Sunday, June 30, 2013

Interview with a seducee (part 3)

Then I just remember, what really sticks out is then at some point we were getting physical, I'm not sure, maybe it was on my bed or on my couch the first time, the second time it was on your bed. The second time was lot better. The first time you kept laughing it at me, well I interpreted it as laughing at me, which made me think I was bad, which is not something I normally think. That is not the way most people respond to me, otherwise that would have been enough to send me home crying for weeks. In retrospect it seemed like you were laughing at some situational awkwardness, I'm not sure entirely, but there was something that was worthy of a lot of laughter which also broke up an intensity, which made me realize how not gay you seem. With other people, kissing people seems to produce some sort of bodily physical chemistry reaction that makes it more intense over time, not more humorous over time, which led me to believe that we were in a sketch comedy, not a porno scene. The second time, I felt like things had massively improved, or that I was much more satisfied. There was a softer intimacy, this cute laying next to each other in bed holding your calloused hands as you ripped off pieces and chunks of dead skin that had started to peel away at the tips of your fingers.

Well before that there was some discussion about being punched or physical violence and strangulation. I don't know if it had segued from a conversation about different forms of bestiality or the control which partners have in sexual positions or just a conversation about physical violence. somehow we ended up on the topic of punching me, which you seemed to be all the more excited about doing, and I seemed to be all the more excited about having done to me. We were sitting in your car sitting behind another car waiting to exit to go back into your house. I think you slapped me first, and I think I was asking for it. I'm not sure. I mean, I know I asked for it. I'm not sure if you slapped me. And I'm pretty sure that whatever you did, it felt good, or good in a weird way, which made me think that it was quasi sexual in terms of relieving sexual tension, which was a relief to me that all of this build up could be relieved in this painful release, which made it seem appropriate. On the other hand, I didn't know you all that well, and we were in a dark car, and you're physically hurting me.

It was when you turned over and strangled me that I felt both that sensation of feeling out of control and feeling adored at the same time. I think I felt out of control because I knew that you were strong enough to really hurt me if you wanted to and I wondered if, how much, if I really tried I could stop you in that moment, but I also trusted that you wouldn't hurt me, and that made me feel adored. After which I felt physical pain, it had hurt my throat, whatever soft tissue we have around the delicate structure of our neck, and so I, obviously having never felt anything like that before, I felt very very small and I really wanted to be held and coddled in that moment, and that made me feel very distant from you because I felt like you wouldn't be able to give me that, emotionally or physically. Even if you would have been able to give me a hug, I felt like I needed to be held by someone who wanted to hold me and cared because I felt hurt. It was a physical hurt but there was definitely an emotional attachment to it, the same way that as a child you might want to look for your mom after getting hurt. That's when I realized that I was sitting in a dark car with a person who I had gone to a show with once, who I had dinner with twice, and who worked briefly in our office.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Interview with a seductee (part 2)

We hung out at the ballet a few weeks later. We went to that restaurant that looked like it came out of a kitsch catalogue and then we went to the show and you were going to go to a bbq with family and/or get ice cream and I set off for home, but it was otherwise a good conversational day compared to the one before. You noted that I seemed calmer with you, but also noted my incredible inability to understand you. I kept saying, that's your type of thing, and you would say, no no no, you don't get me at all, but much calmer and easy going this time around without that added pressure of being at my house.

And then I didn't talk to you. And then I was sitting in an airport in Miami months later with my current fling leaning against my arm in our layover to San Pedro Belize, I opened up my email (thanks to you getting the office interns to show me how), and happened upon a very interesting read from you. The word that stuck out the most from that particular email was the four letter word love and its frequent use. The heartfelt passion with which that email was written seemed to be from a different human. It invoked thoughts for me of an infatuation of an ex lover, not someone who had been a short term co-worker who had come over to dinner once and awkwardly discussed my personality disorders for me and my inability to communicate. So reading through it, there was some shock to be had. Honestly I read it as being very truthful, as being... the picture behind the font of the email in my mind was this delicate soul that had hidden behind everything, a facade of intelligence and background and family and had realized that this was what true love was and had to express it and let it shine through. Not only was this interpretation gratifying as a major ego boost, but it was also shocking from my prior experiences with this person, it was alarming to my current paramour who is leaning on my shoulder catching glimpses of the word love, tidbits of affection and nuances of the email with a sideways glance. I think I briefly typed out a response without responding later. In Belize, a day later, we had our first fight in four months of dating because my companion had silently, passively aggressively brewed for 24 hours, insulted that I hadn't discussed already how it was that i was going to extinguish the small flame you had for me by saying I was already taken. Because I had been asked, "what are you going to do with this" and I had replied honestly and confusedly "I don't know," we had to discuss in detail why i didn't know what I was going to do. Thus began the portrayal of you as someone who was oddly infatuated with me, but my interest in you was an intellectual pursuit and search for a dialogue that was otherwise missing in my current relationship. I still don't really understand fully -- why you wrote what you did, but it was effective at getting my attention because it certainly was shocking and surprising and exciting to read because ... I don't think for me there are many times in my lifetime that i will open up an email and read some of the things that you wrote in it. Whether they were just meant to pull me back into an odd conversation about my personal defects and how you could fix them, it was still a successful endeavor because it worked, I still came running back ready to hear about what was wrong with me.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Interview with a seductee (part 1)

I interviewed a seduction target to get the backstory. (I discussed this admittedly clumsy and mistake riddled seduction first here, then here, and finally here):
You came into the office for your little stint. You kept walking by my door, kept walking by my window. Then you would come sit down in my chair and you definitely sat in it with a very territorial type comfort and I would talk nonstop in a verbal diahrrea that only showed my sense of discomfort with the entire situation and more appropriately you. I really remember my interactions with other people about you. People seemed to notice that you had come around in talking to me. I remember one or more person asking about you, who you are, what your deal was, where you were coming from, whether you liked me, aka what was your sexuality. Because even though it was decidedly confirmed that you were trendy and hip, it was unconfirmed whether you were gay or not, so it became my duty to find out, not just for their sake but equally for mine. Then we went to lunch I think, I remember it being somewhat awkward. I drove. We went to the mexican restaurant. You didn't eat your food. You ordered it. You didn't eat it. I thought that was strange, that you had ordered it, not eaten it, and not taken it with you. But we had an interesting conversation about nothing and then we talked about the only thing that mattered to me, which was trying to find out which gender you were into. It started with something like whether you had been to a particular gay club, which you had been. I had determined that that had meant that you were either gay or bisexual, which meant that the possibility that you and I were pretty much in love was certain. And then you would go on cigarette breaks with me and we would talk about life's mysteries.

I like the way the way that you stand, by the way. When we were standing outside, I really like the way you stand. I don't know if it was a proximate distance thing or a confidence, standing at attention, straight back thing, but there was something.

Then we made plans to have dinner, which essentially was to have dinner at my place without many more specifics, but we set a date within that week. You were only working there for a week, and I was leaving on a trip, so it couldn't have been much longer than a couple days after the lunch that we arranged to have a dinner together. When discussing this with my cohorts, they had decided that we were going on a date, and since you were coming to my house it was more a date plus something else, which put me in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether or not I wanted this something else from you, despite the fact that we had not actually established what you sexuality was. Luckily for me, my house is always tidy, but I don't have any groceries, so when you and I had arranged to have the dinner, I was going to have to go buy it that day, this all felt like a lot of hoopla and I didn't know if I wanted to pursue this. This led to me backing out and you sitting there in my office staring at me. I tried to explain myself, which was met with by your cold stare of unacceptance, to my shock. I was waiting for you to go "of course, can't wait to try it sometime later or soon," or some other agreement for letting me off the hook easily, but you seemed that much more annoyed that I was not only trying to get out of it, but trying to explain why I was trying to get out of it. You said that this was a negative attribute of my personality. Then, feeling much worse about the whole arrangement than before, I reneged on my attempt to get out of dinner and instead went back to having dinner with you and decided that I would just have to leave work early to get dinner supplies. After dinner, you're just laying on my floor, there were a lot of silent pauses. The entire time I felt like you were so brilliantly twisted and of wild thoughts that I was both enamored by you but felt that I had to prove myself to you and not bore you with small talk. You said that normal conversation with normal people was about things like what is your favorite color, and I seemed to ask all of these either very direct or indirect questions. It didn't flow like having a cup of coffee and catching up the way that good siblings or even new acquaintances would laugh at shared experiences. We were two awkward ducks in a mucky murky pond. It was very strange to me the interaction. You flew out the door and I had no idea what had just happened. I saw you at work for the next three days and after that...

Thursday, June 27, 2013

More on empathy

From "The Partial Psychopath" by Elliott Barker, M.D. and B. Shipton, Ph.D.:
In our experience, the dimension that correlates most closely with psychopathy and which has been identified or is implicit in all definitions of the illness is the concept of empathy, but empathy defined in a specific two-part way.

Empathy is loosely thought to be the capacity to put yourself in another person's shoes. But this seems to be only one part of what constitutes empathy in relation to the psychopath. What is different about the psychopath is that he is unaffected or detached emotionally from the knowledge that he gains by putting himself in your shoes. Thus, although he is able to very quickly glean during the briefest encounter with another person a lot of very useful information about what makes that person tick, this knowledge is simply knowledge to be used or not as the psychopath chooses. What is missing in psychopaths is the compelling nature of the appropriate affective response to the knowledge gained from putting himself in another persons shoes, in the way that this happens in the normal person. This essential missing aspect of empathy, even in the severe psychopath, is not in my experience easily seen and one does not often get a second glimpse of it if one has been treated to a first one by mistake.

A rather crude example might suffice. A young psychopath who had inflicted multiple stab wounds on an elderly woman, and was charged with attempted murder, appeared subdued and appropriately sad about the offence during the early stages of a first interview. His eyes were moist as he accurately described how the woman must have felt during and after the attack. But later in the same interview, after good rapport had been established, this boy blurted out, "I don't know what all the fuss is about. The old bag only had a dozen scratches." To my knowledge, in all his subsequent years in the psychiatric hospital, he stuck to all the right lines of remorse which he quickly learned were more appropriate and useful. The bright psychopath, the experienced psychopath, doesn't stumble like that very often.

With luck and the right question about how the other person's feelings affected him there will be a barely perceptible pause, or a puzzled look, or even – rarely - the question, "How am I supposed to feel?"

The second part of this two-part empathy for the normal person is the automatic, compelling, intuitive, appropriate response to what the other feels - not the acting out of a chosen script. The psychopath can follow the same script as a normal person, usually with all the subtle nuances of a skilled actor - if he chooses to do so. An untrained observer is very unlikely to note any difference from the real thing.

Thus the second part of this two-part empathy in a psychopath is the choosing and acting of a script. Unlike the normal person, he can choose what script to follow. He is not compelled intuitively or automatically to react to the way he knows you feel. And unlike the normal person, he has been told, or learned by observing others, what he is supposed to feel.

As he rapes you or strangles you he is not compelled to feel your pain, your terror, your helplessness. There is no automatic, compelling, intuitive connection between what he knows you feel and what he feels. There is no way he must feel. Thus there is none of this kind of restraining force on his behavior. Therein lies the danger of psychopathy.
Almost more interesting than the answers they try to provide are the questions they ask:
To take the issue further, if a relative incapacity for this two-part type of empathy is a key ingredient in the makeup of psychopaths, what are the consequences for society if large numbers of individuals are functioning without it? Isn't a capacity to be affected by what is happening to others a necessary component in the makeup of a majority of persons in order for a group to function as a group? From a sociological perspective, isn't this one of the functional prerequisites of any social system? Is there a critical mass for this type of empathy for a society to survive?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fictional sociopaths: Iago

From Verdi's Otello:

I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.
From the cowardice of a seed
or of a vile atom I was born.
I am a son evil because I am a man;
and I feel the primitive mud in me.
Yes! This is my faith!
I believe with a firm heart,
so does the widow in the temple,
the evil I think
and proceeds from me,
fulfills my destiny.
I think the honest man
is a mockery,
in face and heart,
that everything is in him is a lie:
tears, kisses, looks,
sacrifices and honor.
And I think the man plays a game
of unjust fate
the seed of the cradle
the worm of the grave.
After all this foolishness comes death.
And then what? And then?
Death is Nothingness.
Heaven is an old wives' tale!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Collapsing upon abstraction

The clip below is interesting. It is relatively easy for me to think abstractly, which also makes it very easy for me to compartmentalize. As a child I used to practice abstract thinking all time. I always liked to keep in mind the big picture. Even when I was very young, I wanted to know what was going on, and I kept a mental map of where i was at all times. In school when we discussed a new concept, I would constantly flash between the forest and the trees. Visually I would practice finding diamonds in chain link fences, trying to build bigger and bigger diamonds by forcibly expanding my vision. This facility with abstract thought allows me to hold two opposing viewpoints because, as the video clip makes clear, at a certain level of abstraction it all collapses.

When I first learned about the distortions that occur on maps of the world vs. globes, I found it fascinating: you take three dimensional concepts and try to represent them in a two dimensional world, but it never looks quite right. Similarly, I don't think I have ever believed that there is such things as a completely accurate truth for anything. It is not that I believe that truth is relative because I do think there is absolute truth. We just have a flawed ability to perceive it or completely comprehend it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Fictional sociopaths: Tom Ripley

A reader sent me a movie clip with this description:

Also, here’s another video that I always resonated with. It’s John Malkovich’s portrayal of Tom Ripley in Ripley’s Game. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen that movie, but it’s nicely done. You could say Ripley’s game boils down to manipulating what had been a relatively innocent man into committing murder. In fact, the scene starts right after they’ve killed several mobsters on a train. They got off the train and are in a station restroom (the relevant part starts at 3:40 and ends at about 5:10). “The one thing I know is we are constantly being born.” Very true indeed, truer than most people realize.

[Ripley has just helped Jonathan kill three mobsters]

Jonathan Trevanny: [crying] I know I should thank you, because I wouldn't be alive now if you hadn't helped me.... but I can't. I can't say thank you. I don't know anything about you. Who are you?

Tom Ripley: I'm a creation. A gifted improviser. I lack your conscience and, when I was young, that troubled me. It no longer does. I don't worry about being caught because I don't think anyone is watching. The world is not a poorer place because those people are dead — it's not. It's one less car on the road, a little less noise and menace. You were brave today. You'll go home and put some money away for your family. That's all.

Jonathan Trevanny: If you "lack my conscience," then why did you help me on the train?

Tom Ripley: [smiles] I don't know, but it doesn't surprise me. If there's one thing I know, it's that we're constantly being born.

Jonathan Trevanny: But why me? Why did you pick me?

Tom Ripley: Partly because you could. Partly because you insulted me. But mostly because that's the game. [checks watch] We need to catch this flight. Shall we?

John Malcovich's are some of the most convincing portrayals of a sociopath I've seen.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Animal morality?

ABC News reports on a recent book, "The Bonobo and the Atheist," by Frans de Waal, who argues that other primates have at least the building blocks of morality. De Waal suggests that this proves we had inborn morality first, then came up with the idea of religion and god to make sense of those moral inclinations, rather than vice versa.

Those and other human-like characteristics, that have been clearly documented by other researchers as well, at least show they have some grasp of morality. It doesn't mean they are moral -- especially chimps, which can be very violent -- but they have the "basic building blocks" for morality, de Waal argues.

Chimps, he says, "are ready to kill their rivals. They sometimes kill humans, or bite off their face." So he says he is "reluctant to call a chimpanzee a 'moral being.'"

"There is little evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not directly affect themselves," he writes. Yet, "In their behavior, we recognize the same values we pursue ourselves.

"I take these hints of community concern as a sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and we don't need God to explain how we got to where we are today," he writes.

Is this right? That hints of community concern are the basis for our sense of morality? He says that there are instances of primates feeling guilt or shame:

For example, Lody, a bonobo in the Milwaukee County Zoo, bit the hand -- apparently accidentally -- of a veterinarian who was feeding him vitamin pills.

"Hearing a crunching sound, Lody looked up, seemingly surprised, and released the hand minus a digit," de Waals writes.

Days later the vet revisited the zoo and held up her bandaged left hand. Lody looked at the hand and retreated to a distant corner of the enclosure where he held his head down and wrapped his arms around himself, signs of both grief and guilt.

And here's the amazing part. About 15 years later the vet returned to the zoo and was standing among a crowd of visitors when Lody recognized her and rushed over. He tried to see her left hand, which was hidden behind the railing. The vet lifted up her incomplete hand and Lody looked at it, then at the vet's face, then back at the hand again.

Was he showing shame and grief? Or was it fear of a possible reprisal? The ape at least realized he had done something wrong, de Waal argues, showing the seeds of moral behavior.

The chimp "realized he had done something wrong," but was it a moral judgment of "wrongness"? Or do chimps keep score in their society such that if a chimp does something that another chimp doesn't like, there will be retribution. In other words, does it mean that chimps are moral, or that they hold grudges? I actually think this is a more interesting explanation -- that the urge to punish others for perceived infraction (a sense of justice) is very primitive, such that we share this trait with primates. Interesting how humans have not really modified that impulse much, despite evidence that restorative justice is actually more effective both in terms of victim satisfaction and offender accountability than retributive justice.

The articles mentions other primate behaviors, including displays of deep grief and compassion for each other, but as the article states "[w]hen an ape expresses grief or guilt or compassion he is living out the blueprint for survival in a culture that is becoming more complex, and possibly more dangerous." That is, they are not making judgments of moral right or wrong, they are just acknowledging they exist as one individual in a larger society (like the sociopaths willingness to be a team player). From the examples given, primates do seem to have a system of "values," e.g. they do cleverly use orgies to stop wars, but that seems to be a utilitarian assessment (orgies = good and war = bad), not a moral one.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Thoughts = crimes?

Can you be punished for being a sexual sadist without ever having acted upon it? Apparently, yes, at least in Canada. The Star reports the sentencing of an 18 year old who shared his sadistic sexual fantasies with a classmate, then spent the next 77 days in pre-sentence custody and years of probation for it:

This sadist is a handsome, strapping young man, in his neat navy trousers and cardigan, nicely groomed. The observer imagines a teenage girl would be quite chuffed to receive a Facebook overture from so pleasant-seeming a boy. Except this sadist wrote: “I wanna cut ur stomach open and stick my d—k in it.’’

From her end of the online chat, the girl responded blandly: “OK.’’

Sadist: “Break ur legs and (obscenity deleted) on ur face.’’

Girl: “k calm down.’’

That, De Filippis concluded, constituted the bodily harm threat, rejecting the defence’s argument that the Facebook conversation utterances were merely desires, not intended action.

And the girl (eventually) felt threatened, so pretty much that in itself is a crime?  

“I find that the defendant is a sadist,’’ the judge wrote. “The Facebook conversation reflects his need to cause bodily harm as a source of sexual gratification. He described the violent nature of the acts contemplated and sought the complainant’s submission to his desire. He also said he did not care if she consented.

Well, which is it? That he sought her submission or suggested he didn't care if she wanted it or not? And isn't playing at lack of consent one of the key elements of BDSM? Is there any way to criminally sentence this guy without criminalizing a host of other sexual "deviants"?

“I have no doubt these words were meant to be taken seriously and that they intimidated the complainant. Indeed, I am confident he derived pleasure from the threats themselves.’’

This is a crime in Canada? To proposition someone and have them be intimidated by it? What if someone propositioned the girl for "normal" sex, which she declined? Also a crime? Makes you want to be careful about who you reveal your fantasies to, right?

At that point, the boy says, “I don’t wanna hurt u so bye,” as if warning her off. Yet she won’t let him get away. “Stop — I do have feelings for you … but u can’t force me into s—t … . I’m not like that. I don’t want to lose what we have but if u can’t respect me then … maybe we should just stay friends.’’
“If I hurt u, but not badly, are u okay with that?’’ he asks. “Like if cut u? ... Bruise u … I want to cut u.’’
“No u can kiss me and u can only slap my a--.’’

It was entirely a “reciprocal’’ conversation, court heard, and the girl laughed when the youth said he’d masturbated over a picture of her.

Close enough to a crime in the eyes of Canada. He gets probation, including a prohibition on certain internet and mobile phone use and restrictions about what he is allowed to read or view (including no "smut"). But also, 50 Shades of Grey is popular and mainstream enough to be made into a movie... 

In related "shoot first and ask questions later" news, the NY Times reports that a security guard at the Western Wall in Jerusalem recently shot and killed a Jewish man. For what offense? The man had his hand in his pocket allegedly shouted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” The guard shot him multiple times, "apparently suspecting him of being a Palestinian militant about to carry out an attack." Sound like Trayvon Martin? Or how about drone attacks murdering innocent people for saying a few magic words like "jihad" in a mobile phone conversation? People tend to have a quick trigger finger for those whom they believe to be a threat, even if they've done nothing wrong. 

In still more Philip K. Dick's Minority Report related news, a recent study suggests that we can identify criminals likely to be recidivists via their brain scans. Wouldn't that be so great to be able to identify evil-doers before they can even get around to committing evil? And yet people are decrying the violations to their own civil liberties from government monitoring (NSA), for similar prophylactic measures. But if people have nothing to hide, they have nothing to worry about, right? As long as you manage to avoid being labeled something evil like sadist or sociopath (or shouting common religious phrases in public or wearing a hoodie at night or having opposing political beliefs as the party in power, or saying "that's the bomb!" in Afghanistan or standing next to someone that did), you're safe, right? Because we basically have a foolproof method of identifying bad people and punishing them.

I feel like this is somehow relevant:

Friday, June 21, 2013

Proper responses to evil

There's an interesting tendency for people to think that evil is something external to them -- other people, other countries, other cultures. When people think they've identified the source of the evil, they tend to be quick to attack, without much thought for either due diligence or due process. For instance, arguably a dominant reason for initial popular support for the Iraq War was latent hostility against Middle Eastern Muslim nations from the 9/11 terrorist attacks (I think perhaps most humorously evidenced by a series of SNL episodes very positively portraying George W. Bush as an avenging cowboy and Dick Cheney bragging about defiling Afghani women -- all to audience cheers). Similarly, does it now seem odd to us that people got so upset over a Muslim community center blocks away from Ground Zero in crowded lower Manhattan? If the presence of evil calls for some sort of response, what should the nature of that response be? Punishment? Rehabilitation? Education? And is that something that should be imposed largely externally, or does the very banality of evil suggest that the best way to fight evil is to start in our own minds. In an interesting contrast for the calls for blood against the alleged Nazi war criminal found in Minnesota, this New York Review of Books article "‘Jews Aren’t Allowed to Use Phones’: Berlin’s Most Unsettling Memorial"describes the Places of Remembrance memorial:

Twenty years ago this month, Berlin-based artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock inaugurated their hugely controversial “Places of Remembrance” memorial for a former Jewish district of West Berlin known as the Bavarian Quarter. At the time, Germany had just been reunified, and it was one of the first major efforts to give permanent recognition to the ways the Holocaust reached into daily life in the German capital. The 1991 competition called for a central memorial on the square, but Stih and Schnock instead proposed attaching eighty signs hung on lamp posts throughout the Bavarian Quarter, each one spelling out one of the hundreds of Nazi laws and rules that gradually dehumanized Berlin’s Jewish population.
***"We took anti-Jewish laws and regulations. On one side we had text, which we took from the regulations but made it snappy and shorter, so people driving or biking by could read them fast. And on the other side we put a picture that illustrated it. [One shows a chalice and on the other side of the sign says, “The baptism of Jews and their conversion to Christianity is unimportant in the question of race.” Another shows a radio and the other side says, “Jews must give up their radios.”]"
"Over there you see a sign with a telephone—right next to the post office—and the sign says Jews aren’t allowed to use telephones. Everything was meant to exclude Jews from daily life, from social structures, and to threaten them."

Rather than focus on names, either of victims or perpetrators, they chose to focus on "social and legal structures: how could this ever have happened?" How might it have happened? Step by step. First target a group and blame them for evil actions. They have now become the source of evil. Next depersonalize them. At this point, the masses will accept that not only should these people be punished for their alleged evil actions, but that they are inherently evil and don't deserve to be treated with basic human dignity. If there are laws in place to maintain equal rights and due process, make it clear that those laws do not apply to evil people -- they're a special case which demands special treatment (laws are only made to protect the best of us, after all). The rest is just maintaining the illusion by making sure people never question the original premise of evil. For instance, one of my favorite regulations was against Jewish ownership of pets, and for a very practical reason:

The reason for that is that first the animals had to go and then the owners could be removed. Because if animals would stay in an apartment, they wouldn’t get food, they’d make noise, this would cause a commotion. Maybe the Aryan neighbors wouldn’t care about the Jewish neighbor being deported but they would truly care about a little cat meowing.

But do we really need constant reminders of our own collective and individual capacities for evil? Haven't we moved past all of that?

When we were installing it, suddenly someone opened a window and yelled out: Haut ab, Judenschweine!—“Go away, Jewish pigs!” Our two workers installing the signs with us, they were completely shocked. They had thought the project wasn’t important until then and had been saying, “Come on, everyone knows this, why are you bothering?” They were speechless.

We do need reminders. And in a way that's why I think it's one of the worst times to be a sociopath -- because people have forgotten their own capacity for evil. Perhaps now more than ever people have isolated themselves from ugly aspects of the world. They eat meat raised and slaughtered out of sight, their countries fight wars in countries that they cannot point out on a map, and their sense of morality has never been tested (unless by Milgram or at Stanford), so it's very easy and convenient for them to convince themselves that evil exists outside, not in. In contrast to most people's high estimations of themselves, the straight-talking sociopath must seem like an abomination. And how should one react to an abomination? Track them down and make them suffer? Extradite that 94 year-old man and make him finally pay for his crimes? Because he's the reason that bad things happened, right? People want to believe that the only problem with evil they have is in identifying it and eradicating it in others.

Or course nobody likes to confront their own capacity for evil, and so that's why the artists for the Places of Remembrance (manipulatively) downplayed their proposed plan:

During the process they asked the artists to present their work at a public forum. We showed little drawings, not the real size, which is fifty by seventy centimeters. The drawings were like fine watercolors. They gave the pictures a softness. This was very good because everybody focused on the art. Here, in real life, it looks like brash pop art, but at the presentation it was different. It was of course a trick. You have to be very careful when you present because otherwise you’ll scare people. 

It was sneaky enough to work at the time, but people seem even less willing to confront these issues:

I have to say that in 1993 the society was open—kind of not secured. It was right after the Wall had opened. I don’t think we could do it today. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Identifying sociopaths (and then what?)

This was an interesting post from author of Liars and Outliers, Bruce Schneier, about the identification of sociopaths. He first quotes Scott Adams (Dilbert comic author) predicting the future identification of "sociopaths and terrorists":

My hypothesis is that science will someday be able to identify sociopaths and terrorists by their patterns of Facebook and Internet use. I'll bet normal people interact with Facebook in ways that sociopaths and terrorists couldn't duplicate.

Anyone can post fake photos and acquire lots of friends who are actually acquaintances. But I'll bet there are so many patterns and tendencies of "normal" use on Facebook that a terrorist wouldn't be able to successfully fake it.

Adams says that the reason that it would work is the same reason that fraud detection programs work: "[C]rooks don't know there is a normal pattern and so they don't know when they violate it. I think the same would be true for Facebook. There must be dozens of normal Facebook patterns that sociopaths and terrorists wouldn't know about, and therefore couldn't fake." This does not seem implausible, and is one of several reasons why I think that remaining completely anonymous and undetectable is not going to work for the rising generation of sociopaths.

Schneier has another criticism:

Okay, but so what? Imagine you had such an amazingly accurate test...then what? Do we investigate those who test positive, even though there's no suspicion that they've actually done anything? Do we follow them around? Subject them to additional screening at airports? Throw them in jail because we know the streets will be safer because of it? Do we want to live in a Minority Report world? 

The problem isn't just that such a system is wrong, it's that the mathematics of testing makes this sort of thing pretty ineffective in practice. It's called the "base rate fallacy." Suppose you have a test that's 90% accurate in identifying both sociopaths and non-sociopaths. If you assume that 4% of people are sociopaths, then the chance of someone who tests positive actually being a sociopath is 26%. (For every thousand people tested, 90% of the 40 sociopaths will test positive, but so will 10% of the 960 non-sociopaths.) You have postulate a test with an amazing 99% accuracy -- only a 1% false positive rate -- even to have an 80% chance of someone testing positive actually being a sociopath.

He ends with this thought: "Many authors have written stories about thoughtcrime. Who has written about genecrime?"

The comments are also really worth reading for their intelligence and insight. For instance, there was this comment:

First you'll need a useful definition of "sociopath" that is not, for practical purposes, equivalent to "non-conformist" or "adherent to a religion not on the approved list", etc. 

Followed by this comment:

You may underestimate the ability to create tautological tests. If you define a sociopath as someone who fails the sociopathy test, then the sociopathy test is 100% accurate in identifying sociopaths. 

That's all well and good, until people begin to think that an attribute thus defined is useful for anything.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Parent to a sociopath (part 2)

While I was watching We Need to Talk About Kevin, I thought several times about Andrew Solomon's book Far From the Tree, in which he writes about outlier children (i.e. children who are quite different from their parents, e.g. deafness, dwarfism, disability, genius, criminality, etc.). He discusses the difficulties that such children present to their parents, who have hoped to see their own unfulfilled promise attained vicariously through the lives of their children, and the great disappointment that can accompany the realization that their child is not who they imagined he would be (via Brain Pickings):

In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination. … [But] our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. 

The most directly applicable We Need to Talk About Kevin quote:

Having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies; those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents often become extraordinary.

Solomon also looks at the unique struggles of children who are born to parents that do not share the same defining traits. He first identifies the distinction between vertical identities, those we inherit from our parents like ethnicity or religion, and horizontal identities:

Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors. Being gay is a horizontal identity; most gay kids are born to straight parents, and while their sexuality is not determined by their peers, they learn gay identity by observing and participating in a subculture outside the family. Physical disability tends to be horizontal, as does genius. Psychopathy, too, is often horizontal; most criminals are not raised by mobsters and must invent their own treachery. So are conditions such as autism and intellectual disability.

(A quick note, I think the reference to psychopaths is hilariously demonizing, especially given Solomon's great care to withhold normative judgments of "bad" or "good" for the other outlier characteristics he discusses. To illustrate, imagine if he had used a similar negatively slanted statement for gay horizontal identity "most kids are born to straight parents, so must invent their own perversion.")

Solomon, who actually is gay with straight parents (but apparently feels that he did not invent his own perversion, unlike sociopaths), came up with his theory on vertical and horizontal identity when he noticed that he shared common identity issues with deaf children of hearing parents:

I had been startled to note my common ground with the Deaf, and now I was identifying with a dwarf; I wondered who else was out there waiting to join our gladsome throng. I thought that if gayness, an identity, could grow out of homosexuality, an illness, and Deafness, an identity, could grow out of deafness, an illness, and if dwarfism as an identity could emerge from an apparent disability, then there must be many other categories in this awkward interstitial territory. It was a radicalizing insight. Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.

I have noticed (and mention in the book) that there has been a lot of push back on labeling people, particularly the pathologizing of more than half the population. How could it possibly be that fewer people in the population are normal than abnormal?! But which seems more plausible -- that we are all cookie cutter neurologically the same? Or that we are all on a bell curve of myriad different human traits, our particular blend making us both completely unique (we actually are neurologically all special snowflakes, it turns out) and yet share identifiable traits in common across the entire swath of humanity. And that's a good thing. Charles Darwin remarked on the great variety of the human species:

As the great botanist Bichat long ago said, if everyone were cast in the same mould, there would be no such thing as beauty. If all our women were to become as beautiful as the Venus de’ Medici, we should for a time be charmed; but we should soon wish for variety; and as soon as we had obtained variety, we should wish to see certain characteristics in our women a little exaggerated beyond the then existing common standard.

Despite the many advantages of diversity, many families (and society) tend to treat horizontal identities as disorders that we would hope to eventually eliminate from the species:

In modern America, it is sometimes hard to be Asian or Jewish or female, yet no one suggests that Asians, Jews, or women would be foolish not to become white Christian men if they could. Many vertical identities make people uncomfortable, and yet we do not attempt to homogenize them. The disadvantages of being gay are arguably no greater than those of such vertical identities, but most parents have long sought to turn their gay children straight. … Labeling a child’s mind as diseased — whether with autism, intellectual disabilities, or transgenderism — may reflect the discomfort that mind gives parents more than any discomfort it causes their child.

(Is Solomon correct here? I think there are actually a lot of people who think that white Christian men are superior to other races/genders/religions, gay people are an abomination, autistic and disabled people are a drain to scarce social resources (same for sociopaths), etc. And perhaps their beliefs are not wrong, or at least it would depend on what measuring stick and set of values you use to judge.)

But I don't think it's the labels that are harmful, necessarily. Indeed, labels can be a boon to all outsiders forming their own horizontal identities. Rather, the problem seems to be the xenophobic system of enforcing social norms that encourages expressions of repulsion and shaming at what is too foreign to be relatable, whether it is feelings of disgust regarding gay people (especially gay people who do not feel the need to hide or tone down their "gayness"), the practices of other cultures (especially things that our own western culture has outgrown, like arranged marriages and modest clothing for women), or the backwards beliefs of religious "cults" (whereas our own religious beliefs are seen as perfectly plausible and normal).

Finally, Solomon describes what eventually happens to the mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin (and a hopeful statement for all parents of sociopathic children):

To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality has been realized — how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Parent to a sociopath

I finally got around to watching We Need to Talk About Kevin, the film version of the book of the same name, about a school massacre perpetrator and his mother. The story starts with the mother Eva becoming pregnant. She is ambivalent about motherhood. Her son Kevin does not respond to her mediocre attempts to bond or soothe. As he grows just a little older, it becomes clear that he is not normal, perhaps even deeply disturbed.

The film is no chronological and skips between before and after the massacre. Her life before was first young and exciting New York then a downgrade (in her mind) to a suburban estate with her growing family. Her life after is lonely squalor where she is the victim of all vandalism, violence, and sexual antagonism meant to, what? Shame her into denouncing her son? Some of the perpetrators seem to be family to the victims of the massacre, but others apparently are just looking to participate in socially sanctioned aggression and exploitation (her co-worker, after a rebuffed unwelcome advance, snarls "Where do you get off, you stuck up bitch? Do you think anyone else is gonna want you now?"). Her life is ruined. The second part flashes back to her early struggles with motherhood, then power struggles with her son, as evidenced in part by his refusal to be potty trained. In a fit of rage over him deliberately soiling his diaper after she just changed it, she throws him and breaks his arm. When recalling the moment later, he tells her "It’s the most honest thing you ever did. Do you know how they potty train cats? They stick their noses in their own shit. They don’t like it. So they use the box." After coming home from the hospital, he lies to his father about the broken arm, saying he fell off the diaper changing table. He then extorts his mother with the threat of exposure in order to get his way.

She is obviously not mother of the year, but who could be with a son so cold and apparently evil? That at least seems to be the suggestion of the first half of the film -- that there's nothing else she could have done better and we're supposed to feel sorry for her because she was unlucky enough to have birthed a demon. By the middle of the movie, we know what is going to happen, we are just filling in details. We get a little more realistic characterization of the son. The mother puts a cd marked "I love you" into her computer, which infects it with a virus (and all computers from her office connected to the network). She asks, why would you have something like this, what's the point? "There is no point. That's the point." She makes fun of fat people at a rare mother son excursion, to which he points out "You know, you can be kind of harsh sometimes."

Eva: "You’re one to talk."

Kevin: "Yeah, I am. I wonder where I got it."

Apart from a brief childhood sickness, when young Kevin cuddles with her while she reads him a book, their relationship is strained. Oddly, she is shown devotedly visiting him in prison, even though they hardly exchange a word. What's her motivation? Penance? Curiosity? Duty? Not love, is it? We also discover that although she lives a lonely, isolated existence, she has at least in part chosen this life (still lives in the same town despite the antagonism, avoids her mother's plea that she visit for the holidays). Finally, we see that her new home has a bedroom for him with all of his things, including his clothes that she regularly washes and irons to keep fresh. Why? On the second anniversary of the massacre she again visits Kevin in prison. He is about to be transfered to an adult facility. His head is poorly shaved. His face is bruised. He is not his usual confidently unapologetic self. She tells him he doesn't look happy. "Have I ever?"With their time running out, she finally confronts him:

Eva: Why?

Kevin: I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure. [pause]

Prison guard: Time's up.

They hug, Eva finally apparently reaching that place of love and acceptance for her son that had for so long eluded her.

I liked a lot of things about the film. There are some very accurate portrayals of sociopathic behavior. For instance, although Kevin never feels remorse about the massacre, he does show signs of regret -- an acknowledgment that perhaps he has miscalculated or misunderstood the true nature of life, including a sense of permanence of some consequences that many teenagers fail to intuit.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way it contrasts moral certainty (portrayed as ugly behavior) with self-doubt (portrayed as a sign of hope and the possibility of change). When the mother is at her most self-assured, Kevin hates her the most. It's only when she was weak enough to break his arm that he respects her for being honest. And Kevin's only redeeming moments are when he is sick and at the end when he is unsure whether the massacre was a good idea. These are stark contrasts to the moral indignation of the mother as she repeatedly tells her son off, the son as he repeatedly tells her everything is meaningless and that she is a hypocrite, the townspeople as they rally around to collectively dehumanize her (a small nod to the Scarlet Letter?), the husband who tells her she is a bad mother, etc. The problem with making these sorts of comprehensive judgments about a person are not that they aren't founded in truth, but that people naturally defy such pat assessments. They're simply too dynamic and life is too complicated (and subject more to chance than choice) to say with any degree of certainty that "so-an-so would never do something like that," or even "I would never do something like that." Moral certainty is often based in truth, but it denies so much more than it ever considers.

The film is also a true tragedy in that despite Kevin being particularly sinister and Eva particularly cold, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these characters. Put in different circumstances, Eva could have been a wonderful mother and Kevin could have channeled his machiavellian traits to more pro-social activities that would have made an equal splash. The problems were in the way they interacted with each other. They were locked in a death struggle, a double drowning. In a desperate effort to ensure that the one would not unduly rule the other's life, they spent all of their time reacting to each other instead of just quietly going about their own lives. I see this with victims on this site too -- becoming so obsessed with making sure that someone does not unjustly assert their will on you that you allow your whole world to revolve around thoughts of the other person. They were both so focused on winning particular battles with each other, thinking that the sum of small wins would add up to a gestalt of victory. They did not consider the possibility that these might be Pyrrhic, or that sometimes when you win, you lose. Because neither Eva nor Kevin were willing to bend their vision of the world to accommodate other viewpoints, they were both eventually broken.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The hard way

I've realized recently that I go through cycles of liking to do things the easy way or the hard way. I almost quit music in secondary school (I wasn't particularly talented), but I ended up majoring in it at university because it was the most challenging thing that I could be doing at the time and I enjoyed the thought of turning a weakness into a strength. I eventually tired of the struggle so when I left music I chose law because I did well on the law school admission test, so I figured I was well suited for it. At that point in my life, I didn't want to bother with my weaknesses, only capitalize on my strengths. Since then I've alternated between focusing on either my weakness or strengths, maybe every few years or so.

Most understand the appeal of the easy way, but doing things the hard way has its own value (and Thoreau?). The Swedes understand this. Although most Swedes have access to some sort of cottage or summer home, many of these homes intentionally do not have indoor plumbing, an attempt to be closer to nature. I spent some time there with a friend and she much preferred cooking up a porridge on the side of the road with a camp stove, or a soup on the deck of a ferry, to anything remotely more convenient. Even though my visit was on the tail end of summer in the chilly Arctic Circle, she insisted that part of the experience of any trip was to sleep outside whenever possible. We would go days without using a normal toilet, much less shower. I was sometimes tempted to put my foot down and insist that we take advantage of modern amenities and conveniences for a change, but I didn't. And even though I have been on much more comfortable and more exotic trips, this one has remained my favorite I think largely because it required struggle. It required me to be resourceful and more actively engaged in every moment of the trip, whereas waking up in crisp hotel sheets and stumbling down the hall to a buffet breakfast required no thought at all. The former meant living every minute and the latter invited passivity and complacency, it's own sort of (worse) struggle.

When I first started writing the blog, it was in an effort to understand why my life seemed to self-destruct every few years. I thought maybe finding the reason why might keep it from happening again, but I seem to like to struggle. There's something rewarding about doing things the hard way, at least for now. And as artist Chuck Close said:

Get yourself in trouble. If you get yourself in trouble, you don’t have the answers. And if you don’t have the answers, your solution will more likely be personal because no one else’s solutions will seem appropriate. You’ll have to come up with your own. It's always wrong before it's right.” 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Not as good as you think you are

To be filed in our ever expanding good-people-aren't-as-good-as-they-think-they-are file, Adam Alter, author of the book "Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave" writes for the NY Times about how people's behavior often depends on context, "Where We Are Shapes Who We Are". First he explains research from the 1970s about whether people would go out of their way to post an already stamped and addressed envelope that they had found on the ground. Even though only 6 out of 10 students in crowded dorms posted the letter, "when the researchers asked a different collection of students to imagine how they might have responded had they come across a lost letter, 95 percent of them said they would have posted it regardless of where they were living." Alter continues:

Most people, in fact, think of themselves as generous. In self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly and honest, too. We imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But in truth, we’re more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings.
For example, people behave more honestly in locations that give them the sense they’re being watched. A group of psychologists at Newcastle University in northeast England found that university workers were far more likely to pay for tea and coffee in a small kitchen when the honor-system collection box sat directly below a price list featuring an image of a pair of eyes, versus one with flowers. The researchers alternated the pictures of eyes and flowers each week during their 10-week experiment, using eyes from both men and women, to make sure that no single image affected the outcome. In every week featuring the eyes, the “honesty box” ended up with more money.
Other environmental cues shape our actions because they subtly license us to behave badly. According to the heavily debated broken windows theory, people who are otherwise well behaved are more likely to commit crimes in neighborhoods with broken windows, which suggests that the area’s residents don’t care enough to maintain their property.

What does this mean in terms of whether people are inherently good or evil?

These studies tell us something profound, and perhaps a bit disturbing, about what makes us who we are: there isn’t a single version of “you” and “me.” Though we’re all anchored to our own distinct personalities, contextual cues sometimes drag us so far from those anchors that it’s difficult to know who we really are — or at least what we’re likely to do in a given circumstance.

It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us.

But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be.

These environmental cues can shape and reshape us as quickly as we walk from one part of the city to another.

These studies are not unusual and they are not isolated. There are myriad examples of incredibly bad behavior from people who never would have predicted (or later admit) they would act that way, both experimental and historical (see also here and here and here and here, and for the limitations of good behavior here and here, and why despite all of this evidence, people still think that they are good people who could never do any real wrong, and that their definition of good is an expression of objective truth). Maybe the best common example of normal people behaving badly is what happens during a riot. Riots are not populated entirely of sociopaths, not hardly. They are ordinary people who either have let their emotions get the best of them or are using a breakdown in the social fabric to act reprehensibly. Taking advantage of a devastating national disaster and the ensuing chaos to rape 7 and 2 year-old children? Football fans killing each other? Riots to me are a good indication that ordinary people absolutely love to act out when everyone else is doing it or when they think they won't get caught.

Empaths like to pretend that they are immune to any bad thoughts or impulses, and sometimes I almost find myself believing them, so adamant and unyielding are their assertions. But the data doesn't support their self-assessments. Not only that, but they must be either lying on the self-assessments to make themselves look better than they are or they are lying to themselves to make themselves feel like they're better than they are. So... they're also hypocrites.

This is probably what I'm most worried about when people talk about rounding up all of the sociopaths and putting them on an island somewhere. Will we even make it there safely if the boat is being run by hypocritical and situationally exploitative empaths who are prone to emotional outbursts that may lead to murder? Empaths sound pretty dangerous to me.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fearing the unknown

I thought this recent comment was an interesting explanation of why people fear the unknown, particularly sociopaths:

You are upfront, but to what degree? You are telling us that you are manipulative for various reasons, and then asking us to take what you say at face value. You are different, you lack something, and we don't know what the effect of that is just as we don't know what could set off a dangerous predator. Do you trust a wolf, or a tiger? Maybe you would, if you were a wolf or a tiger. But you're not, so you break those creatures down to the impulses and instincts that make them dangerous - predators, cunning, violent. Nevermind that they are also caring, sweet animals that can show affection and mercy. 

In essence as a society, it's difficult to accept that there are people like you walking around as a member of the human family; just as individually it would be hard to accept the knowledge that we lacked the ability to control harmful impulses.

This comment reminded me of a time I visited a different continent for a wildlife tour. There were several dangerous animals and we were warned several times about avoiding them. However, we would also have impromptu picnics in the middle of the wildlife preserves. At one of these open-air picnics, I was chatting with a friend until she gasped, grabbing my shoulder in a vice grip, "Oh my God, we're going to die." I looked around us and we were surrounded by a 30 or so large rodent looking things. It was the first time we had seen this particular animal and our guide was not around to tell us what they were. Maybe my friend was overreacting, but maybe she wasn't, I thought, trying to remember whether the list of dangerous animals might possibly have included these. Even small animals can be dangerous, I rationalized -- think of those honey badger videos!

Or rabies? And it's not like we were close to any hospitals, should anything happen. The most unnerving thing about these animals, though, was the way they started closing in on us. It was like a Twilight Zone episode -- when we were looking directly at them, they would remain perfectly still, but every time we looked away, they would advance closer to us until they were within pouncing distance.

Without knowing anything about these animals, I had no clue how to react but my friend insisted that we abandon our food and try to wend our way through the fast approaching crowd. Unfortunately, a second, much larger species had appeared (or a more menacing adult-sized version of the first?). There were 60 or more animals between us and our tour vehicle and as we inched our way forward, my friend clutched my arm as if she expected impending death. We finally were able to climb onto the hood of the vehicle and waited there until our guide returned thoroughly amused at our reaction to what turned out to be perfectly harmless (in his mind), cuddly creatures.

Since returning home, I often think of this experience when I see commonplace wildlife native to where I live. How is it that I never noticed how ubiquitous squirrels are? Can they be rabid? Can raccoons hurt me? Was I wrong for worrying that the foreign animals were dangerous? Or am I wrong for not thinking more about the more familiar dangers that I encounter on a daily basis?

So although I can relate to the fear of unknown/sociopaths, it's also important to consider how concerned you want to be. Would you want to kill, lock up, or otherwise persecute a group of people because you don't understand them (and have made no real effort to try to understand or peacefully accommodate them)? Do they warrant that? Or not? Maybe you figure you've already been living a life with sociopaths without realizing it, like I had been living surrounded by squirrels without really noticing them, so how concerned should you be? Of course sociopaths are not like squirrels, more like bears or sharks or lions, but does the existence of those animals keep you from going camping? Or swimming? Or from copulating in Africa? Maybe. It's true that people have different tolerances for risk. Some are too afraid to even leave their apartment.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Outcasts in literature: Housekeeping

[On the unsettling appearance of transients, whose very presence suggested to a small town's inhabitants that there was a different, better way to live than to eke out an existence in normal society.]
So every wanderer whose presence suggested it might be as well to drift, or it could not matter much, was met with something that seemed at first sight a moral reaction, since morality is a check upon the strongest temptations. And these strangers were fed on the stoop, and sometimes warmed at the stove, in a spirit that seemed at first sight pity or charity, since pity and charity may be at root an attempt to propitiate the dark powers that have not touched us yet. When one of these lives ended within the town jurisdiction, the preacher could be relied upon to say "This unfortunate," as if an anonymous grave were somehow deeper than a grave with a name above it. So the transients wandered through Fingerbone like ghosts, terrifying as ghosts are because they were not very different form us. And so it was important to the town to believe that I should be rescued, and that rescue was possible.
-- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gentleman sociopath?

If not morals, why might a sociopath choose to do something "good" or help people? A reader recently wrote about how his sense of aesthetics keeps him from doing anything base, such as brute strength violence.

Similarly, from another sociopathic reader regarding the existence of the "gentleman sociopath":

I have read as many materials about sociopathy. It seems that the clinical model tend towards the violent and lack of self-awareness of the afflicted. I'm confused by that. I have over forty years and have done phenomenally well but there is a certain dichotomy to my nature that challenges what I read. Self-awareness is something I have in spades. It comes in waves but the overall tenets of my meticulous adaptation and mimicry have served me well. I am reasonably successful perhaps even quite successful. I am a charismatic individual that can engender such passionate responses but I don't quite get their ultimate utilitarian value. I am fully capable of expressing emotion though it typically is self-serving. I find people useful and fascinating and in my job I am an outgoing and rather likable chap. I know what to say to make the ends meet. But the act itself is mechanical. You are the first I have read that seems to be broadening the understanding of the bonds that bind us together and yet I wonder, what of the gentleman sociopath. The one who realizes that the flashes of violence and utter revulsion at humanity leaves the efforts to connect empty and like a well played out theatrical piece. One of which I am always the star; even if I sit back and do nothing of great significance I manage to impact other positively. But I fail to see the reward. Is this all there is? A chance encounter, fleeting, where love is extricated for my benefit and validation of my greatness. Psychotherapy and psychology seem only to capture the seen and make formulaic profiles of those who manage to fall into the system. I have absolutely no desire to be anything else. There is an elegance in the primal connection to my stripped bone need to see the tethers that bind us to this false sense of social propriety.

But these tethers that bind us all demand to be plucked so that I can rest assured my genius is not wasted. I am not adverse to violence and my sexual appetites are gruesome at best. But I have control of them despite a few slip ups. I appreciate greatly the time you took to read my letter.  What Answer I receive from you will be welcome.

I have lived long enough to grow tired of the clinical definitions and confines of sociopathy. There are many of us who have formed quite mutually beneficial bonds with one another and find success in a tedious world a far better path than the wanton rebellion. I suppose, while I will be frank in admitting I haven't the foggiest idea of what drew me to your writings, you must have seemed to at least be less rigid in your understanding of this particular detachment. Except with those like me, I have never before felt an interest to express this. You also are likely aware that I would be remiss if I didn't say that any questions you have for me would be welcomed.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Targeted altruism

Or, a rose by any other name... from Superfreakonomics:
Some of [Gary] Becker's most compelling early research concerned altruism. He argued, for instance, that the same person who might be purely selfish in business could be exceedingly altruistic among people he knew -- although, importantly (Becker is an economist, after all), he predicted that altruism even within a family would have a strategic element.

Summers empirically demonstrated Becker's point. Using data from a U.S. government longitudinal study, they showed that an elderly parent in a retirement home is more likely to be visited by his grown children if they are expecting a sizable inheritance.

But wait, you say: maybe the offspring of wealthy families are simply more caring toward their elderly parents?

A reasonable conjecture -- in which case you'd expect an only child of wealthy parents to be especially dutiful. But the data show no increase in retirement- home visits if a wealthy family has only one grown child; there need to be at least two. This suggests that the visits increase because of competition between siblings for the parent's estate. 

This illustrates an interesting problem in defining altruism not just as good acts, but good acts done selflessly:

How can we know whether an act is altruistic or self- serving? If you help rebuild a neighbor's barn, is it because you're a moral person or because you know your own barn might burn down someday? When a donor gives millions to his alma mater, is it because he cares about the pursuit of knowledge or because he gets his name plastered on the football stadium?

Sorting out such things in the real world is extremely hard. While it is easy to observe actions, it is much harder to understand the intentions behind an action.

After an interesting discussion of several lab experiments, researchers conclude that true altruism (if it exists as all) is elusive as a unicorn or Nessie:
If John List's research proves anything, it's that a question like "Are people innately altruistic?" is the wrong kind of question to ask. People aren't "good" or "bad." People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated -- for good or ill -- if only you find the right levers.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Edward Snowden and independent thinking

The reaction to Edward Snowden coming forward as the source for the NSA leaks has been interesting and varied, from clear signs of support to accusations of him being a traitor. I think the most interesting (and possibly the most prevalent reaction) is a little bit of fear mixed in with some what-is-he-thinking-could-he-really-be-that-naive and a lot of judgment guised as that's-not-how-I-would-have-done-it (this last one is the most hilarious to me -- you would never have done it, so any analysis of how you would have done it in a non-existent reality goes beyond mere speculation to pure fantasy). Like Monday morning quarterbacks, these people have questioned his decisions from things like his choice of an extradition-lite hideaway to his decision to come forward (as if him outting himself affects in anyway whether the U.S. government knows who he is and is trying to track him down) to whether he was able to save enough money to live on or if he is now completely unemployable for the rest of his life.

For as popular as Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" is, particularly during graduation speech season, there is a pretty clear social norm that favors steady job white picket fence 2 1/2 children and people that dare violate this norm can be very polarizing. On the one hand, most seem to acknowledge that there are great men and women that have bucked the trends and led to important advancements to us as a species. On the other hand, people who buck the trend present a lot of problems for society, at the very least because there is no comfortable pigeonhole to confine them to. This discomfort is often expressed in terms of these people being "unpredictable" or "untrustworthy". From Megan McArdle with the Daily Beast, "Whistleblowers Are Weird":

Human institutions, from the family to the government, are founded by trust.  You need to be able to trust the people you work with, at least to the extent of being able to predict their future behavior.  You may think you don't trust that rat down the hall, but in fact, you do trust him quite a lot: not to come into work with a machete and hack you to death in order to secure your superior office chair, not to start randomly swearing at clients, and so forth.

Some of that trust is enforced by fear of the consequences.  But a lot of our ability to make a credible committment to be trustworthy comes from the fact that we are hard wired to be loyal. . . . You would feel bad about yourself if you [broke that trust].

That's why psychopaths are so dangerous: they don't have any of the internal brakes, the shame and guilt, that keep the rest of us from blatantly violating the trust of people around us.  Oh, of course we do betray people from time to time--we break promises, forget to call our grandmothers, and engage in the guilty pleasure of gossiping about friends.  But the hallmark of these betrayals is that they are impulsive and unjustified.  Psychopaths feel no guilt about doing these things--or stealing your money, your wife, and your dog.  They are fundamentally untrustworthy, though also, thankfully rare.

This reasoning seems flawed -- the reason why the rat down the hall doesn't machete you is because he is hardwired to be loyal? She's correct that if you're worried about someone harming you, the world of possibilities includes both intentional bad behavior (which she suggests that only sociopaths commit because they don't feel shame and guilt and these "brakes" on bad behavior are both apparently necessary to avoid bad behavior and also infallible?) and the unintentional bad behavior of everyone else (which she suggests is always impulsive). She says that we need to trust people to predict their future behavior (says no statistician, behavioral economist, or psychologist ever because currently the best predictor of future behavior is not trust or loyalty but past behavior). But of the two possibilities of bad behavior, which is more predictable? The sociopath's? (Who is almost the quintessential economic rational actor.) Or the "impulsive and unjustified" (i.e. no apparent or reasonable triggers or other identifiable causes) behavior of the non-sociopath?

Nor does someone's trust or the apparent level of predictability of a person constrain his behavior. You can trust the rat down the hall all you want, but that doesn't mean that your trust in him will keep him from someday putting a machete in your back. The best you could say about him is that his past behavior doesn't indicate an above average risk of being a murderer and/or that the chance is already so low and there are so many competing dangers vying for our attention that it's simply not worth the effort of thinking about who exactly could kill you. At this point, though, we are simply talking about probabilities of behavior and "impulsive and unjustified" are almost by definition random and unpredictable.

What is apparently happening here is that McArdle and many others intuit that there is something particularly unknowable about whistleblowers and sociopaths. Uncertainty like this does in fact increase both actual and perceived risk. But there's nothing terribly "unknowable" about them. In fact, in a lot of ways they are less complicated than most people -- the one hyper-rational ruled by self-interest and the other an ideologue that can't be bought off by even a $200,000 a year cushy government salary. Which makes me think this is the real crux of the issue. The scary thing about a whistleblower or any other independent thinker is that he is not as constrained by social norms. This is evidenced for the whistleblower by his rejection of the picket fence and golden retriever lifestyle. For most people, it's possible to constrain their behavior with so-called golden handcuffs -- all the materialistic trappings of a comfortable life in exchange for unquestioning loyalty, including submitting one's will to one's employer, one's government, the police, and even one's parent teacher association. The norm is enforced as heartily as it is because although the majority acknowledges that they can gain big from independent thinking, they can't have everyone constantly questioning the most basic of social rules as it would lead to chaos and a weakening of the social contract. And people are incredibly and irrationally loss averse, so given the choice they would rather keep what they have than chance it on someone who who already comes off as a bit of an outsider (how do we even know he has our best interests at heart? how can we "trust" him to make the right decisions? isn't this why we have a government heavily dominated by administrative agencies so we could sub-contract out important decisions like this and never have to consider them ourselves?).

Thus, the uncertainty lies not in the behavior of the independent thinker, which is actually quite predictably independent, but whether he is right or not. The problem is that although we say that everyone is free to act according to his own best judgment, the "right" thing to do with that freedom as far as the majority is concerned is to marry, own a house, be gainfully employed, and have at least two children. Only then are you considered sufficiently invested in society that you become "predictable" to us, in that we know you have too much to lose to take any major risks ("freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose"). And if its one thing the financial crisis has taught us, it is that one person's actions can ripple through the entire global economy. Of course that applies for good things as well as bad, but how can we know ahead of time which is which? This is particularly a problem when (most?) people (inaccurately and unreliably) gauge the rightness or wrongness of decisions by imagining what they themselves would have done in that situation, and the thoughts and decisions of an independent thinker are difficult for many to fathom. (Of course, despite this inherent uncertainty, there are people who feel very comfortable assigning themselves the role of arbiter of good and bad. These people form the rank and file of the social norm police).

Still McArdle does make an interesting acknowledgment that the things that make people seem different and even unappealing to us are the very traits that make them socially beneficial:

We may well end up grateful to Edward Snowden, and also find that we don't like him very much. Of course, Edward Snowden probably doesn't care. After all, if he cared about people liking him as much as the rest of us do, he probably wouldn't have been able to do with he did.
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