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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Abigail Marsh

Abigail Marsh & Edwin Rutsch: Psychopathy, Fear & How to Build a Culture of Empathy

Abigail Marsh is a professor at Georgetown University. Her area of expertise includes social and affective neuroscience, particularly understanding emotions such as empathy and how they relate to aggression, altruism, violence and psychopathy. Her research is aimed at understanding aspects of human social interactions, emotional functioning, and empathy using cognitive neuroscience methods, with a particular focus on emotion and nonverbal communication. 

 Her research also includes studies with adolescents and adults that incorporate neuroimaging, cognitive and behavioral testing, and pharmacology techniques.  Abigail also teaches a course titled Empathy, Altruism, & Aggression.  The course addresses such questions as; Are humans innately selfish or empathic? What do we mean when we say empathy? Do selfish or empathic behaviors succeed best in the long term?  What is a psychopath?
Sub Conference: Science and Pathologies



Abigail Marsh & Edwin Rutsch: Psychopathy, Fear & How to Build a Culture of Empathy



Transcripts (Video Transcriptions: If you would like to take empathic action and create a transcription of this video, check the volunteers page.  The transcriptions will make it easier for other viewers to quickly see the content of this video.)



Course: Empathy, Altruism, & Aggression (PSYC-358)

  • "Are humans innately selfish or empathic?

  • What do we mean when we say empathy?

  • Do selfish or empathic behaviors succeed best in the long term?

  • What is a psychopath? "

In this seminar, we will explore these questions and others related to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of empathy in interpersonal interactions. We will begin with an exploration of the multiple ways that empathy can be defined and conceptualized, with a focus on the differences among empathy, empathic accuracy, and perspective-taking..."




Study: Empathic responsiveness in amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex in youths with psychopathic traits.
Marsh AA, Finger EC, Fowler KA, Adalio CJ, Jurkowitz IT, Schechter JC, Pine DS, Decety J, Blair RJ.

Psychopathic traits are associated with increases in antisocial behaviors such as aggression and are characterized by reduced empathy for others' distress. This suggests that psychopathic traits may also impair empathic pain sensitivity. However, whether psychopathic traits affect responses to the pain of others versus the self has not been previously assessed
Youths with psychopathic traits showed reduced activity within regions associated with empathic pain as the depicted pain increased. These regions included rostral anterior cingulate cortex, ventral striatum (putamen), and amygdala. Reductions in amygdala activity particularly occurred when the injury was perceived as occurring to another. Empathic pain responses within both amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex were negatively correlated with the severity of psychopathic traits as indexed by PCL:YV scores.

Youths with psychopathic traits show less responsiveness in regions implicated in the affective response to another's pain as the perceived intensity of this pain increases. Moreover, this reduced responsiveness appears to predict symptom severity


June 11, 2013 - Empathy: What’s in it to Feel Others’ Pain?
"Abigail Marsh holds a PhD from Harvard University and conducted her post-doctoral research on emotion in teens and adults at the National Institute of Mental Health. Now a professor at Georgetown University, she uses neuroimaging, pharmacological, genetic, and neurocognitive techniques to research emotions such as empathy in healthy adults and adolescents, and psychopathy, or what researchers term callous unemotional (CU) traits associated with maladaptive emotional responses in adolescents with behavioral problems.

Q: What is empathy and how does it relate to your research on callous-unemotional traits?
My research has shown that the most important part of feeling empathy is first recognizing what someone else is feeling. We know through years of studies and observation that early nurturing helps promote emotional connection..."



JUNE 20, 2013 – Brain Regions for Empathy Less Active in Youths with Psychopathic Traits - Georgetown University
"YOUNG PEOPLE WITH CONDUCT problems and psychopathic traits such as callousness and remorselessness show less activity in the regions of the brain associated with empathy, according to a new study led by a Georgetown psychology professor. Abigail Marsh, working with colleagues from the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and three other academics, recently published her research in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry."


June 21, 2013, - Less Guilty by Reason of Neurological Defect - Slate
"Should psychopaths serve more or less prison time than other criminals?

"But what about criminals whose disorders can’t be treated, like psychopaths? As many as half of all violent offenders may be psychopaths, meaning they show little empathy or remorse and are likely to reoffend. Normally a diagnosis of psychopathy is an aggravating factor that results in a longer sentence. But emphasizing the biological basis of the disorder can reduce even psychopaths’ sentences.""

Empathy and the Adolescent Brain - Starts at 1:22
Abigail Marsh - Assistant Professor of Psychology,Georgetown University


  • Psychopathy

  • varies across the population

  • Psychopathy impairs fear