Psychopaths can experience sadness and anxiety psychologically

Psychopaths can feel fear

People with a psychopathic character can evidently feel fear after all. This now suggests a meta-analysis by researchers, which contradicts a common assumption about the clinical picture of psychopathy. According to this, psychopaths seem to be able to consciously feel the emotions that are often denied them. However, you still have a problem with automatically recognizing and reacting to threats. Despite fear, it may make them risk-taking.

Psychopaths are characterized by antisocial behavior. They are considered selfish, manipulative, not very empathetic - and are also often extremely willing to take risks. So far, scientists have largely agreed on why this is so: “The main reason for this property is the inability to feel fear,” write researchers working with Sylco Hoppenbrouwers from the Free University of Amsterdam.

Two aspects of fear

But as a meta-analysis by the scientists now shows, this assumption may not be true at all. For its investigation, the team analyzed scientific studies that deal with the connection between psychopathy and anxiety.

With the help of a model, Hoppenbrouwers and his colleagues distinguished between two different aspects of this emotional state: On the one hand, they looked at neurological mechanisms that are responsible for the automatic detection of threats. On the other hand, they devoted themselves to brain processes that play a role in the conscious perception of fear as an emotion.

Dangers are not recognized

The evaluation revealed: The fear experience is apparently less fundamentally disturbed in psychopaths than the scientists had assumed. They found out that psychopaths do indeed seem to have problems automatically recognizing dangers and reacting to them adequately. However, they seem to be able to experience some degree of fear nonetheless.

As the researchers report, their study shows for the first time that automatic and conscious brain processes function separately from one another - and that psychopaths may therefore not automatically react to threats even though they feel fear.

Need a reassessment?

"As a result of our results, some very influential theories must be reconsidered, which ascribe fearlessness a prominent role in the clinical picture of psychopathy," says Hoppenbrouwers. Re-evaluating common concepts, he hopes, could not only improve understanding of personality disorder - it could also make treating it more effective.

According to the researchers, their model can also be used to describe other mental illnesses. "While psychopaths may have a dysfunctional threat system, people with post-traumatic stress disorder could have a hyperactive threat system that makes them anxious," says co-author Inti Brazil of Radboud University in Nijmegen. (Psychological Bulletin, 2016; doi: 10.1037 / bul0000040)

(Free University of Amsterdam, 09/05/2016 - DAL)

5th September 2016