Are Psychopaths Really Fearless Predators?

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Recent research suggests that psychopaths can indeed experience fear. What they appear to have more of a problem with, however, is adequately sensing danger and responding appropriately to dangerous situations.

Psychopaths are nature’s only known intra-species predators. Often considered heartless and devoid of empathy, they’re the characters among us who callously, senselessly, and remorselessly use and abuse others. Because of all the social problems they cause, there’s been a great deal of research into just what makes these individuals the way they are.

For a long time, many thought they lacked what some theorists call “adaptive fearfulness.” That is, they appear to be undaunted in the face of danger, which is sometimes reflected in their ready willingness to engage in high-risk or “daredevil” type behaviors. Most clinicians use a particular “checklist” to assess psychopathy, an instrument that relies heavily on historical information, and one of the more frequent behaviors seen in folks who score high on the psychopathy scale is daredevil-type behavior, generally first evident in childhood. For years, it’s been assumed that the tendency toward this kind of behavior was rooted in a greatly diminished or even completely absent capacity to experience fear.

But now, in an article entitled Parsing fear: A reassessment of the evidence for fear deficits in psychopathy, researchers at the University of Amsterdam have described evidence that psychopaths do indeed have the capacity to fear. What appears to go wrong in their brains, however, is the lack of proper detection of and response to threat. The way their brains work, psychopaths simply don’t see danger where there actually is danger. If they saw it, perhaps they’d have a proper response to it. But because they don’t automatically and properly recognize it, and because they don’t have the right response to it, they proceed in a manner that appears to be fearless to the outside observer.

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For many years now there’s been evidence that the brains of psychopaths work very differently from the brains of normal individuals (see “Will Psychopaths Now Use the Bad Brain Excuse?”). The inter-neuronal connections between those areas of the brain involved in processing human experiences and those areas typically involved in feeling emotion may be lacking in psychopaths. And for years we’ve also known that psychopaths are lacking in their capacity for empathy. They either lack the ability to experience empathy or have an incredible capacity to “compartmentalize” or mentally wall-off any empathy they actually do have when they’re engaged in predatory behavior. While we don’t have evidence to rightfully conclude that psychopaths are born the way they are, we certainly know that their brains don’t operate the way most of ours do. Now, we have even more information about the different ways in which their brains work. We have some evidence that while they might not be as completely “fearless” as we once thought, they are certainly predisposed to act in a fearless-seeming manner because of their relative incapacity to recognize and appropriately respond to danger.

Long before the dawn of civilization, it was the “fearless” among us who were largely responsible for a tribe’s survival. Several theorists have viewed those individuals we now call psychopaths as the fearless characters of old who dominated the tribe. But these once-vital overlords simply don’t fit very well in a civilized world. We need to more deeply and accurately understand them if we’re ever to have a better chance of living more safely with them. We need to know not only what makes their brains operate differently but how we might go about fostering more normal brain functioning. For a long while, we’ve had little hope, believing psychopaths to have no heart and no fear. But now that there’s evidence they might not be as fear-incapable as we once thought and that it’s really more about their impaired capacity to adequately sense danger. Perhaps there’s a way to help heighten their awareness of danger — especially the danger inherent in some of their actions. That would go a long way toward reducing the threat we’ve so long faced from the predators among us.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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