Psychopaths are an enigma walking among us. They are not only infamous criminals, they are also the businesspeople and politicians who can function in lawful society, according to the literature.

The belief is that they have little to no regard for the rest of humanity around them. A mask disguises a void with no capacity for empathy or guilt.

The popular belief that that this complete disregard for others even extends to themselves: that they don’t feel fear.

But the latest research from a Dutch university has found psychopaths to function a bit differently than traditionally believed. 

Psychopaths do indeed feel fear – they just can’t process immediate threats as competently as others do, according to the study published in the Psychological Bulletin.

The lack of a response to other people and even for their own well-being has been misinterpreted, said Sylco Hoppenbrouwers, the lead author, of the Department of Cognitive Psychology at the Vrije Unirtsiteit Amsterdam.

“That lack of a response has just been equated with not seeing the distress in others, but also with them not having any fear,” Hoppenbrouwers told Forensic Magazine in an email interview. “We now show that psychopathic individuals mainly have deficits in assessing threats and risks, but may in fact feel fear.”


Hoppenbrouwers and his co-authors Berend Bulten and Inti Brazil evaluate the conception of psychopathy, from its first description in the 19th century.

What was one known as “manie sans delire” in Napoleonic Franc became better known as “moral insanity” in the Anglo world in decades to follow.

But it was the popularization of the term “psychopath” – from the Greek for “mind suffering” – in the mid-20th century that really captured the imagination of the public at large.

“The Mask of Sanity” by Hervey Cleckley (1941) and “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us” by Robert Hare (1983) both proposed an unsettling, invisible population that walked the streets alongside us.

They didn’t just have to be killers or rapists or criminals – they could also be the people who appear to be entirely normal, with families, who hide their true natures behind a mask.

A profile emerged from the Cleckley and Hare books.

Psychopaths were intelligent people who had complete disregard for the suffering of others and for the standards of society, virtually no capacity for insight, a compulsion for lying, and a full lack of remorse and shame. However, psychopaths could also fake their way into being accepted as normal.

Together, the personality profile seemed to indicate that these personality types were impulsive risk takers – without any fear at all.


But the new study indicates that the portrait of psychopathy is overly simplistic.

Psychopaths have deficiencies in their amygdala, as demonstrated in a lengthy series of studies. According to the literature, this has an impact on “threat conditioning” – most commonly known as “fear conditioning.” Consequently, psychopaths can’t as easily understand what pressing dangers there are around them.

But they do have the capacity, in the long-term, to feel concern and worry for their own safety, the authors contend.

Meta-analyses of previous studies involving brain scans and behavioral observations indicated that psychopaths did indeed show fear – just more subtle versions of it.

“There is a rich literature linking psychopathy to dysfunctions in the amygdala,” they write. “There is a generic threat circuitry that responds to various types of aversive stimuli, and that it is threat processing, not fear processing, that is impaired in psychopathy.

“Psychopathy is characterized by impaired automatic threat processing and responsivity, and not by disturbances in the conscious experience of fear,” they add.

Psychopaths may not even identify and recognize their own fear sensations, physical and otherwise, they add. A review of the literature determined that psychopaths seem to have decreased happiness, increased angry – but relatively normal sadness and surprise.

“While psychopathic individuals may suffer from a dysfunctional threat system, people with PTSD may have a hyperactive threat system, which later leads to them feeling fearful,” said Inti Brazil, one of the authors, of Radboud University.

Hoppenbrouwers told Forensic that the better understanding could help a criminal investigator – or lead to better treatments of those who are diagnosed early on. Helping the psychopath to recognize threats through therapy or even neurostimulation could have potential to normalize behavior, he said.

“It might be an option to give medication that allows for a better threat response, or allows for better learning of threatening things,” he added.


Image caption: Ted Bundy in a courtroom circa 1979. (Photo credit: Donn Dughi / State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)