HALLOWEEN is right around the corner, and if you’re like me, it reminds you of one thing in particular: horror movies.
There’s something counterintuitive about the Halloween horror movie experience. Nobody likes to be truly scared, nobody wants to be in the presence of an axe-wielding psychopath, but the movies give us a chance to experience a shadow of that terror vicariously – no need for the real thing.
And there are arguably few more delightful aspects of a horror movie than being so nervous that we jump inches from the chair at the slightest touch or unexpected sound.
This uncontrolled jump, this alarmed jump, has a specific name in scientific terms – the “startle reflex”. It seems to be something that happens automatically and was presumably selected in the evolutionary process because it serves a useful purpose. It seems to help mobilize us to defend ourselves against the threat. As we know from experience, the startle interrupts us in everything we do, allowing us to pay attention to the threat; and it’s also associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure – typical of our body’s “fear, fight or flight” stress response.
Of course, we are prone to startle at any time, but the effect becomes more pronounced when we have been exposed to unpleasant stimuli – a phenomenon called “aversive startle potentiation” (ASP) and found in humans. and animals. This is further evidence of its usefulness in the evolutionary process – if it is found in several species of mammals, for example, it is probably because it was linked to improved survival since we had a common ancestor.
Neurophysiological research shows that a part of the brain called the amygdala is also active during the startle reflex. The amygdala is associated with fear, and a reduction in ASP is thought to be linked to reduced amygdala activity – and therefore reduced fear.
I spoke earlier about the “uncontrolled” jump when we are surprised. Naturally, however, when people are careful not to show fear while watching horror (and we all know those people – we could count ourselves among them), they can successfully suppress the startle. It’s like an adult version of my 11-year-old son and his friends buying the sourest candy in the store and chewing it with a smile while suppressing grimaces and chills. But just as naturally, some people just don’t exhibit much of a startle reflex. Why?
Well, that brings me back to a word I used earlier when talking about horror movies – “psycho”. it’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, but in psychology we use it carefully and with a specific meaning. It’s important to note, by the way, that while axe-wielding guys may well be psychopaths, the vast majority of psychopaths don’t wield axes!
A commonly used model for understanding psychopathy is the “triarchic model” – this approach suggests that psychopathy is not a direct choice, but is characterized by levels of three personality dimensions – so that psychopathy can be present in different people in different ways.
The three dimensions are boldness, meanness and disinhibition. Boldness is related to remaining calm in ostensibly threatening situations and a lack of anxiety; meanness is a lack of empathy for others and a willingness to exploit and manipulate others; and disinhibition reflects poor impulse control and emotional control. When we consider these characteristics, it seems likely that boldness (with its low anxiety in times of stress) and meanness (with its indifference or insensitivity to the emotions of others) would be related to people being unaffected by the terror experienced by film characters. , and not be frightened or alarmed by an unexpected sound or touch.
And so it turns out. A recent systematic review of research, by Sofi Oskarsson of Örebro University in Sweden and her colleagues, found strong evidence that psychopathic personality is linked to lower ASP, but this is particularly the case for audacity and high wickedness.
It’s not a foolproof way to identify people with psychopathic personalities – there’s a lot of variation between humans. But if your Halloween horror couch companion isn’t jumping when the doorbell rings for the pizza delivery, maybe…