An analysis of conscious fear and automatic threat response in psychopathy
A lack of fear has been proposed to be one of the driving forces behind the callous and antisocial behavior of psychopathic individuals. However, the term “fear” has taken on many different meanings and has been operationalized in many different ways. On one hand, fear can be described as the subjective and conscious experience of fear (e.g., “I feel afraid”). On the other hand, fear is often equated with an automatic bodily response to threat (e.g., physiological responses to threatening stimuli). The present study sought to clarify whether psychopathy is associated with each of these types of “fear.” In a sample of 64 male and female inmates in a county jail, threat detection, as well as the ability to recognize threat directed toward others, were assessed using threatening images along with measures of skin conductance and heart rate. The conscious experience of fear was measured via self-reported emotional experience in response to fear-inducing stimuli, as well as though the peripheral processes of interoception, alexithymia, and empathy. In a departure from previous literature, almost no significant relationships were found between total psychopathy and measures for the conscious experience of fear and automatic threat response. Additionally, gender was not found to be a significant moderator in any of these relationships. Limitations, implications, and suggestions for future research are discussed.