Interview Series: Abigail Marsh
“The dominant assumption in a lot of fields is that we’re innately selfish, and even behavior that doesn’t seem selfish is actually selfishness wearing a mark of altruism,” she says. “We’re finding that it’s more complex than that.”
In collaboration with researchers in Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Marsh and her team recruited altruistic kidney donors as participants for their research on altruism. These are individuals who have voluntarily donated their organs, without any financial compensation, to recipients they don’t even know. “They’re some of the nicest people to work with,” she notes. “It’s a sheer joy to interact with them.” Her lab seeks to understand both the neural correlates with altruistic behavior, as well as moral reasoning processes in the kidney donors.
In previous studies, her lab has sought to understand the biological basis for compassion and empathy, identified the role of a serotonin transporter genotype (5-HTTLPR) in regulating utilitarian moral judgment, and explored the role of oxytocin in the ability to recognize positive facial expressions, for example.
But the scope of Marsh’s lab research isn’t limited to positive traits. Marsh and her team are just as interested in the moral reasoning and neural correlates of psychopathic behavior. For instance, in a 2008 study, Marsh and colleagues found that psychopathy scores predicted decreased activity in the brain’s emotion center, the amygdala, when presenting adults with fear stimuli.
A study of psychopathy is largely a study of individuals with deficits in processing fear, sadness and other emotional processes, Marsh explains. In turn, that affects the ability to empathize. But “Psychopathy doesn’t mean anti-social behavior,” she adds. “Being psychopathic doesn’t make you aggressive or thirst for aggression like in the movies. It simply inhibits the blocks that prevent you from acting aggressively or taking risks.”
Marsh also notes that psychopathic traits may not be inherently negative. Many individuals who score highly on a Psychopathic Personality Inventory, she says, are also successful, high performing individuals in their professional careers.
Nonetheless, these deficits impair the ability to experience empathy. In a study published in Emotion this October, Marsh and first-year Ph.D. student Elise Cardinale wondered if this deficit would impair the ability to apply empathy to moral reasoning. In other words, would psychopathic traits impair not only emotion responses, but also the intellectual ability to understand which behaviors cause harm to others?
To investigate, they compiled a list of 451 emotionally evocative statements designed to elicit fear, anger, disgust, happiness, or sadness . For example, “I could easily hurt you” evokes fear, while “I bought you a present” evokes happiness. These were reduced to 20 statements that elicit each emotion, based on an analysis of independent ratings, then presented to 38 participants with a range of scores on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory. Participants were asked to identify the emotions elicited and rate the moral acceptability of the statements.
The results? As predicted, psychopathy scores were associated with an impaired ability to judge which statements elicit emotion, particularly for fear, as well as a tendency to regard fear-provoking statements as morally acceptable. Such research contributes to a growing field in psychology that attempts to connect the dots between reasoning and biology.
“This is not just about being able to recognize but also, to understand, others’ emotions,” Marsh said.
So how has studying altruistic kidney donors and individuals with psychopathic traits impacted Marsh, personally? She says working with kidney donors inspires her to be more altruistic. Studying psychopathy, perhaps ironically, has made her more empathic. “[It’s] given me a sympathy for individuals who don’t have the appropriate emotional input to behave the way everyone else does.”
--- Zachary Warren