Anyone who has started looking into psychopaths knows they are not like the rest of us, with some very peculiar and disturbing traits. But can they actually feel more intense emotions that the rest of us do like anxiety, stress and fear? Do they get stressed out, anxious or fearful?
Psychopaths are in generally shut off from their internal emotional experience when compared to normal people, having a very narrow or absent emotional range which leaves them struggling to feel normal emotions as other people do. This basically means they don’t feel things like anxiety, stress, and fear in the same way others do.
A psychopath’s internal state is characterized by an extreme underlying boredom and emotional stuntedness, which explains their constant need for drama, conflict and stimulation counteract this.
It is this deadness to things like anxiety, stress and fear which leads psychopaths to act with a seemingly outrageous confidence, even when transgressing rules or committing appalling acts towards others. It also partially explains their impulsiveness and lack of fear of consequences when they act.
Lets look at this aspect of a psychopaths stunted emotional range in a couple of different contexts.
Psychopaths Have Lowered States of Physiological Arousal
Dr Ramani Durvasula on the physiological differences between psychopaths and normal people
There has been some research conducted to show that psychopaths do have a different connection to emotions like fear, stress and anxiety. Their brains do not work in the same way as normal people, with several different parts of the brain such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex showing some differences.
However, in terms of things like fear, stress and anxiety, we need to look in more general terms at the function of the autonomic nervous system, which controls things like the fight-flight response and heart rate. This is the biological mechanism which gets people aroused and ready to fight off threats or to warn of some other impending danger or risk.
In psychopaths, there is evidence that this fight-flight response is greatly reduced or absent when compared to normal people. This means they don’t get physiologically aroused in response to threats, fears, or risks as other people do. See also here and here for some academic studies on psychopaths and the autonomic and sympathetic nervous system.
Psychopathy expert Dr Ramani Durvasula gave an excellent example of this in the above video, where she mentions a psychopath could get pulled over by the police with a dead body in the trunk, and still be totally cool and relaxed.
Any normal person would likely give themselves away through sweating, nervousness and other cues, because our fight-flight system would be in full gear. A psychopath doesn’t have this same response, and so can stay totally calm and cool even when they have done horrible things.
There is some debate about just how much these biological factors hold true for psychopaths who have been studied.
The problem here is that this is only a very small sample and the vast majority of psychopaths live and work among us and will not submit themselves for treatment or study, since they don’t think there is anything wrong with them.
However, the common sense reality on this from anyone who has experienced a psychopath up close and personal is that their behavior is often grossly abnormal and of the type that a normal person with empathy, guilt and conscience simply wouldn’t be able to keep doing over and over again.
“Something is seriously wrong upstairs”, as the saying goes. When we do something bad to someone, we feel bad inside, because there is a fail-safe mechanism of empathy which tells us we have done something wrong.
Psychopaths lack this internal brake-check. Lacking empathy, they cannot feel the impact of their behavior on others, and they also lack the same internal physiological markers that normal people get when they have seriously transgressed moral codes (ie. feeling horrible).
We have explored this issue more in our article on whether psychopaths know the difference between right and wrong.
They do on some level intellectually understand that other people consider certain things right and wrong, but since they lack these internal emotional barometers of empathy and conscience which place a limit on the behavior of normal people, as well as any physiological reactions, they simply do whatever they want, considering themselves “above” human morality and rules.
Psychopaths Can Act With a Brazen Fearlessness
Because of this lack of emotional and physiological restraint on their behavior, psychopaths can be seen as a very predatory personality type, wandering around doing pretty much as they please to others, without the same emotional hangups of guilt, shame and remorse that other people have.
As psychopaths move through life and start to realize this fundamental difference between themselves and other people, they start to see they have an advantage in that they can do things other can’t do without any emotional consequences.
This leads to them to act with a brazen arrogance and fearlessness, considering themselves “above” these things called morality, guilt and conscience that these other people around them seem to have.
Over time this pathology starts to actually become a source of pleasure for the psychopath, and they take a glee out of “getting away” with something one more time. They got away with another murder, or set someone else up to get fired or pushed out in a work environment, or lured someone else into a fake romance before dropping them cold and moving on.
“Ha!”, the psychopath thinks “I got away with yet another one. Look how easy it is!” They start to take pleasure out being so easily able to manipulate and control others, and this can even sometimes leak out in the form of duping delight.
As their confidence grows, so does the outrageousness and fearlessness of ther behavior, as they simply don’t feel these things like guilt, shame, remorse or fight-flight arousal as the rest of us do.
This chronic state of under arousal also explains why psychopaths need constant stimulation and immersion in life to feel any sense of “aliveness”. Many of them will engage in risky or extreme sports or other activities which provide high stimulation, to compensate for this constant sense of deadness they feel inside. Their mindset is naturally hedonistic or pleasure seeking.
This may also explain why they can commit such outrageous and horrible acts towards others, since the excessiveness and “over the topness” of the things they do, as well as doing them in plain sight and getting away with it, is precisely what gives psychopaths a “kick” inside and gets them excited.
Psychopaths Don’t Get Anxious or Stressed
The two other emotions listed in our title – anxiety and stress – are also not something the psychopath is used to feeling. Again, they don’t get anxious or stressed in the same way others do.
In some scenarios this can give them an advantage. In certain occupations for example, psychopaths may be revered as having “nerves of steel” or “being calm” under pressure. Of course, not everyone who is calm under pressure is a psychopath; it is a skill that anyone can learn.
However, the psychopath’s natural disposition to not feel things like fear, anxiety and stress automatically puts them at an advantage in certain environments. It is not something they need to learn or force, since they are naturally cut off from emotions in general anyway, both positive ones and negative ones like stress and anxiety.
This explains their apparent calmness and fearlessness under pressure, but is also the same reason they can lie brazenly to someone’s face without even flinching or giving away any clues at all. Many psychopaths can also pass lie detector tests, since they don’t give away the same physiological clues that others do when they are telling lies to others.
It could however also be argued that psychopaths don’t feel fear and anxiety very much because they don’t often need to, since they are so confident and brazen in their ability to manipulate others and wriggle their way out of any situation that they belive themselves to be bulletproof.
However, it is true that psychopaths constantly are found out and do have to move away and start again somewhere else with new, unsuspecting targets. In this sense, they are constantly having to “spin plates” in terms of deceiving multiple people and topping up their act of deception, piling lies on top of lies and fake narratives about their own shady past.
In this sense there is a constant underlying, existential sense of fear and anxiety with the psychopath, since at any moment events could conspire to expose all their lies and manipulation. They are just cut off from this physiologically until the exposure does happen, at which point they lie, gas-light, project and blame shift before swiftly moving onto new targets, where the whole process begins again.
Hence the psychopath is on a constant psychological “treadmill” or “hamster wheel” of keeping their facade of normalcy or mask of sanity up, constantly having to manipulate, throw others of the scent and assert their power and ego over others to maintain some sense of control over their immediate environment.
It is when we realize this that we can start to almost pity the psychopath, since we realize life is a constant battle and struggle to keep themselves from being exposed.
They do not feel fear in the same that normal people do, but they still live a very fearful existence, constantly on guard and looking for threats, and when we realize this we see the stunted and closed off existence they really live, regardless of the hedonistic fun time image they often project out.
Psychopaths Act Without Fear of Consequences
Another consequence of this lack of ability to feel fear or anxiety in the same way as others is a tendency to act impulsively and take outrageous risks without thinking of consequences. Many times their outrageous facade of confidence allows them to get away with it, but in other contexts it can also lead to disaster.
On particularly relevant context here is the financial world, and the role of decision making in the late 2000s financial crisis. A normal person susceptible to fear would struggle to even carry out risky a transaction involving hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.
We would be sweating, our heart would be racing, we would struggle to focus. Our fight-flight system would be in full “on” mode, alerting us to the risk and potential consequences of our actions.
The psychopath doesn’t have these same restraints, and so can take risks and execute transactions involving huge sums of money and potentially affecting millions of people without a second thought. They don’t have this same fight-flight response in the face of risk and so will do things without pausing or thinking, that others would never dream of.
Psychologist Paul Babiak sums up this impulsive mindset in relation to the business and corporate world, in a quote taken from this excellent documentary on psychopaths:
“Most businesses are risk averse or at least try to manage risk. A psychopath will do something risky just to see what happens, making a decision that others would have taken a long time and a lot of data to come to, they’ll do it on a whim. And because they are fearless, it could even hurt them, but it doesn’t bother them”
From this we can see that psychopaths can and do exert a very real influence in the lives of all of us, with power hungry psychopathic characters naturally gravitating towards the very sectors and occupations – politics, finance, the corporate world – where they have the power to make decisions which really can affect the rest of us.
This is why, as experts like Robert Hare have pointed out, it is very important to understand the disorder of psychopathy, since their lack of ability to feel emotions like fear, stress and anxiety leads them to act impulsively and without the same restraints that normal people do.