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Impaired empathy, but intact theory of mind in aggressive offenders


Kanske,  Philipp
Department Social Neuroscience, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Kanske, P. (2016). Impaired empathy, but intact theory of mind in aggressive offenders. Talk presented at Psychologie und Gehirn. Berlin, Germany. 2016-05-26 - 2016-05-28.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002B-335A-3
Severely aggressive behavior is a major burden for society, thus better understanding of the causes of aggression is critical. Aggressive behavior has been linked to deficits in social understanding, however the specifics of such deficits are unclear. Here, we aimed at comprehensively investigating affective and cognitive routes to understanding others in aggressive individuals to test if their ability to share others’ emotions is impaired or if they show deficits in taking others’ perspectives. Twenty-nine healthy men with a history of legally relevant aggressive behavior (i.e., serious assault) and 32 control participants were tested with a social video task (EmpaToM), that differentiates affective (empathy, compassion) and cognitive (Theory of Mind) aspects of social understanding. Additionally, questionnaires assessing dispositional and situational aggression and alexithymia were administered. Aggressive participants scored higher on all aggression questionnaires. Crucially, aggressive participants showed reduced empathic responding to emotional videos of others’ suffering. Empathic responding also correlated negatively with aggression severity. Furthermore, there was a tendency for lower compassion ratings, which was also negatively correlated to aggression severity. Theory of Mind performance, in contrast, was intact. Aggressive participants also scored higher in alexithymia, which correlated negatively with empathic responding and with compassion. A mediation analysis revealed that lower empathy ratings in men with a history of aggressive behavior were mediated by alexithymia. These findings stress the importance of distinguishing between affective and cognitive routes to social understanding for the occurrence of aggressive behavior and, thus, inform future developments of more efficient treatments.