Fearlessness Leads to Criminal Activity

By Duff McDuffee on May 18th, 2010 1

Eric and I recently chatted and agreed to write shorter pieces at least once per week for Beyond Growth, in addition to the longer articles we have been writing. So here goes!

It is often said by many a personal development guru that the only thing stopping you from getting what you want in life is fear. Sometimes F.E.A.R. is turned into an acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. But isn’t fear a useful response to genuinely threatening situations? Is the evidence always false?

When I’ve worked with clients with apparently irrational fear, there has always been some very good reason for their unconscious fear reactivity. The response may be less-than-useful, but is usually based in some important bit of reality. Once this information is integrated and the emotional experience fully accepted then the fear naturally dissipates.

Recent evidence also suggests that young children who do not easily register fear in their brains are more likely to become criminals:

Poor fear conditioning at age 3 predisposes to crime at age 23. Poor fear conditioning early in life implicates amygdala and ventral prefrontal cortex dysfunction and a lack of fear of socializing punishments in children who grow up to become criminals. These findings are consistent with a neurodevelopmental contribution to crime causation.

—Am J Psychiatry 2010; 167:56-60

This finding is consistent with what we know about psychopaths and sociopaths. Fear plays an important role in pro-social behavior. If one is totally fearless, there is no fear of social punishment from breaking norms, such as in stealing or killing to get what one wants. We see this kind of callous behavior in psychopaths like James Arthur Ray and other personal development “leaders.” That said, fearing public speaking because you think you are going to die isn’t exactly helpful or rational either. And sometimes excessive fear of punishment can keep us from fessing up to our mistakes.

Usually what most people do when we feel fear is attempt to ignore our experience of fear or overpower it with willpower. Alternatively, we simply don’t go for challenging goals. These strategies sometimes work in a pinch, but don’t work very well in the long-term. Ignoring our experience, the fear typically grows more intense until it must be dealt with directly. Attempting to overpower our fear, we find that our conscious will isn’t nearly as powerful as the ocean of the unconscious mind, and we’re either tossed on the waves or refuse to risk sailing out of the safe harbor.

What are the alternatives to ignoring or denying one’s fear? Embracing and understanding it. Notice what physical and mental sensations make up your experience of fear or shame—what mental images, inner dialogue or sounds, and physical sensations create this experience? Notice these with a sense of curiosity. Perhaps you picture people laughing if you fail at your new project. How realistic is this? What if you make the picture smaller, and surround it by pictures of people who support you in your endeavor? And most importantly, what is the positive purpose of this fear for you and for society? You may even find that your original goal changes and feels less “forced” when you embrace and understand your fears. It seems to me that many extreme personal goals are counter-phobic reactions to fear that unnecessarily and irrationally increase risk.

By appreciating the positive purposes individually and socially of fear and other unpleasant emotions, we can avoid some of the simplistic views of personal development and promote a healthier society for all.



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13 responses to “Fearlessness Leads to Criminal Activity”

  1. Some other relevant information:

    "…it looks as though early-life interventions such as that tested by Olds and his team, or perhaps other interventions, such as nutritional enhancement, physical exercise, or cognitive stimulation, might be able to promote the normal development of brain structures involved in fear conditioning, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, Gao suggested to Psychiatric News. Further, if the amygdala and prefrontal cortex followed a normal developmental trajectory, it then might “facilitate the development of conscience and reduce [criminal] behavior,” he speculated. "

    So in other words, care can help bring about normal pro-social fear response, reducing criminal behavior.

    From Psychotherapy Networker May/June 2010, pg 13:
    "…studies point to the importance of providing parents, especially those under financial or social stress, with enough support to tend to their children's development. Between the ages of 3 and 5 … the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex can be significantly influenced by good nutrition, exercise, empathic connection, and the kind of cognitive work we've known to be important for centuries. It's especially important to help young children … because it's much harder to promote a good conscience in adults."

    More evidence for the importance of care, and for making "personal development" a social issue specifically related to poverty.

  2. Ross Hudgens says:

    Interesting spin – and true, definitely. Sometimes fear is grounded in reality, but when we address "overcome your fear", sometimes its better to leave people oblivious to the fact that their fear will always be grounded in reality.

    Self-esteem drops associated with awareness of fears that can't be overcome (say, insecurities over height/good looks), will permeate into other places where the fear can be overcome, such as career or social skills. The problem with fear, to me, then, is that where it's grounded in reality incorrectly filters into other areas of our lives where the fear is unwarranted, or could easily be broken with the correct filtering.

  3. DesireEngine says:

    Hi Duff,

    Enjoyable post. I'm going to attempt an uncharacteristically brief (for me) response and suggest that where those of us who CURRENTLY EXPERIENCE fear may want to go is not "fearlessness," but instead a focus in a direction which is so emotionally engaging, and so filled with desire, that it helps one listen and work with any existing fear, hear it, and then choose a direction which will hold hopes of more expansion, freedom, and even bliss.

    Personally, when I talk about fearless, I don't mean that I don't feel fear; I mean that my being and concentration are focused in a direction that is powerful and Self-connecting, and therefore is relinquishing fear to what I consider it's positive role: filtering out true desire from fantasy; honing intention from mere wishes; sending me important information that I may consider and use; but not gripping my frontal lobes in a vice that hobbles reason and higher brain-function.

    A tricky subject, for sure, and I completely agree that our treatment of fear both as a topic and as an emotional response benefits from careful consideration.

    As an aside, but perhaps worth mentioning here: rather interesting how are handling of fear, and our perception of it, is influenced by a transformational experience.

    Best to you…


  4. Chris Edgar says:

    Thanks for this Duff — I get concerned as well when I see people saying things like "overcome your fear" or "kill your fear" — as if the fear is unacceptable and should be ignored or repressed. As I think you're saying here, developing the ability to choose what to do when the fear is coming up — as opposed to automatically fighting it or fleeing from it — is a more difficult, but ultimately a healthier and more compassionate, way to relate to it.

  5. @stephenlark says:

    Also apparently lying children will grow up to be successful citizens – at least according to a copied-and-pasted press release from a university…

  6. Gina says:

    Great post Duff!
    Another reason to teach parents about good nutrition (real nutrition, not the food pyramid) starting with breastfeeding.
    Good to have you back writing 🙂

  7. Steve says:

    Thanks for this Duff — I get concerned as well when I see people saying things like “overcome your fear” or “kill your fear” — as if the fear is unacceptable and should be ignored or repressed. As I think you’re saying here, developing the ability to choose what to do when the fear is coming up — as opposed to automatically fighting it or fleeing from it — is a more difficult, but ultimately a healthier and more compassionate, way to relate to it.

  8. @32000days says:

    The title of this article is a bit sensational and not exactly in line with the otherwise good content.

    As you pointed out, when you want a particular outcome, but an irrational (or "mostly irrational") fear stands in the way, then you have essentially two options
    (1) to "feel the fear and do it anyway", in the words of Susan Jeffers
    (2) to use techniques to make the fear / phobia actually go away (e.g. psychological tools, NLP, hypnosis, meditation, etc).

    In either of these cases, it doesn't sound like you're "ignoring or denying" the fear.

    On the contrary,
    (1) recognizing that a specific fear is present,
    (2) deciding that you'd prefer not to experience that fear, and
    (3) using specific techniques to mitigate or eliminate the fear,
    specifically requires that you observe and acknowledge the presence of the undesirable fear in the first place.

    It sure doesn't seem like you're saying that someone using such techniques repeatedly, to neutralize several different fears (i.e. grow more "fearless"), would start behaving psychopathically or antisocially. So the content about psychopathy and disorders seems a bit out of place except to justify the "scary" title
    My recent post Creative destruction

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