Saturday, March 31, 2012

Theory of mind

A reader sent me a link to this Psychology Today blog post discussing how those in the dark triad (narcissists, Machiavellians, psychopaths) experience theory of mind.  The wikipedia definition of theory of mind is "the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own."  It seems to overlap a little with cognitive empathy (which the article gets into a little).  The blog author further distinguishes between the social-perceptual component of theory of mind ("the ability to determine the mental states of others using immediately available non-verbal cues (e.g., eyes, face, hand gestures)") and the social-cognitive theory of mind ("involves the ability to reason about the mental state of others, and use that reasoning to predict or explain their behavior"), the former of which is tested by this "Mind in the Eyes" emotional recognition test (I scored 30).

The article itself is a little long and all over the place, but it makes some interesting points and some even more interesting conclusions.  One of which is that Machiavellians do more "mentalizing" than other people, "cognitively strategizing, scheming, and trying to infer the intentions of others," presumably to stay one step ahead.  Another seems suspect:

For most of our evolution, it payed to be cooperative and empathic. But during the course of our evolution, there were also selfish individuals who learned how to manipulate others to get what they wanted. They lacked empathy, perspective taking, and self-awareness (i.e., metacognition). Still, they had in tact lower-level perceptual theory of mind abilities that were good enough for them to manipulate others. In fact, their lower levels of empathy and higher levels of strategizing and spontaneous mentalizing worked to their advantage: whereas most people intuitively felt as though they were doing something wrong when they hurt others, these Machiavellian individuals didn't recieve [sic] the same emotional signals so they persevered toward their short-term selfish goals. In the process, they obtained more quantity of mates. Therefore, they remained in the human gene pool, along with their short-term mating orientation.

I can see that narcissists lack self-awareness, but what about Machiavellians and psychopaths?  I'm sort of underwhelmed by this guy's reasoning.  And he is a cognitive psychologist at NYU.  So credentials in the psychology world don't mean much?

But here's something else interesting I didn't know:

Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne argue that primate intelligence stems from "Machiavellian Intelligence" -- the ability to manipulate and deceive others in the competition for scarce resources.


  1. "I can see that narcissists lack self-awareness, but what about Machiavellians and psychopaths?"

    I think Machiavellianism is a trait that people have in varying degrees, likewise self-awareness and impulsivity.

    Those traits are orthogonal. E.g. on might be high-Mach, low-impulsivity and low self-aware. or high-Mach, low-impulsivity and highly self-aware.

    E.g. narcissists: Machiavellian and quite self-unaware. If they become aware that they are "bad", they feel shame and get really nervous. E.g. Bernie Madoff, realizing that people think of him as a conscienceless "bad guy".

    sociopaths: Machiavellian and maybe self-aware. If they are aware they are doing something bad, they simply don't give a shit. Similar to how Dr. James Fallon didn't care when he found out he was a sociopath.

    I think of psychopaths as low-conscience impulsive types. They might or might not have the shame and unawareness of self of narcissists. E.g. my psychopathic grandfather was a malignant narcissist. If you called him an alcoholic or a criminal, he got personally hurt/ashamed (followed by enraged). Then there are the low-functioning sociopaths, who get in legal troubles again and again, but keep on trying to con/spin people, shamelessly. They are clearly pscyhopaths (low-empathy, criminally impulsive), but are the self unaware or aware? Whatever the answer, they don't give a shit, because they are too focused on immediate gratification.

    What's funny is that narcissists are self-deceptive enough that even if they know they are high-Mach, they'll argue that the lies and manipulation tactics are for everyone else's good.

    E.g. Steve Jobs could tell himself he was on a crusade against bad design. To the extent that he lied and manipulated people to further his own goals, it was just to bring them around to good design.

    Stalin could tell himself that he was doing what was good for the Soviet people. Selfless guy that he was, circumstances simply forced him to manipulate everyone else.

    Madoff could say the same to himself: after he was carrying the loss on the books, he needed to keep everyone in the dark (lie!) so that he could one day earn enough money to cover the shortage. To the extent that he lied and manipulated people to keep the scam going, it was all for the benefit of his customers.

  2. what did you do to my momy?

  3. can i get some money daddie?

  4. It is important to remember that Psychology Today articles are dumbed down deliberately so as to be popular reading material.

  5. Emotional Recognition Test:

    Your score: 32
    A typical score is in the range 22-30. If you scored over 30,
    you are very accurate at decoding a person's facial expressions
    around their eyes. A score under 22 indicates you find this quite difficult.
    The correct answers for the ones you missed are:
    17: doubtful
    19: tentative
    31: confident
    33: concerned

    i forgot to do 17 and got a bit bored after 20. thinking made it hard, but imagining the whole person gave it away.

    fun test

    1. 31 was tough. i read it as a neutral expression mostly, but slightly aggressive or guarded.

    2. I scored very high, too. 33.

  6. "they obtained more quantity of mates"
    No, like most genetic defects it persists because it is a recessive gene, that malformation of the brain that disables the awareness of others is carried by normal, fully functional, humans.
    At the same time it is true that sociopaths tend to "marry up" because they are unable and unwilling to make real contributions to a society so they are all whores who breed heirs for (infect) successful families by marrying the fat sister, the bitch sister or the cross-eyed prince.
    As far as "mates" mostly sociopaths just suck each other's cocks in public toilets.

  7. Machiavellian intelligence is just another word for social intellience. Its why social animals have larger brains than their non-social or less social relatives.

    Other reasons for larger telencephalon size would be problem solving (ie tool use, extracting food from substrates and kleptoparasitism).

  8. the article is sketchy.

    narcissists experience empathy but usually after the fact, rarely real time. and they don't realize it. every single one i've known thought of themselves as empathic. experiencing it in your head is not experiencing it in the moment, but it's still having the ability to empathize.

    also lower levels of empathy sounds so airy fairy. lower compared to what? what is the standard level of empathy one should have? what is an indecent level?

  9. Yes, I have a friend who is completely narcissistic and self absorbed. I give her the cold shoulder or just look at her square in the face when she is being pushy and say something so that she knows that we both know she can't manipulate me. Then she storms off. Then half hour later she calls and says she is sorry.

  10. I am very much a sociopath. I lie cheat and steal to get what I want. Have no "friends". Just people that do shit for me. Live off others and when they get tired of it I move on to the next. I love it soooooo much.

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