Contrary to common beliefs, psychopaths are able to feel fear, but they have trouble responding adequately to danger, scientists have said. Their findings could help improve treatments of psychopathy but also of other psychiatric disorders.

Psychopathy is a mental health and personality disorder, closely related to the "antisocial disorder" defined in the DSM-5, the standard classification of mental disorders used as a reference internationally. Two common behaviours among these patients include impulsive antisocial conduct and increased risk-taking, which has led many to suggest that psychopathic individuals did not experience fear.

In the latest study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegen have conducted an investigation which suggests this is not actually the case.

They say these individuals can get scared, but they have more trouble detecting and responding to threats.

Literature review

The scientists conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of available evidence regarding the relationship between fear and psychopathy in adults – taking a look at studies published as early as 1806. One of their hypothesis was that the mechanisms involved in automatic detection of dangers was separated from the mechanisms involved in the experience of fear as an emotion.

They discovered relatively little evidence that brain regions linked to fear were impaired in psychopaths, suggesting that the neurological mechanisms can trigger fear were functioning well. However, other findings indicated that psychopaths struggled to identify danger and to address threats coming their way.

psychopath fear
One of the most famous scenes in the movie American psycho. Flickr/Creative commons/Steve

This led the scientists to conclude that these individuals have a dysfunctional threat system, which does not alert them in time and leads them to take many risks.

The study's findings may also be interesting because they could apply to other mental health issues – mood and anxiety disorders in particular. Focusing on people's response to danger rather than on fear itself could be a good way to tackle specific diseases.

"While psychopathic individuals may suffer from a dysfunctional threat system, people with post-traumatic stress disorder may have a hyperactive threat system, which later leads to them feeling fearful. Ultimately, this could pave way toward more targeted and more effective treatment interventions", study author Inti Brazil concludes.