Monday, May 31, 2010

Sociopaths in the news: predator

This article is worth reading about a textbook sociopath running amok:
With wonder and horror, authorities and associates are recounting a singular crime spree in which, they say, a dogged con man exploited others' goodwill or greed.

"This guy wanted that quantum leap," said Greg Ovanessian, a veteran San Francisco police fraud inspector, "from zero to everything."

In his wake, authorities say, he left ruin. He contributed to the 2008 closure of New College of California in San Francisco, which had been around for 37 years. He is accused of conning an art collector out of $400,000 - money he blew in Las Vegas.

In the capper, police say, Niroula and an odd band of accomplices killed a Palm Springs retiree and tried to sell his home. That has the 28-year-old Niroula - whom San Francisco prosecutors call the "Dark Prince" - in a Riverside County jail awaiting a Sept. 7 murder trial.
Among the priceless text messages Niroula sent to friends and lovers:
"I am a predator. That's why you love me."

"Honey, everyone believes me until they have been conned ... some even after that."
I included the mug shots above of Niroula, his accomplices, and people that got caught up in everything just because I think it is very obvious who the sociopath is.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Gloves come off

I know nothing about hockey, but apparently you must take off your gloves to fight. When the gloves come off in boxing, that means that things are going to get ugly, hence the origin of the phrase "gloves come off." If it is the same in hockey, it seems unusual that officials would promote that sort of violence, or at least more than they already do by routinely allowing fights to proceed uninhibited.

I sort of like the hockey rule. I feel that there is something more honorable about fighting with the gloves off than with them on. You're not pretending. You're not hiding behind something or somebody else. The way I feel about things is that if you have a problem with me, let's go at it. I can play dirty and you can play dirty, but don't try to kid yourself or anyone else that you don't want to, that you are just doing your job, or whatever else. Don't hide behind your badge. If you think you need to take out the trash and that includes me, then okay, but don't later pretend that you've never gotten dirty. That's what I really can't stand about the guilt trips or the public shaming. Let's just both agree to disagree and get on with it because you can take me down in a fair fight, or you can cheap shot me to death, but even if I don't have the time or the inclination to play enforcer with you, some other crusader will, and I know for a fact that you will eventually get yours.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sociopaths on television: Breaking Bad

Our time is now (!), as suggested by this review of "Breaking Bad":
When, and why, did American television and cinema viewers first fall in love with the Sociopath protagonist? Perhaps the audience was always there, nascent and ready to be born. My current favorite Sociopath television show is AMC’s Breaking Bad, the story of an ordinary, albeit resentful and self-loathing, married man who breaks out of his bourgeois cocoon to become a Methamphetamine dealer. His bourgeois name is the aptly constructed “Walter White,” representing the plain vanilla nature of his high school Chemistry teacher life in small town New Mexico. His alter ego name is “Heisenberg” (after Nobel winning German physicist Werner Heisenberg), chosen by White, to represent his genius in making the purest and best “Meth” ever seen in the Southwest and Mexico.

I think Coppola’s Godfather series created the modern heroic Sociopath. We rooted for Brando’s and Pacino’s characters, although Michael Corleone became unlikable by the end of Godfather II. Coppola was the first to romanticize the familiar character of the gangster in movies. But Quentin Tarantino perfected the generalized concept of the protagonist Sociopath. His breakout film was, of course, Pulp Fiction, a so-called dark comedy with such a wide variety of watchable sociopaths one could probably make a television series around virtually every major character in the film. In fact, the two strands of modern Sociopathic television and films can be plausibly traced to either Coppola or Tarantino. In the organized crime motif, for example, there is of course The Sopranos and the unfortunately canceled series Brotherhood. But shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad are in the dark comedy mode consistent with Tarantino’s sensibility.

Breaking Bad has 2 million viewers. Stuck on AMC (I have 150 HD channels but AMC is not one of them) this is a pretty big audience. Going back to my opening question, why are these shows appealing? For me, the theme was repulsive. Then I watched it. I root for Heisenberg/White, even though he has been directly and indirectly responsible for many deaths. In real life I would want him dead yesterday. But in my sometimes fantasy life, I somehow identify with him. What’s that all about? Maybe “between the dust and love that hangs on everybody, there is a dead man trying to get out.” Or a Sociopath.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


The problem with that kid who faked his way into Harvard was that he took it one step too far. Adam Wheeler allegedly forged several documents to get admitted to Harvard, including straight-A transcripts from MIT and a prestigious prep school. While he was there, he collected tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships and grants. Adam was eventually caught when he applied for the prestigious Rhodes and Fulbright fellowships, using a fake transcript and plagiarized research. A professor he asked for a recommendation from noticed some similarities between Adam’s article and that of another Harvard professor, and that was it for Adam.

Many have noted that Adam would have gotten away with it if he had taken the degree and ran. Probably. Lying is very difficult to pull off flawlessly, particularly a continuing lie, such as pretending to be something or somebody that you aren't. Those lies are like being in the mafia. It can be great at the time, good experience, above average pay, but eventually you want to get out before you get caught or killed.

Some say that this Adam kid got greedy. They say that a lot about con men and habitual bank robbers too. I don't really think that is the issue for a lot of them, though. I think for a lot of people with a lifestyle outside of the law, it is the lifestyle itself that attracts them. Either they want the constant thrill, or there is no legitimate outlet for their particular skills and they'd hate to see their talents go to waste. Or they just don't know any different, or in my case, a little of all three. I have gone too far myself. Eventually you get tired or lazy or sloppy, you make a mistake, and depending who is around to see it, it could be a disaster. Luckily most of my slip ups have been relatively private. But it's sort of a but-for-the-grace-of-god type situation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Top 10 secrets of effective liars

Good advice from a Psychology Today blogger:
As I've written earlier, human beings have an innate skill at dishonesty. And with good reason: being able to manipulate the expectations of those around us is a key survival trait for social animals like ourselves. Indeed, a 1999 study by psychologist Robert Feldman at the University of Massachusetts showed that the most popular kids were also the most effective liars. Just because our aptitude is hardwired doesn't mean it can't improve with practice and skill. Here are ten techniques that top-notch liars use to maximize their effectiveness. (By the way, this information is offered as a way to help detect deceit in others, not to practice it yourself. Honestly!)

#1 Have a reason. "Prisons are filled with bad liars," says psychologist Charles Ford, author of the book Lies! Lies! Lies!. "The good liars are out running HMOs." So what's the big difference? Basically, says Ford, the trick is to lie as little as possible - only when you actually have something to gain. "Pathological liars can't stop themselves from lying, so they tell a lot of little lies and wind up getting caught," he says. Truly expert fabricators, on the other hand, save their ammunition - they don't bother to lie unless it's going to get them something they really want.

#2 Lay your groundwork. Don't wait until you're under the interrogation lamp to start putting your story together. A 1990 study by psychologist Bill Flanagan showed that liars who had worked out the details of their stories beforehand had significantly more success than those who hadn't. As in everything, practice makes perfect. "It's easier to catch someone in lie the first time they tell it," says psychologist Dr. Cynthia Cohen

#3 Tell the truth, misleadingly. The hardest lies to catch are those which aren't actually lies. You're telling the truth, but in a way that leaves a false impression. Technically, it's only a prevarication - about half a sin. A 1990 study of pathological liars in New York City found that those who could avoid follow-up questions were significantly more successful at their deceptions.

#4 Know your target. Good liars have the same gift as good communicators: the ability to get inside the listener's head. Empathy not only clues you in to what your subject wants to hear, it will help you avoid stepping onto trip wires that will trigger their suspicions. "To make a credible lie, you need to take into account the perspective of your target," says Carolyn Saarni, co-editor of the book Lying and Deception in Everyday Life. "Know what they know. Be aware of their interests and activities so you can cover your tracks."

#5 Keep your facts straight. "One of the problems of successful lying is that it's hard work," says psychologist Michael Lewis. "You have to be very consistent in doing it." That means nailing down the details. Write down notes if you have to. "One of the things that trips people up is that they give different information to different people, who then start talking about it and comparing notes," says Dr. Gini Graham Scott, author of The Truth About Lying.

#6 Stay focused. "When I'm trying to catch a liar, I watch to see how committed they are to what they're telling me," says Sgt. John Yarbrough, interrogation expert with the LA Sheriff Department's homicide bureau. "If I accuse someone of lying, and they're not very committed to the statement they just made, a red flag goes up." One of the reasons most people make bad liars is that they find lying a deeply unpleasant activity. Fear and guilt are evident in their facial expressions. They want to get the process over as quickly as possible, so they show relief when their interrogator changes the topic. That's a dead giveaway. Really good liars, on the other hand, actually enjoy the process of deceiving other people. "The best liars don't show any shame or remorse because they don't feel it," says Cohen. "They get a thrill out of actively misleading others. They're good at it, and they enjoy the challenge."

#7: Watch your signals. It's folk wisdom that people fidget, touch their noses, stutter, and break eye contact when they lie - the proverbial "shifty-eyed" look. But research has shown that just isn't so. In his 1999 study of high school students, Feldman found that nonverbal signals were crucial in determining who got away with telling lies. "The successful kinds were better at controlling their nonverbal signals, things like the the amount of eye contact and how much they gestured," he says.

#8: Turn up the pressure. If your target has clearly become suspicious, it's time to raise the emotional stakes. "The best liars are natural manipulators," says Sgt. Yarbrough. He cites as a perfect example the scene in Basic Instinct where Sharon Stone is brought to the cop station for questioning and winds up flashing everyone a glimpse of her Lesser Antilles. "She was turning them on," Yarbrough explains, "and that's a form of manipulation - using sexual or emotional arousal to distract the interviewer."

#9: Counterattack. The fact is, just as most of us are uncomfortable telling lies, most are uncomfortable accusing others. This discomfort can be used in the liar's favor. "You'll often see politicians respond to accusations with aggression," says Stan Walters, author of The Truth About Lying: Everyday Techniques for Dealing with Deception. "What they'll do is drive critics away from the issue, so they're forced to gather up their resources to fight another scrimmage."

#10: Bargain. Even when the jig is up, liars can often escape the worst by using a process psychologists call bargaining. "You want to soften, alleviate, or totally eliminate feelings of responsibility for the lie," explains researcher Mary DePalma. "If you can decrease responsibility for blame and the anger that goes with it, you're really looking at a much better outcome."

Monday, May 24, 2010

An empathy exercise

A lot of the empathy-challenged have expressed an ability to "imagine" what it would feel like to be another person going through a particular situation. I was explaining this to someone and they asked -- isn't this empathy? If it is, then I guess I'm an empath too. But first let me describe what it feels like using an unusual analogy that I hope works.

Imagine that you are having sex with someone. Better yet, imagine that you are engaged in foreplay, attempting to stimulate a reluctant lover. This is your first time. You have been on an island, grown up there alone, and one day another island dweller like yourself appears. Your experience so far has been auto arousal. You are very familiar with the ins and outs of your own equipment but have had no other exposure to sex other than what you have seen in wildlife. As you attempt to elicit a reaction from your partner, you think of everything you like to do to yourself and try that first. The more similar your partner is to you, the more accurate and effective your actions will be. But what if your partner's equipment looks nothing like your own? In that situation, the best you could do is extrapolate from your own experiences to imagine what it might feel if you had equipment more like your partner's, and act accordingly.

The process may seem very artificial to you at first, like when you scratch a part of your skin that has been numbed by anesthesia and feel only the scratching, not the being scratched. But the more similar the situation is to something you have experienced yourself, the more you can rely on your own personal experiences. Even if the other person is rather different from you, if you have done a decent job data-mining them you should be able to come up with a relatively accurate picture of them. And just like with the sex analogy, you would be getting positive or negative feedback indicating whether you are on target. If you engage in this imaginative exercise enough you can get quite good at it, the same way a professional pianist is not born with the ability to play, but can make it seem like he was with the ease with which he manipulates the keys. As I tell my loved ones all the time -- I don't understand you, but I can predict you very well.

If this is empathy, then I feel empathy. If empathy involves some automatic response to the emotions of another, though, or vicariously experiencing the emotions of another, then probably not. I don't feel vicariously what another feels any more than I vicariously feel the pleasure that I give someone else. Or maybe empaths don't feel empathy either. Maybe they think they are feeling what another feels, but really they are just projecting their own emotions on another.

Rejoinders, empaths?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sociopaths in film

Adapted from the novel of the same name, this review of the film:
While there exists a long and rich cinematic fascination with murderous psychotics, first person accounts are less common, and generally less agreeable to audiences (indeed, the seminal Peeping Tom effectively demolished Michael Powell’s career). After all, if the sociopath is freakishly and essentially devoid of sympathy and empathy, how are we to identify with them? The answer, in this case, is to disregard the question entirely: identification is irrelevant and impossible — we must simply find the character charismatic and watchable. This places a tremendous burden on Affleck’s shoulders, and he ably meets it — his performance is brilliant, affirming once again that he is one of the most underrated American screen actors of our time. Effortlessly underplaying a role that would tempt most actors to over-act, he modulates his expressions and physical demeanor to match, chillingly, the accounts of certain real-life sociopaths we know from the news: charming, and blandly — almost vacantly — handsome.

Told from the express point of view of a psychotic, The Killer Inside Me, with its remorseless displays of violence, is necessarily divisive. Lack of character development is a valid complaint, and indeed, flashbacks to Ford’s childhood psychosexual experiences are likely red herrings, seemingly providing no meaningful answers. Yet this is exactly what the subject matter calls for: lacking ordinary humanity, the protagonist has no “character,” as we know it. There is no explaining, no understanding. Thus, that which may well disgust certain viewers is exactly what makes The Killer Inside Me a terrifying yet ultimately compelling film.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Our fate

From the blog of the Lexington correspondent of the Economist.
THE other striking Supreme Court ruling yesterday concerned sex criminals. The court said the federal government could detain them indefinitely, even after their sentences end, if they are determined to be sexually dangerous.

Much of the debate turned on whether the power to detain such people properly belongs to the federal government, or to the states. Justice Clarence Thomas predictably says that Washington is over-stepping its enumerated powers.

Perhaps so. But I think the most important question is how the system will actually work. The government is claiming the power to imprison people forever, not for crimes they have been convicted of, but for crimes they might commit in the future. That's an extraordinary power. It's similar to the power both the Bush and Obama administrations claim to detain "enemy combatants" indefinitely because, although there is not enough evidence to convict them in a court of law, we know they will re-join al-Qaeda if we let them go.

Neither problem is easy. But with the sex offenders, we could be looking at a much, much larger group of people. The lead petitioner in yesterday's case, Graydon Comstock, was convicted of buying child pornography and sentenced to 37 months in prison. Less than a week before he was due to be released, Alberto Gonzales (then the attorney general) declared him to be sexually dangerous.

That is, the government asserts that he:

(1) has previously "engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation," (2) currently "suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder," and (3) "as a result of" that mental illness, abnormality, or disorder is "sexually dangerous to others," in that "he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released."

The thing is, he doesn't have to have been convicted of a sexually violent offence, or of child molestation. The standard of proof for holding Mr Comstock for the rest of his life is "clear and convincing". That is less rigorous than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard you'd need to establish to send me to jail for a few months for picking someone's pocket.

Will this kind of preventive detention be applied sparingly? Will there be adequate safeguards to prevent abuse? I have my doubts. There are more than 600,000 people on sex-offender registries in America, probably most of whom are not dangerous. Given the immense political pressure to keep our children safe, I worry that giving someone like Alberto Gonzales the power to hold people forever for crimes they have not yet committed is asking for trouble.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Growing up a sociopath

Children growing up in this era of digital permanent records have it rough. Every single moment, successes and mistakes, are being recorded and accessible for all eternity. Even if the child himself opts out of the constant chronicling of their early years, their friends are their doing it for them. It's like we have gone back to an earlier era where everyone in a small town knew everyone's personal business. This is bad for empath young people, but potentially devastating for sociopath young people who will make many distinctive mistakes while growing up. From a reader:
I grew up in a small town where everybody pretty much knew each other and being a child i kinda let others see my true self. Everybody there now hates me, i mean everybody. No friends, no nothing, just people hating me. Or so i think...

Anyway. I keep having nightmares and stuff about this. Like people there shooting me or killing me. Is it possible that this is just an overreaction caused by the fact i haven't been there in like a year? Actually i pretty much isolated myself from everyone until i grow up and hopefully not be annoyed by people walking by me on the street, by people. It is hard to say that i am cruel or something, i don't admit anything. But i might be ;). And given this cruelty i am afraid that they might start an angry mob and burn me like a witch. Even as i am writing this i am having some kind of deja vu and that makes me believe that i had dreamt of this. So following this logic i am going to actually get shot by someone who i have wronged. I know this sounds crazy and i know that ... maybe... it isn't real but every muscle in my body is telling me it is real. It is telling me to go back and do nice things, show that i care or something so that it won't come up with me being shot.

When i was younger the people there actually once started an angry mob that wanted revenge for all the bad things i did to them. The leader of the mob knew awful many things about me and that scared me out of doing anything to protect myself. I just sat there and listened how they were angry at me. They got me back against the wall and i panicked. I think that was the best choice at the moment because i didn't know how much they knew. Now when i think back i guess i should've at least protested. Don't even fucking know why i didn't play the victim. Probably there were too many of them knowing all kinds of different things each and playing a victim wouldn't have worked.

Fuck man, this whole e-mail is a deja vu to me. :-s . I wouldn't like telling anybody else about this, cause i don't know where would that lead. I don't even trust a psychologist to tell him. I am thinking that i could go out and make friends somehow but i am afraid of meeting people i previously knew. It's like i can't behave the way i want because people can see through it. I've been worrying about this ever since then and nowdays, when i am interacting with people, i am trying to be as honest as i can. I even keep them from liking me or getting involved in some kind of relationship with me because i know i will end up in that situation in which everything will be revealed. I would pretty much like to get rid of this sensation, so if you have any advice please let me know. Think i am fucking turning into a skizoid. And i also believe that ignoring this and going on with my life will only lead to that day in which i get shot in that coffee shop i keep dreaming about. Anyway. I hope you've seen this before and the whole deja vu thing is just in my head. You can post it on your blog if you want, hope nobody sees it, but keep it anonymous. Even though, in my paranoia, i think that someone that would read this would know it was me. WOW. I'm fucked. I will try to find a psychologist, somehow, someone i can trust, even though i don't know how he would help me. At the moment, i feel like i am going to be convinced that it is all in my head only when i died of natural causes or something different than i think. Anyway, tell me what you think.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On the wrongness of rape

From our friend the law and economics scholar in response to my request: "I wonder, could you give a quick summary of the Posner argument for not hurting people to post on the blog?":
I would be more than happy to provide a summary of Posner's arguments on why harming others is wrong. But I'd like to take a look over his text book again, so as not to misrepresent the Genius himself. Just as a taster I can tell you why rape is 'MOSTLY' wrong :). (God damn I wish it wasn't haha, that'd save a shitload of effort). In some ways I believe an explanation of why rape is "sometimes" wrong is more interesting than harm in general.

Basically, rape bypasses the market in sexual relations in the same way that theft bypasses markets in ordinary goods and services, and therefore should be forbidden. Something that bypasses the market is wrong. Here's the clinch. Sometimes rape is right. I'm going to paraphrase Posner here. Sometimes rapists derive extra pleasure from the fact that a woman has not consented. For these rapists, there is NO MARKET SUBSTITUTE - market transaction costs are prohibitive- and it can be argued, therefore, that for them rape is NOT A PURE COERCIVE TRANSFER and should NOT BE PUNISHED if the sum of satisfactions to the rapist (as measured by what he would be willing to pay - though not to the victim - for the right to rape) exceeds the victim's pain and distress.

The PRACTICAL OBJECTION is that rapists are hard to distinguish empirically from mere THIEVES OF SEX and that giving them free rein would induce women to invest heavily in self-protection. Posner goes on...and states "the fact that any sort of RAPE LICENSE is even thinkable within the framework of the wealth-maximisation theory that guides so much of the analysis in this book is a limitation on the usefulness of that theory". I believe Posner is probably not a sociopath. But I mean... writing about the difficulties of giving a 'license to rape' because it's hard to distinguish between genuine rapists and those who are 'thieves of sex': haha :). I recall long conversations with some girls at university on the "license to rape"...I fucked them all in the end without the license. :). To be honest I think I would have to think long and hard to give an explanation of why "rape is generally wrong" in terms that a person of average intelligence and experience would understand. It rests on the idea that the market is supreme...until that is understood it's just empty words.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Playing doctor (part 2)

From a reader (cont.):
Looking back on that first email I can see that I have selected some 'terrible' things I have done on purpose. So perhaps a little insight into how I view the world generally would be more informing.

I look at things in a very logical way. But to an extent that seems 'wrong' to other people. I am a strong believer in the Law and Economics movement and tend to analyse everything through this lens. Often this is very tame: for instance, it seems fine to me that people should be allowed to sell their organs on an open market: this would clearly save lives.

Other times people seem more shocked. I see no problem, for instance, why a poor man who wishes to feed, educate and clothe his family should not be allowed to sell his right to live to another (even if it means being slowly tortured to death, or just slavery) in order to provide that. I have decided that violence against another without consent is usually wrong after reading Posner's enlightening arguments.

This has also led me to make 'racist' or 'sexist' conclusions, although I see only difference not superiority or inferiority. I never hesitate to make my viewpoint known and can always back it up with an arsenal of data and rationality. In any event I always build strong rapport with anyone I talk to so I can say more or less whatever I want.

I do feel like something is missing. But I don't think it is a complete lack of conscience. I don't think it is a complete void. I've never been completely honest in my life, however. I am always manipulating and lying. It has got to the point where there is really no difference for me. It is effortless... Sometimes I don't even notice I am doing it and I never really care afterwards. As I said, I've never been able to maintain a friendship.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Playing doctor (part 1)

A favorite childhood game of mine. Shall we give it a go?
Dear sir,

I just stumbled across your website. I hadn't really considered it but given what I tell you, what do you think is the chance? I don't really care either way but that would be funny.

I used to kill wasps when I was young. When I was 18 I caught a hedgehog in my garden, stabbed it right through and poured boiling water over it, hahaha lol. So I stabbed it again...then I impaled it with a shard of wood and threw it into my neighbour's garden. It was squealing for like an hour. When I saw its little face it almost looked human.

I used to get angry and kick my dogs. I really like them though.

When I was a little older, I was put into a mental hospital for telling a girl I was going to kill her. She pissed me off. I was never diagnosed though.

Past 5 years I've been studying law at one of the top universities in the world. It was only meant to take 3. But I just disappeared for two of them and did drugs and fucked prostitutes.

I've bled my parents dry. I get probably 1k dollars per week from my parents. They are idiots. I've spent it all on drugs and alcohol. I only just got internet cause I'm bored.

I've been caught drink driving a few times...idk. I had a job for a few months but I just left randomly during the day without telling anyone. Lost that, my dad got me that job so he looks like a retard now lol.

I don't have any real friendships. I cut everyone out when an important social circle dies. I've never been able to maintain a friendship.

But I would never consider myself a sociopath because I can get very angry about girls. When I know they like me I assume they are 'mine' and if they do otherwise I rage, sometimes for months. I can be quite obsessive. I think I'm just fucked up...what do you think?

Yours faithfully,
My response:
I don't think that getting "angry" at girls precludes the possibility of you being a sociopath. A more predictive indicator is that you seem apathetic about a vilified diagnosis, e.g., "I don't really care either way but that would be funny." Should we post your story on the blog and see what others think?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Raising cain

This is an interesting blog about raising an adopted son/psychopath. Here's a little teaser from the most recent post:
We came back home and checked the video tape. Remember the video system we installed? Yeah, we had it on. And he knew it.

Our camera was set up to look down the hallway past his bedroom and bathroom door. I left the light on in the hallway so the camera could record all night. The video showed me go into his room to kiss him goodnight and then head upstairs to bed. A minute later it showed Lucas come out of his room, look directly at the camera, turn the hallway light out and go back into his room. He knew exactly what he was doing.

A few minutes later the video showed my wife go into the bathroom. The light in Lucas’ bedroom was still on and it spilled out into the hallway, so the camera picked this up. The camera also picked up Lucas coming out of his room, getting down on his hands and knees, and looking under the bathroom door. A few minutes later Lucas hurriedly got up and ran back into his room, just as my wife exited the bathroom, completely unaware of what had just happened.

The camera showed my wife saying goodnight to Lucas and turning out Lucas’ bedroom light.

A few minutes later, after my wife had gone to bed, the light in Lucas’ closet turned on. I could tell it was the closet light because that light is fluorescent and looks blue on camera. That light turned off 25 minutes later and the camera recorded nothing more...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sociopath quotes

"When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws will be free. The outlaw lives as if that day were here, and I love that most of all."

— Tom Robbins [Still Life with Woodpecker]


Friends recommended this episode of "Radio Lab," I think because it tells the story of a rabid sociopath/narcissist con artist (not clear which). There was also some really interesting information about what the brain of a liar looks like:
Yang and her colleagues put all 49 people, both the liars and the non-liars, into a magnetic resonance imaging scanner and took pictures of their prefrontal cortex. They chose to focus on this area of the brain because previous studies had shown that the prefrontal cortex plays a role in both lying and in antisocial behaviors.

If you could look into this part of the brain, which sits right behind your forehead, you would see two kinds of matter: gray and white. Gray matter is the groups of brain cells that process information. Most neuroscience studies focus on gray matter. But nearly half the brain is composed of connective tissues that carry electrical signals from one group of neurons to another. This is white matter. Roughly, gray matter is where the processing happens, and white matter connects different parts of the brain, helping us to bring different ideas together.

The liars in Yang's study had on average 22 percent to 26 percent more white matter in their prefrontal cortex than both the normal and antisocial controls.

Yang speculates that the increase in white matter means that people who lie repeatedly and compulsively are better at making connections between thoughts that aren't connected in reality — like, say, "me" and "fighter pilot." Consequently, while some of us struggle to come up with reasons why we were late for work, or can't go out with someone we don't really like, Yang's liars impulsively serve up a heaping helping of excuses and stories, and fast.

"By having more connections," Yang says, "you can jump from one idea to another and you can come up with more random stories and ideas."

Admittedly, this study is just a first step. It doesn't show that more white matter in the prefrontal cortex accounts for all lying or that it's the only part of the brain involved. And the study does not establish whether the brain differences lead to lying or whether repeated lying somehow "exercises" connections in the brain. While the study was carefully designed to exclude differences that could be due to age, ethnicity, IQ, brain injury or substance abuse, the small sample size means the results need to be replicated. More research is needed to define what behaviors count as pathological lying and to establish the mechanism behind those behaviors.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The moral life of babies

This was an interesting article in the NY Times about the innate moral reasoning that babies seem to have, or more accurately, *not* have. Excerpts:
From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice. Many parents and educators would endorse a view of infants and toddlers close to that of a recent Onion headline: “New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.” If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them?

[Still, s]ocialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.

Morality, after all, is a different sort of affair than physics or psychology. The truths of physics and psychology are universal: objects obey the same physical laws everywhere; and people everywhere have minds, goals, desires and beliefs. But the existence of a universal moral code is a highly controversial claim; there is considerable evidence for wide variation from society to society.

In the journal Science a couple of months ago, the psychologist Joseph Henrich and several of his colleagues reported a cross-cultural study of 15 diverse populations and found that people’s propensities to behave kindly to strangers and to punish unfairness are strongest in large-scale communities with market economies, where such norms are essential to the smooth functioning of trade. Henrich and his colleagues concluded that much of the morality that humans possess is a consequence of the culture in which they are raised, not their innate capacities.

At the same time, though, people everywhere have some sense of right and wrong. You won’t find a society where people don’t have some notion of fairness, don’t put some value on loyalty and kindness, don’t distinguish between acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes, don’t categorize people as nasty or nice. These universals make evolutionary sense. Since natural selection works, at least in part, at a genetic level, there is a logic to being instinctively kind to our kin, whose survival and well-being promote the spread of our genes. More than that, it is often beneficial for humans to work together with other humans, which means that it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals. All this is reason to consider the innateness of at least basic moral concepts.
The article explains how babies prefer good actors over those they perceive to be bad actors. Even more interesting to me was that although babies generally equate bad behavior with being a bad actor, if bad behavior is done to a someone or something that the baby thinks is a bad actor, the baby thinks the behavior is justified, presumably as a just punishment.
All of this research, taken together, supports a general picture of baby morality. It’s even possible, as a thought experiment, to ask what it would be like to see the world in the moral terms that a baby does. Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges — they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events (remember the toddler who smacked the bad puppet). The babies’ experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires. But this shouldn’t strike you as an altogether alien experience: while we adults possess the additional critical capacity of being able to consciously reason about morality, we’re not otherwise that different from babies — our moral feelings are often instinctive. In fact, one discovery of contemporary research in social psychology and social neuroscience is the powerful emotional underpinning of what we once thought of as cool, untroubled, mature moral deliberation.
The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go. The biologist Richard Dawkins was right, then, when he said at the start of his book “The Selfish Gene,” “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” Or as a character in the Kingsley Amis novel “One Fat Englishman” puts it, “It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children.”

Thursday, May 6, 2010


I have become increasingly disenchanted with humanity, particularly these last few months. I think it may have something to do with being sick for a long time and never really catching up. It also may have something to do with the amount of traveling I have had to do, particularly international flights with immigration and customs checks.

The other day I had just boarded a plane and was trying to get an email sent before we took off. It was such a small plane that there was only a minute between when we were asked to shut off any electronics* and enforcement. After the announcement, I finished the sentence I was on and pressed send, but the connection was bad and I couldn't tell whether it had sent or not. I attempted to resend. At this point, I could have hidden the phone while the phone searched for a connection, but i decided to be honest about it and do it within plain sight. Halfway through attempting to resend, the flight attendant reprimanded me for not having turned the phone off already, trying to shame me in front of the other passengers. I quickly got very angry. My friend says "it's when you are trying to be legit and people still chastise you that you get the most irate." True. He also said that the flight attendant would probably not have been so angry if I had actually attempted to hide the phone, instead of blatantly and openly defying the order. Maybe also true. But I controlled my anger well, only giving the flight attendant chilling death glares. I think I must have creeped her out sufficiently, though, because I looked up a few times in the flight and saw her staring at me with a look of bewilderment and fear.

This incident was not a big deal, but it did remind me that I don't respond well at all to shaming attempts. I don't know why people would ever use them (particularly with people like me around) or over something so small as mobile phone etiquette. I always think -- poor phone etiquette is the least of your worries with me, guy. I think if people had to choose only one thing to worry about, there are many other things that should be prioritized, including the wisdom of sleeping with one eye open.

I'm sure there was originally some evolutionary impetus for shame and shaming, but can it really still be applicable? Effective? Safe?

*is there a legitimate reason for this rule?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sympathy vs. empathy (part 2)

My response:
Ha, hard to know if we're bad people, what does that even mean? I definitely think we can feel genuine sympathy or sadness, though. Sympathy just means feeling sorry for them, and has nothing to do with feeling what they feel or whatever else empathy is supposed to mean. I feel sorry for people when something bad happens to them or they cry or are otherwise struggling because I know what it feels like to have something bad happen to you, and it can be heart wrenching. I think we understand emotions a lot better than people think we do, but I also think that our understanding isn't too good unless/until we have experienced that exact same emotion, gone through that exact same experience before. At least for me, the more I can see other people as myself (i.e. the more they mirror me or my own past experiences), the better I can understand them. That doesn't seem strange or disturbing to me, but they keep telling me that there is this magic empathy thing that people are somehow born with a magical sense that allows them to feel what others are feeling naturally.
Yes I understand what you mean. I truthfully think we sociopaths have a higher understanding of human emotion than most normal people do. Maybe because we spend so much time trying to analyze it to understand it. I think we are very emotionally intuitive and can pick up on when someone is lying or bullshitting us, or at least I can. I can meet people and within 5 minutes know what kind of person they are. This comes to my aid a lot when it comes to friendships...I know so many things about these people, they don't even realize I pick up on it. It's like you always know their intentions. I like this being able to 'read' people quality. It certainly helps with life.

As for sympathy, I can relate to an emotion someone is having as in...I understand it perfectly...though since it's not me going through it, I tend to not care. It doesn't mean I want them to suffer, I just have no feelings towards it at all.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sympathy vs. empathy (part 1)

A reader writes:
I ran across your blog and just wanted to say I really like and agree with what you've written. I'm a sociopath myself, so maybe I'm just happy (yes, we do feel some emotions, don't we lol) to run into someone that understands what it's like. You present the information on what it's like to be a sociopath is a very honest and straightforward way, and I respect that. I, too, have come out to people who I've suspected are sociopaths themselves, but generally if I don't want someone to know, they don't. There's a certain kindred feeling I get in recognizing someone who is like me. Sometimes I admit as much to people as I believe I can get away with, such as admitting to being manipulative or deceitful to get what I want. Like everything, there's an agenda to that: it shows the person I consider them close enough to be able to open up to them and reveal intimate details about myself, and it also gives me attention. And if this person is someone I want something from, well you get the idea.

But I wonder, do you think we are "bad" people? I hate using that word because it seems so black and white. But there are times I almost think I do feel genuine sympathy or sadness, or what I imagine it would feel like, but then again this could be me fooling myself into trying to believe I am normal. Oftentimes, I find myself imitating the behavior I see on TV shows or soap operas, and it's like playing a role of sorts. My grandpa is dying of cancer and will be dead in a few months' time and I stand to inherit his home when he passes. The idea of owning a home is of course a plus for me, and I admit when the doctors expressed a slight chance he may live, I was even disappointed because it meant I wouldn't get my house after all. But things have gone downhill and although I do my best to show sympathy, I know I want that house. I'd never kill him myself, but you get the picture. But just thinking that I can behave this way gets me depressed and I can say I can genuinely make myself cry for real, but not in any way that expresses sympathy for my grandfather...more like a self-involved "why do I have to be this way" thing. I realize I am not normal and my emotions are not normal, but that doesn't mean I believe them to be wrong. I often find myself accusing others of having false emotions, but then I realize that's most likely because they seem so foreign to me that I think everyone must be faking it like myself. It shocks me to find out people actually DO care about others and it's genuine.

If I do feel sadness or empathy, it stems from the fact that I realize I am not normal and I can make myself cry about this. Like "What's wrong with me? What am I lacking? Why can't I be normal?" But I can never seem to cry over anything regarding -another- person. If I hurt someone and I cry about it, it's not because of any remorse, it's more like "Jeez I'm so screwed up"...notice the "I'm" there. It makes it selfish, if you know what I mean.
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