Friday, November 30, 2012

Sociopath quote of the day

There is nothing very odd about lambs disliking birds of prey, but this is no reason for holding it against large birds of prey that they carry off lambs. And when the lambs whisper among themselves, "These birds of prey are evil, and does this not give us a right to say that whatever is the opposite of a bird of prey must be good," there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such an argument--though the birds of prey will look somewhat quizzically and say, We have nothing against these good lambs; in fact, we love them; nothing tastes better than a tender lamb."

Friedrich Nietzsche

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Manipulation 102: retail sales

I was reading this NY Times article on the clothing brand Zara and was impressed by how they managed to create and sustain demand for their products. First of all, they are faceless, their founder never having given an interview and their designers nameless:

Ortega has never given an interview, according to his communications department, nor does he attend award ceremonies or parties. He rarely allows his picture to be taken. Pablo Isla, who took over the company when the 76-year-old Ortega stepped down as chairman last year, rarely gives interviews or waves to the camera, either. In fact, the public face of Inditex is its soft-spoken communications director, Jesus Echevarría, who, as I discovered during a recent visit to the Inditex complex, is perhaps the only communications director on the planet who all but apologizes whenever he must answer questions about Inditex’s runaway success.
Inditex owes none of its success to advertising. That’s because Inditex doesn’t advertise. It hardly even has a marketing department, and it doesn’t engage in flashy campaigns, as its competitors do, teaming up with fashion designers like Stella McCartney, Karl Lagerfeld, Martin Margiela and Marni. Zara’s designers are completely anonymous; some would say this is because they are copiers rather than designers.

I actually think this is one of the bigger benefits of having an anonymous blog -- being nameless and faceless just makes it easier for people to project what they want to see onto you.

Zara doesn't self-promote, instead they let their satisfied customers talk them up:

“In New York, they did one page saying they were opening — in The New York Times,” Echevarría said. “But it’s not a campaign; it’s an announcement; it’s information. The company does not talk about itself. The idea was that the client was to talk about the company. It was not to say how good it could be. The customer would say that if it was deserved.”

This is one of my favorite ways to seduce, partly because I'm actually very lazy about it. I would much rather just become known as somewhat of a desired commodity and have people come to me rather than the other way around. Although I do sometimes go out with the goal of meeting people and can be very aggressive when I want to be, I find that I get better longterm results this way. People think it's their choice and that gives them a false sense of control and they have an incentive to keep justifying the choice to themselves (who wants to admit they were wrong?) by continuing to idealize me.

Zara is not a one-model fits all operation, it (sneakily) tries to closely follow the idiosyncrasies of its clientele:

But a brand at Inditex will make a fall collection, for example, and then ship only three or four dresses or shirts or jackets in each style to a store. There’s very little leftover stock, few extra-smalls or mediums hiding in the back. But store managers can request more if there’s demand. They also monitor customers’ reactions, on the basis of what they buy and don’t buy, and what they say to a sales clerk: “I like this scooped collar” or “I hate zippers at the ankles.” Inditex says its sales staff is trained to draw out these sorts of comments from their customers. Every day, store managers report this information to headquarters, where it is then transmitted to a vast team of in-house designers, who quickly develop new designs and send them to factories to be turned into clothes.
That means that if Inditex stores in London, Tokyo and São Paulo all have customers responding enthusiastically to, let’s say, sequined cranberry-colored hot pants, Inditex can deliver more of these, or a variation on hot pants, sequins or that cranberry color, to stores within three weeks. The company tries to keep the stock fresh; one promise its stores make is that you will always be buying something nearly unique. Merchandise moves incredibly quickly, even by fast-fashion standards. All those thousands of Inditex stores receive deliveries of new clothes twice a week.

This reminded me of the way I will constantly datamine little tidbits of information on people to add to my  mental dossiers of them that help me cater to their unique desires.

Finally, they promote a feeling of scarcity, causing people to want to buy when they feel the urge because the opportunity may never present itself again:

In this way, says Masoud Golsorkhi, the editor of Tank, a London magazine about culture and fashion, Inditex has completely changed consumer behavior. “When you went to Gucci or Chanel in October, you knew the chances were good that clothes would still be there in February,” he says. “With Zara, you know that if you don’t buy it, right then and there, within 11 days the entire stock will change. You buy it now or never. And because the prices are so low, you buy it now.”

This one is probably the hardest for me to pull off if I am honestly interested in the person, but I have seen it be very effective when I truly am only feeling a fleeting interest in a person. Ah well, there is always room for improvement.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sociopaths and impulsive helpfulness

At Narcissistworld, they featured this video about helping people.

And this quote about how there might be situations in which sociopaths are most likely to help:

Normal people get too bothered witnessing suffering to keep seeing it. Narcissists don’t care – they are too focused on their own story, judging the losers in a way that makes them feel good about themselves, etc. But sociopaths can really see the suffering and keep going.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Empathy/analytical thinking

Someone posted this link in the comments that I thought was interesting. It essentially argues that you people either use empathetic or analytical thinking, and never both at the same time:

  • When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis, a pivotal study led by a Case Western Reserve University researcher shows.
  • At rest, our brains cycle between the social and analytical networks. But when presented with a task, healthy adults engage the appropriate neural pathway, the researchers found.
  • The new study shows that adults presented with social or analytical problems -- all external stimuli -- consistently engaged the appropriate neural pathway to solve the problem, while repressing the other pathway. The see-sawing brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
  • "This is the cognitive structure we've evolved," said Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve and lead author of the new study. "Empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain."
  • These findings suggest the same neural phenomenon drives the explanatory gap as occurs when we look at a visual illusion such as the duck-rabbit, he continued. The drawing of the head of the animal can be seen as a duck facing one direction or a rabbit facing the other, but you can't see both at once.
  • "You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business," he said. "But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking." "You'll never get by without both networks," Jack continued. "You don't want to favor one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time."

It also mentioned briefly what sort of implications this would have for autism, whose sufferers often are advanced analytically and deficient socially, and for Williams syndrome, whose sufferers are socially adept but not analytically. That was interesting in a everything-has-its-opposite sort of way.

In terms of thinking about my own brain I thought about my own attention issues. To use the analogy from the article, maybe my seesaw is overly weighted on one side? Or it's rusty and hard to flip to the other side? I actually think that the issue is less in my ability to do or feel something, once I've set my mind to doing so, but that perhaps my brain does not naturally respond to the same sorts of external stimuli cuing the switch as well as other people's do.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sheeps, wolves, and sheep dogs

This was a sort of interesting (and a little blowhard-y) essay on the role of sheeps, wolves and sheep dogs:

Everyone has been given a gift in life. Some people have a gift for science and some have a flair for art. And warriors have been given the gift of aggression. They would no more misuse this gift than a doctor would misuse his healing arts, but they yearn for the opportunity to use their gift to help others. These people, the ones who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and a love for others, are our sheepdogs. These are our warriors.

We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep.

I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin’s egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful. For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.

“Then there are the wolves,” the old war veteran said, “and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy.” Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.

“Then there are sheepdogs,” he went on, “and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” Or, as a sign in one California law enforcement agency put it, “We intimidate those who intimidate others.”

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.

Sheep dogs? Maybe. (Cue the young sociopath want-to-bes asserting that they are wolves raised to be sheepdogs?) I am actually fine with the idea of there being sheepdogs. Generally speaking, it's the sheep dogs that keeps everyone else in ignorance. I have nothing concrete to really base this on, but it seems like sheep are not like deer or other natural prey that are naturally skittish? They get lulled into this false sense of security? Which is actually a pretty great way to run a society, for a lot of reasons.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Machiavelli for dummies

Power is a sociopath's drug. It's his very reason for living. It's no wonder sociopaths are attracted to positions of power in business, politics, criminal cartels, etc. And who better to learn it from than medieval power brokers like Machiavelli. Here are some comments on Machiavelli's philosophies and their role in the business world, courtesy of Forbes.

It's good cautionary advice for anyone, particularly for minorities like sociopaths who are vulnerable to attack.
[M]isjudging your relationship with powerful people can jeopardize your career, your health and your bank balance. Open any newspaper and you will find the stories of those who abused their power and those who became their victims.
And why we should accept our sociopath selves:
The key to effective leadership is self-knowledge and self-acceptance. This is not what most people imagine when they think of Machiavelli. But men like Borgia were destroyed precisely because they lacked self-knowledge. Had Borgia recognized his weaknesses, he would have taken a different path. But only strong people can acknowledge their weaknesses.

Self-acceptance is equally important. Once we accept our imperfections, they lose their power and others cannot use them to manipulate us. We find the courage needed to speak the truth to power. And we find it easier to accept the imperfections in others. Whether we lead or follow, self-knowledge and self-acceptance are indispensable.
And parting thoughts:
Machiavelli teaches us to take responsibility for our relationship with power. This is not obligatory, of course, but merely wise. Understanding Machiavelli gives us a richer appreciation for human nature. It allows us to foresee problems, defuse dangerous situations and make wiser decisions.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Married to a murderer

This was an interesting article from a woman who was married to a known murderer (supposedly reformed), that apparently suffered from other "demons" that caused him to rape and almost kill two women one month into their marriage. It's an interesting tale if you have ever wondered how women could possibly be with someone who is so horrible but still not be aware of his true nature:

The Jason who'd been presented to me was not a man I'd ever met. He wasn't even the 18-year-old I'd tried to envision so many times and whom I'd come to accept as the correctional system's "best guy", someone who would never again pose a threat of violence. He was now a rapist.

He was now a rapist? I mean, you read her description and don't really think she's an idiot. But then she says something like this and you wonder, does she really think that he just suddenly became a different person? That this man is something that her own husband was not?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Stanford prison experiment

A reader sent me this video and the following description:

I don't know if you're familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment, but it was basically a two week simulation in which college students were put in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford, some acting as guards, some acting as prisoners, and let things run their course. The whole thing was quite a fiasco. It's used in psychology classes across America to demonstrate basically what not to do when performing an experiment.

What I'm most interested in, however, is the behavior of one of the participants, by the name of Dave Eshleman, who acted as a guard. It is, in my opinion, a rather clear cut example of remorseless sociopathy. In this video he speaks of his role in the experiment. He first appears at 6:20 or so, talking about how he was recruited. But he appears several times throughout, both in an interview and in raw footage from the experiment, explaining the acts he committed with a peculiar note of what I identified as pride. He doesn't appear to show any remorse; in fact, he seems to laugh about some of the atrocities he committed at some points. He talks about how he created a new persona for himself, adopting a Southern accent to appear more tough. He refers to his part in the experiment as "playing a role" several times in the video, yet he admits that he was the primary instigator of the terror that the guards put the prisoners through. The footage of the decompression after the experiment was halted, where he comes face to face with one of the prisoners he tormented is quite interesting.

I'm curious what you and the SW community have to say about this.

I watched it and found that the most relevant points occur at:

18 minutes, where he gets "creative" about evil

21:45 small sacrifice

25:20 now he's aware of evil

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

No remorse

I have been meaning to do a post on this New Yorker article "No Remorse," about the sentencing of adolescent murderers who do not have the same sorts of life experience that would cause them to realize the consequences of their behavior. These teenagers typically do not show the right amount of "remorse" in the minds of some, and are consequently labeled sociopaths, sentenced to life in prison.

The expectation that defendants will display remorse either shortly after their crimes or never is generally accepted as common sense. In a Columbia Law Review study of cases of juveniles charged with violent crimes, the Emory law professor Martha Grace Duncan found that youths who failed to express their contrition promptly and appropriately, as adults would, were often penalized for showing “less grief than the system demands.” In many cases, she writes, the juveniles appeared to be in shock or in a kind of dissociative state and failed to appreciate the permanence of what they had done. “Less under the sway of the reality principle,” they were more prone than adults to engage in forms of denial. But prosecutors and judges interpreted their strange reactions—falling asleep after the crime, giggling, rapping—as signs of irreparable depravity. Duncan found that courts looked for remorse in “psychologically naïve ways, without regard for defense mechanisms, developmental stages, or the ambiguity that inheres in human behavior.”

One of Dakotah’s closest friends, Christina Wardlaw, who sat through the trial, told me that she had to suppress the urge to laugh as she listened to Dakotah’s recorded conversations with the police. “He still saw himself as the same old Dakotah, jabbering and singing and making jokes,” she said. “He had no idea what he’d become.”

Dakotah’s reaction, with its apparent remorselessness, less than three hours after shooting his grandfather, was discussed by three witnesses for the prosecution. It also figured in the jurors’ deliberations. They asked to view Dakotah’s videotaped conversation with the detective again, and an hour after watching the tape, and just three hours after beginning deliberations, they announced that Dakotah was guilty of first-degree homicide.

One juror told me that several people on the jury were troubled by Dakotah’s youth, but they’d been instructed that if the evidence indicated that the offense was premeditated and deliberate the crime was first-degree murder. Age had no place in that calculus. As is required under Michigan law, the jury was not informed that the conviction carried the automatic penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The video from yesterday reminded me of this article, the cannibal's comment about how there are consequences to killing someone, and if he had known that earlier many people would still be alive. I had a dream about this recently. I had gotten called in to consult with a child who had just murdered a third party to get back at someone else, like murdered a mutual friend to hurt another person. She was young, maybe 8 years old. I saw some video of her before I was going to meet with her and she was talking about it as if she was talking about how she had stolen someone's bicycle. It was very clear that she didn't understand that killing someone had consequences. I wondered -- should I explain to this girl that killing has consequences? If she's normal but just a little immature, like this Dakotah kid seems to be, then those consequences might weigh her down for the rest of the life until she's just a pile of human garbage. On the other hand, isn't knowing that our actions have consequences what helps us make "better" decisions?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Interview with a cannibal

A reader shared with me this very interesting video about a cannibal and asks: "in the video he mentions that he doesn't feel guilt around these events but he feels the shock of his parent's death. i was wondering if you think he's a sociopath or not. i recall reading that for sociopaths its not necessarily that they don't have empathy or those types of feelings, but rather that it comes with a voluntary switch."

 I really like the beginning when he says "I believe I come from another planet or dimension. I fell to earth. Disguised as an infant, laying helpless, my mother walked by and took pitty on me. I must have come from a place of cannibals, and im the only one of my kind." Sometimes I have had similar feelings of not being from here. One time someone I dated said I was not human, an alien. Someone else said that I vibrate on a different frequency than everyone else. Of course those things are not at all true, but they're interesting ways of describing something that we don't quite have the words for, like a child's understanding of a concept too far beyond his ken.

Monday, November 19, 2012


This is an interesting exchange between Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths and an apparently (?) psychopathic prisoner he interviewed. First they discuss what Dutton is going to do that evening, out there. Then the prisoner goads Dutton about not pulling the trigger on asking some girl out, then:

"Look Kev, I can see that I've offended you and I really didn't mean to do that. I'm sorry. Enjoy yourself tonight. And when you see her—her, you'll know who she is—think of me."

He winks. I feel a pulse of affection and am filled with self-loathing. I say: "I'm not offended, Mike. Really. I mean it. I've learned a lot. It's brought it home to me just how different we are. You and me. How differently we're wired. It's helped. It really has. And I guess the bottom line is this: That's why you're in here and I'm (I point at the window) out there." I shrug, as if to say it's not my fault. As if, in a parallel universe, things could just as easily have turned out different.


Suddenly, I'm aware that there's a chill in the room. It's physical. Palpable. I can feel it on my skin. Under my skin. All over me. This is something I've read about in books. But have, up until this moment, never experienced. I stand for five agonizing seconds in a stare 40 below. Ever so slowly, as if some new kind of gravity has been seeping in unnoticed through the vents, I feel the arm vacate my shoulders.

"Don't let your brain piss you about, Kev. All those exams—sometimes they get in the way. There's only one difference between you and me. Honesty. Bottle. I want it, I go for it. You want it, you don't.

"You're scared, Kev. Scared. You're scared of everything. I can see it in your eyes. Scared of the consequences. Scared of getting caught. Scared of what they'll think. You're scared of what they'll do to you when they come knocking at your door. You're scared of me.

"I mean, look at you. You're right. You're out there, I'm in here. But who's free, Kev? I mean really free? You or me? Think about that tonight. Where are the real bars, Kev? Out there?" (He points at the window.) "Or in here?" (He reaches forward and, ever so lightly, touches my left temple)

I like that thought. Who is really more free?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sociopaths in film: Seven Psychopaths

I saw this film recently. I thought it was pretty funny, not terribly accurate? Probably the most interesting aspect of the film is how the psychopathic characters view the one empath character's alcoholism. They sort of wonder at it -- why might someone be drinking themselves to death. It doesn't make sense to them. And even though they are going around killing people, they express the same or more moral concern about whether or not the alcoholic should be driving drunk. It's a little hilarious because typical empath viewer would obviously think of the murdering as more serious than the drunk driving, but not the psychopath characters.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Friday, November 16, 2012

On killing

This was interesting:

"There are no atheists in foxholes," the saying goes, but according to this important book there are many conscientious objectors. In World War II and before, only 15 to 20 percent of soldiers fired their weapons at enemy soldiers in view, even if their own lives were endangered. Lt. Col. (Ret.) Grossman, a military historian, psychologist and teacher at West Point, builds upon the findings of Gen. S. L. A. Marshall in Men Against Fire (1978) and confirmatory evidence from Napoleonic, Civil and other wars. "Throughout history the majority of men on the battlefield would not attempt to kill the enemy, even to save their own lives." (p. 4)

* * *

The compunction against killing occurs in close combat situations, including aerial dogfights where pilots can see each other. It does not prevail with killing at a distance by artillery or bombing from airplanes. Machine gun teams also boost the firing rate because individuals cannot simply pretend to fire or intentionally mis-aim. In aerial combat one percent of pilots made over thirty percent of kills; the majority of fighter pilots never shot down a plane, perhaps never tried to.

* * *

In the U.S. Civil War, well-trained soldiers fired over the enemy's heads, or only pretended to fire. Of 27,000 muzzle-loading muskets recovered at Gettysburg, 90 percent were loaded, almost half with multiple loads! That could not be inadvertent. Further evidence was the low kill rate in face-to-face battles. Like Marshall's assertion about World War II, "Secretly, quietly...these soldiers found themselves to be conscientious objectors who were unable to kill their fellow man." (p. 25) The secrets were well kept, in "a tangled web of individual and cultural forgetfulness, deception and lies tightly woven over thousands of years....the male ego has always justified selective memory, self-deception, and lying [about] two institutions, sex and combat." (p. 31)

* * *

About two percent of soldiers lack the killing inhibition; they score high on measures of "aggressive psychopath." Another one percent in this diagnostic category cannot endure military discipline. Grossman says the adaptable two percent serve well, return to civilian life and function as good citizens.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Moral flip flop

This article discusses an interesting study done by Lars Hall of Lund University in Sweden in which he gets people to assert their actual moral opinion, then inadvertently defend the opposite opinion some minutes later:

Researchers asked participants to complete a survey about moral issues. To do so, the participants had to flip over the first page of questions, which was displayed on a clipboard.

But the back of the clipboard had a patch of glue that caught the top layer of the questions. So when the page was flipped back over, an opposite version of the original questions was revealed but the participant's answers remained unchanged.

This meant that the participants' responses were opposite to their originally declared moral positions, the study authors said.

When the researchers discussed the participants' answers with them, they found that many people supported their answers, even though their responses were actually opposite to their original views.

The "participants often constructed coherent and unequivocal arguments supporting the opposite of their original position," suggesting "a dramatic potential for flexibility in our moral attitudes," wrote study leader Lars Hall, of Lund University, and colleagues. 

Interestingly, Hall doesn't suggest that people have actually changed their moral positions, but "Either we would have to conclude that many participants hold no real attitudes about the topics we investigate, or that standard survey scales fail to capture the complexity of the attitudes people actually hold." Still, I think it's hilarious that people can get so worked up over a moral issue, even if (apparently) they're not quite sure what they believe or why.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

More on genius

So I just noticed that the recent Scientific American issue is all about genius, including this interesting assertion about what it is like to think like a genius (and can people promote this sort of thinking in their own brains?). From the (free) summary of the (subscription only) article "Boost Creativity with Electric Brain Stimulation":

A great idea comes all of a sudden. In the depths of the mind, networks of brain cells perform a sublime symphony, and a twinkle of insight pops into consciousness. Unexpected as they are, these lightbulb moments seem impossible to orchestrate. Recent studies suggest otherwise. By freeing the mind of some of its inhibitions, we might improve creative problem solving.

The human brain constantly filters thoughts and feelings. Only a small fraction of the stimuli impressed on us by our environment ascends to the level of conscious awareness. Prior learning enforces mental shortcuts that determine which sensations are deemed worthy of our attention. Our laboratory is investigating whether we can weaken these biases and boost openness to new ideas by temporarily diminishing the neural activity in specific brain areas.

I thought this was interesting, that part of the key to being more genius is what is coming into our conscious awareness, particularly as a person who has forced awareness of many mundane decisions into my conscious thought even from a very young age. Perhaps even more the money quote with regards to the connection between this article on genius and sociopaths having unique insight:

Genius, rare as it is, must demand a qualitatively different view of the world than what most of us experience. Austrian physician Hans Asperger, whose name is associated with the eponymous condition on the autism spectrum suggested that, '"a dash of autism' might set brilliant minds apart. We have been investigating this hypothesis by using weak electric current to modulate brain activity in healthy people in our laboratory. The effects fade in an hour, preserving normal cognition. This method of brain stimulation is safe and portable - a 'creativity cap' - that anyone might use to spur creativity on demand.

Carrie Mathison from the Showtime drama Homeland anyone? Particularly on the tails of the recent article on how to raise a genius, I like this idea that genius demands a qualitatively different view of the world than what most people experience. Especially when that requirement is taken into consideration, it does seem a damn shame to kill off sociopathic babies once they can be identified as aberrant, no?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Raising genius

I really enjoyed this article by Andrew Solomon in the NY Times Magazine, "How do you Raise a Prodigy?" I thought the parallels between raising a prodigy and raising a sociopath were compelling. He first talks about his recent research in parents that raise children with special issues:

Prodigies are able to function at an advanced adult level in some domain before age 12. “Prodigy” derives from the Latin “prodigium,” a monster that violates the natural order. These children have differences so evident as to resemble a birth defect, and it was in that context that I came to investigate them. Having spent 10 years researching a book about children whose experiences differ radically from those of their parents and the world around them, I found that stigmatized differences — having Down syndrome, autism or deafness; being a dwarf or being transgender — are often clouds with silver linings. Families grappling with these apparent problems may find profound meaning, even beauty, in them. Prodigiousness, conversely, looks from a distance like silver, but it comes with banks of clouds; genius can be as bewildering and hazardous as a disability.

He then goes on to express some of the particular difficulties in raising any child who is different than the norm, particular a child who is different from the parents themselves, and how there are no easy rules:

Children who are pushed toward success and succeed have a very different trajectory from that of children who are pushed toward success and fail. I once told Lang Lang, a prodigy par excellence and now perhaps the most famous pianist in the world, that by American standards, his father’s brutal methods — which included telling him to commit suicide, refusing any praise, browbeating him into abject submission — would count as child abuse. “If my father had pressured me like this and I had not done well, it would have been child abuse, and I would be traumatized, maybe destroyed,” Lang responded. “He could have been less extreme, and we probably would have made it to the same place; you don’t have to sacrifice everything to be a musician. But we had the same goal. So since all the pressure helped me become a world-famous star musician, which I love being, I would say that, for me, it was in the end a wonderful way to grow up.”

While it is true that some parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns, others fail to support a child’s passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed. You can err in either direction. Given that there is no consensus about how to raise ordinary children, it is not surprising that there is none about how to raise remarkable children. Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of young people beyond their comprehension.

I love the Lang Lang quote. It is such a great acknowledgment that different folks require different strokes. If there is anything that I hope to achieve with the blog and getting people to think about the presence and role of sociopaths in society, it is probably to preach this gospel that we're all really different from each other in ways that we too often either ignore or pretend don't exist. There's nothing wrong with heterogeneity, in fact it is probably what keeps us so viable as the dominant species on this planet. Monster babies are born into all types of family every day. But the word monster need not mean B movie horror matinees, it could also be someone more like Lang Lang.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gossip as enforcement mechanism

This was an interesting Salon article that discussed whether societies resemble more the classic tribe where altruism and dedication to the survival of the group prevails or the independent, objectivist position of types like Ayn Rand, whose characters solemnly proclaim: "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." That part was a little tired of an argument for me, what I found unique about this article was the discussion of how gossip was used as a primary means of enforcement in tribal societies:

"There are two ways of trying to create a good life," Boehm states. "One is by punishing evil, and the other is by actively promoting virtue." Boehm's theory of social selection does both. The term altruism can be defined as extra-familial generosity (as opposed to nepotism among relatives). Boehm thinks the evolution of human altruism can be understood by studying the moral rules of hunter-gatherer societies. He and a research assistant have recently gone through thousands of pages of anthropological field reports on the 150 hunter-gatherer societies around the world that he calls "Late-Pleistocene Appropriate" (LPA), or those societies that continue to live as our ancestors once did. By coding the reports for categories of social behavior such as aid to nonrelatives, group shaming, or the execution of social deviants, Boehm is able to determine how common those behaviors are.

[I]n 100 percent of LPA societies—ranging from the Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean archipelago to the Inuit of Northern Alaska—generosity or altruism is always favored toward relatives and nonrelatives alike, with sharing and cooperation being the most cited moral values. Of course, this does not mean that everyone in these societies always follow these values. In 100 percent of LPA societies there was at least one incidence of theft or murder, 80 percent had a case in which someone refused to share, and in 30 percent of societies someone tried to cheat the group.

What makes these violations of moral rules so instructive is how societies choose to deal with them. Ultimately, it all comes down to gossip. More than tool-making, art, or even language, gossip is a human universal that is a defining feature of our species (though this could change if we ever learn to translate the complex communication system in whales or dolphins). Gossip is intimately connected with the moral rules of a given society, and individuals gain or lose prestige in their group depending on how well they follow these rules. This formation of group opinion is something to be feared, particularly in small rural communities where ostracism or expulsion could mean death. "Public opinion, facilitated by gossiping, always guides the band's decision process," Boehm writes, "and fear of gossip all by itself serves as a preemptive social deterrent because most people are so sensitive about their reputations." A good reputation enhances the prestige of those individuals who engage in altruistic behavior, while marginalizing those with a bad reputation. Since prestige is intimately involved with how desirable a person is to the opposite sex, gossip serves as a positive selection pressure for enhancing traits associated with altruism. That is, being good can get you laid, and this will perpetuate your altruistic genes (or, at least, those genes that allow you to resist cheating other members of your group).

Sometimes gossip is not enough to reduce or eliminate antisocial behavior. In Boehm's analysis of LPA societies, public opinion and spatial distancing were the most common responses to misbehavior (100 percent of the societies coded). But other tactics included permanent expulsion (40 percent), group shaming (60 percent), group-sponsored execution (70 percent), or nonlethal physical punishment (90 percent). In the case of expulsion or execution, the result over time would be that traits promoting antisocial behavior would be reduced in the populations. In other words, the effect of social selection would be that altruists would have higher overall fitness and out-reproduce free riders. The biological basis for morality in our species could therefore result from these positive and negative pressures carried out generation after generation among our Pleistocene ancestors. 

I thought this was a very interesting assertion "More than tool-making, art, or even language, gossip is a human universal that is a defining feature of our species." Gossip is often compelling and easy to spread, perhaps this is what makes it so effective as a tool. Its effects are incredibly powerful (David Petraeus, anybody? or for that matter his paramour Paula Broadwell). In a civilized society in which so much of our behavior is moderated by the way it will make us look to other people (do we seem shifty? trustworthy?) it is extremely advantageous to have a good reputation. Even when I am not trying to con someone (perhaps even more so), I get annoyed and frustrated when people act overly suspicious, making me jump through hoops to get something that should have come to me through simple courtesy. Likewise, in the book and film Dangerous Liaisons, one of the "villains" dies, but the fate worse than death was the other villainess being ostracized from high society.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Sociopath quote: New eyes

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

-- Marcel Proust

Friday, November 9, 2012

More on loyalty

A reader asks:
How can you be loyal if you are a sociopath? I ask because I'm reading a lot about sociopaths and recovery from pathological relationships. And reading that being unfaithful is one characteristic.
My response:
Good question. I actually think it is very easy for a sociopath to be loyal. In some ways it's easier for them than it is for an empath to be loyal. To be truly loyal, you have to adopt a certain reality. For instance, to be patriotic you have to be "my country, right or wrong" (to take the popularly misquoted, and I think more accurate version). People loyal to Hitler had to drink the Kool-Aid, had to adopt his reality, his world view, his everything. If they didn't, then when the going got tough, they would betray him. Is that loyalty? I don't think so. But sociopaths can be this loyal if they choose. They have such a flexible sense of self and an ability to compartmentalize that together allow them to adopt your reality or Hitler's reality or really anything they want to believe. Why would we want to do it? I don't know, why not? For me, as I said, I use it when I am trying to maintain an interpersonal relationship.

I'm not saying empaths can't be loyal. There are probably more loyal empaths than sociopaths, even per capita. I'm just saying being a sociopath doesn't preclude the possibility of displaying incredible amounts of loyalty, particularly for the "favorites" that we have chosen. There's pretty much nothing I wouldn't do for some of my loved ones -- literally. I know empaths say that a lot, but I think it's obvious why that might be even more true for a sociopath friend.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Brain trials

A reader sent me this article from a legal publication regarding the use of neuroscience evidence in the courtroom. I've discussed before about how the diagnosis of psychopath is often used in parole hearings as an argument against granting the prisoner parole (see also this NPR article about a prisoner named Robert Dixon). This article was a fun read because it uses stories that illustrate the difficulties well:

Take the case of a 40-year-old married schoolteacher from Virginia who during the year 2000 inexplicably began to have a sexual interest in children. He surreptitiously collected and viewed child porn on the Internet and was convicted of trying to molest his stepdaughter. The night before sentencing, he complained of horrible headaches. At the hospital he talked of suicide, made sexual advances to staff, spoke of raping his landlady and urinated on himself.

An MRI revealed that the teacher had a large orbitofrontal tumor, a growth on an area of his brain associated with social behavior. After surgeons removed the tumor, he was no longer considered a threat and completed a sexual rehab program. But a year later, he began getting headaches and once again collected pornography. Another MRI showed the tumor had regrown, and it was removed again.

Dr. Russell Swerdlow, a neurologist who treated the teacher at the hospital and later wrote about the case in the Archives of Neurology, says that such radical behavioral changes are not surprising. “But it was the first case in which the bad behavior was pedophilia,” says Swerdlow, a neuro-scientist and professor at the University of Kansas. “What was so striking about this was his inability to act on his knowledge of what was right or wrong.”

Swerdlow says when pathways are broken between the orbitofrontal lobe and the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotional responses and decision-making, the result can be impulsive behavior. “You don’t get the feedback that controls your decisions. You don’t have the brakes on your behavior,” he says.

Morse says that while the teacher may deserve some mitigation in sentencing because of his ailment, it’s not clear whether he lacked the ability to control his impulses, or simply chose not to. “People want to say his tumor made him do it. He made him do it. There is always a reason people do it,” Morse says. “We don’t give a pass to the other pedophiles. He felt an urge, which he understood and did not resist, but acted on it.”

While it’s true that not everyone who suffers brain damage commits criminal acts, there are plenty of anecdotal cases in medical literature showing that it causes behavioral changes, including impulsiveness, depression, aggression, inappropriate sexual behavior, lack of thought control and violence among people who prior to their injuries did not exhibit such behaviors. But how that should be considered in criminal culpability—and what science can truly explain—remains murky.

I love this story because when you start reading it you think, this poor guy. He's not the one making the decisions, it's his broken brain. Then you get to the part about how we don't give a pass to the other pedophiles and then it becomes clear that this issue is thornier than most people have considered. For instance, lucky you (most of you) to have not been born with a sexual lust for children. But just wait until you get some crazy brain tumor! Then you are truly up Shit Creek.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Truly smart?

A reader who identifies as sociopath sent me this passage from a teenage journal:

What makes someone smart, truly smart, in my opinion is someone who is self-aware. Someone who recognizes their place in the world and who recognizes the place of others. They see things as they are. A smart person realizes they're smart but can fool the rest of the world into believing that they are just like them. By doing so, they can feed off and learn from these people. They do not need to harm them but merely take in as much as they can in order to survive in the best, most logical, and beneficial way. I guess it's like using resources, but a different kind of resources, not tangible ones that anybody can see or use, and they are able to do so without a soul figuring out what they are doing. That is being smart.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why we need wolves

This was a fascinating NY Times article entitled "Why the Beaver Should Thank the Wolf" that is worth reading in its entirety, but here is the first part:

THIS month, a group of environmental nonprofits said they would challenge the federal government’s removal of Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Wyoming. Since there are only about 328 wolves in a state with a historic blood thirst for the hides of these top predators, the nonprofits are probably right that lacking protection, Wyoming wolves are toast.

Many Americans, even as they view the extermination of a species as morally anathema, struggle to grasp the tangible effects of the loss of wolves. It turns out that, far from being freeloaders on the top of the food chain, wolves have a powerful effect on the well-being of the ecosystems around them — from the survival of trees and riverbank vegetation to, perhaps surprisingly, the health of the populations of their prey.

An example of this can be found in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were virtually wiped out in the 1920s and reintroduced in the ’90s. Since the wolves have come back, scientists have noted an unexpected improvement in many of the park’s degraded stream areas.

Stands of aspen and other native vegetation, once decimated by overgrazing, are now growing up along the banks. This may have something to do with changing fire patterns, but it is also probably because elk and other browsing animals behave differently when wolves are around. Instead of eating greenery down to the soil, they take a bite or two, look up to check for threats, and keep moving. The greenery can grow tall enough to reproduce.

Beavers, despite being on the wolf’s menu, also benefit when their predators are around. The healthy vegetation encouraged by the presence of wolves provides food and shelter to beavers. Beavers in turn go on to create dams that help keep rivers clean and lessen the effects of drought. Beaver activity also spreads a welcome mat for thronging biodiversity. Bugs, amphibians, fish, birds and small mammals find the water around dams to be an ideal habitat.

So the beavers keep the rivers from drying up while, at the same time, healthy vegetation keeps the rivers from flooding, and all this biological interaction helps maintain rich soil that better sequesters carbon — that stuff we want to get out of the atmosphere and back into the ground. In other words, by helping to maintain a healthy ecosystem, wolves are connected to climate change: without them, these landscapes would be more vulnerable to the effects of those big weather events we will increasingly experience as the planet warms.

Scientists call this sequence of impacts down the food chain a “trophic cascade.” The wolf is connected to the elk is connected to the aspen is connected to the beaver. Keeping these connections going ensures healthy, functioning ecosystems, which in turn support human life.

I was reading one of the recent comments: "whist I'm all in favour of integrating such people into society as well as possible, I have serious concerns about situations were sociopaths have this kind of power over others." The thing is that sociopaths have always been a part of society. There is no need to integrate us. We are as integrated as any group can be perhaps, scattered as we are throughout every continent and culture, every religion or political group, every family and tribe. People may wonder what our net effect is on society when you add us all up together. I also wonder that. But I think it's not crazy to suggest that, just like any predator, although we may have a somewhat negative effect in the micro, our effect on the larger ecosystem is overall positive.

Monday, November 5, 2012


I've said before that I use principles of economic efficiency to substitute for my pygmy moral compass. For interpersonal relationships, though, efficiency doesn't work as well. Instead I rely on loyalty. I am fiercely loyal. I am quick to adopt someone else's reality for the sake of the relationship. I never blame things on the other person when something goes wrong. I always assume that there was something I could have done better. It's why I can seem so devoted, a perfect mate. When the other person criticizes me, I am not offended, rather I gratefully welcome the feedback as additional information on which to base my behavior. I'm only as good as the information I receive.

I will, however, get very angry when I am not criticized, but rather rejected. It is one thing to say that I made a bad decision, or that you don't like it when I make certain jokes, or whatever it is that you find offensive about my behavior. It is quite another thing to think that I am a bad person, that you are disgusted with me, or appalled, or can't understand why I could ever think that my behavior was acceptable. If your feelings about me change from occasional annoyance or hurt to blanket disapproval, then you are no longer on my team. If you are no longer on my team, then there is nothing insulating you from my anger. And I am angry. If you have rejected who I am, I will have to fight back a white hot feeling of rage. I lose control in the rage.

The people who are able to talk me down from the rage and make things better, who watch after me and make sure I don't hurt myself or others -- those people are my inner circle. I don't really wish for fame, fortune, success, or whatever. But I do sometimes wish I could do more for those who show the same amount of loyalty to me that I show to them.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Perspectives on power

An "uber empath" friend writes:
I have been reading your sociopath blog and read the recent entry on power. I have a couple of thoughts.

When I was reading it, it made me think of a scene in Lords of the Rings. It's where Frodo and Sam end up "visiting" the wood elves. There is a scene with Galadriel, the queen of the wood elves. She is tested when Frodo offers to place the One Ring (the Ring of Power) in her keeping. In response to his offer, she presents an image of herself corrupted by the ring declaring; "And now it comes to it at last. You will give me the One Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain...all shall love me and despair!" But then, after appearing to Frodo both beautiful and terrible to behold, she fades and once again becomes Galadriel. Recalling the ambitions that had once brought her to Middle-earth, she declares, "I pass the test," and refuses the Ring, accepting her fate of diminishing (as the time of the dominion of men had come) and returning at last to Valinor (the Elf version of Valhalla).
You called me a super-empath once, but if I had power, this is kind of how I would envision myself. A seemingly benevolent but somewhat dark queen, who would demand that everyone love and be kind to one another (or else, of course, off with their heads!!).

With regard to your comments about power and communism/facism, I say this. The history of the world is essentially that of "the People," "the Fuhrer" and "the Poet." The People are the sheep. In order to function, they need to have the Fuhrer in place to direct them and tell them how to live their lives. Dictators and sociopaths achieve power because the People give it to them. They NEED the Fuhrer, for they secretly suspect they are incapable of living without him/her. Occasionally in history, a Poet figure comes along (Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, etc. etc.). The Poet presents the People with the possibility of human freedom. He or she is initially greeted with enthusiasm and some of the People may even begin to embrace their freedom. But eventually, always, the People panic and reject the possibility of freedom. Then they turn on the Poet and destroy him/her, or turn the Poet over to the Fuhrer to imprison/destroy.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sociopath quotes: fitting in

Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

-- George Eliot, Middlemarch

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Monks, psychopaths, and shameless empaths

All walk into a bar...

This Forbes article, "What Vulnerability Looks Like to Psychopaths, Monks and the Rest of Us," makes an interesting comparison between sociopaths and Buddhist monks (apparently made in Kevin Dutton's book The Wisdom of Sociopaths), before veering off into stream of consciousness nonsense:

Ironically, both psychopaths and Tibetan monks detect deep emotions that are invisible to others.  Psychopaths are much better at recognizing “those telltale signs in the gait of traumatized assault victims” notes The Wisdom of Psychopaths author, Kevin Dutton.

Tibetan monks, steeped in meditative practice, are also especially adept at reading feelings that are hidden from the rest of us, Paul Ekman discovered. Ekman, is the preeminent expert on lying and on the six universally expressed emotions in the face — anger, sadness, happiness, fear, disgust and surprise. Scarily, psychopaths score especially high on the Hare Self-Report Scale of psychopathy in seeing those core expressions, especially the ones that make us most vulnerable, fear and sadness, according to Sabrina Demetrioff.

Not to get overly aspie anal about semantics, but I don't know how it is ironic that both psychopaths and Tibetan monks detect deep emotions invisible to others? I have made the connection before to a psychopath's detachment and a buddhist's detachment.

Unlike our common impression of psychopaths as dangerous serial killers, and some are, others use their high-performing capacity to remain calm in stressful times to conduct surgery, lead soldiers or become sought-after CEOs.  After all, as Dutton suggests, if you’re having brain surgery, wouldn’t you want someone who is not distracted by feelings and completely in control and concentrating on the operation? If your life were in danger on the battlefield, wouldn’t you want someone who could coolly survey the situation and deeply recognize others’ reactions, to determine the best way to rescue you?

Psychopaths adept detection of vulnerability is one of their most potent skills.

At which point the article contrasts Brene Brown's work on shame, and how one need only embrace their vulnerability and let go in order to be more courageous and connect better with others. Of course sociopaths are also shameless, but in a bad way that is different than when empaths acquire a lack of shame? It's not clear, but the article seems to suggest that lack of shame can lead to two very different result: extremely prosocial behavior and extremely antisocial behavior. I agree with that, particularly to the extent that feelings of shame seem to mitigate any extremes in behavior. But I disagree about the implicit distinction that it is psychopaths who would be doing all of the antisocial behavior and that shameless empaths are harmlessly prosocial. It's just odd to see an article come so close to drawing exact parallels between psychopaths and monks, and psychopaths and the empowered shameless empath, and then just sort of assume that monks, empaths, and psychopaths are not the same at all, for some undisclosed reason.
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