Lack of Empathy: Disorders, Signs & Causes

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  • 0:02 Empathy: Definition
  • 0:40 Psychopathy & Disorders
  • 3:08 Sociopathy
  • 4:13 Signs & Behaviors
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Empathy is our connection to other people. In this lesson, we'll discuss the psychological disorders related to a lack of empathy, including how they appear and what causes them.

Empathy: Definition

Your friend Mary is just standing there, tears running down her face. She looks like her whole world has collapsed. She's hoping that you will make her feel better. But you just don't get it. You're feeling like, ''Who cares? Get over it!'' You're missing that normal human quality called empathy.

Empathy, derived from the Greek word empatheia, which means ''passion or state of emotion'', is the ability to feel what others are feeling. It is an important part of human interaction that is unfortunately lacking in some people. When that lack is extreme, severe problems can be the result.

Psychopathy & Disorders

There are many disorders related to a lack of empathy. They can be the result of genetics (or the characteristics you inherited from your parents), environment (especially in early childhood), disease, or physical or psychological damage and trauma related to an event.

Two psychological terms particularly associated with a lack of empathy are sociopathy and psychopathy. Psychopathy, which comes from the Greek roots psykhe, which refers to the mind, and pathos, which means suffering, has shifted in popular meaning over the years, but it has always been associated with mind sickness.

Think about what that means. Mind sickness. Damage to your ability to think, feel, imagine, maintain your sense of proportion, control your emotions, and understand reality. Imagine what it would be like to have one part of your mind either not working at all, or working against you, affecting your ability to think, feel, and understand.

Mind sickness can take many forms. For example, a breakdown in your understanding of reality can produce the following effects:

  • Paranoia: a constant unfounded sense of anxiety and fear
  • Schizophrenia: fragmented mental processes
  • Hallucinations: seeing or otherwise experiencing non-existent things, or
  • Delusions: believing things unsupported by experiences to be true

Any breakdown in one or more of your mind's workings can create enormous difficulties, but what happens if the part of your mind that is damaged is your ability to feel or understand others' emotions? The empathy that you were supposed to have is diminished or gone. People become little more than shadowy figures to you, acting in strange ways within your world. It's like watching a musical program with the sound off. Without the words and music, the performers can look ridiculous or even frightening.

But there's more. Your lack of empathy may extend to yourself, as well. You are dead to your own feelings. Nothing moves you. In an emotional sense, you are a person on a desert island, desperate for a drink of water. You want something to happen that will make you feel alive.

So how do you behave when you feel like that? How do you act? When you see people as distant figures that don't relate to you, when you have no attachments or feelings for them, and when you're desperate for stimulation or comfort, then there are few, if any, barriers to what you're willing to do.


So let's now move on to sociopathy (coined from the Latin word socius, which means companion or ally, and the Greek root pathos, or suffering). It essentially means an illness related to your ability to associate with other people. The term has varied in popular meaning, but the essence is always the same. The sociopath has a damaged ability to deal with others.

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