Do Psychopaths Feel Fear? A New Study Calls Prior Research Into Question

Thrill-seekers, you can finally put your (lack of) fears to rest; your preference for base jumping isn't a sign of deeper issues after all — at least, not issues of the Hannibal Lecter kind. Although psychologists have believed for decades that psychopaths don't feel fear, recent research has called that idea into question. In a paper published in Psychological Bulletin, researchers conducted an analysis of existing data on the subject as well as a review of previous studies, and they concluded that the relationship between psychopathy and fearlessness is more complicated than it seems. 

According to Science Daily, researchers at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegen, both located in the Netherlands, developed a model separating the detection of a threat and the subsequent fear response. This difference proved to be crucial: After applying the model to existing research, researchers found that people with psychopathy may be able to feel fear; they just have trouble noticing when a threat exists. The effect is the same — people with psychopathy appear fearless — but according to the review, it's less of an inability to feel fear and more of a difficulty realizing they should be scared in the first place. In an ever-so-scientific example, think of it like going to see Chucky with an audience terrified of dolls. While most people are freaking out and hiding behind their popcorn tubs, a person with psychopathy might wonder what the big deal is; it's just a movie about a possessed doll on a murderous rampage. 

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"As a consequence of our research, some very influential theories that assign prominent roles to fearlessness in the etiology of psychopathy will need to be reconsidered and made consistent with current neuroscientific evidence," said researcher Sylco Hoppenbrouwers. Decades of previous research have shown a link between psychopathy and the inability to feel fear, which some have linked to the established psychopathic proclivity for risk-taking behaviors. 

One paper isn't enough to singlehandedly dismantle prevailing psychological theories, but it does raise questions about our understanding of psychopathy. Because the disorder is characterized by a lack of empathy for other people, it's easy to assume that people with psychopathy are incapable of feeling emotions, but that's not necessarily true. In fact, the Dutch study found that "psychopathy is related to reduced experience of happiness, but increased anger," and people with psychopathy may be able to experience sadness and surprise pretty much like other people. This actually falls in line with other studies turning up similar results. According to some research, people with psychopathy might be able to feel some emotions, even if they tend to be shallow. It's far cry from the "emotionless killer" stereotype with which most people are familiar. 

On the other hand, the causes of psychopathy are the subject of debate among psychologists, and the answer is probably a combination of several theories. But there are two things we know for sure: Psychopaths have a well-established lack of empathy and remorse, and they make for great TV shows. 

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Images: Wikimedia Commons, Giphy (2)

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