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.


  1. *obviously, if wolves empathized with sheep.. they'd go hungry.

    Yeah. And when Babe came out everyone stopped eating bacon. Oh, wait.

    Why is it that people think empathy will solve all their problems? It's not going to stop you from eating bacon; why the fuck would it stop you from stealing your neighbor's bacon?

    And because no one cares about the minutia I'll just point out one flawed concept that everyone misstates form this article and that is: Cloninger put forth a "two threshold" polygenic model to account for both the sex difference in sociopathy and its spectral nature

    How the hell can someone offer up a vaguely defined model of a disputed condition and then give concrete conclusions to the pathology of the 'spectral nature' of the disorder that don't acknowledge or even try to explore that, perhaps, the discrepancies of findings are indicative of multiple pathologies/disorders and any research that groups wide 'spectrum manifestations' are incorrectly defining their common relationship? I just hate the 'make it fit' approach that behavior science embodies. It seems so lazy. It reminds me of early primitive medicine when every disease that 'wasted the body' away was called 'consumption'. And pretty soon, doctors forgot that they were different and just started treating everything as one disease. If you don't know, speculation is fine...but I don't want to see any leeches until you know what your doing.

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  3. Maybe. I think it's a delusion. But maybe stemming from the obsession with the idea of 'evil'. Trying to find that one snake that is set to bring down the entire garden. Life's not like that...people aren't like that. Anyone can be "evil" if they try.

  4. Empathy, meaning a form of sympathy, was coined in the early 1900's as a translation for a German word that was coined in 1873.

    Empathy is not an emotion, and is not the same as compassion. It has been defined many times in the last century, but generally means the ability to pick up on and experience another person's emotions. This is a mechanism for members of a group to communicate, focus on a task, and bond.

    Example: A is happy and displays typical behaviors of a happy person (the full-face smile and other body language, a "warm and happy" tone of voice), B sees and hears A, innately/automatically copies some of A's behavior, begins to feel happy, and displays more happy behavior. C observes A & B, and so on. This ability to communicate a positive feeling enhances the group's ability to cooperate on mutually-beneficial tasks, and thus conveys survival benefit.

    Similarly, group ABC can communicate and cultivate a shared state of agression if they need to repel or defeat a predator.

    Empathy can be related to compassion. Seeing others endure pain universally causes activity in the part of the brain related to pain processing. In some contexts, this stimulus also causes activity in the reward center (enjoyment). In some subjects, this stimulus always causes heightened activity in the reward center.

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  6. "*obviously, if wolves empathized with sheep.. they'd go hungry."

    Yes, and if a sphere had 4 corners, it wouldn't be able to roll.

    Oh, wait... what was that?
    It wouldn't even *be* a sphere?

    Fuck! Foiled again.

  7. Oh gosh, I really should read these things fully before commenting.

  8. Not logical. Not logical.

  9. Yes or No, Anon: Are you making a point? Just yes or no. I don't care what it is, I just want to know if you thought you were going anywhere with that.

  10. When Daft threw a bucket of cold water on my explanation of empathy, I joked that I was melting like the Wicked Witch.

    Then I made a joking ST:TOS reference to indicate that the comment thread had gone completely off the rails.

    End of point.

  11. I'm not biting Peter so go toss yourself

  12. The section on moral develolpment has an interesting comment on the development of pro-social behavior. The author posits that moral and altruistic behavior develop in the young child because a child who is capable of empathizing with others will be distressed by another's distress. Altruistic behavior, by relieving the primary distress, also decreases the secondary distress in the "helper", and so the child learns to feel good by doing good.

    Presumably, if distress in others does not cause distress in the child (the child's brain is wired up differntly than normal), or the child is generally in primary distress EXCEPT when another is in distress (for example, if the child is always tormented except when the tormenter turns on another person), then this mechanism would not contribute to the socialization of the child.

    Here's the quote from section 2.2.3 Moral Development.
    "the observation of distress in others triggers an innate "empathic distress" response in the child, even before the child has the cognitive capacity to differentiate "other" from "self". Accordingly, any instrumental behavior which serves to reduce the distress of the other also serves to relieve the vicarious distress of the child. Thus, very young children might learn to exhibit prosocial behavior long before they are able to conceptualize its effect on others.

    In Hoffman's model, the motivation behind early prosocial behavior is the (egocentric) need to reduce one's own aversive feelings of arousal and distress. As the child ages, the range of cues and stimuli which can trigger the vicarious distress increase through both classical and operant conditioning. Eventually, when the child develops the cognitive ability to "role play" or take on another's perspective, empathic distress turns to "sympathetic distress", which motivates prosocial behavior that is more likely to be interpreted as intentional, altruistic, and moral. Hoffman's model of prosocial behavior dovetails nicely with Hirshleifer's (1987) "Guarantor" and Frank's (1988) "Commitment" model of emotion (see section I.A.): the reduction in anxiety which follows cooperative or prosocial behavior reinforces such behavior, while the increase in anxiety which, through stimulus generalization, follows acts or thoughts of antisocial behavior will punish and therefore reduce those acts and thoughts."

  13. @Anonymous --

    Are you saying that most people learn to be nice because empathy makes them feel bad if they don't?

    -- lurker

  14. I don't think he's saying anything. He's just informing us as to what 'the author' thinks. And I honestly don't know why.

  15. I wasn't going to say anything, but I wondered what the point of the anon's last quotation was myself.


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