Does psychopathy make people fearless? A study published in Cognition and Emotion suggests that people who have psychopathic traits are more likely to take risks, even when faced with a fear-invoking stimuli, and that this may be in part due to an enjoyment of fear.
Psychopathy encompasses many traits, including lack of empathy, manipulation, impulsive behavior, and risk-taking. Psychopathy has been linked with low fear due to people high in psychopathy experiencing low anxiety and less physiological arousal in response to alarming stimuli. This lack of fear is associated with the impulsive and often destructive decision making that is a hallmark of psychopathic behavior.
Additionally, recent thought has theorized that this lack of fear may be due to ‘fear enjoyment’ or the tendency to interpret fear-inducing events as positive. This study sought to understand differences in risk-taking behavior between people high and low in psychopathy and to explore ‘fear enjoyment’ as a factor of this.
In their new study, Angela Book and colleagues recruited 825 participants from two Canadian universities and through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants watched a video from a horror game that included jump-scares and was described as frightening. Additionally, participants watched a first-person video of a roller coaster to induce excitement.
Participants completed measures on psychopathy, risk-taking, emotional reaction, definitions of fear and excitement, and demographics. Participants watched the videos in a randomized order and completed the emotional appraisal measure after each video.
Results showed that participants with higher psychopathy scores were more likely to report risk-taking behavior, which is consistent with previous research. Most participants reported a lower propensity for risk-taking after watching a video meant to evoke a fear response, while participants who showed psychopathic traits did not.
Moreover, participants higher in psychopathy were more likely to have an increased positive association and a decreased negative reaction to fear-inducing stimuli. When asked to define fear , participants with higher psychopathy scores included positive language when describing the emotion, further supporting this ‘fear enjoyment’ hypothesis.
“Our findings suggest that individuals with psychopathic traits enjoy fear as opposed to having deficits in fear but these theories are not incompatible,” Book and colleagues wrote in their study. “It is possible that psychopathic individuals both enjoy fear and also do not experience the negative aspects of fear to the same extent as other people.”
“These findings may help explain the risk-taking and criminal behaviour of people with psychopathic traits. If such individuals find frightening situations to be positive to some extent, then fear of impending threat would be less likely to inhibit the risky behaviour.”
“Further, these findings could be relevant to the callousness of psychopathic individuals,” the researchers continued. “If psychopathy is associated with perceiving fear more positively, there may be a corresponding tendency to underestimate the unpleasant fear that is experienced by victims. That is, not only do individuals with psychopathic traits show a lesser ability to recognise fearful faces, but they may also believe that the other person’s fear is experienced more positively and less negatively than is the case.”
This study took important steps into better understanding the relationship between psychopathy and fear. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that all participants watched both videos that should have had opposite effects on their risk-taking propensities. Future research could separate participants into conditions and include a control group. Additionally, the sample was predominantly female and comprised of many undergraduate students; future research could utilize a forensic population to achieve clinical levels of psychopathy.
The study, “The effect of fear-inducing stimuli on risk taking in people with psychopathic traits“, was authored by Angela Book, Beth Visser, and Tori Wattam.