A new study suggests that not all people with a psychopathy diagnosis fit the typical villain stereotype: cold, cruel, lacking in empathy, and beyond the reach of treatment.

In fact, some individuals who exhibit psychopathic traits are deeply emotional but appear to have “shut down” in order to cope with their circumstances. This subgroup is most likely to respond to particular psychotherapy techniques and have a chance at a happier life.

“They appear callous and unemotional to others but are actually very distressed, have high levels of anxiety, higher levels of depression, higher levels of emotion,” said Dr. Tim Stickle, professor of psychology at the University of Vermont.

For the study, researchers focused on 150 young people, ages 11 to 17, who were housed in juvenile detention centers and classified as callous and unemotional (CU). They all exhibited severe antisocial behaviors that put them at risk of developing psychopathic traits as adults.

While some of the study participants did fit the classic definition of psychopathy, a significant subgroup did not, said Stickle, who co-authored the paper with Andrew Gill, a graduate student at the university.

“We think of these harmful, antisocial, aggressive kids as being immune to fear, immune to negative feelings, but in fact we’re showing a whole group of them are not only not immune, but are very susceptible,” said Stickle.

Other recent studies have confirmed that this emotionally distressed subgroup also exists among adults with psychopathic traits.

“The hopeful implication,” said Stickle, “is that this set of psychological issues is treatable with approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy that teach strategies for managing emotions. Typical treatments for aggression and psychopathy typically emphasize simple rewards and punishments to change unwanted behaviors.

“There is an opportunity to do things differently and more effectively,” Stickle said. “Untreated callous unemotional traits put these youth at risk for becoming lifelong criminals.”

The researchers were able to identify subgroups within the CU research sample through the use of psychological testing instruments, which gathered information from subjects on a wide variety of personality and emotional traits. Psychopathy is usually identified with a far narrower checklist of traits and behaviors.

“It’s not just one characteristic that allows clear identification of who falls in which group; it takes a wide range of traits,” Stickle said.

Stickle hopes that the multidimensional testing tools in the study will be used by others in the future. This would ensure that those in the secondary psychopathy subgroup receive the appropriate therapy.

“Using a wide range of measures of emotional experience and expression is very important to clearly identify who these individuals are so they can be helped,” he said.

One novel finding from the study is that CU females are especially likely to fall within the group that suffers from significant emotional distress and unregulated negative feeling. “These traits are particularly prevalent in adolescent females in the juvenile justice system,” Stickle said.

The study also found that CU youth are at risk of developing clinically significant levels of depression.

The findings are published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

Source: University of Vermont