Baskin-Sommers found that the psychopathic inmates showed the usual level of egocentric interference—that is, their own perspective was muscling in on the avatar’s. But they showed much less altercentric interference than the other inmates—the avatar’s perspective wasn’t messing with their own, as it would for most other people.
Of course, not all psychopaths are the same, and they vary considerably in their behavior. But Baskin-Sommers also found that the higher their score on the psychopathy assessment test, the less they were affected by what the avatar saw. And the less affected they were, the more assault charges they had on their record.
Psychopaths may be conniving, but it’s unlikely that they could have deliberately gamed the task to engineer interesting results. “The task is too fast, and we see no differences in accuracy between them and others lower in psychopathy,” Baskin-Sommers says.
To her, the results show that psychopaths (or male ones, at least) do not automatically take the perspective of other people. What is involuntary to most people is a deliberate choice to them, something they can actively switch on if it helps them to achieve their goals, and ignore in other situations. That helps to explain why they behave so callously, cruelly, and even violently.
But Uta Frith, a psychologist at University College London, notes that there’s some controversy about the avatar task, which has been used in other studies. “What does it actually measure?” she says. It’s possible that the avatar is acting less as a person and more as an arrow—a visual cue that directs attention. Perhaps instead of perspective-taking, the task simply measures how spontaneously people shift their attention.
Baskin-Sommers argues that the task is about both attention and perspective-taking, and “for research on psychopathy, that is a good thing.” That’s because, as she and others have shown, psychopaths pay unusually close attention to things that are relevant to their goal, but largely ignore peripheral information. “It’s like they’re the worst multitaskers,” Baskin-Sommers says. “Everyone’s bad at multitasking but they’re really bad.” So, it’s possible that their lack of automatic perspective-taking is just another manifestation of this attentional difference. The two things are related.
Other groups of people also show differences in their theory of mind. For example, in one study, Frith asked people to predict where a girl might search for a marble that had been moved without her knowledge. The onlookers knew the marble’s whereabouts, so could they override their own knowledge to step into the girl’s shoes? Eye-tracking software revealed that neurotypical adults look at the same place the girl would, but people with Asperger’s syndrome are less likely to. They don’t seem to spontaneously anticipate others’ actions. “It is a bit worrying if [Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues] are proposing the very same underlying mechanism to explain callousness in psychopathy that we used previously to explain communication problems in autism, albeit based on a different test,” Frith says. “These are very different conditions, after all.”