Rossdavidh's Reviews > The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between

The Fear Factor by Abigail Marsh
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Dr. Abigail Marsh, the author of this book, seems to be entirely too nice a person to be studying psychopaths. She shares tales of her own fears, embarrassingly emotional responses to baby turtles, and otherwise seems like the nicest person. Picturing her interviewing one psychopath after another is kind of the thing that you would expect to be set up in a Hollywood thriller, where you just know the nice blond lady with the big smile is going to get kidnapped or worse.

But, thus far at least, she seems to have been able to generate a lot of excellent science by studying a group of people right out at the very edge of human variation along the empathy axis. Or rather, and even more interestingly, two groups. Because the other group that she tells us about in this book, is composed entirely of people who have been anonymous donors of their kidneys, to people they don't know. People so empathic they are as far removed from typical (in this regard) as psychopaths, but in the other direction.

But, lest you think that Marsh is just doing this because she is perhaps a people person, she is doing this as a means of testing a very specific thesis about empathy (though I'm guessing she is also a people person). Marsh believes that at the root of empathy, is our ability to feel fear. In particular, the fear of others.

There is a famous story, quoted by Marsh in this book as well, of a researcher named Essi Viding, testing psychopaths in an English prison on their ability to interpret human facial expressions. One subject in particular was among those who were completely unable to recognize a fearful expression when he saw it, causing him to say, "I don't know what that expression is called. But I know that's what people look like right before I stab them."

Of course, psychopaths also like to mess with researchers, perhaps. But far from being a single anecdote about a single subject, this is instead part of a large and growing body of evidence that says that psychopaths not only don't care about the emotions of others, they also just aren't that good at perceiving them. In some ways, this is not too surprising; most of us aren't good at learning about what we don't care about. But Marsh believes the causality works both ways. She believes that psychopaths cannot feel even their own fear as well as others, and this impairs their ability to feel the fear of others, and that impairs their empathy.

Now she certainly does not seem to deny that it can work the other way as well, but the idea that psychopathy originates in a disability (more like blindness than like toughness) is interesting. I would also not taken it as totally proven, although Marsh provides a lot of very interesting and worthwhile research. It helps that her writing is enjoyable as well, with just the right mix of chart-driven study results and personal anecdote to keep all parts of your brain engaged. I get the impression that if she were the professor in your class on psychology, you might consider becoming a psychologist.

But, if your college class days are behind you, there is still good news, as you have an another option for discovering cutting edge research about how our minds work. You can read this book.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 7, 2018 – Shelved
August 7, 2018 – Shelved as: black

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