The Frontal Cortex

Psychopaths and Rational Morality

Here’s a new interesting new paper on the emotional deficits of the psychopathic brain, via sarcastic_f:

The understanding that other people’s emotional states depend on the fulfilment of their intention is fundamentally important for responding adequately to others. Psychopathic patients show severe deficits in responding adequately to other people’s emotion. The present study explored whether these impairments are associated with deficits in the ability to infer others’ emotional states. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), identical cartoon stories, depicting a subject whose intention was fulfilled or not fulfilled, were presented to 14 psychopathic patients and 14 non-psychopathic patients. The participants should indicate the protagonist’s emotional state…In non-psychopathic patients emotion attribution was associated with increased activity of the mirror neuron system, the bilateral supramarginal gyrus and the superior frontal gyrus. In contrast psychopathic patients showed increased activation of regions associated with outcome monitoring and attention, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, the medial frontal cortex and temporo-parietal areas. The results emphasize that although psychopathic patients show no deficits in reasoning about other people’s emotion if an explicit evaluation is demanded, they use divergent neural processing strategies that are related to more rational, outcome-oriented processes.

On a related note, the Templeton Foundation recently asked me, and a bunch of much more qualified people, to answer the following grandiose question: “Does moral action depend upon reasoning?” Here’s part of my answer:

Psychopaths can teach us a lot about the nature of morality. At first glance, they seem to have perfectly functioning minds. Their working memory isn’t impaired, they have excellent language skills, and they don’t have reduced attention spans. In fact, a few studies have found that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities; their logic is impeccable. But the disorder is associated with a severe moral deficit.

So what’s gone wrong? Why are psychopaths so much more likely to use violence to achieve their goals? Why are they so overrepresented in our prisons? The answer turns us to the anatomy of morality in the mind. That’s because the intact intelligence of psychopaths conceals a devastating problem: the emotional parts of their brains are damaged, and this is what makes them dangerous.

When normal people are shown staged videos of strangers being subjected to a powerful electrical shock or other painful stimulus, they automatically generate a visceral emotional reaction. Their hands start to sweat, and their blood pressure surges. But psychopaths feel nothing. It’s as if they were watching a blank screen. Most people react differently to emotionally charged verbs like kill or rape than to neutral words like sit or walk, but not psychopaths. The words all seem equivalent. When criminologists looked at the most violent wife batterers, they discovered that, as the men became more and more aggressive, their blood pressure and pulse actually dropped. The acts of violence had a calming effect.

When you peer inside the psychopathic brain, you can literally see this absence of emotion. After being exposed to fearful facial expressions, the emotional parts of the normal human brain show increased levels of activation. So do the cortical areas responsible for recognizing faces. As a result, a frightened face becomes a frightening sight; we naturally internalize the feelings of others. The brains of psychopaths, however, respond to these fearful faces with utter disinterest. Their emotional areas are unperturbed, and their facial recognition system is even less interested in fearful faces than in perfectly blank stares. Their brains are bored by expressions of terror.

Neuroscientists are beginning to identify the specific deficits that define the psychopathic brain. The main problem seems to be a broken amygdala, a brain area responsible for secreting aversive emotions, like fear and anxiety. As a result, psychopaths never feel bad when they make other people feel bad. Aggression doesn’t make them nervous. Terror isn’t terrifying. (Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that the amygdala is activated when most people even think about committing a “moral transgression.”)

This emotional void means that psychopaths never learn from their adverse experiences: They are four times as likely as other prisoners to commit another crime after being released. For a psychopath on parole, there is nothing inherently wrong with violence. Hurting someone else is just another way of getting what they want, a perfectly reasonable way to satisfy their desires. In other words, it is the absence of emotion–and not a lack of rationality–that makes the most basic moral concepts incomprehensible to them.

Needless to say, this is a disquieting idea. We like to pretend that human morality rests upon a more solid foundation that our Pleistocene instincts, or our deep past as a social primate. Kant, for instance, famously believed that our morality was based on objective, universal values; moral judgments described moral facts. “The oftener and more steadily we reflect” on our moral decisions, Kant suggested, the more moral those decisions become. The modern legal system still subscribes to these assumptions and pardons anybody who demonstrates a “defect in rationality” (such people are declared “legally insane”), since the rational brain is supposedly responsible for distinguishing between right and wrong. If you can’t reason, then you shouldn’t be punished.

But psychopaths and various trolley experiments are giving us new insight into the emotional mess of moral decision-making. This doesn’t mean, of course, that reason is irrelevant. If history has taught us anything, it’s that social norms – the explicit and implicit rules governing what’s morally acceptable – are deeply plastic. These changes don’t happen fast – the arc of the moral universe is long – but they do tend towards greater justice. This isn’t because we’ve evolved a new set of moral emotions, or because we’ve suddenly learned to appreciate Kant’s categorical imperative. Rather, it’s a reflection of the fact that we now apply our empathetic mental muscles – what Adam Smith called “fellow-feeling” – to a much wider range of people. In other words, the invention of Promethean reason (via the PFC) didn’t mean that our moral emotions got superseded. Instead, it means they’ve been busier than ever, as we now apply our moral emotions not just to people who look like us, or are part of our tiny tribe, or share our sexual preferences. The optimistic trend of history is towards a world in which everyone is deserving of our sympathy.

Comments

  1. #1 Tom Becker
    April 29, 2010

    “In other words, it is the absence of emotion–and not a lack of rationality–that makes the most basic moral concepts incomprehensible to them.”

    I would suggest a slight modification to this analysis. A strict distinction between rationality and emotion misses the ways they condition each other. For it isn’t the total absence of emotion which characterizes the psychopath but rather the lack of emotion triggered by the states of other persons.

    This is one of the keys to understanding rationality and emotion in relation to morality. If one feels various emotions in relation to getting/not getting something they want, but feels no emotion in relation to other persons getting/not getting something the other persons want, this is itself irrational for it is to place one’s self, wrongly, in a privileged category.

    To be genuinely rational, we need our emotions to be rational to the same extent as our thoughts. We should feel the same emotions in response to suffering or happiness or loss, regardless of whether those phenomena occur in our body/mind or that of another. The failure recognize the similarity of one’s mind to another’s is itself the basic moral failing. And this can be as much an emotional pathology as a cognitive one.

  2. #2 sleeprunning
    April 29, 2010

    Discussions framed in terms of morality, rationality, optimistic, psychopaths always seem to serve mainly a rhetorical and marketing-of-science purpose. Not trival.

    The use of the terms “altruism”, for example, has been used mainly to make evolutionary models sound humanistic/nice and more people-friendly. In fact, there is no altruistic behavior. By definition. But rhetoric is the dominant form of human communications.

    This could be a long discussion but let’s look at 1st order explanations. It appears that all animals, likely homo as well, get along very well, thank you, without consciousness.

    It appears that what we feel is “conscious control” is actually a time-lagged process of self-talk, to others as well, and “post-play” commentary to minimize cognitive dissonance and ease social relationships. The frontal lobes may be causal but out best is not really.

    “There is nothing causal in consciousness.” is an increasingly testable hypotheses, BTW.

    If there is any super-imperitive defining life it seems to be for the individual to produce as many offspring as possible. Full stop.

    Whatever individual has the most offspring – “wins.” Acting immediately, on unconscous impulse is clearly the “winner” in animal (us too) behavior drivers. Makes sense.

    PS – Not sure how anything that evolved could be said to be “irrational?” Harmful to the organism now – perhaps. But it was clearly reproductively advantageous in the way distant past.

  3. #3 doctor(logic)
    April 29, 2010

    Tom, I can’t agree. You say “this is itself irrational for it is to place one’s self, wrongly, in a privileged category.”

    It is true that it would be irrational to consider oneself in a privileged category from an objective, material perspective, i.e., to consider oneself to be non-human or a superhero, etc. However, normative morality has no objective basis.

    You seem to be relying on a moral axiom: “If A is in the same objective, material category as B, then I ought to place the same moral value on A as on B.” There’s no way to verify that axiom, and I don’t hold with it. For example, A and B could represent two different songs in the same genre, and I could still value A much more than B. Or, if A is my brother and B is a stranger, I value A more than B. I don’t think this is objectively morally wrong, irrational, or abnormal.

    Valuing the emotions of others is not a purely rational moral attitude. It’s a moral attitude that normal people adhere to (or aspire to), but it’s not a valuation one can reach by reason alone.

  4. #4 Tom Becker
    April 29, 2010

    D(L)

    The principle I was making use of was not:

    “If A is in the same objective, material category as B, then I ought to place the same moral value on A as on B.”

    but rather something like:

    “If A and B are similar then a rational response is to respond similarly to A as to B.”

    This holds for both emotional and cognitive reactions.

  5. #5 koroshiya.itchy
    April 29, 2010

    It is not a problem o either morals or emotion, it is a problem o empathy.

  6. #6 N | NP
    April 29, 2010

    I think altruism can be entirely rational – depending on the scope of how one defines “self”. In a broad sense, “self” is all humanity, the tribe of civilization. And there are varying scopes. Race. Nationality. Local ethnicity. Family. And we have varying degrees of feelings of loyalty and altruism towards those – and some of those are rationality-driven: we realize that we rely on others for our own survival.

    Even in the most limited sense, “self” – one can jeopardize one’s own survival by reproducing or indulging in satisfying needs endlessly, and it’s not so difficult to see that; for most of us. At least the healthy, among us.

    The experiment we did in Freshman (HS) biology with yeast and population curves shows that in a closed system, eventually, we’re all going to drown in our own waste (alcohol) if we don’t curtail our own consumption+reproduction. We’re smarter than yeast, I hope.

    I think it’s accurate to say that psychopathy is an abnormal development, and to refer to it as a pathology – and that it’s likely the result of some kind of damage. Psychopaths (by folklore . . . ) do not even display empathy for animal suffering. Of course, “normal” people can be conditioned, or trained, to defer this. I experienced emotional discomfort in that same HS biology class when we dissected pithed frogs. I was assured that they felt no pain, that their central nervous system had been destroyed. But I was 15 years old, and it was still, kind of creepy to cut open a living thing, and behold a beating heart. I also have unpleasant memories about fetal pigs, and several other animals, some preserved, some fresh, but dead, unlike the frogs.

    From what I’m told about psychopaths, they’d have no emotional difficulty performing the same procedure on a live frog, without the “pithing”.

    But – a psychopath probably would not derive the same interest, learning, or satisfaction of curiosity from the experience either.

    In the German langauge, the word for “sympathy” is “mitleid” – which strictly translated means; “with pain”. “I feel the pain in others’ suffering”. (which is about the same as the latin of “sym pathy”). The very meaning of our words explains the cognitive experience that is common to most of us.

    I think that a psychopath may not feel others’ pain, and conclude that other people, other living things, are devices or tools or means for gain. But when you look at how psychopaths typically live. . . they generally don’t end up king of the world. This outlook does not give them some advantage in life.

    I have met one psychopath in life. (at least, I think he’s a psychopath, and at least two psychologists I’ve talked to say he matches the “symptoms”).
    Personally, I think he DID have the capacity for empathy. He definitely DID have his own emotions. He felt anger when he was failing at something. But that it was something that he had learned to avoid, or deny, or block – similar to other personality disorders and ego defenses we’re familiar with. But it was an extremely strong, and skilled approach. There was no arguing with this person, he was like a virtuoso when it came to denying the existence of a human conscience. This person was also the most happy, friendly, outgoing person you ever met. Has tons of friends. Having a quantity of friends is an important cover, and protective device for him. He once betrayed that he purposely seeks out people with codependency issues. Especially people who, he knows, will be too embarrassed, or polite to speak up after he victimizes them (steals or borrows money with no intention of paying back – he does not work, unless it is to convince someone that he is “trying”). Every person serves a purpose, either as a victim, or as cover. He is very methodical about how he goes about taking advantage of people, and the “system”. Yet, he only does this to “skate-by” in life. Never really to get ahead or get anywhere. He’ll talk about plans that he has – but only as talk to pass the time and keep people interested.

    Within 5 or 10 minutes of talking with him, I got the feeling that something was not quite right. Later, he was making some fairly open, bold, statements, I think he sensed that I wasn’t impressed, and thought he had to go over the top – but he revealed that he didn’t really have a sense of right-and-wrong. At least, as I was raised to understand it. (He planned to start a business, his goal was to do so so that he could get out of paying taxes). As I got to know him, in social circles, a few years later, I noticed that he had like 3 or 4 “funny stories” that he told, repetitively, to new people, to hook them in. Everyone would always remark at how charming, funny, and engaging he was.

    Eventually, his victimization of me, and those around me, cost him those social connections, and he moved on to “greener pastures”. Like some kind of nomadic predator. Overall; his miscalculations have cost him a minor criminal record, loss of drivers license, horrible credit rating, inability to find employment. I don’t think he gains anything, long-term, by pursuing this strategy. It’s a losing game.

    There is a theory about psychopaths that they are a sub-species of human. That their traits are an evolutionary advantage, and therefore, they live within our culture, and prey off the rest of us. They *do* seem to appear that way, but I disagree. I think they’re truly the result of some kind of brain injury, disorder, or trauma.

  7. #7 Joey Glickman
    April 29, 2010

    Jonah, your post hits home for me. I wouldn’t call myself a psychopath, but I rarely feel anxious or afraid. I feel anxious when I think about environmental collapse, and thus I eat a raw, vegan diet. I feel anxious when I think about human suffering, and thus I donated about $350 to Haiti. There is a large swath of research on mindfulness that you might enjoy…

    http://web.me.com/joeyglick/I_Like_Metaphors_that_Get_To_The_Point_/I_Like_Metaphors_That_Get_To_The_Point/Entries/2010/4/28_Argument_is_War.html

    I think you might enjoy this clip to explain “mega-ethical” decisions in a world where most ignore the systemic costs of their actions.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKD9anjgcCI

    Thanks Jonah,

  8. #8 royniles
    April 29, 2010

    koroshiya.itchy wrote: It is not a problem of either morals or emotion, it is a problem of empathy.
    And I agree, except that the problem is more one of the lack of the empathetic function that would otherwise allow the psychopath, or sociopath, to sense that his actions might have unpleasant consequences, not only to his victims, but ultimately to himself.
    Ordinarily we will have an emotional brain that recognizes the possibility of danger to ourselves in the future – or recognizes a pattern that portends this, perhaps reinforced by having learned from cultural or social situations to spot “behavior” that will portend such results. Psychopaths will not have learned to spot such patterns, or have seen the need to look for such, so that instinctive fear of future consequences is minimal, and cautionary reminders from the rational brain are not triggered.

  9. #9 royniles
    April 29, 2010

    It also seems to me that psychopaths/sociopaths clearly have less fear of abstract consequences. This may be in part because they lack, for various reasons, a sense of trust in themselves and others, and need to rely more on deceptive strategies. In particular they lack trust in the efficacy of moral and ethical concepts shared by the rest of us. The fear that they are supposed to feel when they go against these “shibbolithic” notions just isn’t there.

    They calculate the risks differently as their use and reliance on these alternate strategies makes them both want and need them to succeed, thus affecting the “probability” percentage needed to make a “go” decision – which is already skewed by their lack of trust in other people’s abstractions to begin with.

    It’s an extremely complicated subject, however, and not easily reduced to a question of rational versus the irrational, since we have many successful psychopaths among us who have found the consequences of their behavior to be pretty much as they had rationally expected.

  10. #10 AB
    April 29, 2010

    See recent work on dopamine reward system and psychopaths from Vanderbilt

    Psychopaths’ Brains Wired to Seek Rewards, No Matter the Consequences
    ScienceDaily (Mar. 15, 2010) — The brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost, new research from Vanderbilt University finds. The research uncovers the role of the brain’s reward system in psychopathy and opens a new area of study for understanding what drives these individuals.

    The results were published March 14, 2010, in Nature Neuroscience.

    “Psychopaths are often thought of as cold-blooded criminals who take what they want without thinking about consequences,” Joshua Buckholtz, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the new study, said. “We found that a hyper-reactive dopamine reward system may be the foundation for some of the most problematic behaviors associated with psychopathy, such as violent crime, recidivism and substance abuse.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100314150924.htm

  11. #11 royniles
    April 29, 2010

    That study would bear on a part of the motivation for a certain stratum or class of criminal psychopaths, especially the portion of those that get caught, but there are vastly more that don’t commit violent crimes, and populate the world of white collar crime and ‘civil’ fraud.
    Mot to mention those in politics and your friendly inside traders. And guys named Bernie.

  12. #12 Kevin Vogelsang
    April 30, 2010

    Good grief. The psychopathic brain does not question the fact that morality is based on the rationalization of moral facts.

    Psychopaths are not a result of pure rationality. They’re examples of pure rationality that only has half of the facts; “hurting someone get’s me what I want” is a very rational statement if you’re only thinking within yourself.

  13. #13 Bob
    April 30, 2010

    Antonio Damasio’s first book, “Descartes’ Error,” and his subsequent work have largely focused on emotion’s role in reasoning. We’d like to think of these as separate, even opposing, forces in our minds, but they cannot truly be pulled completely apart: reason without emotion is actually not rational at all; it’s a mess. Psychopaths with deficient emotional processes ARE, in fact, legally insane by the current definition (whether or not you agree with this definition, or if there even should BE a definition, is a discussion for another post…). Those who want to learn more about the role of emotion in our psychological lives would do well to track down (and attempt to decipher) the work of criminally overlooked psychologist Silvan Tomkins (he’s brilliant, but no one I know understands all of his stuff – it’s pretty complicated and dense).

  14. #14 Jeff Rohr
    April 30, 2010

    Trolley experiments?

  15. #15 sleeprunning
    April 30, 2010

    By definition, there is no way for a behavior that does not benefit the individual’s differential reproductive success to be passed on. Thus, no real “altruism.”

    But it does make evolution sound more moralistic, warm and fuzzy which has PR advantages.

    Remember also, there is no way to pass on any trait beyound the moment of conception. So generally, behavior and physical characteristics rvifent after age 20-30, roughly, can not be “adaptative.”

    You all know ” group selection” has been debunked?

    I must say, this demonizing “psychopaths” seems mainly a straw man device.

  16. #16 Rebecca Voglewede
    April 30, 2010

    “Psychopaths are not a result of pure rationality. They’re examples of pure rationality that only has half of the facts; ‘hurting someone gets me what I want’ is a very rational statement if you’re only thinking within yourself.”

    Even if you take the person(s) being hurt (or anyone else for that matter) out of the equation, it’s still very shortsighted (for the psychopath). There are probable harms in the long run (jail time, social rejection and thus increased obstacles in obtaining various other satisfactions, etc.) that don’t seem to factored in, or perhaps — weighed “appropriately”.

    My first thought was: Is it another example of going for the single marshmallow? Except in those cases it was the abundance of emotion, not the lack of it, that led to myopia.

    And psychopaths have the reputation of being cold and calculating, not impulsive. I appreciate the various references to the calculation of risk being different. Perhaps they do indeed “have all the facts”, but the satisfaction they gain from certain behaviors far exceeds any probable negative consequences. Their value scale is skewed.

    Great post, Jonah.

  17. #17 sleeprunning
    April 30, 2010

    Her is sort of middle of the road reprt of science of free will/choice/”blame” from NPR blog – (not a source of hard core empiricism!)

    Kind of changes the discussion.

    ‘Choosing requires a motive or reason to behave one way as opposed to another.’

    Many would like to believe that our powers of conscious choice transcend cause and effect, but as it explores the workings of the mind, scientific inquiry strongly suggests otherwise…

    The free will at issue here is what philosophers call libertarian or contra-causal free will: that in a situation as it actually occurred, you could have done otherwise but chose not to. The choice was up to you in a very strong, metaphysical sense: it wasn’t completely determined by causal chains traceable back in time, but neither was it random, since after all a lawless, randomly generated choice wouldn’t be caused by you. To have free will in this sense is to be an uncaused causer.

    Such free will is notoriously hard to prove if we stick with science and empiricism when we’re justifying beliefs about what’s real. As far as scientific inquiry can tell, people in their entirety are likely fully caused creatures, arising from circumstances they didn’t choose. Human decision-making capacities are realized by the brain and body, operating in a physical and social context, and subject to laws of physics, chemistry, biology, cybernetics, behavioral psychology, and any higher-level regularities yet to be discovered.

    Nor is there evidence that consciousness has behavior-guiding functions beyond what the brain accomplishes on its own. From a scientific perspective, it’s the neural correlates of pain, not the subjective sensation of pain, that explain how hurtful encounters teach us to be more careful…

    It might feel as though we have free will, but there’s a good reason nature didn’t make us uncaused causers.
    Choosing requires a motive or reason to behave one way as opposed to another. An uncaused causer by definition isn’t at the influence of any motive or desire, so would have no reason to choose — it would just waste precious time and energy when deciding to fight or flee, in estimating the fitness of a potential mate, or picking between Yale and Harvard. All we need to be good choosers is what we’ve got: a sensory and motivational system that responds adaptively to immediate exigencies, plus a sophisticated reality simulation system that generates hypotheses which can die in our stead.

    Why these systems entail conscious experience is a tough question, but empirical investigation reveals no evidence for an immaterial, uncaused controller that floats free of the brain.

    … This doesn’t mean we stop segregating dangerous offenders, but it does mean rethinking the retributive component of criminal justice, which supposes that the offender could have done otherwise, so deeply deserves to suffer.

    The same insight applies to everything interpersonal: understanding ourselves as fully caused, we become more forbearing of human faults, including our own, and more skillful in devising non-punitive ways to remedy them. Empathy, compassion and forgiveness are more available to us absent belief in free will.

    Despite the evidence going for it, and its moral and practical advantages, this understanding is unlikely to catch on anytime soon.

    Full article: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2010/02/freedom_from_free_will.html

  18. #18 Eric Wilbanks
    April 30, 2010

    “The main problem seems to be a broken amygdala…”

    So, what causes the amygdala to break? Is it physical, social, spiritual, other? Have their been any studies that look for consistent historical markers within the lives of those with broken amygdalas?

    More importantly, can a broken amygdala be repaired? If so, how?

  19. #19 Andrea
    April 30, 2010

    Hi Jonah, just to clarify, by your statement:

    “When criminologists looked at the most violent wife batterers, they discovered that, as the men became more and more aggressive, their blood pressure and pulse actually dropped. The acts of violence had a calming effect.”

    Do you mean that the most violent wife batterers are psychopaths? Or that they are therefore not psychopaths because act of violence actually produced a notable change in their physiology, albeit in a contrary manner.

    Thanks for all your fantastic posts.

  20. #20 Andrea
    April 30, 2010

    Hi Jonah, just to clarify, by your statement:

    “When criminologists looked at the most violent wife batterers, they discovered that, as the men became more and more aggressive, their blood pressure and pulse actually dropped. The acts of violence had a calming effect.”

    Do you mean that the most violent wife batterers are psychopaths? Or that they are therefore not psychopaths because act of violence actually produced a notable change in their physiology, albeit in a contrary manner.

    Thanks for all your fantastic posts.

  21. #21 royniles
    April 30, 2010

    “… This doesn’t mean we stop segregating dangerous offenders, but it does mean rethinking the retributive component of criminal justice, which supposes that the offender could have done otherwse, so deeply deserves to suffer.”

    Except that some offenders could and would have done otherwise if they had a more realistic grasp of their available options. Note that the cited article also asks. “If we don’t have contra-causal freedom, what are the implications?” And answers in part that, “If we had contra-causal freedom we’d be untrainable, ungovernable sociopaths.”
    And that’s really the crux of the problem, that we are free to choose from the limited set of options that “causation” has given us, yet have the option to expand on them in the bargain. Psychopaths, regardless of what options are offered in the “contr-causal” world, remain largely “untrainable, ungovernable sociopaths.”

    Their “will” being fully free or not, we shouldn’t suppose that a psychopathic offender could have, with any degree of freedom, done any degree of otherwise. They don’t “deserve to suffer” in the sense that they have asked for that as a consequence, but they do deserve the consequences that are not there for the asking.

    Forgive them for they know not what they do, but disable them because they could not and will not stop themselves from doing it.

  22. #22 Queef
    May 1, 2010

    Is the line between psychopathy and normality clear, or is it gray? Have there been cases of individuals who show signs of reduced or abnormal emotional capacity, but not a complete absence? Individuals who have an easier time choosing violence than the majority, but who can also feel a little bit of something like remorse?

  23. #23 royniles
    May 1, 2010

    The line in my experience (as an investigator) is clearly grey, and sometimes it’s like a partition within an individual – normal at home, hell out on the town.

  24. #24 Afterthought
    May 1, 2010

    Once a truly rational being concludes that it is in his benefit to stab you in the back, he will.

    Thus, no enduring pact can be made with the rational.

    The trust needed for society depends on irrational taboos which makes people balk at stabbing each other in the back e.g. “morality”.

    Religion and other totems act as a barometer of rationality, the less irrational, the less trustworthy. See also Emile Durkheim.

  25. #25 royniles
    May 2, 2010

    “Religion and other totems act as a barometer of rationality, the less irrational, the less trustworthy.”
    Except that the societal rule actually is that to be trustworthy is to be rational.

  26. #26 Jim M
    May 3, 2010

    Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

  27. #27 Lidia
    May 3, 2010

    I think what’s overlooked in trying to discover “rational” motivations for anti-social behavior IS -in fact- emotions themselves.. just that they’re not the emotions “normal people” seek out most of the time.

    Above, it was noted that a particular violent psychopath felt better when he was hurting someone, and that this was backed up with physiological data.

    Think of Sarah Palin (to me, an obvious psychopath). She is known to be extremely vindictive, never forgetting an insult or narcissistic injury. When she became governor, she neglected almost all of her duties, but pursued her ex-brother-in-law with the full force of her new position and all her energies, marshalling her husband, children and father in repeated bizarre and unseemly attacks. This was in no way rational, and led to “Troopergate” and a series of formal ethics violations and political trouble that she would have been far better off without. Now she is doing the same thing in going after the young father of her grandchild: siccing him with lawsuits for an unusual 100% custody and exorbitant support, while denying him the possibility of seeing his own child. This apparently satisfies an **emotion** in her: a positive emotional response to the absolute destruction of another human being. When she talks of her son in the military, she gets oddly buzzed and gleeful, manic–not saddened or sombre. Her disdain for living creatures is notable in the extreme: aside from having offered public money to those that would shoot wolves from helicopters, her actions are directly responsible for killing off all the fish in the lake she herself lives on. [I could go on to fill a book, and I'm sure more than one person will.]

    I also happen to have a family member who shows signs of Asperger’s and (again, to me) psychopathy. He’s not uncomfortable with lying (as are most Asperger’s folks, they say), and is elated at the thought of harming and punishing others (especially authority figures including his parents). He’s bored when he’s not tormenting someone; it’s enjoyable to him, while the negative consequences of time-outs or other punishments mean nothing to him rationally, except another affront to his boundless ego.

    He’ll do the same *knowingly* wrong thing (like squashing the cat) 100 times in a row, because he *enjoys* causing pain and he even enjoys, on some level, the horrific power struggles with his mother that ensue. I can’t see how it can be explained any other way, since a “rational” psychopath would become savvy enough to not pursue cat-squashing openly. The positive emotions involved must over-ride rational considerations of certain punishment.

  28. #28 Colleen
    May 4, 2010

    I am struggling right now to tease out the difference, if any, between psychopathy and sadism (not sure if sadism is still a term in use and it a type of psychopathy or perhaps the term is outdated and historical). In any case I suppose I can get my head around your garden-variety psychopath who harms people because he/she has no particular fear/anxiety about doing so. You get my way and I hurt you because I am either not afraid not to or else because I don’t feel disgust for doing so (mirror neurons and all that). But this is quite a different animal than seeking out to hurt you for the sole purpose of the hurting. In other words the psychopaths who seem to “get off” on hurting. Perhaps the explanation about it lowering blood pressure and relieving stress mentioned in post plays a part (that is interesting… I always sort of assumed psychopaths did that sort of thing for the opposite reason- i.e. because it was stimulating vs. unstimulating… in other words they need to do atrocious things just to feel SOMETHING… rather like people who cut themselves to shock themselves out of emotional bluntness.) I am thinking out loud really, and just left wondering about different “types” of psychopaths (i.e. sadists vs. justnotverynice or people who hurt incidentally or people who hurt specifically.)

    Also recalling an article or study I read recently that talked about the upside of shyness and how shyness seemed to be the “opposite” to psychopathy (can’t, for the life of me, find it! please let me know if you recall it). Social phobia (yes, I am using the term social phobia in place of shyness b/c I feel they are the same entity on a continuum) seemed to be protective against psychopathic behavior. Is fear/anxiety the sole deterrent? Do people with social phobia have extra strong empathetic responses, which I suppose is related. (Anecdotally: I have a limited form of social phobia and I find I am extremely sensitive to any sort of bullying or adverse treatment of others… I often am amazed as how blasé most people can be to the pain and suffering of others… on the up side I am quite unlikely to go and start killing people for fun and I do care about your feelings and everyone else’s…. to a tedious point… I think I will get a t-shirt that says, “I may prefer to burn alive than give a speech but at least I’m not a psychopath.”) (have to be an extra large t-shirt I suppose)

    Finally, I am also mulling over the larger question of just what anxiety/fear does and how far is its reach? Because of my own anxieties I often think that if I could have one wish I would wish away my ever pervasive fear—but to what effect? What would a world without fear look like?

  29. #29 FreddyMertz
    May 4, 2010

    Just curious about how you define the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? This was a great read, I’ve also read “The Sociopath Next Door”, and still get confuse between the two.

  30. #30 royniles
    May 4, 2010

    As I recall people came up with sociopath to describe what were discovered to be a lot more psychopaths than expected who operated covertly in the non-violent arena. The terms have since become somewhat interchangeable.

  31. #31 Troy Camplin
    May 7, 2010

    We have deep moral instincts. Those morals evolve in social/cultural environments. Then, after all that, we reason about them. I talk about this fact in an article in NOMOI, which is linked at my blog

  32. #32 Jun
    May 7, 2010

    Sleeprunning wrote:
    “Remember also, there is no way to pass on any trait beyound the moment of conception. So generally, behavior and physical characteristics rvifent after age 20-30, roughly, can not be “adaptative.”
    You all know ” group selection” has been debunked?”
    ——————————————–

    This argument is so WRONG I don’t even know where to begin. For example, behavioral traits of a human woman AFTER conception are absolutely critical for the survival of her own eggs — as a mother, a sister, an aunt, a grandmother, a grandaunt, a neighbor, a clanswoman, etc., etc. You try to survive as a defenseless infant with a barely wired brain and weak arms and legs without the caring, loving, and apparently “selfless” behaviors and assistances of your mother, sisters, cousins and clans in a prehistoric environment. Good luck with your “me-only” survival advantage.

    Some men seem to be blind to the fact that humans are intrinsicly interdependent. That’s just laughable. Morality, whatever its evolutionary origin and neurological mechanism, is absolutely critical to the survival of this species who have a massively long childhood.

  33. #33 alin
    June 1, 2010

    Psihopatii nu sunt rai dar viseaza multa violenta urmaresc oamenii pot citi si gandurile trebuie sa fie atenti si stiu ce faceti

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