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The Fear Factor

How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths and Everyone in Between

By Abigail Marsh
13-minute read
Audio available
The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths and Everyone in Between by Abigail Marsh

The Fear Factor (2017) examines the multifaceted role that fear plays in our lives. Though commonly perceived as a purely negative emotion, fear is in fact linked to several virtuous human characteristics, such as empathy and altruism.

  • People who want to become more altruistic
  • Those interested in neurology and how it affects certain behaviors
  • Individuals who want to turn their fears into something useful

Abigail Marsh is a neuroscientist and psychologist at Georgetown University. Her studies focus on the social interactions of human beings, and her work has been included in the Times, the Huffington Post and NPR.

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The Fear Factor

How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths and Everyone in Between

By Abigail Marsh
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths and Everyone in Between by Abigail Marsh
Synopsis

The Fear Factor (2017) examines the multifaceted role that fear plays in our lives. Though commonly perceived as a purely negative emotion, fear is in fact linked to several virtuous human characteristics, such as empathy and altruism.

Key idea 1 of 8

Empathy and the ability to recognize fear are closely linked.

Empathy refers to the ability to understand another person’s emotional state, and can sometimes result in the direct experience of another person’s feelings. Usually, we tend to see people as either naturally empathetic and nice, or innately mean and cruel. However, empathy isn’t an inherent trait, but rather a result of where your focus lies.

As such, empathy can, at least to a certain extent, be manipulated.

For example, inspired by the 1978 study by psychologist Daniel Batson, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the author conducted an experiment where the subjects were asked to listen to a radio interview.

The interview was of a woman named Katie, who’d lost both her parents and was responsible for taking care of her younger siblings. She worked several jobs while simultaneously studying to earn her college degree.

Before listening to the interview, some participants were asked to focus on the technical details of her story, while the rest were asked to focus on and identify the emotions Katie was expressing. Afterward, the author asked if anyone would like to donate money to Katie. The results showed that those who had been asked to focus on Katie’s feelings donated more than those who focused on technical details.

What the author also discovered during the study was that empathy was strongly related to the ability to recognize when others are experiencing fear.

Following the interview exercise, the author asked the participants to study photographs of faces and identify whether they were expressing happiness, sadness, anger or fear. Interestingly, the participants who didn’t do well at recognizing happy expressions, but who were able to identify fearful expressions, had also donated the most money to Katie.

What we can infer from this is that people who are good at recognizing fear in others also tend to be more altruistic. Let’s explore this concept further in the next blink.

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