Sunday, August 18, 2013

Economics and sociopathy

I was talking to an economist friend recently. We were talking about how economics is not just a dismal science, but that economists have a pretty dismal view of human nature, possibly because economists themselves are not generally altruistic or prosocial? He told me that economists are different enough from the general population that economics researchers can't use economics undergraduate students for their experiments because they tend to give very different answers than the average person. Specifically he told me about a game where everyone chooses to either put in a black marble or a white marble in a bag. If you put in a white marble, you increase the overall size of the payout/pie, but you just have one piece of that pie. If you put in a black marble, you get two pieces of the pie, but of a smaller pie. The optimal result would be for everyone to put in white marbles, and a lot of people actually do put in white marbles either because of altruism or optimism or guilt or whatever else. Economists and economics students, however, almost always put in black marbles. My economist friend was using this as evidence that economists are not good people. And if this one scenario was the only thing you knew about economists, perhaps you could say that the results of the experiment are consistent with the economists-as-bad-people hypothesis too.

But I gave him another quick scenario to see how he would handle it: imagine that you are at war, just you and five other fellow soldiers, all standing around in a circle. A grenade gets launched into the middle of the circle. If someone jumps on the grenade, only one person dies. If no one jumps on the grenade, there's a 20% chance someone might die and everyone will suffer moderate to critical injuries. Everyone is equidistant from the grenade and has an equal opportunity to jump on the grenade. Before I tell you what he said, I want the sociopaths who are reading this to think what they would do.

So, I asked my economist friend what he would do and he immediately replied, "I would jump on the grenade." Of course he would. He's rational and cares about efficiency. He would be the type of person in the trolley problem to throw the switch and kill the one to save the five, and apparently that answer doesn't change even when he is the one who needs to die. I think his answer surprised even him, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps because he had convinced himself that economists are soulless or at the very least selfish (i.e., rationally self-interested). But there's nothing remotely selfish or even self-interested about jumping on the grenade.

The reason I knew that this example would "work" on him is that he and I think similarly and it's something that I think I might do too. I like efficiency, and it would be efficient to fall on the grenade. Also I like winning, and it would be "winning" to thwart the enemy. It would be powerful, to smother the force of such a powerful device with just my body. Also I'm impulsive and not particularly attached to life. I actually think that a lot of sociopaths would do the same for one or more of those reasons. In fact, and I wish there was some way to accurately test this, I predict that a higher percentage of sociopaths would jump on the grenade than non-sociopaths, if for nothing else than the indecision or paralyzing fear that a lot of non-sociopaths might experience -- by the time they got around to making the decision, it might be too late. These are just guesses, but I don't think it's crazy to think that sociopaths might be braver and more pro-social in certain situations than normal people, just like economists might be more selfless than the average person in certain situations.

Whether or not my prediction is correct, I think this example also illustrates how dangerous it is to perform a couple experiments in controlled situations and extrapolate the data far beyond those particular situations. Sloppy science writers (and even serious researchers) make this mistake all of the time, e.g. if sociopaths seem to not show empathy in one situation, it's easy to make the (apparently incorrect) presumption that they never feel empathy. The truth is context matters immensely and we only know a sliver of all there is to know about ourselves and others. 


  1. You might be interested in the work of George R. Price.

    From his Wikipedia entry: "Furthermore Price reasoned that in the same way as an organism may sacrifice itself and further its genes (altruism) an organism may sacrifice itself to eliminate others of the same species if it enabled closely related organisms to better propagate their related genes."

    1. "This negative altruism was described in a paper published by W. D. Hamilton and is termed Hamiltonian spite."

      [my reply was cut off]

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Someone once said, that economy is the study of greed...

  3. "War hero's " ARE impulsive sociopaths. They are very poor at 9 to 5, but
    very good at thinking on their feet. They are very useful in a pinch, but
    very poor over the long haul. Many "soldiers of fortune" are sociopaths.
    They become mercineries because they crave excitement.
    In the aftermath of war, they can't resume their "normal" lives.
    After the First World War, there was a saying: "How are you going to keep
    them down on the farm, after what they've seen?" One day they're in the
    mist of battle, the next, they're riding the subway to they're "humdrum"
    9 to 5 job.
    You should see the film "Cool Hand Luke" (1967) for a character study of
    the war hero sociopath, the person who has "more guts then brains."
    Another good film is "A Very Dangerous Man, about a former Mafia man in
    the witness protection program, whose cover is blown, and how this
    complicates his family life.

    1. My father would probably be classed as such a 'war hero', but he's definitely not a sociopath. As a soldier, he killed, tortured and saw countless other horrible things. Now a middle-aged man, his conscience is paying the price with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder brought about by the guilt. A sociopath could have done all that dad did and more but would never be troubled by their actions in later life.

    2. everyone's got a breaking point even sociopaths

    3. I'm sure you're right, but it wouldn't be over something akin to survivors' guilt or feeling bad about killing enemy soldiers. If anything, it'd have to be over a great personal trauma (perhaps being trapped in a burning building) but even then would a sociopath be emotional enough to be traumatised by something?

  4. Although I would, like M.E., normally make a utilitarian decision and agree that the most efficient outcome would be to sacrifice myself to save the majority, I'm also sure that my own selfish desire to stay alive and fear of dying would prevent me from taking said action.

    On the other hand, I would be more than comfortable allowing one person to die to save the five in the Trolley Problem. I wonder what this reveals about me, other than my being somewhat of a coward?

    1. Since you're speaking in a technical, economist manner, let me wrap this up.

      The situation described and your exact thoughts are the common parameters of a game-theory case: of free riding, externalities, and public goods.

      If every soldier understands the situation, each also realizes the flipside: if only someone else died, he stays alive. Everyone, including you and me, WILL want to 'free-ride' on someone else's sacrifice, getting the benefit but not paying the costs of the action (externality).
      But the sad thing is that if everyone thought like this, it is guaranteed that no one would jump on the grenade.

      and, btw, "......sacrifice myself to save the majority" only applies if allegiance to the military and the nation supercedes all other guiding principles of your life (if you don't have a higher cause or distinct, personal, life-defining goal)

  5. Oh M.E you're so hot

  6. So, generally, from what I know of the research (more than the average person; less than all of the literature), the theory is not that rational-actor econ people are bad, but that they tend to be more *amoral* than average. Note that amoral is not immoral; it's more of a moral flexibility issue.

    Thus, sure - they might fall on the grenade given the extreme moral relevance of the situation. However, if the question was about money or something *other* than life-or-death (or even maiming-or-uninjured) - if, say, it was about whether one should try to take all of the pie or only part of it - then the econ students *do*, in fact, perform outside what is typically (in the US context, at least) considered to be proper moral behavior.

    In other words, your example to your friend does a great job of showing that context - and, particularly, that the forcefulness of the moral context - is an important moderator. It does not, however, change the base finding: that econ students are, on average, more willing to violate social norms/morals than others if the violation works to their gain.

    And I think you actually already designed the experiment through your question. :) IM(NS)HO, a good follow-up would be to see if the question you posed (about the grenade) would then change the "amoral" behavior of econ students in more-typical situations (by priming them with a reminder of their interconnectedness with everyone else, or possibly by reminding them, as the question evidently did you, that their individual good may not actually be the overall most efficient solution and that a rational actor may not always maximize her/his own value).

    As an aside, I was once in an undergrad microecon course where the prof broke us up into groups, then formed the groups into the classic cartel (where the defection of one would then lead to maximization for that one group at the expense of overall efficiency; pretty classic simulation). I loudly protested that the cartel would never hold, having studied the concept. My group of three immediately made it so that the other two would make the initial decision, and then I could change it to whatever I wanted (they were sure I would have our group defect at the first reasonable opportunity, and, thus, put the onus - and the blame for the norm violation - on me).

    However, our class had one member who was extremely vocal that we should all stick together. Thus, for *eight rounds,* the cartel held - visibly disturbing the professor (this was theoretically not supposed to happen). Finally, the cartel broke - and everyone blamed me (it wasn't me; I'm actually pretty empathic and very prosocial, and had exactly zero desire to even hold myself to blame for not trying to help the group). The professor was able to salvage some of the theory he was trying to illustrate, though he also had to allow for the potential that, yes, group cohesion can lead to people *freely choosing* to act in the interest of the whole and not just the interest of the individuals. Good times.

  7. You're dead wrong mate. No sociopath would throw him/herself on a grenade. Not only because we are selfish and individualistic, but also because we have a superiority complex. A psychopath is going to see the grenade and toss one of his comrades he feels is the least valuable to the group. Bottom line is to the psychopath, the loss of his life would be a major loss to humanity, regardless of whether or not that is the truth.

    I guess it doesnt matter considering youve spent your time on this site recreating psychopathy to be a strange set of moral codes instead of a malicious personality type. This site is really an apolagist site for a personality disorder you still lack understanding of. Its really redundant to sit here and sugar coat what kind of people we are at the expense of real dialogue, as that is really what psychopaths experience daily. Basically you want to make yourself look edgey by claiming to be a psychopath, but paint over the unpleasant parts of that personality with movie script scenarios that make yourself look heroic. Typical narcissist tactics.

    1. Fuck I missed you, you beautiful bastard :)

    2. THANK YOU UKAN! I appreciate you being as upfront and as honest as you are. You are not playing the "sympathy card" and I salute you for it!

  8. I know a couple of economists well. They aren't cold people, although their habit of thinking logically may make them appear that way to people who don't know any better. People often get into economics because they want to help the less fortunate. Their methods of helping, such as promoting free trade, look cruel to people who have certain agendas, but they are not.

    A sociopath's motivations for throwing their body on a grenade would be entirely different than a typical economist's motivations. The sociopath would do it because they don't care about their own well being. I guess the question is, is it still pro-social if you don't care about helping people at all?

  9. My first thought was to jump away from the grenade and hope the others had the sense to do the same.

  10. I really doubt in that moment that a sociopath would jump on the grenade. All the self-proclaimed and diagnosed sociopaths I know would throw someone else down on the grenade. And I've seen them do it, metaphorically speaking. If you'd jump on the grenade yourself, then guess what, you're no longer a sociopath.

  11. Is it wrong that I immediately thought to shove the person next to me onto the grenade, thereby saving myself and the rest of the circle?

  12. Ha! Anyone else find it really funny that as soon as UKan shows up and gives his opinion, all of a sudden these people are so keen to say "Yeah! I would have totally thrown the guy next to me on the grenade. Fuck him"?

  13. New here. I think saying sociopaths never feel or love is like saying someone suffering from depression can never laugh. It's just harder or doesn't come as natural or as easy. Also there are shades of gray like with any disorder/characteristic. I also think age/body chemistry (hormone levels) play huge roles in perception and therefore the display of these characteristics.

    About the grenade a point of view which I don't think had been mentioned is that sociopaths wouldn't want to live crippled from the blast so better to go out the hero a way to live on and gain a little immortality. .

  14. What if every member of the group was a sociopath? They would ALL get fragged!!??! YeaH!!! :D


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