Although fearlessness is not part of the formal definition of psychopathy or DSM IV antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), it is widely recognized that this temperamental attribute is part of these disorders as well as their childhood precursors, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD). Thankfully, not all fearless individuals are sociopaths but it appears that fearlessness is present in varying degrees in everyone with these disorders. (Interestingly some sociopaths do show anxiety. The exact relationship between anxiety and fearlessness is not completely understood.)
Fearlessness is a good trait to study because the trait reflects the function of specific brain regions that are linked to a person’s ability to learn from punishment. The trait is also influenced by genetics. In addition to psychological measures, fearlessness can be assessed using physiological measures. The most universal finding related to fearlessness and genetic risk for sociopathy is that children at risk have low heart rates. Low heart rate has been documented in groups of at-risk children from six different countries and in children as young as 3 years of age.
It appears that the psychological trait of fearlessness has its roots in the physiological trait of “autonomic under-arousal.” This means that the sympathetic nervous system of fearless individuals is under-active at rest and does not readily respond to cues of danger. The sympathetic nervous system is under the control of a part of the brain thought to be abnormal in sociopaths. That is the amygdala-prefrontal cortex circuit.
In a recently published study, Similar autonomic responsivity in boys with conduct disorder and their fathers (J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007 Apr;46(4):535-44), researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Rostock University, Rostock, Germany, studied 44 conduct disordered boys and their fathers. They compared them to 36 “healthy controls” and their fathers. The boys were between 8 and 13 years of age.
The researchers examined sympathetic nervous system activity as measured by skin conductance. They also measured personality characteristics in fathers. Fathers of CD boys were “more aggressive, hostile, and impulsive” than the fathers of the non-disordered boys. The researchers showed the fathers and sons pictures that usually elicit emotional responses from people. CD boys and their fathers showed significantly less emotional responses to the pictures. They also had little physiological response to the pictures compared to the control group. “Psychophysiological measurements were highly correlated between fathers and sons.”
The researchers conclude their abstract with this statement: “High father-son correlations in psychophysiological measures raise the question of whether autonomic abnormalities may constitute a biological mediator through which the disposition for antisocial behavior is transmitted within families.” In making this statement, they are not asserting a purely genetic basis for the trait. A father’s behavior toward his son could also influence this trait since these pairs were in contact or lived together.
In my opinion there is overwhelming evidence that low sympathetic activity and accompanying fearlessness are present very early on in developing sociopaths. Furthermore, the caregivers of fearless kids know their kids are fearless usually by age 2. The most important question is, what can we do to help fearless children develop guilt and empathy so that they do not develop CD or ODD?
There are no studies comparing children at risk who have or have not had contact with their sociopathic parent(s). There are, however, many studies that suggest that fearless children require special parenting. Fearless children who do well have an especially warm and loving relationship with at least one caregiver. A warm loving relationship with that caregiver predicts conscience formation in fearless children. Researchers have called this “the alternative pathway” to conscience. Since they do not readily experience guilt, fearless people rely on empathy for conscience. Empathy develops from early affectionate experiences.
Many at-risk children are in triple jeopardy. They have the genes from one antisocial parent, the environmental exposure to that parent AND another parent who has major depression. This depression is usually aggravated by having to deal with the sociopathic partner. Depression in a mother predicts antisocial disorders in children with sociopathic fathers. I believe the reason is that a mother battling untreated depression has a difficult time relating to a child in a way that promotes enthusiasm for loving and the development of empathy.
There are many things that people co-parenting with a sociopath, or raising an at-risk child, cannot control, starting with genetics. Court ordered visitation is a big problem for many kids and co-parents. There is, however, one thing these parents can control, that is their own loving relationship with the child. For more on how to overcome your child’s genetic connection to sociopathy, addiction and ADHD, read Just Like His Father?