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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