Background: Empathy dysfunction is one of the hallmarks of psychopathy, but it is also sometimes thought to characterise autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Individuals with either condition can appear uncaring towards others. This study set out to compare and contrast directly boys with psychopathic tendencies and boys with ASD on tasks assessing aspects of affective empathy and cognitive perspective taking. The main aim of the study was to assess whether a distinct profile of empathy deficits would emerge for boys with psychopathic tendencies and ASD, and whether empathy deficits would be associated with conduct problems in general, rather than psychopathic tendencies or ASD specifically.
Methods: Four groups of boys aged between 9 and 16 years (N = 96) were compared: 1) psychopathic tendencies, 2) ASD, 3) conduct problems and 4) comparison. Tasks were included to probe attribution of emotions to self, empathy for victims of aggression and cognitive perspective-taking ability.
Results: Boys with psychopathic tendencies had a profile consistent with dysfunctional affective empathy. They reported experiencing less fear and less empathy for victims of aggression than comparison boys. Their cognitive perspective-taking abilities were not statistically significantly different from those of comparison boys. In contrast, boys with ASD had difficulties with tasks requiring cognitive perspective taking, but reported emotional experiences and victim empathy that were in line with comparison boys. Boys with conduct problems did not differ from comparison boys, suggesting that the affective empathy deficit seen in boys with psychopathic tendencies was specific to that group, rather than common to all boys with conduct problems.
Conclusions: Although both groups can appear uncaring, our findings suggest that the affective/information processing correlates of psychopathic tendencies and ASD are quite different. Psychopathic tendencies are associated with difficulties in resonating with other people's distress, whereas ASD is characterised by difficulties in knowing what other people think.
© 2010 The Authors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry © 2010 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.