The Fear Factor

How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between


By Abigail Marsh

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In this “compelling scientific detective story,” a leading neuroscientist looks for the nature of human kindness in the brains of heroes and psychopaths (Wall Street Journal).

At fourteen, Amber could boast of killing her guinea pig, threatening to burn down her home, and seducing men in exchange for gifts. She used the tools she had available to get what she wanted, and, she didn’t care about the damage she inflicted. A few miles away, Lenny Skutnik was so concerned about the life of a drowning woman that he jumped into the ice-cold river to save her. How could Amber care so little about others’ lives, while Lenny cared so much?
Abigail Marsh studied the brains of both psychopathic children and extreme altruists and found that the answer lies in our ability to recognize others’ fear. And as The Fear Factor argues, by studying people who demonstrate heroic and evil behaviors, we can learn more about how human morality is coded in the brain.
A path-breaking read, The Fear Factor is essential for anyone seeking to understand the heights and depths of human nature.



It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or of those which were the most faithful to their comrades, would be reared in greater number than the children of selfish or treacherous parents of the same tribe. He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.

—CHARLES DARWIN, The Descent of Man

My favorite part is that other people say, “Oh, I could never do that.” Well, that’s bullshit.

—Altruistic kidney donor HAROLD MINTZ, on donating a kidney

IN 1934, THE French entomologist Antoine Magnan set forth to write a scholarly text on the flight of insects. He ran into one niggling problem. After running calculations with an engineer named André Saint-Lagué, Magnan concluded that, according to the laws of aerodynamics, insects should not be able to fly at all. With a note of dejection, he wrote: “I applied the laws of air resistance to insects, and I arrived with Mr. St. Lagué at the conclusion that their flight is impossible.”

And yet insects fly.

Conspiracy theorists love to use this apparent contradiction (sometimes touted as applying only to bees) to declare physics and biology to be bankrupt pursuits. Some religious devotees proclaim it as evidence of a higher power. But scientists are patient, and time is on their side.

Upon reading Magnan’s assertion, entomologists did not decide that insect flight must be an illusion, or that it results from supernatural forces. Nor did they conclude that the laws of aerodynamics are hopeless bunk. They knew that reconciliation must be possible, but awaited better methods for measuring the properties of insect flight and calculating the physical dynamics at play.

Several decades and the invention of high-speed photography later, the puzzle has been solved. Insects, bees included, fly because their wings beat very quickly—bee wings make 230 short, choppy strokes every second—while rotating around their hinge to carve figure-eights in the air. The rotation creates a bug wing–sized vortex that generates enough lift to support a fat bug body. A robotic wing can be programmed to work precisely the same way, conclusively demonstrating that insect flight and the laws of physics are compatible.

Another apparent contradiction of the laws of nature, one that is arguably even more puzzling than insect flight, is altruism.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is as rock-solid as scientific laws get. But as Charles Darwin, the father of the theory, calculated some 150 years ago, natural selection seems to dictate that all the altruists should have died out long ago. An individual who sacrifices to help another person will do wonders for the other person’s odds of survival, but not much for his own. Over the course of human history, the saps who sacrificed their own evolutionary fitness for others should have been outcompeted, outnumbered, and eventually completely superseded by their self-serving brethren.

And yet altruism exists.

I know this from personal experience. When I was nineteen, an altruistic stranger saved my life, gaining nothing in exchange for the risks he undertook to rescue me. And he was just one of many. Carnegie Hero Fund Medals are awarded every year to dozens of Americans who risk their lives to extraordinary degrees to save the lives of strangers. Over one hundred Americans a year undergo surgery, at no small risk to themselves, to donate a kidney to a stranger, often anonymously. Millions of people around the world donate bone marrow or blood—smaller sacrifices, certainly, but with no less noble a purpose: to help a stranger in need.

Until recently, there was no clear scientific explanation for actions like these. Since Darwin’s era, biologists have developed models to explain altruistic behavior, but these models focus on altruism aimed at helping close kin or members of one’s own social group. For example, some altruism toward kin can be explained via inclusive fitness. Inclusive fitness dictates that an altruistic behavior can evolve if its beneficiary shares enough genes with the altruist to compensate the altruist for the risk he or she has taken. It explains why colony-dwelling creatures like ground squirrels sound an alarm when a predator approaches. These calls attract the predator’s attention and put the caller at risk, but they also help close relatives in the colony escape danger. Inclusive fitness may also explain why humans prefer to donate organs to close family members instead of strangers or friends. If you donate a kidney to your sister and she goes on to bear your nieces and nephews, they will carry some of your genes into the next generation. You may not personally benefit from your generosity, but your genes will, which makes the risk worthwhile from an evolutionary point of view.

What about altruism toward distantly related or unrelated others? Some such altruism takes the form of reciprocal altruism, which relies on the expectation that the beneficiary will one day return the favor. For example, vampire bats famously regurgitate blood into the mouths of even unrelated colony-mates who cannot find food and are at risk of starving. Their generosity pays off, though. Bats are more likely to receive blood buffets in the future from those with whom they have shared in the past. Humans engage in similar acts of reciprocity all the time, minus the regurgitation. You have probably lent a neighbor sugar or bought your colleagues coffee with the expectation that they will eventually reciprocate. Reciprocal altruism nearly always benefits members of the altruist’s social group, who are more likely to be willing and able to return the favor later than would a passing stranger. This form of altruism is really a form of delayed gratification because ultimately the altruist will personally benefit, but only after some time has passed.

Both kin-based altruism and cooperation-based altruism are widespread and valuable biological strategies. Life as a social species would probably be impossible without them. Many books about altruism explore these forms of altruism in great detail. But both of these types of altruism are fundamentally selfish, in a sense. Kinbased altruism is directly aimed at benefiting the altruist’s genes, and cooperation-based altruism is directly aimed at benefiting the altruist personally. So both of these models are useless for explaining the kind of altruism exhibited by altruistic kidney donors or Carnegie Heroes or the man who rescued me. These altruists intentionally and voluntarily risk their lives to save, not a relative or a friend, but an anonymous stranger. And they do it with no possible commensurate payoff to themselves, either genetically or personally. Indeed, they often pay dearly for their sacrifices. What could possibly explain their actions?

As in the case of insect flight, the seeming contradiction between altruism and the known laws of science often leads people to seek other explanations. Some declare all altruism an illusion. No matter how altruistic an action appears to be, no matter how great the risk and how small any possible payoff, perhaps it is really self-interest in disguise. Perhaps heroic rescuers are just looking for a rush and kidney donors are seeking public adulation. Others cite supernatural forces, calling heroic rescuers “guardian angels,” or altruistic kidney donors “saints.” Metaphorical or not, these terms suggest that whatever motivates these altruists cannot be explained by science. But scientists are patient, and time is on their side.

An avalanche of new technologies for studying human psychology and behavior have emerged in recent decades, including new methods for measuring and manipulating activity inside the brain, acquiring genetic information, and comparing human and animal behaviors. Much of this work has emerged at the intersection of established disciplines, spawning entirely new fields like social neuroscience and cognitive neurogenetics. Just as high-speed photography and robotics yielded new answers about insect flight, so has this profusion of technologies yielded new answers about human altruism.

My own rescue inspired me to take advantage of these new approaches to understand the origins of altruism. I was a college student at the time, and shortly thereafter I turned my academic focus to the study of psychology. I first conducted laboratory-based research as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College and later as a doctoral student at Harvard University. While working on my dissertation at Harvard, I made a serendipitous discovery. Efforts to find markers of highly altruistic people in the laboratory had until that point mostly failed. But I discovered that altruism is robustly related to how attuned people are to others’ fear. People who can accurately label photos of frightened faces are also the people who donate the most money to a stranger under controlled laboratory conditions, or volunteer the most time to help them. The ability to label others’ fear predicts altruism better than gender, mood, or how compassionate study participants claim to be, and this relationship holds up in study after study. But the question persisted: why?

Answers began to emerge as I continued my research in the laboratory of Dr. James Blair at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). I joined the Bethesda, Maryland, lab just as it was embarking on the first-ever series of brain imaging studies to probe what makes psychopathic adolescents tick. This required using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of teenagers at risk of becoming psychopaths. The results revealed that these teenagers’ brains were marked by dysfunction in a structure called the amygdala, which is buried deep in the brain’s interior and is responsible for essential social and emotional functions. In these teenagers who showed little empathy or compassion for others, the amygdala was underresponsive to images of others’ fear. Moreover, this pattern of dysfunction seemed to prevent the teenagers from identifying fearful expressions. If amygdala dysfunction robs people of both empathy and the ability to recognize fear, could amygdala-based sensitivity to others’ fear be a critical ingredient for altruism—including acts of extraordinary altruism like the one that saved my life?

An image of the amygdala from one of our brain imaging studies.

Abigail Marsh and Katherine O’Connell.

Finding an answer would require locating real altruists and scanning their brains, which had never been previously attempted. Upon completing my postdoctoral research fellowship at NIMH, I began a professorship at Georgetown University, whereupon my research group set about recruiting nineteen altruistic kidney donors who had donated a kidney to a stranger. Some of them had responded to flyers posted by strangers seeking kidneys, and others had called a local transplant center and offered to give a kidney anonymously to anyone who needed it, no questions asked. None received payment in exchange for the inconvenience, pain, and small risk of serious injury or death that the surgery entailed. They weren’t even compensated for the days of work they missed or their travel expenses. On the surface, these extraordinary altruists had little in common—they were men and women of varying ages, religious backgrounds, and political persuasions who came from all over America and told very different stories about what drove them to donate. But our research demonstrated that they did share something in common: an unusually strong amygdala response to pictures of other people’s fear, as well as an enhanced ability to recognize it.

The Fear Factor delves deep inside the human brain to explore why sensitivity to others’ fear is such a powerful marker for altruism, on the one hand, and for psychopathy, on the other. Findings from my own research, coupled with emerging knowledge from brain imaging and genetic studies, have provided new insights into the origins of empathy, psychopathy, and altruism. This book considers the question of how our species came to be endowed with the capacity to care by tracing altruism in modern humans back to the emergence of Earth’s first mammals, who developed a desire to nurture and protect their offspring rather than let them fend for themselves. This desire springs in part from a chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin is expressed strongly in the amygdala and may be able to convert the desire to avoid the distress of others into the desire to ameliorate it. New evidence suggests that psychopathy may result from breakdowns in the brain processes that evolved to enable parenting.

With this in mind, my NIMH colleagues and I developed a protocol to administer oxytocin intranasally to a sample of typical human research participants who came to the sprawling clinical center of the NIH. We evaluated how administering oxytocin affected the deep-seated social processes that underlie the capacity for altruism, like sensitivity to others’ emotions and responses to the faces of infants. To put our findings in context, I tracked down stories of modern mammals from around the globe, from lions to golden retrievers, who have engaged in acts of extraordinary parenting. Understanding how fearsome carnivores like lions and dogs could be moved to nurture and protect creatures, like antelopes and squirrels, which they would normally hunt and kill, may hold the key to understanding equally unlikely acts of altruism in humans—and how to foster them. The Fear Factor considers whether, if the lion can lie down with the antelope (if not the lamb), we humans can learn to become more altruistic toward one another as well—and whether we should.



OVER BREAKFAST THE morning after the rescue my mom could tell just by looking at me that something had happened. I left it at, “I hit a dog on the freeway.” Which was true. But the rest, the part I couldn’t bring myself to tell her for fear she might lose her mind from retroactive panic, is the real start of my story.

I was driving home to Tacoma, Washington, after spending the evening with a childhood friend in Seattle. It was a clear summer night around midnight, traffic was light, and I was sober. All that was the fortunate part. Less fortunate was the car I was driving—my mom’s SUV of a vintage that is infamous for being unstable during sharp turns. Normally Interstate 5 doesn’t require any sharp turns as it wends its way from Seattle toward downtown Tacoma. The eight-lane freeway curves only slightly as it rises up over the Puyallup River, the peeling blue mass of the Tacoma Dome looming ahead of the southbound drivers.

I don’t know where the dog came from. The overpass traverses an industrial area with no homes that a dog could have escaped from, and it has no shoulders that a dog could run along. It’s hard to imagine a less likely place to run into a dog. But run into it I did. Or rather, I ran over it. I tried to avoid it, jerking the steering wheel as soon as I saw the tiny orangeish mass streaking across the road at a speed only an absolutely terrified dog could muster. Jerking the steering wheel to avoid an animal is, of course, the wrong response. Just mow it down is what all the experts say. But my first instinct was to avoid the dog, and I had no time to override that instinct. I love dogs. I wanted a dog so badly when I was in grade school that I daydreamed about being blind so that I could get a guide dog. Recalling the feel of my front wheel rising slightly as it rolled over that poor creature still makes me shudder.

What came next was worse. The combination of the car turning sharply and then tilting as it rolled over the dog destabilized the SUV and sent it into a fishtail. It veered sickeningly leftward across two lanes, then swooped back across them to the right as I fought for control of the wheel. But by the third turn the pull of the wheel had become too strong and I lost control completely. The car started to spin. A sickening succession of images passed before me as the car carved circles across the freeway: guardrail… headlights… guardrail… taillights… guardrail… and… headlights. Then, still facing the headlights of the oncoming cars, it slid to a stop.

Getting my bearings, I realized that I was in the far left lane of the freeway—the fast lane. Only now it was the far right lane because I was facing backward toward the oncoming traffic. Because the car had come to rest just past the apex of the overpass, it wasn’t visible to drivers coming toward me until they crested the hill, which left them with little time to avoid me. Some of them came so close before they swerved that the car shook as they blew past.

There was no shoulder to escape onto. The bridge was hemmed in by guardrails and only inches separated them from where I sat. I couldn’t have driven the car onto a shoulder anyhow because the engine had died. Does spinning around kill a car’s engine? I remember wondering vaguely as I stared at a dashboard full of warning lights, including the ominous CHECK ENGINE. My teenage brother and his friends spent many a snowy day turning doughnuts in parking lots, but I didn’t remember hearing that it made their engine die.

I turned the key in the ignition again and again, willing it to catch, but it stayed stubbornly silent. I knew that if I didn’t do something it was only a matter of time until a car, or worse, one of the eighteen-wheelers barreling by, plowed into me. But what could I do? I turned on the brights. I turned on the emergency flashers. I had no mobile phone in 1996, so I couldn’t call for help. Should I get out of the car and shimmy down the narrow shoulder away from it? And then what? Run across the freeway to an exit ramp? Or should I stay inside where at least I was protected by layers of metal and fiberglass and airbags?

I don’t know how long I sat there, terrified, weighing these equally unappealing options. Thinking you’re about to die makes time bunch up and stretch out in odd ways. But next thing I knew, I heard a rap on the half-open passenger’s side window, on the side of the car nearest the guardrail.

I turned toward the sound and flinched when I saw who was standing there gazing in at me. I wasn’t sure whether my situation had improved or just gotten much worse. Tacoma’s downtown was racked by violence back then. The epicenter of the violence was the notorious Hilltop neighborhood just to the west of where I sat. The emergency rooms of the two hospitals that stood like concrete sentries on either side of the Hilltop treated a steady stream of shooting victims, most of them either members or rivals of the Hilltop Crips. People from the part of Tacoma where I lived did not hang out near the Hilltop. We definitely did not go there and interact with men like this one. He seemed an unlikely candidate for a roadside hero. He was wearing sunglasses, despite it being the middle of the night, and an abundance of gold jewelry. His head was shaved and shone like a coffee bean. When he spoke, I thought I saw the gleam of a gold tooth.

“You look like you could use some help,” he said. His voice was low and rumbling.

“Um. I think I do,” I responded, my voice catching in my throat.

“All right. Then I need to get in your seat.” He gestured to the driver’s seat.

Oh Jesus, I thought. Now what? This man wants to get in the car with me? My mom didn’t even want my friends driving her car (understandably). What would she think of this man driving it? But I had zero other viable choices.

After a pause, I nodded. “Okay.”

He walked around the hood of the car and watched the traffic for a moment. His head bobbed faintly leftward as each car passed, like a jump roper finding the rhythm. When a gap in the traffic appeared, he moved fast. In an instant, he was outside my door and yanking it open. I lifted myself over the center console to the passenger’s side in time for him to swing himself into the driver’s seat and slam the door shut behind him. He grasped the wheel and turned the key. Nothing.

“It won’t start,” I said. He turned the key again. Still nothing.

His gaze moved systematically across the dashboard and controls. It landed on the gearshift, which was still in drive. Without comment, he moved it back to park, then tried the ignition again. It caught! He pulled the gearshift back to drive, watched again for a gap in the flow of traffic, and, when one appeared, floored the accelerator to launch us in a smooth arc across the freeway. A moment later we were safe again—relatively speaking—on the diagonal stripes of the off-ramp. He eased to a stop behind his own car, a dark-colored BMW that gleamed orange under the sodium lights. Since getting into my car, he had not looked at me or spoken. Now he turned to me, taking in my jagged breathing and my face, which felt tight and drawn. My skin felt cold, and my legs were shaking uncontrollably.

“You going to be all right getting home? Need me to follow you for a bit?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No, I’ll be all right. I can get home,” I said.

Did I thank him? I’m not certain. I think I somehow forgot.

“Okay. You take care of yourself then,” he said. And then he was gone. He returned to his car, and the summer night swallowed him up.

I never learned his name. I know nothing about him. Was he a Hilltop Crip, or was he an expensively dressed attorney or preacher or salesman? All I actually know about him is that while he was driving on Interstate 5 near midnight—Was he tired? Did he have somewhere to be?—he encountered an SUV marooned in the fast lane facing backwards, brights blazing and flashers blinking. Could he have even seen me inside? If he did, it could only have been for the briefest of moments. Most of the drivers passing by barely had time to veer out of the way. But in the second that passed between when he saw me and when he pulled over, he made an incredible decision: to try to save my life. He pulled into the off-ramp, parked, then ran some fifty feet across four lanes of the busiest freeway in Washington State, in the dark, to reach me. Did he have second thoughts as he stood staring at the cars and trucks blazing past him at freeway speed? If so, he didn’t yield to them.

He then tested his luck against the traffic twice more: once to get around to the driver’s side of the car, and then again to launch the car across the freeway from a dead stop. Any of those three times a miscalculation or a stroke of bad luck could have caused him—and maybe me—to die a violent death. But he did it anyhow. He did it to help me, a woman who found him frightening and couldn’t pull herself together enough to thank him. He was clearly capable of great bravery and great selflessness. He couldn’t have been looking for a reward—not even the recognition of a little story in the Tacoma News Tribune. By not telling me his name, he guaranteed that no one would ever know what he had done. He was a hero in every sense, and I am sorry to this day that I can’t tell him that, and thank him for my life.

In the immediate aftermath of that night, I was mostly tormented by fear and regret: How did I manage not to hit another car as I was spinning across the freeway? What would have happened to me if the stranger had not arrived? Would I be lying mangled in an intensive care unit in a hospital on the Hilltop? Would I be dead?

My stomach turned every time I thought about the dog that had set off the whole chain of events. Such a frightened, helpless creature, and through my own stupid actions—intended, with terrible irony, to spare its life—I had killed it. Had it suffered? I hoped not. But I couldn’t erase it from my mind. For weeks afterward I could still see matted, orange tufts of its fur stuck to the asphalt when I drove across the bridge over the Puyallup River.

As time went on, though, a new kind of torment took hold. It wasn’t so much an emotional torment as an intellectual one. I found myself turning over and over in my head questions about my rescuer and the improbability of what he had done.

He wasn’t a singularity, of course. Heroic rescues happen everywhere with some regularity. The Carnegie Hero Fund honors dozens of them every year. Everyone has heard news stories about someone who leapt into a river to save a drowning child or rushed into a burning building to rescue an old woman. But these stories are somehow remote and bloodless. It is easy, reading them, to discount the risks and pain that the rescuers faced—the freezing, rushing waters of the river, the heat and hiss of the flames—and the feelings they must have experienced. For most people, even those who can picture the scene vividly, the outlandishness of the rescuers’ decision makes it difficult to imagine what could have been going through their heads. What were they feeling? Were they frightened? If so, how did they overcome their fear to act so bravely? The difficulty of comprehending the decision to risk suffering or death to save a stranger makes it tempting, I think, to treat the mind that would make such a decision as a locked box, remote and unknowable, and somehow fundamentally different from the minds of the rest of us.

I was stuck in the same trap as everyone else. I couldn’t imagine making the decision my rescuer had made—choosing, in a fraction of a second, to risk my own life to save a stranger. The impenetrability of the final outcome made the mental process that could have led there impenetrable as well. It was a problem with no solution, with no hint of which way the solution might even lie, and no matter how many times I turned it over in my mind I couldn’t seem to make any progress.

But as it happened, my life had just taken a turn that would begin leading me toward an answer. The previous year I had entered Dartmouth College as one of the many premed students in my class. It was a terrible fit. I quickly found myself fighting to stay awake during the first class period of my first premed biology course. By the second class, I was relying on a classmate’s trick of bringing a plastic baggie of Cheerios with me and eating one of them every few seconds for an hour to stay awake. The trick worked, but I knew the bigger picture was futile. What was I doing studying a topic that literally bored me to sleep?

As luck would have it, I had also enrolled in an introductory psychology class that term. From the first class, I was hooked. We covered every question about being a person I had ever thought to ask, and many I hadn’t: What is consciousness? How do we see in color? Why do we forget things? What is sexual desire? Where do emotions come from? I can still picture the imposing figure of my professor, the Dumbledore-esque Robert Kleck, striding up and down the aisles of our classroom as he posed questions like, “Is it really true that tall people have better life outcomes?” then pausing dramatically.

Well, do they?? I wondered frantically, all five feet of me. (They do.)

I devoured my textbook, festooning it with highlights and scribbling exclamation points and stars on nearly every page, marking all the insights I wanted to commit to memory. I later marked one page with a sticky note as well. It was a page about teaching sign language to apes, and while I was reading it I had an epiphany: psychology research is something people actually get paid to do—people can do it for a living. I decided I was going to become one of those people.


  • Listed as "One of the Best New Emotions Ebooks" by Book Authority
  • WINNER of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology's book prize for 'The Promotion of Social and Personality Science'
  • "This compelling scientific detective story spirals outward into realms that affect everyone. Best of all, [Marsh's] writing style is vivid and personable."—Wall Street Journal
  • "The Fear Factor is a fascinating tour of altruism research, all the better for being sprinkled with anecdotes about Marsh's life, career and unforgettable research subjects. As well as the extremes of human nature, Marsh says plenty that is of relevance to those of us in the middle of the bell curve, including how we can strive to be more altruistic in our everyday lives."—New Scientist
  • "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."—Science
  • "The Fear Factor is a fine example of a book that looks deeper, showing how an ancient part of the brain--central to our emotional lives--plays a pivotal role in who we are and what we do. It's a sharp analysis sprinkled with relatable examples, and an excellent brain book."—Forbes
  • "Fear Factor provides an illuminating dive into the science behind both altruism and psychopathy, promising an entertaining read for scientists and laypeople alike."—Paste
  • "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."—PopMatters
  • "[Marsh's] book is deft enough to be chilling at times, infectiously optimistic at others."—The Daily Telegraph
  • "Recommend this fascinating text to readers of pop psychology and true crime fans who wish to better understand the minds of potential criminals."—Booklist
  • "Let Abigail Marsh guide you on a riveting ride through your own brain. With lively writing and an impressive command of science, she shows how sensitivity to fear can be both a weapon of evil and a force for good."—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals, Give and Take and Option B (with Sheryl Sandberg)
  • "A brilliant, beautiful, and important book about the things that make some of us angels, some of us devils, and all of us human. You won't be able to put it down."—Daniel Gilbert, New York Times bestselling author of Stumbling on Happiness
  • "Are humans basically good, or does original sin touch all of us? Should people be blamed--or praised--for behavior that is largely related to physiological differences? Is conversion even possible? How far beyond our intimate circles should our love extend? Does perfect love really cast out fear? The Fear Factor could keep a church book group arguing for hours."—Christian Century
  • "The Fear Factor reads like a thriller. Abigail Marsh takes us through the groundbreaking research that has thrown light on two of the most fundamental traits of human beings: extreme selfishness and extreme altruism. Page after page, she shows convincingly that the capacity to perceive and identify fear and, consequently, to feel empathy as one would for a child in danger, is the key factor that makes us behave as a psychopath or as someone who joyfully gives a kidney to a stranger. One of the most mind-opening books I have read in years."—Matthieu Ricard, Author of Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World

On Sale
Oct 10, 2017
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Abigail Marsh

About the Author

Abigail Marsh is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown. She directs its prize-winning Laboratory on Social and Affective Neuroscience. She lives in Washington, DC.

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