Psychopaths: Fearful but Distracted?

Studies have suggested that psychopaths may not feel fear — but perhaps they “just find it harder to pay attention to what is scary and what is not.”

In this study of 125 male prisoners who scored as psychopathic (looking at levels of narcissism, impulsivity and callousness), fear-potentiated startle responses (in the form of blinks) were recorded as a measure of fear when red and green letters were flashed onto a screen. The prisoners had been told that an electric shock would sometimes follow a red letter but not a green one. The prisoners with strong psychopathic traits “flinched in response to red letters with the same strength as other subjects” but when they also had to indicate whether letters were capitals or lower-case, they barely blinked when shown red letters, while the control subjects continued responding as before.

As the experiment’s author notes, “this suggests that psychopathic individuals sense fear as much as anyone, and only seem fearless because they find it harder to pay attention to what is scary and what is not.”

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