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Psychopaths Actually Can Feel Fear—They Just Care Less About It

A new study in "Psychological Bulletin" argues that psychopaths can, in fact, experience fear. They just don't react to it like we do.
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Psychopathy is an antisocial personality disorder that's typically characterized by a lack of fear, in addition to callousness, impulsive behavior, and deceitfulness. Serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy were thought to be psychopaths, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been called such by critics and at least one psychologist.

But a new study published in Psychological Bulletin suggests that psychopaths can, in fact, experience fear. Researchers out of the Netherlands did an extensive review of theoretical and empirical brain and behavioral data pertaining to fear and psychopathy and found that while psychopathic individuals do feel fear, they have trouble detecting and responding to threat.


In order to better understand what role fear plays in psychopathy, researchers first looked back at previous studies to understand where this idea of fearlessness came from. Early data, including one study dating back to 1806, suggested that psychopathic individuals were seen as "emotionally shallow," which, the study's authors note, could have been inferred to mean they also lack fear but this was never explicitly stated in the research. In fact, according to the study, only one theorist connected the absence of fear with psychopathy.

"The idea that psychopaths are fearless has become firmly rooted in how we have come to see psychopathy," Sylco Hoppenbrouwers, one of the study's authors, tells Broadly. "If we try to find an explanation for the risky choices made by these individuals and how many they hurt, the idea that they do not feel fear becomes quite appealing as an explanation. This idea has also been fueled by movies and books, which tend to depict psychopathic individuals as unemotional."

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But the research doesn't agree. By analyzing the concept of fear based on current knowledge of how the brain works, Hoppenbrouwers and his team found that "the evidence is more in favor of the notion that there are deficits in threat detection and responsivity rather than reduced experience of fear."

Hoppenbrouwers offers an example: A psychopath walks into a dark alley at night, but he doesn't realize the potential for danger. When then confronted with a robber, he may start to notice the threat and feel fearful, and thus respond violently. "That may also be because they didn't really see the threat coming," Hoppenbrouwers says. "It's only at the end that they think: 'Oh, this is bad news.'"

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Inti Brazil is a professor at Radboud University who also worked on the study. "Psychopathic individuals cause an excessive amount of harm to others," he says, and points out that there are currently no treatments available that are truly effective. As a result, the financial burden can be huge. Brazil says that the US spends upwards of $460 billion in its efforts to deal with psychopathy; in the Netherlands, a stay in treatment facilities costs 160,000 euros per year per individual.

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That's why this study is so important. "With the new knowledge we can try to develop better treatment programs and reduce the risk of re-offence, which can lead to less financial damage, less traumatized victims and a safer society," Brazil says.