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The Fear Factor

The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between

Abigail Marsh
Basic Books
320 pp.
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More than 20 years ago, the selfless act of a complete stranger affected the course of Abigail Marsh’s life. Now a social psychologist, in The Fear Factor, Marsh invites readers to join her as she explores the biology underlying extraordinary altruism. Translating technical papers into easily understood prose and incorporating personal stories, she answers the question of why a man risked his life to save hers and reveals the complex connections among fear, altruism, and psychopathy.

To study extraordinary altruism, Marsh voyages through psychology and neuroscience experiments and travels deep inside the brain, unmasking the integral role of the amygdala, an almond-shaped collection of neurons. She revisits classic studies, such as Stanley Milgram’s controversial research on obedience, and draws upon brain imaging studies of kidney donors (a population that serves as a proxy for extraordinary altruism) to build the book’s thesis. Repeatedly emphasized and well supported, Marsh uncovers that a person’s sensitivity to others’ fear serves as a strong marker for both extraordinary altruism and psychopathy. (Extraordinary altruists display high sensitivity to others’ fear, with low sensitivity a hallmark of psychopathy.) Amygdala activity and the brain chemical oxytocin form the biological bases for these behaviors.

Chapter by chapter, Marsh moves from heroic to “antiheroic” behavior, from the psychopathic brain and brains of children with psychopathic tendencies, then to “the other side of the curve.” Here, she describes the extraordinary altruists and the “milk of human kindness,” oxytocin. She closes with a chapter addressing whether humans can be better, both as individuals and as societies.

Many recent books that address fear focus on overcoming anxiety, modifying behavior to influence neural activation patterns, technical aspects of the amygdala, or detailed laboratory findings. The Fear Factor fills a gap, bridging popular and technical literature.

Marsh’s dynamic prose brings scientific studies and technical topics to life. However, her candor with respect to her career trajectory conveys the joy of scientific discovery, collaboration, mentoring, and international connections and distinguishes this work from others in the popular science genre. The combination of thorough investigation and personal research experiences creates a volume far more engaging than those typically written by academics.

That said, several sections grow long-winded. Chapter 6, for example, meanders through 33 pages before revealing the scientific punch line: the critical role of oxytocin in response to fear. In addition, although a handful of photographs and illustrations reinforce the narrative, one or two functional magnetic resonance images would have enhanced some of the author’s main points. The penultimate chapter, “Can we be better?,” provides four recommendations for becoming more altruistic, deviating from the book’s main thesis and teetering on overreach.

But The Fear Factor’s virtues far eclipse its shortcomings. Those who seek to comprehend the origin of fear, altruism, and elements of human nature will find this book a key factor in their increased understanding.

About the author

The reviewer is at the McClure Center for Public Policy, University of Idaho, Boise, ID 83702, USA.