Reduced Multivoxel Pattern Similarity of Vicarious Neural Pain Responses in Psychopathy

J Pers Disord. 2020 Oct;34(5):628-649. doi: 10.1521/pedi.2020.34.5.628.


Psychopathy is a personality construct characterized by interpersonal callousness, boldness, and disinhibition, traits that vary continuously across the population and are linked to impaired empathic responding to others' distress and suffering. Following suggestions that empathy reflects neural self-other mapping-for example, the similarity of neural responses to experienced and observed pain, measurable at the voxel level-we used a multivoxel approach to assess associations between psychopathy and empathic neural responses to pain. During fMRI scanning, 21 community-recruited participants varying in psychopathy experienced painful pressure stimulation and watched a live video of a stranger undergoing the same stimulation. As total psychopathy, coldheartedness, and self-centered impulsivity increased, multivoxel similarity of vicarious and experienced pain in the left anterior insula decreased, effects that were not observed following an empathy prompt. Our data provide preliminary evidence that psychopathy is characterized by disrupted spontaneous empathic representations of others' pain that may be reduced by instructions to empathize.

Keywords: anterior insula; empathy; multivoxel pattern similarity; psychopathy; vicarious pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder* / diagnostic imaging
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Pain