Serial Killers, the Brain, and the Mind: Empathy Research in Current Society

“I am the most cold-blooded son of a bitch you’ll ever meet…I just liked to kill, I wanted to kill.”

Such were the words of the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.  Ted Bundy was a psychopath, suffering from a disorder characterized by “aggressive narcissism” and a “socially deviant lifestyle.” These two traits are clinically diagnosed most frequently using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a clinical tool that evaluates twenty behaviors and characteristics of individuals, such as frequency of pathological lying, a lack of remorse or empathy, and juvenile delinquency. Traits are rated on a scale of 0 to 2, and the tests are scored from 0 to 40, in which higher scores equate to higher levels of psychopathy.1

Psychopathy, which occurs along a spectrum, claims victims ranging from conmen to sexual serial killers like Ted Bundy. Although psychopaths display a wide variety of symptoms, all psychopaths share one common trait: a deficiency in empathy.2 Empathy, as defined by the University of Chicago’s Dr. Jean Decety, is a) the capacity to share and understand emotions, and b) the capacity to care about another.  Dr. Decety further defines the psychopath as “someone who lacks empathy and attachment to others” and someone who does not “feel connected”.   Decety states that psychopaths do not feel the same affective arousal when others are in distress, get hurt or punished, and do not care for their wellbeing.3

Dr. Decety, a neurobiologist and professor at the University of Chicago, has been studying empathy—and the lack thereof—for the past ten years with both children and adults.   Currently, his primary project involves comparing MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of prisoners who have committed violent crimes against control subjects, who are not affected by psychopathy.  While performing the MRI, Dr. Decety exposes participants to a series of short, violent video clips.   Dr. Decety believes that the control individuals will find the clips disturbing or upsetting—an empathetic reaction—and experience specific patterns of brain activity in the insula, amygdala, and orbitofrontal cortex while watching these clips.  These brain areas have been linked with experiencing aversion and anxiety.4  The psychopaths will, on the other hand, experience little or no similar negative emotion and very different neural activity in the aforementioned areas in response to the clips.

But why examine the abnormal and the psychopathic to learn about empathy? Says Dr. Decety, “To study empathy, as in psychiatry and affective developmental neuroscience, one should also look at when the system is broken: When there is a dysfunction.”3  By studying the brain scans, Dr. Decety hopes to see a change in the brain activity and changes in the connectivity between regions of the brain that are critical to emotion and moral decision-making.  This would render finding the dysfunctional circuitry or region a simpler task, and once the dysfunction is found, it is not a far leap towards beginning to understand the mechanisms that underpin the experience of empathy in normal individuals.

Dr. Decety’s research has multiple purposes: while furthering the understanding of the brain’s mechanisms and functions is and has been a paramount goal, he also hopes to make progress in early-intervention strategies for psychopathy.  Unfortunately, no definitive cure exists for psychopathy, and the efficacy of cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy are controversial.2  Dr. Decety himself admits this, saying, “When you’re a psychopath, you’re a psychopath for life—there’s no way we can ‘cure’ you.” However, Dr. Decety is hopeful that expanding knowledge of the empathy within the brain will provide new therapies and intervention methods. Dr. Decety has begun screening young children with callous traits for psychopathy using MRIs and electroencephalography with the hope that early detection and intervention can increase the success of intervention.

While a cure for psychopathy is not on the immediate horizon, research conducted by Dr. Decety could potentially provide insight necessary to investigate more effective methods of intervention. In extreme cases like psychopath and serial killer Ted Bundy, who killed over thirty women in the short span of four years, psychopathy can have devastating effects on society.  Better understanding of the mechanisms of empathy and the regions involved will provide the world with a chance to intervene before tragedy occurs.


  1. Haycock, Dean. “Hare Psychopathy Checklist.” Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. Kentucky: Cengage Learning, 2003.
  2. Lee, Jessica.  The Treatment of Psychopathic and Antisocial Personality Disorders: A Review.  London: RAMAS: Risk Assessment, Management, and Audit Systems, 1999.
  3. Dr. Jean Decety (professor at the University of Chicago) in discussion with the author, April 2012.
  4. Blair, R. James.  “Neurobiological Basis of Psychopathy.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 182 (2003): 5-7.
  5. Image credit (Creative Commons): Codina. “MRI EGC Sagittal.” Wikimedia Commons. Last modified September 26, 2011.

Sydney Reitz is a rising second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in comparative human development and psychology. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.