.

Empathy exists on a spectrum, and in most cases, it isn’t entirely absent — it’s just diminished.

Because empathy is an ability, most people can develop it. Having low empathy doesn’t mean you’ll feel this way forever.

In some cases, due to illness or trauma, some people may have extremely low empathy and a diminished capacity to develop it. However, they still have the capacity.

Because everyone is different, and empathy is a spectrum, low empathy or lack of empathy can be challenging to spot.

In general, some of the signs someone may lack empathy include:

1. Being critical and judgmental

People who have low empathy may excessively criticize other people for experiencing or expressing emotions in certain scenarios.

Someone with a lack of empathy may also blame the person for what they’re experiencing. For example, they may say things like, “If you didn’t do those things, you wouldn’t be in trouble now.”

Someone who isn’t empathetic may also label people or behaviors without considering the context. For example, they may criticize a colleague for being late, without realizing or appreciating that they have a sick child at home.

2. Thinking it wouldn’t happen to them

Someone with low empathy may have trouble connecting to other people’s circumstances.

They may believe that a certain event would never happen to them, or that they could handle the situation “much better.” Because they feel this is the case, they won’t be able to understand or feel the other person’s distress.

3. Calling other people ‘too sensitive’

Because they have difficulty understanding another person’s perspective and sensing their emotions, a person that lacks empathy will sometimes think emotional reactions are not valid, or they may act in dismissive ways.

They may think people’s feelings are optional or come from what they may perceive as an emotional deficit. “You’re feeling that way because you want to or because you’re too sensitive, not because it’s really that bad.”

4. Responding in inappropriate ways

Someone with low empathy may joke about someone’s emotions or circumstances. They may also have a difficult time actively listen to you. They could also act chirpy or indifferent after you just expressed feeling sad or stressed.

Someone who is empathetic might try to cheer you up if they see you down. But someone who isn’t may ignore how you feel altogether.

5. Having trouble understanding how their behavior affects others

Often, low empathy may result in a person not realizing that their actions can affect others. Other times, they may understand that their behavior impacts other people, but they may not feel remorseful about it.

This means that someone may act in selfish or vindictive ways without realizing or caring if that hurts you.

6. Difficulty maintaining relationships

Low empathy may lead to constant friction in relationships or a lack of meaningful bonds.

When someone has a difficult time understanding other people’s feelings or acting in helpful ways, they may end up with few or no meaningful connections. Sometimes, they’re not even aware this is happening.

Everyone may experience low empathy at times. For example, it may be natural to have difficulty feeling and expressing empathy toward someone who has harmed us.

There is some debate on whether a person is born with low empathy or if upbringing, social factors, or life experiences may hinder their ability to develop it, or even limit it. Genetics may also play a role.

Other possible factors associated with low empathy include:

Personality and developmental disorders

  • narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)
  • Machiavellianism
  • sociopathy or antisocial personality disorder
  • borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • alexithymia
  • autism

Among these conditions, levels of empathy can vary. Among individuals, levels can vary even more so.

For example, research suggests that some people with BPD may have difficulty developing emotional empathy but may display cognitive empathy.

Machiavellianism (a personality trait) and NPD (a mental health condition) have long been associated with a lack of empathy. However, one study suggests that people with these traits and disorders actually have a certain degree of empathy — they just may lack the motivation to show or act on it.

Additionally, autistic people can sometimes have difficulties with cognitive empathy. However, they may develop emotional empathy but face challenges with expressing it. A 2018 study suggests that possible low empathy among autistic people is not related directly to the causes of autism but rather to the co-occurrence of alexithymia.


Because empathy is partly a learned behavior, you may not be as empathetic if you didn’t experience much empathy while growing up.

Also, if you were alone much of the time, you may not have had the opportunity to practice empathy. This, too, can lead to a reduction of empathetic expression.

Low emotional intelligence, burnout, and stress

Emotional intelligence may be linked to empathy. If you haven’t developed this type of intelligence, you may also have low empathy.

Being under prolonged stress may also lead someone to be less tolerant of other people’s behavior and have lower cognitive empathy.

In some cases, emotional avoidance may also be a reason why someone may not develop or practice empathy. If someone is emotionally burned out, they may avoid all additional sources of distress, including relating to someone else’s difficulties.

In general, research also shows that some people may not develop compassionate empathy because of its perceived costs, like mental effort, time, and emotional weight.

Empathy can be developed. Here are a few tips for working on it:

Building cognitive empathy

Consider asking questions whenever you feel you don’t understand what the other person feels:

  • “How do you feel about this?”
  • “What were you hoping for?”
  • “Is there anything else going on in your life you may want to talk about?”

You could also work on being more observant of body language. You may be able to tap into someone else’s emotions if you notice a change in their expressions. This may also include focusing on nonverbal cues like tone of voice and change in habits.

Learning more about what’s important to those around you may also help you notice when their mood changes, even if you don’t feel the same way they do.

For example, if you know this person cares a lot about their pet — even if you don’t like animals — you may understand why the loss of their companion is devastating to them.

Increasing emotional empathy

Working on recognizing your own emotions may help you connect with other people. Not everyone will recognize how they feel at all times or why they act in a certain way.

For example, you may act irritable and impatient today without realizing it’s because you’ve been sad about an argument you had yesterday.

Learning to connect your emotions with your actions may help you connect with other people’s emotions, too.

You could also practice listening more attentively and resisting the desire to tell the other person about your personal experience when they’re talking about themselves.

When you do, consider focusing on how they feel and why they may be feeling this way.

Enhancing compassionate empathy

As you develop both cognitive and emotional empathy, you’ll be more likely to have compassionate empathy and step into action when you see someone having a difficult time.

There are many types and levels of empathy. How much empathy you have depends on many factors, and may vary according to the situation.

Empathy may help you exhibit more helping behaviors and could also improve your relationships.

If you feel you could be more empathetic, you’ve taken the first step. Empathy is something you can develop, and it starts with awareness.

If you feel you’re having a challenging time developing empathy, you may want to seek the support of a mental health professional who can work with you in practicing a few techniques that may help.

People who lack empathy: lack of interest in others

Some people are the real light on our path, while others have become a growing darkness that hinders our progress. In the same way, there are people who will do everything for us, even the most unimaginable things, and others who would not even lift a finger for our welfare. Each of us attaches differently to others, depending on the context. As a result, some relationships enrich our lives and others, not so much. This can happen to people who lack empathy. nine0005

Have you ever noticed that some people don't understand that you can be wrong? Have you ever been associated with people who don't consider your thoughts or feelings? These are people who don't show empathy and don't try to put themselves in the other person's shoes.

Empathy is the ability to understand each other's vision of reality, perceiving and being aware of their feelings. Some people do not enjoy this quality. Therefore, we will see more precisely how these people are, what problems can be associated with them and how we can relate to them. nine0005

The less empathy you have, the fewer friends you have. Putting yourself in the other person's shoes helps us grow as a person and see our relationships thrive.



  • 1 Things that people without empathy do not do
  • 2 Lack of empathy and selfishness
  • 3 Diseases associated with lack of empathy
  • ?
  • 5 What goes on in the mind of a psychopath?

Things that people without empathy do not do

People who are not interested in others may not be able to develop certain relationships because they are unable (or not interested in fact) to understand and perceive the feelings of another. There are cases of selfless people who lack empathy, and we're going to look into some of the things they don't:

  • Pay attention: they don't pay attention to you because they are self-centered or because what happens to you doesn't interest them.
  • Be sensitive: even if you tell them what you think and feel, they don't try to understand what is happening to you.
  • Trust: Because they don't perceive what we think and feel, people who lack empathy don't feel secure in their relationships.
  • Trust in the feelings of others: selfless people doubt our emotions. It's very cold in front of them.
  • Show compassion: They have no desire to take away the pain or suffering of others.

If you remember these characteristics, you can easily recognize people who lack empathy in your environment. But remember that there are nuances in any relationship. Some people have very little empathy, while others have too much.

Lack of empathy and selfishness

People who don't have empathy never confuse themselves. They do not concern themselves with the feelings and thoughts of others. One of the most egregious characteristics of unselfish people is their selfishness.

Thus, people who lack empathy can be very selfish because they only think about their own welfare and leave the needs of others. They use the situation to take advantage. And at the same time take advantage of us.

For them, the relationship must be mutual, and they take this fact to the extreme. nine0004 They only give if they get something in return. So they don't do anything selflessly. They connect with others in a utilitarian way and turn manipulation into a lifestyle.

These people may seem very cold because we live with them in unpleasant situations in which we feel misunderstood. They only care about their own well being. They are unfriendly people who are not related to others.

Diseases associated with lack of empathy

We can all experience a lack of empathy at some point. However, some people clearly and consistently demonstrate this feature. Some psychological disorders are closely related to a lack of empathy. Here they are:

  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder: people are self-centered and extremely concerned about themselves. They leave the rest aside. The lack of empathy in this personality disorder is due to the fact that they cannot see beyond their own personality. nine0026
  • psychopathy: people cannot conform to social norms and cannot connect with others. They obviously lack empathy.
  • Limitation of personality disorder: people suffer from emotional instability and have difficulty maintaining stable relationships. She has much more trouble understanding and understanding how others feel.

When you try to explain to them why their reaction hurts you, they usually don't get it. nine0004 They even make you feel guilty by returning your jacket and telling you that you didn't do well. Be careful: a lack of empathy can do great harm to those who are victimized.

How to deal with people who lack empathy?

Some people who don't have empathy don't just have trouble understanding us; they also manipulate us to get what they want. Here are some ideas to better deal with these people:

  • Set limits: You are the one who decides that these people cannot marry you. Be careful!
  • Choose your friends: if you feel like you only see your own needs, stay away from them. They make you uncomfortable.
  • Use confidence: communicate what you want to say in the clearest possible way. Others will know how you feel. This way you won't confuse a person who lacks empathy for someone who has trouble communicating adequately what they mean. nine0026
  • Stay away if you do not feel an emotional connection: if you do not understand that there is a connection between your thoughts, your feelings and the feelings of another, leave. You may find yourself in front of a person who lacks empathy.

Extremes lead us nowhere. Sometimes we may be mistaken and see only our own interests, but this does not mean that we are not people without empathy. It is important to know how to choose the people around you. The ones we trust. We will know who we can count on during difficult times. nine0005

People who lack empathy have no interest in others at all. Therefore, they cannot put themselves in our own skin to understand what we feel and think. They see no further than the tip of their nose and are constantly in their comfort zone.

Avoid you have people who make you feel guilty. They are only trying to take you to their field to make the most of your vulnerability. They are cold, manipulative people who don't really express how they feel and will never understand the situation you're going through. nine0005

What goes on in the mind of a psychopath?

Why are we so attracted to these people? What goes on in the mind of a psychopath? Read this article to learn more about these people. Learn more

How to tell if someone has no sympathy and what you need to do / My life

Have you always wondered how to tell if someone has no sympathy? Did you know that empathy deficit syndrome is a real thing? Let's take a closer look.

One of the most beautiful traits of a caring person is the ability to empathize. This is the ability to be able to put yourself in the place of another and truly understand your emotions and pain. As a result, you will be able to listen correctly, give advice and, probably, significantly change the life of a suffering person. But do we all have empathy? If you're wondering how to tell if someone doesn't have empathy, read on. nine0005

Empathy and empath are not the same

Before we go any further, we must point out that someone who has empathy is different from an empath. An empath is someone who absorbs another person's emotions just by standing next to them. It's not like our chat.

Here we are going to focus on the ability to act with compassion, showing empathy for another person. However, we need to think about those people who have no empathy at all. They exist and being around them can be quite frustrating. nine0005

Do some people lack empathy?

Although empathy is a perfectly natural trait, it is not something everyone has or is easy to show. There is actually an issue related to this problem called Empathy Deficit Syndrome or EDD for short. This is a person who finds it difficult or impossible to really go beyond their own situation and their own head to be able to think about how someone else might be feeling. Obviously, being in a relationship with someone with EDD would be quite difficult. nine0005

If you want to protect yourself from those who lack empathy, it's important to know what to look for. To help you out, we'll talk about the signs of how to say someone doesn't have empathy, and then you can either step aside or try to help *if you really want* that particular person.

How to tell if someone doesn't have empathy - 8 signs that give it away

If you have a friend or partner who exhibits the behavioral traits of someone with empathy deficit disorder, it won't be the easiest relationship. Pay attention to these signs:

# 1 They criticize the actions of another person without thinking about their particular situation. .

# 3 They think their beliefs are 100% fact, not opinion.

# 4 They don't have many friends and often argue with their family.

# 5 They don't really show much joy when something good happens to another person. nine0005

# 6 They like everything in their own way.

# 7 They like to hear their own voice, for example they like to talk and people listen to them.

# 8 They put the blame on the other person, even if it was their fault in the first place. empathy for other people.

Is there a reason some people don't have empathy?? nine0004

You might think that once you've decided that you know how to say that someone doesn't have empathy and you recognize that person, he's a terrible person and you should avoid him. This may be true, but it is probably not reality. In fact, there may be some underlying reasons why a person lacks this most basic human skill.

Much of this goes back to our childhood. Yes, we will indeed go there! To show empathy, we must see it in action. Children learn by seeing and copying, and this is the same as empathy. If a parent has never shown love or empathy for their child, it is very likely that the child will grow up cold and lack empathy. nine0005

As a result, it is important to show children that being in touch with your feelings and expressing your emotions is not weakness, but strength. By doing this, you help them better communicate with the feelings of others - by developing empathy from a young age. who simply does not have empathy will be able to change their way of thinking and return to the right path. In this case, talking to a psychologist and doing some cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a good option. To do this, however, the person must understand the problem and be prepared that many people are not open to. nine0005

What do you do when you're around someone who doesn't have empathy?

It depends on how close you are to them. If you are in a relationship with someone who lacks empathy, you are likely to be very unhappy. It's really that simple. If the person you're with doesn't see that they have an empathy problem and don't want to fix it, you will never get the love connection you crave and deserve.

But how can you tell if someone doesn't have empathy from the start? They don't understand people who show emotions and they put you down if you do that. This is a clear indicator, and if you are in a relationship with someone like this, you will probably notice this trait very early. In general, they are quite cold. nine0005

Should you stay or should you go?

Ultimately, you have to decide if you are willing to put up with such a rather miserable relationship or if you want to move on. Personally, I'd say move on, but I'm not in your situation.

If it's not a relationship and it's a friend you suspect lacks empathy, maybe try to limit your time around it. It's not selfish to want to do things for yourself and want to feel good about who you are. If this person constantly feels humiliated and farfetched, and he really cannot see that what he is doing is harmful, why do you need them in your life ?? nine0005

One of the key reasons on our "how to know if someone has no sympathy" list was the fact that they have friendship problems or very few friends at all. This is not surprising. People don't want to feel judged or emotionally limited towards another person, they want to feel supported and supported.

You can try to sit down with your friend and solve the problem, explain how you feel, but if they really have an EDD, or they really believe you are wrong and not them, you are unlikely to get very far. Trying, however, is what you need to tell yourself in the future. nine0005

If that doesn't work, don't feel guilty about leaving.

Learn more