Thursday, October 29, 2009

Insights into empath minds

I just don't understand them sometimes. I do things for (mainly) logical reasons, with a core emphasis in efficiency. As a libertarian, I'm always interested in the suppression of markets for moral reasons, so I found myself reading an article on the altruistic kidney donations of strangers and how (wait for it) the empath hordes shun them, considering them "freakish, inhuman, even repellent."
Most people find it uncomplicatedly admirable when a person risks his life to save a stranger from fire, or from drowning. What, then, is it about saving a stranger by giving a kidney, a far lesser risk, that people find so odd? Do they feel there is something aggressive about the act, as though the donor were implicitly rebuking them for not doing it, too? (There is no rebuke in saving a stranger from drowning -- you weren't there, you couldn't have done it. And you can always imagine that you would have if you had been.) Or perhaps it's that organ donation, unlike rescue, is conceived in cold blood, and cold-blooded altruism seems nearly as sinister as cold-blooded malevolence. Perhaps only the hot-blooded, unthinking sort can now escape altruism's tainted reputation, captured in the suspicious terms for what people are really engaging in when they think they're helping (sublimation, colonialism, group selection, potlatch, socialism, co-dependency -- the list goes on).
And this quote from one of the fascists supporting the UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) kidney breadline at the expense of donors taking the private option of self-selecting donor recipients:
Douglas Hanto, the chief of transplantation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, for instance, feels that the system should work the same way for everybody--that there should be just one line to stand in. He concedes that it's possible that MatchingDonors draws in people who wouldn't otherwise donate--people who need the tug of a human story to sway them--thus making everybody better off, but, as long as its dating-service model favors the photogenic, the eloquent, and the computerized, he is against it. "We are all going to die," he says. "We have to do everything we can for our patients, but within the boundaries of moral principles. As much as we want to save everybody, we just can't."
I think the label "altruistic" is misplaced. I don't think the people donating need the tug of a personal story. From what I read, most of the donors think that it is inefficient to not donate a kidney that they're not using to someone who needs one to live. For instance, this description of a young donor:
The petty selfishness of daily life drove her crazy and she wanted to fix it. She hated the way that, in the checkout line at Target, a person with a whole cartful of stuff would not let a person with only one or two things go ahead of him. She hated that, when she was driving and let a pedestrian cross the road, the driver behind her would honk in frustration. She always tried to do nice things for others. At work, she would often buy coffee for her co-workers without being asked, though mostly this just bewildered people.
I know how she feels, but as much as I'd like to say that empaths live in a horrible world of their own making, I think it's just that they think so differently. Maybe their world doesn't seem so ugly to them.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sociopaths on Wall Street

From a New Yorker article about the collapse of Bear Stearns:
[Former Bear Stearns C.E.O. Jimmy] Cayne understood selling; he started out as a photocopier salesman, working the nine-hundred-mile stretch between Boise and Salt Lake City, and ended up among the highest-paid executives in banking. He was known as one of the savviest men on the Street, a master tactician, a brilliant gamesman. “Jimmy had it all,” Bill Bamber, a former Bear senior managing director, writes in “Bear Trap: The Fall of Bear Stearns and the Panic of 2008” (a book co-written by Andrew Spencer). “The ability to read an opponent. The ability to objectively analyze his own strengths and weaknesses. . . . He knew how to exploit others’ weaknesses—and their strengths, for that matter—as a way to further his own gain. He knew when to take his losses and live to fight another day.”
Although the most successful Wall Streeters are probably narcissists:
This is what social scientists mean when they say that human overconfidence can be an adaptive trait. “In conflicts involving mutual assessment, an exaggerated assessment of the probability of winning increases the probability of winning,” Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, writes. “Selection therefore favors this form of overconfidence.” Winners know how to bluff. And who bluffs the best? The person who, instead of pretending to be stronger than he is, actually believes himself to be stronger than he is. According to Wrangham, self-deception reduces the chances of “behavioral leakage”; that is, of “inadvertently revealing the truth through an inappropriate behavior.” This much is in keeping with what some psychologists have been telling us for years—that it can be useful to be especially optimistic about how attractive our spouse is, or how marketable our new idea is. In the words of the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, humans have an “optimal margin of illusion.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sociopaths want to eat you or cheat you

A reader wrote (edited for length):
I noticed your interest in the origins of sociopathy. One sadly deceased researcher published a long paper called "Sociobiology of sociopathy" that was an attempt(probably one of the earliest) to put it in an evolutionary perspective. I'm not an expert in that sort of thing, but the case looked tight enough to me. To her, it looked like sociopathy is a biological adaptation to a cheating strategy at life. True sociopaths have a certain set of genes, and are from problem families. People of low intelligence with same backgrounds may appear to have some of these traits, but in them it's just the environment and so on.

Another thing you may not have come across is Blindsight(novel, not syndrome). I don't know whether you like speculative fiction, but this one is very dark, very bleak, and very anti-neurotypical (compares ordinary humans to the equivalent of Oz marsupials..). It's mostly about mind, consciousness, utility of consciousness and how at some point in the future, homo sapiens will become somewhat obsolescent.

It was written by Peter Watts. One of the chief characters of Blindsight is a vampire (not the fantasy variety, sort of believable - an extinct sub-species of exclusively man-eating completely sociopathic* humans, brought to life again through modern science). The others are less weird, though. In other books, he loves having various non-standard characters, from serial killers, sexual sadists, wife-abusers, pedophiles.. ptsd sufferers, etc.. )

*obviously, if wolves empathized with sheep.. they'd go hungry.
I started reading the article. It's very good but long. I'm not surprised that vampires have once again been connected to sociopaths. I myself am hoping that this blog will ride the new vampire popularity and get picked up for a miniseries. Not true.

Sharks = psycho killers

According to this article sent in by a reader, scientists are using the known patterns of serial killers to explain the hunting patterns of sharks:
What do great white sharks have in common with serial killers? Refined hunting skills, according to a paper recently published in the Zoological Society of London’s Journal of Zoology. Researchers have found that sharks hunt in a highly focused fashion, just like serial criminals.

Predation is one of the most fundamental and fascinating interactions in nature, and sharks are some of the fiercest predators on Earth. However, their hunting pattern is difficult to study because it is rarely observed in the wild. As a result, shark predatory behavior has remained much of a mystery. Now, researchers from the United States and Canada are using geographic profiling -- a criminal investigation tool used to track a connected series of crimes and locate where serial criminals live -- to examine the hunting patterns of white sharks in South Africa.
I wonder if they can go they other way: use known behaviors of animal predators to explain the behavior of serial killers. But it brings up a good point: how many of the arguments for eradicating sociopaths could equally be applicable to sharks, tigers, lions, killer whales, and other man/animal predators? Maybe people are just scared because man has gotten used to thinking that he is at the top of the food chain. But most species have natural predators -- it's nature's way of keeping things in check. Is man an exception?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Glenn Close: Sociopaths must be stopped

This is paraphrased and taken out of context, but yes, Glenn Close pretty much says that in her blog about mental illness in the Huffington Post:
There are some notable exceptions, of course -- Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, or Russell Crowe's portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. But more often than not, the movie or TV version of someone suffering from a mental disorder is a sociopath who must be stopped.
I get it Glenn. If they are bipolar or schizoaffective or have whatever other disorder that someone in your family has, they are fine. If the disorder was portrayed by a lovable Hollywood favorite or the portrayal ends up winning an Oscar, it is fine. But sociopaths must be stopped.

On a positive note, sociopaths seem to be getting more press than usual recently (excluding news about the Bush administration, of course).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mr. Birdick responds

Mr. Birdick gets analyzed by "Dr. Robert" and responds:
Number one, I’ve never actually copped to being a "psychopath". I might score high on the PCL-R, but not high enough to warrant that particular “diagnosis”. I believe that there is a meaningful difference between psychopaths and sociopaths.

Second, whether I can "fathom" other people’s suffering is an irrelevant red herring. My feeling sorrowful or righteously angry when I hear about someone else’s pain does not change things for that person -- it would not change the reality of the man in the picture or make the Iraq war and all of its associated consequences disappear. Dr. Robert’s regret, his remorse, his compassion may mean the world to him but it means nothing at all to the man in the picture.

Third, I still believe that Dr. Robert’s photo placement was manipulative to the degree that it was deliberately designed, by his own admission, to induce emotions in other people in order to prove a point. He was trying to prove himself and to his faithful readers that he was right and the father wrong. Dr. Robert was acting in a self-serving, manipulative fashion. His expression of moral horror served only one purpose -- his.

Fourth, for someone as eager to paint me as arrogantly certain of my superiority, Dr. Robert comes off as awfully... superior, to the point of being downright condescending. Doesn’t the deliberate use of terms like “limitation” and later “deficiency” imply that? Dr. Robert likes to think of himself as a compassionate, liberal and open minded soul, but who is also in fact more judgmental and moralistic than he cares to let on, even to himself. And I caught the misspelling of my name. Quite a class act our Dr. Robert, isn’t he?

Finally, I love it when so called empathic people tell me what I do and do not believe without bothering to ask me. He completely misrepresents my thoughts on those who practice the healing arts. The people that I believe are “foolish, sentimental, and weak” are those that allow others to run roughshod over them; to destroy what they’ve spent a lifetime building; or to allow any system of ethics to dictate, a priori, the decisions that must be made in real time because of their adherence to morality or principles.

It’s too bad Dr. Robert decided that he needed to prove his mettle as a compassionate, liberal healer (how much better he is than the poor, deluded ‘psychopath’), by writing in such an obvious and overtly manipulative fashion. I’d say he was far more concerned with demonstrating his so called great compassion than he was in answering Brian Lippman’s question. Then again, moral hypocrisy, especially the unconscious kind, is so typical for the conscience bound.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

If You Kill My Demons You will Kill My Angels Too

I snuck a peek at the comment page recently. I see a lot of dialogue between empaths and sociopaths, which to me is really groundbreaking. Where have you ever seen this done outside of clinics where specialists being the only ones interacting? So I want to feed this discussion some food for thought.

Since I know M.E. best I'll talk about myself. I've always loved myself. Yes, people would call it narcissistic. I do believe I'm the greatest person who's lived. Sometimes I've gotten a little god complex. That's just how I am, and I'm not really going to apologize for it. I wake up everyday and I feel like I'm amazing. I channel this energy to focusing on being the best in anything I take part in. I don't try to be the best. I am the best. In doing so I will do everything and find a way to get there. This is my way of making who I am positive.

I can manipulate people. More than that, I do manipulate people. Everyday, every week, every month, and every year. The medical community calls this 'superficial charm.' But charm to me can't be defined as superficial. Either you are charming or you're not. People like charming people -- that's why they give them things so selflessly. When you have the power to persuade people to do and give you what you want it's easy to abuse it. For empath readers I want you to imagine what it's like to have everyone love you right off the bat, and want to do things you want them to do. Would you manipulate people to give you money? Would you manipulate people into sleeping with you under false pretenses? Would you honestly tell me you wouldn't get tempted to justify reasons to fuck them over? Most people would. You make up excuses. "Oh well I heard they stole from so and so," or, "He's there with someone I don't like," or, "Well I'll try to make it up to them." You will find ways of demonizing the people you victimize until they seem like the worst people you're ever met. You don't feel guilt, just justification. The positive side is people can channel this feeling into businesses to sell products, make effective advertising, diplomacy, intelligence, etc.

I am emotionally shallow. The commenters are completely correct. I'm not emotionless. I don't walk around with a exoskeleton under my skin saying, "You will be terminated." I feel what I make myself feel, when I'm supposed to feel it. Sometimes I can't. I can't feel for other people. I don't get excited with people, or feel someone's pain when they cry. I get angry at them because I can't understand. A less extreme example of this: recently someone close to me had their identity stolen and bank account wiped out, and their rent was due the next day. The bank wouldn't refund it till they investigated for few months. The person was crying and looked at me for comfort, and I thought, "What do they want from me? I hope they won't ask me for money." After a while I asked what they wanted me to say. The person looked at me like I was retarded, and I got angry. I told them, "Just get it done and don't worry about things you can't change." The person got angry and left.

What I lack in my own capacity for emotion I make up for in manipulating others'. When I was younger I abused the hell out of this. I could make people happy, excited, sad, depressed, disturbed, hurt etc. It was fun. It still is sometimes, but I don't abuse it that much any more. I cut people into pieces with things I've said. I would save things I knew they were insecure about and cut them deeply with is when I didn't get what I wanted. One person told me that they would rather have me hit them then tell them the things I said. A emotional bully, I guess you can call me. I admit that I did it. I didn't know I was doing it till I took more time to learn about who I was and why I do what I do. Now I use it sparingly.

Sociopaths have a lot of power over people, like it or not. Denying that power exists doesn't improve the life of either side of the fence. I denied it and I was out of control. What I realized is that by acknowledging who I was, and wielding that power for what was effective and not just destructive, I could become more powerful. To have true power you need to have control over yourself first. People trying to change that power instead of focusing it will only meet in failure.

I think it's important for sociopaths to accept themselves the way they are, and not try to change. There isn't a 'cure' for sociopathy because there's no way to change someone's complete identity. Change who they are: their tendencies, their motives, their behaviors, and even their feelings. Is it possible? Perhaps, but is that the kind of power you want substituted for natural human behaviour?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Psychopaths = mentally handicapped

One researcher has found that psychopaths may be more aggressive than the average population because they do not assign meaning to the fearful faces of their victims:
In her groundbreaking work funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, [Abigail] Marsh and her colleagues have been exploring how “callous and unemotional” individuals tend to show a very specific cognitive deficit: namely, they are especially poor at recognizing, processing and responding normally to the facial expression of fear on other people’s faces (a “normal” response being ceasing an assault on the frightened person or offering aid). Curiously, their trouble in this area is not due to a problem with facial expressions in general—they do perfectly well deciphering the look of disgust, anger, happiness and so on on other people’s faces. In contrast, autistics have trouble with pretty much all facial expressions of emotion, suggesting that, for them, this generalized difficulty is meaningfully linked to their broad social disfunction. Rather, it’s only the look of fear that puzzles diagnosably antisocial people (and to a somewhat lesser extent, sadness). Thus, in a converted boathouse on Squam Lake in early July, Marsh discussed several key studies, all indicating a fear-specific facial processing deficiency in children and adults with persistent antisocial behavioral tendencies. That is to say, “behavior that violates the rights and welfare of others or breaks important normative rules.”
. . .
Marsh relayed a chilling anecdote about a colleague of hers, University College London psychologist Essi Viding, who was going through a task with a psychopathic murderer in which a series of faces with different emotional expressions were laid out before the woman. When the murderer saw the picture of the fearful face, she scratched her head and said: “I don’t know what that expression is called, but I know it’s what people look like right before I stab them.”
Interestingly, another study found that the people who can recognize fearful faces recognize them faster than any other "emotion" face. I guess that makes psychopaths literally "slow."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frauds in Love

Today we are going on a field trip. A field trip to the opposite side of the spectrum. A lot of times when I need a good laugh I will visit In case you don't know about this site, it's dedicated to victims of sociopaths. Broken, self-loathing, and bitterness fills the pages. It's like a sociopath's trash dump. My personal opinion is that these people set themselves up to be victims, then want to point the finger at the person who took advantage. Nobody put a gun to their head and told them to stay in a relationship they admit was so terrible. If you read the posts and comments (from people with weak names like 'justabouthealed'), you can see how they've already started off with defeat in their minds. It's not hard for ready made victims to become victims. The following post is the perfect example of how they set themselves up for the fall. Victory is not fighting, it's persevering. The old turn the other cheek. Lying to themselves, they believe that licking your wounds after getting victimized is a 'viable' victory. In reality it's failure. Here is the article:

My wonderful stepfather was a young basketball coach when he got his first real job coaching for a very small rural school which had not had a winning game in over a decade. The team was dispirited and had no real expectation of ever winning a game.

One of the local coaches bragged that he would beat them “by a hundred points!” at the next game. The team thought there was a good possibility that that coach’s team could do just that. However, it is “good sportsmanship” for a coach playing a much weaker team to let their second, third, and fourth strings get a chance to play, and to win over the weaker team, but not “tromp” them.

Daddy thought this other coach’s brag to stomp and tromp his team was poor sportsmanship so he made a plan. When the fourth quarter started and Daddy’s team had the ball, they “froze” it (which was legal in the game then) and wouldn’t either shoot the ball or take a chance on losing it, so passed the ball from one of Daddy’s team members to another the entire quarter. They didn’t make any points, but they kept the other team from even getting their hands on the ball the entire quarter, and thus making points against them. Daddy’s team didn’t win, but the other coach didn’t win by his “hundred points” either. That little team went on the next year to win their division championship because of the confidence that Daddy inspired in them.
Sometimes “winning” or “victory” can be interpreted in different ways. I’m also reminded of the old Country and Western song, the “Winner” where an older man and a younger man are in a bar talking. The younger man wants to be a “winner” in bar fight brawls, and the older man is educating him on what is “winning” and what isn’t.

Sure, you can get into a fight and you may inflict more damage on your opponent than he inflicts on you in the fight, but like the old man said, “He gouged out my eye, but I won.” Sometimes it is better to walk away from a fight and not lose more than you have already lost, or allow your opponent to take another “pound of flesh” in your attempts to “get justice.”

It isn’t always about getting what you deserve, or victory over them, or even seeing that they get “what they so richly deserve,” sometimes, I think, “winning” simply means keeping them from taking more out of you and, like Daddy’s team, “freezing the ball.” Sometimes, it is like the would-be barroom brawler, walking away (intact) with the other guy yelling curses in your direction.

It is emotionally tough to watch a cheater “get away with it” when they have ripped us off, and go “waltzing away” unscathed and apparently the victor. It eats at our sense of fairness to let them “succeed” and not pay a price for their bad behavior.

Yet, sometimes, “discretion is the better part of valor” to use an old phrase, or to “be a live dog, rather than a dead lion,” and “retreat and live to fight another day.”

Those victims who are not able to fight for a “victory” of any sort, I don’t think need to feel that they have “failed” because they chose not to fight the sociopath.

Too many times fighting the psychopaths are like “fighting a circular saw,” as my grandmother would have said. It “just isn’t worth it,” because the damage to yourself will be worse than you can possibly inflict on the psychopath. They stack the odds so in their own favor, that even if you “win,” you end up like the old brawler sitting in the barroom, broken and so gravely injured yourself in your effort to gain a “victory, of sorts” that in retrospect the price was too high.

Sometimes, it is better to walk away a “loser” but still intact, and with your head held high, using the energy and resources you have left to focus on healing yourself, on recovering what you have lost in terms of finances and strength, and take care of yourself. To me that is also a “viable victory.”

Friday, October 9, 2009

Do sociopaths have high IQs?

A reader asks:

"do you happen to know if sociopaths are typically of extremely high i.q.? from what i've seen from personal experience and posts on your site, most individuals who fit the classification appear to be at least above average in intelligence. is this an accurate observation?"

My response:
I think that sociopaths would typically score high(er) on IQ tests, but I don't know if that would necessarily mean that they are of above average intelligence. Sociopaths are extremely capable of finding the weaknesses in things, people, the social fabric, etc., like a shark sniffing blood or a dog "smelling" fear.

Let's take for example the fact that I have always performed very well on standardized tests. I will readily admit that doesn't necessarily make me "intelligent." Rather, when I read a question, I am not always looking for answers, or even clues to the answers, but rather clues into the test maker's mind. Are they trying to trick me? I think, if I were a test maker, how many different ways could I ask a question on a critical issue? There will always be a limited number of ways that test makers can/will ask questions--you just have to figure out which, and then recognize those particular questions when you see them. I also try to guess what would be the fake answers test makers might come up with. Test makers have fears like everyone else has fears -- fears that a question will be too easy, fears that a question may have more than one answer or be ambiguous. You can practically see a test taker's CYA precautions in some of the questions you read. You know immediately what the answer is, just like when you ask someone, "Where's the safe?" and they say "I don't know," but their eyes look to the wall behind the desk. Obviously the safe is in the wall behind the desk.

Is this ability to sense weakness what intelligence is? I wouldn't think so. Standardized IQ tests don't necessarily test intelligence, they just test someone's ability to correctly mark the right answer -- they don't account for how you managed to choose that right answer. Take the extreme example: you obtained all the answers ahead of time (cheated). Your score indicates a very high IQ. Does that mean you are intelligent? What if, instead of "cheating," you are a mind reader and get the answers that way? What if you are just very good at predicting what answer test makers think is "right"? Does that mean you are intelligent?

But I do think most sociopaths seem intelligent, particularly to empaths. They have different blindspots than you do, and they think out of the box because they aren't in a box, or at least not the same box you are. Have you ever heard a child speak a foreign language? Maybe for a moment you are amazed. "Good lord! That child's speaking Swahili!" But you are amazed because you are framing the issue in terms of how difficult it would be for you to be speaking Swahili, particularly at that child's age. Your mind has forgotten that some people grow up speaking Swahili as their native language, or in bilingual homes. So the sociopath can amaze the empath with his charm, wit, and intelligence, just because that is the sociopath's "native language," so to speak.

But are sociopaths perceived as being above average, charming, witty, and intelligent? Yes, most of us manage to come off that way. And life is almost always form over substance, rarely the other way around.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Culture Of Narcissism

Here's an excerpt from Christopher Lasch's Culture Of Narcissism:
"The contemporary American may have failed, like his predecessors, to establish any sort of common life, but the integrating tendencies of modern industrial society have at the same time undermined his 'isolation.' Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, he can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts. The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.

Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience, His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his 'grandiose self'
reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Don Draper: Sociopath?

The fictional character Don Draper, from AMC's Mad Men, beat out Usain Bolt and Barack Obama as most influential and gets called out as a sociopath:
In a poll conducted by, readers have chosen Don Draper as the most influential man of 2009 — yes, that Don Draper, Jon Hamm’s 1960s ad man who coasts through Mad Men while cheating on his wife, changing his name, uttering horrible secrets about his (and your) childhood, and gently warming his kids to the idea of patricide. Now, you’re wondering: What can be the benefit of admiring this sociopath when we already trust the teachings of Dexter, The Joker, and Roald Dahl? AskMen has the not-even-joking explanation after the jump.

“Men are seeking the stability of tradition in the masculine qualities that they imagine their fathers and grandfathers to have had,” said James Bassil, AskMen’s editor-in-chief. “The character of Don Draper brings all these traits together, and in doing so speaks directly to the modern man. He’s a man whose time has come.”

Breaking: I actually prefer not to think of my grandfather as an unscrupulous asshole. Nor do I like imagining him treating my grandmother like an alcohol-powered parking meter. In sympathy with the voters, though, I do imagine that my grandfather had a desk.
Joker for sure is a sociopath, and Don Draper definitely shows leanings, but Roald Dahl?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sociopaths in Shakespeare: Edmund

“Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”

From Edmund’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester, is one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing villains. Crafty, manipulative, self starting and utterly anti-social, Edmund ruthlessly climbs the social ladder and into the hearts of two sisters, which in turn finally leads to the destruction of a family and a dynasty. But as he himself lay dying near the end, Edmund seems to repent, to show a spark of humanity. Does this mean he wasn’t really a villain after all? Or can villains actually be more complex than is normally supposed?

If only people were as simple as their labels...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I, Psychopath

I watched the documentary I, Psychopath just now and I found it fascinating. It featured Sam Vaknin, a man who’d been convicted of securities fraud, and is a confessed narcissist who’s written several papers on Narcissistic Personality Disorder. His work on NPD has apparently been circulating around the internet for several years now. Although Vaknin was very aware of his psychopathic tendencies, I got the impression that he honestly believed he was not truly a psychopath, which was why he agreed to participate in the documentary. He was in for a bit of a surprise. He submitted himself to a battery of tests conducted by psychologists, including a brain scan and the famous Psychopathic Checklist Revised. His score on the PCL-R was 18, which is high when compared to the US population. The tests were conclusive: Vaknin was a psychopath.

One of the things that fascinated me about the documentary were the ways in which he and I were alike. For instance, I share Vaknin’s ability to be charming, even gregarious, when it suits me to do so. Even though he was surprised when he found out he scored so highly on the PCL-R, he was nevertheless highly self aware of his antisocial tendencies and so am I. This demonstrates why it’s a myth to believe that those of us on this side of the personality spectrum couldn’t possibly know what we are. On a related point, like me, Vaknin knew precisely what he was doing when he manipulated others, which was exemplified when he related the uses and effects of targeted bullying. Although I’m not a fan of bullies, the way he dissected what he called the “secret of bullying” was interesting in and of itself. Vaknin has been married for eleven years. He has never physically abused his wife. He admits that he does not feel for her what she feels for him, but nevertheless, he gives her what he can, even though she loses in the deal. I’m like this with my own family and friends. I know I may not feel for them the depth of feeling they have for me, but I do what I can. Finally, Vaknin mentions that he changes jobs every few years. I also like to plan my future in two year intervals. Two years seems a pretty decent time frame for me to plan some and to live some, so to speak.

Of course we differ in important ways, but the similarities surprised me. I suppose that the difference between sociopath and psychopath is not as profound as I might have once assumed. Maybe it’s merely a difference in degree rather than kind. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter anyway; I am who I am. Still, the film is interesting. Check it out.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trolley problem

This was sent in by an anonymous reader. I remember reading the trolley problem before and being really surprised that some people might not kill the one guy to save the more. For some reason, I also feel that killing the wandering stranger is a mistake. Maybe it is because I know the statistics of organ transplant success. Or I know how expensive and dangerous it is to do those type of surgeries. In some sort of way, I think I feel like the young stranger is actually more deserving of his own organs than the other five. Or it could be my particular form of efficiency-loving Burkean libertarianism that generally doesn't like to mess with things because of unforeseen consequences -- the longer the period you're looking at (organ donations), the greater the uncertainty. Or maybe I do have a soul. Here it is:

Thought experiments can teach us about the cognitive processes involved in moral decision making, and perhaps none is ultimately so telling as the trolley problem. One formulation of the trolley problem goes like this:
Five people are tied to a trolley track, and a trolley is speeding toward them. You're standing next to a switch that can divert the trolley onto another track. If you do nothing they'll all be killed in a matter of seconds. If you throw the switch it will divert the trolley off of the track with the five people tied to it, and onto a track with only one person tied to it. While the five will be saved, the one who wouldn't have been harmed otherwise will now be killed. Do you throw the switch?
Another formulation can be stated this way:
Five people are tied to a trolley track, and the trolley is speeding toward them. If you do nothing, they'll all be killed in a matter of seconds. You're standing on a bridge behind a tall and extremely fat man who is leaning against a rickety railing. No one else is there, and he's totally oblivious to both your presence and his precarious position. If you push him, the railing will give and he'll fall directly in front of the trolley. He will be killed, but he'll also bring the trolley to a stop, preventing it from harming the five people tied to the track. Do you push the fat man?
For hard-headed readers who answered "yes" to the first two, there is at least one more formulation:
You are a talented surgeon in a small village where five people need various organ transplants. None of them are on waiting lists, and all will die in a matter of days if they don't get organs. Each is in a weakened state, so you can't use organs from one to save another. If you could find a healthy donor, you'd be able to save them all.

By chance, a young traveler with a minor cut on his arm visits your office. Just for kicks you run a blood test, and find out that he's a perfect match for all 5. He mentions that no one saw him come in. Furthermore, not only is he in the country illegally, traveling alone on foot, and paying for everything with cash, but he didn't even tell anyone back home where he was going because he's estranged from his family. etc., etc. Do you tell the young man to wait while you get a tetanus booster shot, only to return with a syringe containing a powerful sedative? Or do you just smile and send him on his way?

When answering the various formulations of the problem, what decisions did you make, and why did you make them? How long did it take you to arrive at your decisions? How long did it take you to come up with explanations for your decisions?

Joshua Greene of Harvard University has done extensive research on cognition and moral judgment by asking test subjects these kinds of questions while performing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). His results can be summarized in three sentences. When people choose a course of action which maximizes outcomes, the parts of their brain which show the most activity are those associated with rational and quantitative thinking. When people choose a course of action in which they do not perform acts which directly harm others, the parts of their brain which show the most activity are those associated with emotion and feeling. These parts of the brain 'light up' as soon as the questions are read, much more quickly than most people can formulate an explanation.
When I tried to answer the series of trolley questions myself, I found that I was making nearly instantaneous judgments as to which option made me feel least guilty. The process of using my intellect to come up with a list of justifications didn't even start until after my decision was final. The most troubling thing about this for me is that I approached the series of questions with deliberate intent to be as rational and consistent as possible. I realized that I couldn't be. In all likelihood, virtually no one can.

This raises important questions for readers who pride themselves on rationality. We could address hypothetical questions about judgments on specific situations, but I'm more interested in general questions like: "How can I trust my moral judgment on anything?" Well, how can you? The fundamental point of the trolley problem goes beyond whether any one decision is right or wrong. The real question is whether it's even possible for certain categories of human decision making to be rational. I don't think we can have a grown-up discussion about morality without addressing this.

At its core, the trolley problem raises a new kind of "duality" question; one which is thoroughly modern and scientific. Are we thinking with one brain, or multiple brains? Does the amygdala vie for control with the cerebral cortex? Do the right and left hemispheres struggle against each other? If so, what determines which will win? If we direct our own thoughts and decisions, then why are those decisions made as quickly as autonomic reflexes? Who or what is in control of our thoughts? What does our thought process say about who and what we are?
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