I wish everyone would read this book. The Fear Factor is that incredible thing, a highly readable popular science book that deserves to become a major cultural touchstone. I’m obsessed with making Alison Marsh’s research as widespread as possible.
Marsh studies both psychopathy and altruism. Who knew there would be such strong connections between them? As a true crime fan and compulsive news junkie, I was riveted. Putting psychopaths into an MRI machine turns out to have been a really great idea, and it answers so many questions.
Q: Why are they like that?
A: Amygdala visibly smaller, different brain activity than normal people
I don’t want to give out too many spoilers, but I had ‘aha’ moments on nearly every page.
As many questions as The Fear Factor answers about psychopathy, it has equally as much to say about altruism, which is a hobbyhorse of mine. Why has altruism persisted in both humans and animals if “survival of the fittest” requires individuals to be selfish? Why do creatures help each other across species?
A pervasive belief about altruism is that it’s actually selfish. Either the person is doing it biologically, to benefit kin; doing it cynically, to get attention; or the fact that altruism makes them feel good somehow invalidates the act. Marsh says that psychopaths don’t help other people - in fact, the opposite, because they find it entertaining to harm people - and if altruism were innately pleasurable, then psychopaths would do it, too. “The fact that, for most people, alleviating others’ suffering and bringing them joy can be a source of personal pleasure is, in my view, what distinguishes most of us from psychopaths—it is evidence that we have the capacity for genuine altruism.”
The title “The Fear Factor” has to do with a key difference between altruists and psychopaths. This is that psychopaths can’t recognize fear in themselves or other people, while altruists are more sensitive to fearful expressions. Part of what intrigues me so much about this is that altruists are instead less sensitive to anger! I’ve read elsewhere that most people misconstrue sadness as anger, seeing angry expressions and behavior where there really are none. This would definitely be a fascinating topic for further research of Marsh’s style.
The Fear Factor is a truly fascinating book. I enjoyed it so, so much and I really want it to be as widely known as it deserves to be. Please go out and get yourself a copy before you find me running after you down the street, waving one over my head.