Psychopaths can’t tell difference between fake tears and real sadness

Save the crocodile tears: Study shows psychopaths can’t tell the difference between fake crying and genuine sadness (and they don’t care when it’s real, anyway)

  • Study found people with psychopathic traits struggle more with some emotions
  • They had no problem identifying genuine or fake anger, happiness, and disgust
  • But for sadness and fear, they couldn’t tell difference between fake or genuine
  • Researchers say they respond the same to real tears as they would to fake ones 

Expressions of fear and sadness may be lost on people who have high levels of psychopathic traits.

According to a new study, these people have no problem recognizing the difference between genuine anger or happiness, and when these emotions are being faked.

But, the same cannot be said for when others are afraid or upset.

Instead, researchers found that people with high psychopathic traits could not tell the difference between genuine or fake emotions in these categories – and, they didn’t feel any more motivated to help when the expressions were real.

Expressions of fear and sadness may be lost on people who have high levels of psychopathic traits. A new study has found they cannot tell the difference between real tears and those that are faked. Stock image

In the study led by a team at Australian National University, the researchers presented participants with photographs of faces expressing different emotions, both real and faked.

And, for people with high levels of psychopathic traits, they found it was as if they were always being presented with fake, or so-called crocodile tears, when it came to sadness.

A similar effect was seen with fear.

‘For most people, if we see someone who is genuinely upset, you feel bad for them and it motivates you to help them,’ says lead researcher Dr Amy Dawel, from ANU’s Research School of Psychology.

‘People who are very high on the psychopathy spectrum don’t show this response.

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‘We found people with high levels of psychopathic traits don’t feel any worse for someone who is genuinely upset than someone who is faking it,’ she says.

‘They also seem to have problems telling if the upset is real or fake. As a result, they are not nearly as willing to help someone who is expressing genuine distress as most people are.’


The dark triad is a name given to three personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism

The dark triad is a name given to three personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

When all three traits are found in a single person, it implies a malevolent personality.

All three dark triad traits are conceptually distinct, but have been shown to have an overlap.

Narcissism is characterised by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy.

Machiavellianism is characterised by manipulation and exploitation of others. It is also often linked to a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception.

Psychopathy is characterised by continuing antisocial behaviour, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness, and remorselessness.

For other emotions, on the other hand, the researchers found these people were easily able to spot the difference between a genuine and faked expression.

‘For other emotions such as anger, disgust, and happy high psychopathy individuals had no problems telling if someone was faking it,’ Dr Dawel said.

Christian Bale in the film American Psycho

‘The results were specific to expressions of distress.’

According to the researcher, this understanding could pave the way for more effective treatments for psychopathy, helping to narrow down which emotions truly present an issue.

‘There seems to be a genetic contribution to these traits, we see the start of them quite early in childhood,’ Dawel said.

‘Understanding exactly what is going wrong with emotions in psychopathy will help us to identify these problems early and hopefully intervene in ways that promote moral development.’

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