‘The Fear Factor’ Explores the Impulse within Us All

Shades of darkness, glimmers of light, and coping mechanisms in our age of reckoning.

The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between
Abigail Marsh
Basic Books
October 2017

Sometimes a book’s success is not just the power of what it’s trying to tell us. It can also be about the perfection of timing. This year will most likely be known as the year of the reckoning. Our stars might not have slipped over to the other side so much as burned out gloriously in front of us. The list of sexual indiscretions from allegedly trustworthy television personalities and elected politicians has expanded in a horrifying fashion, like bugs crawling out from under boulders. Call it a reckoning or a final call for justice delayed but not justice denied. The darkest impulses so fearlessly and casually employed by those in power have been revealed and the sea change in America’s culture will likely have seismic consequences.

Abigail Marsh’s The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between is not about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and all the other sexual predators recently dragged into the spotlight, but the reader cannot help but think about their characteristics, their conditions, all that might cause them to act that way. Is it about a lack of fear? Is their exposure and probable prosecution for violations of power a true reckoning for past injustices, or will we simply be moving on to something else once this story plays itself out? In her prologue, Marsh notes that while the logic of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution would have had altruism die out after a while, it remains. For Marsh, the characteristic of altruism (selflessness) “…is robustly related to how attuned people are to others’ fear.” In other words, fearless leaders and single-minded superheroes are few and far between. The ability to accept fear and do the right thing in spite of it is what brings forth the truly heroic.

The idea here is that those who suffer from psychopathy (anti-social behavior that may or may not be accompanied by expressions of violence) are afflicted with dysfunctional amygdalas, that structure within the brain’s interior responsible for essential proactive social and emotional functions. If the amygdala is secure, does that guarantee there will be no problems? Of course not. What works best as Marsh opens this book is the premise that fear is a condition that should be understood, embraced — not accepted so much as absorbed into our lives. The ability to identify and overcome fear is key to becoming heroic and Marsh effectively proves here that true heroes have always acted in the face of fear and understood that there’s nothing wrong with admitting that they, too, are afraid.

Marsh tells the story of an anonymous man who rescued her when her car jackknifed in the middle of the highway. He risked his life for her, running through traffic to enter her car and put it back in play. “Does being an actual, living hero require being resistant to deep, distressing emotions like fear and panic?” She asks and answers no, especially after including the story of Cory Booker. In 2012, while still Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, he rescued a woman from a burning building. While others might have shrugged it off, Booker was adamant about the fear, about acting on instinct, and this set Marsh into motion:

“Frightening. Terror. Terrifying. Fear. Scary… Booker could not have been clearer… what distinguishes heroes from other people is not how they feel, but what they do — they move toward the source of the terror, rather than away from it, because somebody needs their help.”

Marsh tells another personal story. As a 23-year-old celebrating the millennium with other friends in Las Vegas, she reaches her boiling point regarding rude men and their random grabbing. She vows to slap the next man who crosses that line. “I saw his grin falter… before I had time to think… his fist was hauling back and then smashing into my face…” A vigilante crowd later converges upon Marsh’s assailant and enacts on him the immediate type of justice he most likely would never have gotten in the courts. What was happening? She had experienced the sublime beauty of random altruism only to later be the recipient of ridiculous rage. “Did the capacity for such violence lie latent in many or most people?” This was her question and the remainder of the book provides variations on her results.

Readers familiar with The Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo, 1971) and Stanley Milgram’s experiments on the limits of behavioral obedience a decade earlier will find The Fear Factor compelling, and those unfamiliar will see where Marsh is going with it. Milgram, in particular, was working on his observations of Adolph Eichmann and the recent Nuremberg trials. Eichmann had claimed, in his defense, that his actions were compelled by superiors who had instructed him to proceed so that the Nazi Final Solution would reach its necessary conclusion.

“…Milgram did show that Eichmann could have been telling the truth… under the right circumstances, ordinary people will engage in horrific, sadistic crimes if an authority figure who is willing to take responsibility for the outcome instructs them to do so.”

What’s interesting in the ideas Marsh develops here is that she takes Milgram and Zimbardo’s work, widely known and interpreted, and shines a different light on the accepted ideas. She determines that while what we see might be evidence of humanity being callous and heartless, the participants in these experiments implored for the pain to be stopped. “Compassion is a stronger force than obedience,” Marsh concludes. “The pull of compassion, on average, was stronger than the pull of obedience.” Marsh refers to the work of researcher Daniel Batson, who advanced Milgram’s research by allowing those engaged in giving pain to switch sides and become recipients.

Marsh continues to expand the picture by reflecting on behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who believed that “…if we could perfectly control the rewards and punishments that children receive from their rearing environments we could eliminate undesirable behaviors like aggression entirely.” Of course, with 50 years of retrospect we can see how misguided Skinner’s notion that deviance could be eliminated without looking at how altruism might actually be inherited and perhaps cultivated, was.

The idea of psychopathy, “…a disorder that robs the human brain of the capacity for compassion…” is understood here through the context of psychopaths as somehow disabled. In short, Marsh concludes that psychopaths are impaired because they cannot recognize simple facial fear cues. It might be hard for some of us to consider, especially in an age when many people might want to hide under the blanket of a diagnosed condition after conviction, but psychopathy is a developmental disorder. Something has happened. Children who may or may not have been diagnosed as psychopaths in their youth may or may not see their condition manifested come adulthood.

Much of The Fear Factor consists of case study narratives and analysis of findings, so a reader unfamiliar with (or antagonistic towards) such writing (which at times can be dry) should take heed. Fortunately, Marsh manages to make this a compelling read and for the most part she has reason to be proud of what’s presented here. “Our studies were the first effort to directly measure brain dysfunctions that might contribute to psychopathic traits in children and adolescents…” By presenting her findings in such a clear and compelling manner, and citing the contributions of her students and colleagues, The Fear Factor becomes a surprisingly interesting book for those in and outside the fields of Psychological Studies.

There’s no singular human nature. Marsh notes: “The belief that human nature is fundamentally selfish remains a cornerstone of much modern economic, biological, and psychological research.” In her chapter “The Other Side of the Curve”, Marsh explores the condition of extreme altruism. What is it? Why would people donate organs to strangers? Why would Lenny Skutnik, in 1982, dive into the Potomac River to save a woman from a plane that plunged into it? Marsh concludes that if the brains of psychopaths can be easily identifiable, true altruists should have anti-psychopathic brains. Again, it’s a disorder (or perhaps in the case of altruists a uniqueness) in the amygdala of an altruist, cells that “…were more active when they gazed at a stranger’s fearful expression than when they gazed at a neutral expression.” While Marsh concludes that understanding fear is an important factor that adds to our lives as “normal” human beings, “…there is a critical distinction between being fearless and being brave.” There can be genuine fearlessness in a psychopath, but bravery is an important characteristic to consider.

In “The Milk of Human Kindness”, Marsh considers the altruistic nature of living beings, human or otherwise. In the animal kingdom, “allomothering” is the condition of mothering children that aren’t your own. She notes that humans are the leaders of allomothering. Marsh writes: “Allomothering, particularly the forms that involve retrieval and protection, is all but indistinguishable from extraordinary altruism.” Human fearful expressions, especially the looks of need and sadness in the faces of big-eyed young children, have always been used — for good reason — in fundraising advertisement campaigns for charities. In effect, it’s all about tapping into our universal altruistic potential.

In her final chapter “Can We Be Better?” Abigail Marsh makes some interesting conclusions. Of the idea that we are in a “rape culture” that surfaced in 2016, she concludes “There is no epidemic other than an epidemic of awareness.” She believes we are better than we think we are and that caring requires more than just compassion. It’s the extraordinary nature of the former that makes altruists (active and potential) so compelling. Compassion must be married with active empathy. She proposes getting involved with effective altruism, such as Robert Mather’s Against Malaria Foundation, rather than immediately being pulled into GoFundMe campaigns and other Facebook petitions that tug at heartstrings and rarely go beneath the surface or ask for commitment beyond the financial. The idea that people act better when they are doing better also warrants consideration:

“Well-being is more than just happiness — it’s life satisfaction, having a sense of meaning and purpose, and being able to meet basic needs.”

If Collectivist cultures value altruism based on familial ties and loyalty and Individualist cultures rate high when donating to strangers, perhaps we can reach a middle ground. The emergence of literacy has proven to be demonstrably effective in lowering rates of violence, so now we should start considering other elements of literacy (spiritual, facial recognition, social awareness). Marsh notes “…that Buddhism is the dominant faith practiced by the most generous country in the world…” While that’s not necessarily an endorsement of faith, it bears consideration when it comes to understanding the consequences or accoutrements of altruism. We grow older, and ideally humility becomes our richest resource, or greatest potential for goodness.

Marsh has presented and developed an interesting text with The Fear Factor. Certainly she did not likely have in mind the litany of famous powerful names arising from sexual abuse that started with Bill Cosby and sees no end any time soon. The power structure is crumbling perhaps because these men never understood fear, never knew how to empathize, and never learned how to read faces — let alone morals clauses in their contracts. Readers familiar with Milgram and all the other behavioral experiments cited here will have a slight advantage going through some of the more scientific passages here, but all readers experiencing our national culture of fear, rage, and (perhaps in some cases) a rush to judgment will benefit from this examination of the importance of fear, empathy, humility, and the mysterious physiological conditions that can trigger (organically or not) the extraordinary altruist in all of us. The psychopathy stories are dark and disturbing, the altruism stories are extraordinary, and somewhere in all these shades we can find ourselves.

RATING 9 / 10