Most psychopaths are addicts

People with psychopathic tendencies can poorly regulate social distance

Psychopathy affects the ability to adjust social distance in relation to other people's emotional expressions


When meeting other people, we instinctively maintain a certain social distance, which depends on various factors. Psychopaths often violate this comfortable distance. Scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) examined the social interaction of people with psychopathic tendencies in a 3-D laboratory and determined how far away they are from their virtual counterparts. The results show that people with psychopathic tendencies inadequately regulate the comfort zone because they do not pay attention to the social signals of the other person. They make no distinction between a person with a friendly expression and another with an angry expression, and they keep about the same distance from each other - in contrast to people without psychopathic tendencies. "As our study also showed, psychopathic people do not show adequate avoidance reactions. This also explains their behavior," said Robin Welsch from the Psychological Institute at JGU.

Psychopathy is understood to mean permanently deviant behavior in connection with interpersonal and emotional deficits. This includes the tendency to cause harm or suffering by violating social norms. In this context, clinical reports often indicate that psychopathic persons disregard the personal comfort zone, for example by getting too close to others in an uncomfortable way. In the laboratory for virtual reality of the Department of General Experimental Psychology, Welsch examined exactly how distance regulation behaves in psychopathic people.

Encounter with Avatar in the virtual test laboratory

The student sample comprised 76 subjects, 51 women and 25 men between the ages of 19 and 38 years. Psychopathic tendencies were recorded on the basis of a questionnaire, which determined in particular the two factors self-centered impulsivity and fearless dominance. The test subjects were finally familiarized with the setup in the 3-D laboratory and then subjected to the respective tests. "The laboratory offers a virtual reality comparable to the 3-D images in the cinema. In addition, however, the 3-D image reacts and adapts to the movement of a test participant, allowing the test person to immerse himself in the virtual reality" explains Welsch. In the second part of the experiment, the participants were also able to control the avatar with a joystick.

Avoidance tendencies are a problem in people with a tendency to psychopathy

If the avatar shows a friendly facial expression, people without psychopathic tendencies approach the avatar until there is a distance of about 1.00 to 1.10 meters. In the event of an angry expression, keep a distance of 1.25 meters. People with psychopathic tendencies do not make this difference, they step within 1.10 meters regardless of the facial expression. In the second experiment, the subjects were asked to move a joystick in response to the avatar's facial expressions. "We found that the test participants with psychopathic tendencies did not show an adequate avoidance response, although they could correctly interpret the facial expression of the avatar," said Welsch, research associate and first author of the study. Christoph von Castell and Prof. Dr. Heiko Hecht are involved.

In summary, one can say that psychopathy does not simply lead to inadequate social distance, but that only the situation-appropriate regulation of social distance is disturbed.