Teens Who Can’t Feel: Empathopenia

Photo Courtesy: Flickr User, Joseph.antoniello

In a recent study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, researchers found that cyberbullies demonstrated less empathic responsiveness than non-cyberbullies. Cyberbullies were also more afraid of becoming victims of cyberbullying.

This study confirms the relationship between empathy and aggressive behavior. Empathy skills are a huge part of the recent cyberbullying epidemic. Friend and colleague Mark Goulston also wrote a recent post on:

Empathopenia – noun – the state of diminished empathy.

He discusses the three different types of Empathopenia – Malicious Type, Partially Malicious Type and Non Malicious Type. Bullies are typically malicious or partially malicious and they lash out because they are unable to feel empathetic–they have trouble placing themselves in the other person’s shoes.

There is another interesting study about decreased empathy and bullies. Scientists Patrick Sylvers, Patricia Brennan and Scott Lilienfeld, gathered 88 young adolescent males with a range of social personalities. They had the boys each watch a screen where different images flashed momentarily in each eye. One eye saw abstract shapes and the other got an image of a face bearing one of four emotions: fear, disgust, happiness or neutral. The boys were instructed to push a button as soon as he saw each emotion on a face.

Healthy boys notice fearful face much faster than any of the other emotional faces. Interestingly, the boys with lower levels of empathy also had a much slower reaction to fearful faces.

Simply put, those who bully, have lower levels of empathy because they have trouble recognizing basic human emotions. I think both of these studies are fascinating for parents, teachers and teens who have had to deal with bullying. It also gives us hope–we can teach teens how to read emotions. I have written extensively on the need to teach social skills in school as the only way to combat bullying. We have to begin to work with teens who have trouble recognizing faces so they can begin to feel empathy.

More Articles:

What Happens in the Brain When Teens Are Bullied? Four different effects bullying has on the teenage brain.

Can We Teach Social Literacy? Social literacy or the ability to read social cues is an important part of emosocial intelligence. How can parents learn and teach kids the important social skills–both how to use them and how to read them? Here we explain.

5 Reasons the Next Generation Might be Socially Illiterate: Why does this generation of young people have more social problems and miscommunications than previous generations? Here, Vanessa explains why the digital age is muddling our emosocial intelligence. Lack of Eye Contactwith Young People is another symptom of social illiteracy.


This is part of our Science of Teens series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families and Teens a page for tips and updated research. 


Steffgen, G., König, A, et al. (2011). Are cyberbullies less empathic? Adolescents’ cyberbullying behavior and empathic responsiveness. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

Patrick Sylvers, Patricia Brennan and Scott Lilienfeld, “Psychopathic Traits and Preattentive Threat Processing in Children: A Novel Test of the Fearlessness Hypothesis,”

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