For many decades, fearlessness has been considered the hallmark trait of psychopathy and has been blamed for the bold risk-taking behavior commonly found in the personality disorder. Now new research shows that psychopathic people may be capable of feeling fear, but they seem to have difficulty detecting and responding to a threat.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, is the first to provide strong evidence that an individual’s conscious experience of fear as an emotion may be quite separate from his automatic ability to detect and respond to threats.
Researchers at Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegen reviewed brain and behavioral data to look for any link between fear and psychopathy in adult individuals. Their definition of fear was based on state of the art knowledge of the neurobiological and cognitive underpinnings of this emotion.
Then they created a model that separated brain mechanisms involved in the conscious experience of fear as an emotion from those involved in automatic detection and response to threats.
Using this model as a reference, they first performed a conceptual analysis of the work of earlier theorists, going back as far as 1806. They found that only one theorist incorporated the construct of fear into a model of psychopathy.
The evidence for impairments in brain areas involved in the experience of fear was less consistent than is currently assumed, indicating that the experience of fear may not be completely impaired in psychopathy.
The researchers then demonstrated that psychopathic individuals may in fact feel fear but have trouble in the automatic detection and responsivity to threat, providing direct support for the claim that the conscious experience of fear may not be impaired in these individuals.
Another meta-analysis examining the five other basic emotions found that there may also be impairments in the experience of happiness and anger, but the lack of consistency in the current literature prevented making any strong claims.
“As a consequence of our research, some very influential theories that assign prominent roles to fearlessness in the aetiology of psychopathy will need to be reconsidered and made consistent with current neuroscientific evidence,” said researcher Sylco Hoppenbrouwers at VU Amsterdam.
“Such re-evaluations of key concepts will lead to increased precision in research and clinical practice which should ultimately pave the way toward more targeted and more effective treatment interventions.”
The findings are the first to provide strong evidence that the automatic and conscious processes may be separate in an individual. The proposed model not only applies to psychopathy, but can also be used to further increase conceptual precision and generate new hypotheses for research on mood and anxiety disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder.
“While psychopathic individuals may suffer from a dysfunctional threat system, people with posttraumatic stress disorder may have a hyperactive threat system, which later leads to them feeling fearful,” said Inti Brazil at Radboud University.
Source: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam