Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Minimum IQ sociopath?

A reader wonders:

A couple of weeks ago I ran into someone I went to high school with and had not seen since we graduated.  Remembering back to when we were in school, he showed a lot of the traits of being a sociopath.  He hasn’t changed much since then.  When I saw him recently though, I realized that he’s not a sociopath.  He’s just stupid.  I don’t mean that as an insult towards him.  His IQ is probably in the low 80’s.  This made me wonder.

Is there a minimum intelligence needed for sociopathy to matter?  Maybe he is a sociopath, but his stupidity can explain his actions.  I can’t tell the difference.

I’m still going through all of your posts so apologies if you’ve already covered this.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Empathy: Overrated?

So asks this Atlantic article, regarding whether the Age of Reason should give way to the Age of Empathy:

Bad idea, say the cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom and the neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson. At their Aspen Ideas Festival talk on Thursday, Bloom allowed that a the word “empathy” as it’s sometimes colloquially used—to mean kindness, goodness, morality, and love—is unobjectionable. But in the Obama-esque sense of feeling another’s feelings, empathy, they contend, it mostly hurts the world. “To the extent that I’m an empathetic person,” Bloom said, “I’m a worse person.”

Empathy is a documented psychological phenomenon: If you see someone else poked in the hand, Bloom said, your own pain centers in the brain will light up. And scientists have demonstrated that you’re more likely to help someone whose pain you feel. The problem, as Bloom sees it, is that “because of its focusing properties, [empathy] can be innumerate, parochial, bigoted.” People are often more empathetic toward individuals who resemble themselves, a fact that can exacerbate already-existing social inequalities. And empathy can cause people to choose to embrace smaller goods at the expense of greater ones. "It's because of the zooming effect of empathy that the whole world cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of millions and millions due to climate change,” Bloom said.

Empathy can also make people do evil. “Atrocities are typically motivated by stories of suffering victims—stories of white women assaulted by blacks, stories of German children attacked by Jewish pedophiles," Bloom said. It also can lure countries into violent conflicts based on relatively small provocations, and researchers have shown that people who are more empathetic are more likely to want to impose harsh punishments on people. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain,” Bloom said.  

Empathy doesn’t even necessarily make day-to-day life more pleasant, they contend, citing research that shows a person’s empathy level has little or no correlation with kindness or giving to charity. And in the professions centered around helping others, empathy can be a burden, leading to burnout and incompetence caused by emotional contagion. “When I go to my therapist, I want her to understand me and I want her to make me better,” Bloom said. “But if I’m going, ‘I’m anxious and depressed!’ I don’t want her going, ‘I’m anxious and depressed!’”

So what should empathy be replaced with? Bloom and Davidson proposed two things. One is “rather cold-blooded, rational cost-benefit analysis,” Bloom said. “Go after not what gives you buzz, but what really helps other people." For example: Instead of giving to a child beggar in India, and thereby reward the criminal organization that likely put that child there, donate to Oxfam. The recommendation dovetails with the rising “effective altruism” movement, which The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently described as “munificence matched with math.”

Of course, this sounds a lot less emotionally fulfilling than helping someone you have a connection with. That’s where the second potential empathy replacement comes in: compassion.  To do good, Bloom said, “we need an emotional push. But the push need not come from empathy. It can come from love, from caring, from compassion, from more distant emotions that don't come from being swallowed up in the suffering of others."

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Davidson has studied the brains of Buddhist monks and explored the ways that compassion is neurologically distinct from empathy. He even believes it to be an intrinsic trait like linguistic ability—something that must be fostered at a young age to be implemented throughout life, and something that can be strengthened through practice. To that end, he and his colleagues developed a “kindness curriculum” for preschoolers.

But what about personal relationships—don’t they rely on empathy? Bloom and Davidson said it’s possible but not yet scientifically proven that some amount of empathy is indeed required in order to practice compassion. But they contend that even the closest relationships need not be dominated by the sharing of emotions. At the end of the Aspen session, an audience member posed a scenario to the scientists: What if she was fired from her job, and her partner offered her a back rub and kind words but didn’t truly get why she was upset? Wouldn’t the comfort feel hollow, useless?

“What you’re really asking for is compassion plus understanding,” Bloom replied. “Suppose you feel humiliated. I don’t think it’s what you want or what you need for your partner to feel humiliated. You want your partner to understand your humiliation and respond with love and kindness. I think for your partner to feel humiliated would be the worst thing you want. Because now, you have to worry about your partner’s feelings.”

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sociopath envy?

Is this the source of the sometimes observed sociopath envy? Is it really just jerk envy (because sociopaths are too oblivious to conform to social norms, and therefore are seen as confidently bucking social norms because they're too powerful to be bothered with conformity)? From Forbes, on Why Jerks Get Ahead:

And so it is with rudeness, because while most of us deplore it, research suggests that we also see it as a sign of power. A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science indicated that the ruder someone acts, the more convinced observers become that he or she is powerful, and therefore does not have to respect the same rules the rest of us bow to.

In one of the experiments, study participants read about a visitor to an office who marched in and poured himself a cup of “employee only” coffee without asking.  In another case they read about a bookkeeper that flagrantly bent accounting rules. Participants rated the rule breakers as more in control and powerful compared to people who didn’t steal the coffee or break accounting rules.

In another experiment participants  watched a video of a man at a sidewalk cafĂ© put his feet on another chair, tap cigarette ashes on the ground and rudely order a meal.  Participants rated the man as more likely to “get to make decisions” and able to “get people to listen to what he says” than participants who saw a video of the same man behaving politely.

What this study appears to indicate is that violating norms is viewed by others as a sign of power, even if the observers would otherwise judge those violations as rude or flatly wrong.  Considering many of the openly rude jerks we venerate, these findings make a lot of sense. (Though I would like to see a follow on study that examines observer perceptions when the rude rule breakers are caught. Perhaps it’s less the rudeness and corruption we admire, and more the ability to get away with it that intrigues us. Maybe we’re just a little smitten with the charisma of villainy.)


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