Study Examines How Psychopathy Influences Fear Response

If you’ve never lost a parent, you cannot truly understand what that loss feels like. The same is true for fear. People who have never really experienced fear cannot empathize with those who have. They also may not be able to accurately identify what behaviors cause fear and why those behaviors are socially and morally unacceptable. This conundrum was the foundation of a recent study led by Abigail A. Marsh of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University. Marsh wanted to examine why people with psychopathy exhibit little remorse or empathy for their frightening, threatening, and often harmful behavior. Marsh theorized that psychopathy impairs the way fear is processed. Essentially, Marsh hypothesized that people with psychopathy do not experience fear as negative or unpleasant, and therefore cannot understand how their fear-inducing behavior is morally wrong.

To test her theory, Marsh assessed how participants with psychopathy judged the moral acceptability of certain frightening behaviors. They were also instructed to identify which behaviors would induce fear. Marsh found that the participants high in psychopathy had more difficulty assessing which behaviors would cause fear than those low in psychopathy. She also noticed that the participants with psychopathic traits were less able to distinguish between morally and socially acceptable behaviors than those without psychopathy.

The results of this study show that psychopathy could lead to impaired fear response. “This conforms to theories that deficient fear responding is the root of psychopathic personality traits, which increases risk for engaging in antisocial behavior,” Marsh said. Marsh points out that the high psychopathy participants found it more difficult to distinguish which behaviors would cause happiness also, suggesting that the impairment related to psychopathy could extend to other emotional response processes. In fact, participants high in psychopathy did not believe that fear-inducing behaviors were any more immoral than behaviors that caused anger. She hopes future work looks at how psychopathy affects deficits in other types of emotional processing that could lead to antisocial tendencies and negative outcomes.

Marsh, Abigail A., and Elise M. Cardinale. Psychopathy and fear: Specific impairments in judging behaviors that frighten others. Emotion 12.5 (2012): 892-98. Print.

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  • Thomas

    December 7th, 2012 at 4:00 AM

    If this is the case then you find that there could be any validity to the theory that someone would act out on their psychopathic thoughts in large part due their fears, to perhaps think of this as a way of protecting themselves or a loved one from harm?

  • houston

    December 7th, 2012 at 12:40 PM

    so its almost as if such people cannot identify that they might be causing trouble.well that is fine but can they actually be trained to identify fear better and thus avoid such negative behavior.I am sure that would help not only them but also those around them.

  • PsychoNextDoor

    May 14th, 2015 at 10:26 PM

    Wow. I never truly understood why the PCL-R and other tests of similar aptitude focus on a superiority complex as a method of scoring on a point-system diagnosing psychopathy.

    Tell me… Is there a point system for other spectrum related predispositions? For example: Homosexuality?

    Is there a “cure” for Homosexuality?

    Here’s a thought: Quit trying to “treat” us, and focus on what you can do to adapt. We are, in fact, more abundant in nature than history has ever recorded…. shouldn’t that tell you something about what adaptations are needed for the survivability of our Race? Perhaps its time to look at the world around you, and ask a question: What has impacted the natural world in such a way that it has now become a favorable brooding ground for sociopaths? What has happened to mother Earth, where she would Call and NEED someone like the PsychoNextDoor?

    True…. The fledging psycho/sociopaths out there… do make a mess of our society… because they are the only constant in a world of “Theoretic”. While you are sitting there mentally masturbating against the corner of your “boxed-in” thought process… the more evolved fledglings are out there processing real-world-actual scientific method…. using themselves as a “control” constant against a world of weak and pathetic less-adapt human beings, such as yourself, “GoodTherapy”. And all that make up your Administration.

    The psychopaths that make a mess, have not quite dissected themselves, knowing themselves such as I do.

    Face it. There is no cure to psychopathy, because we are here to cure a world filled with you(s). We are here to show you how to disembowel the psyche of a human being and truly “Know” how it feels…. we just don’t cry over it.. your term “Empathy” is more foreign to the non-psychopath than it will ever be to the psychopath.

    “Empathy” is nothing but a Word made of letters for you. For the psychopath, its years of in-field research and experimentation: The psychopath actually “feels” the word you so lightly throw about to justify your bullshit degree.

    If you have any desire to feed your hunger for an education in psychology, I will be at your disposal until it no longer amuses me.


    -Your Friendly Neighborhood Psychopath.

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