Saturday, August 31, 2013

Junk science

I often see sociopath research that by itself is not dubious, but the implications or the conclusions that the researchers draw from the evidence seems stretched, non sequitur, or wholly unsupported by the data. For instance, I wrote about research suggesting that the sociopath's corpus callosum is longer and thinner than the average person's brain, resulting in a faster rate of transfer of information between the two hemispheres of their brain. Rather than cite this as a possible advantage of the sociopath brain, researchers conjectured that this might explain why sociopaths have "less remorse, fewer emotions and less social connectedness." What? Maybe it's just my lack of understanding, but that conclusion doesn't seem to follow at all from the fact that sociopaths have a more efficient corpus callosum.

Sometimes the problem with the research or logic is the complete circularity of the research -- i.e. the tautology of the assertion people who manifest antisocial traits tend to behave antisocially. For instance, a new study found out that people who self-report that "what matters for me is the bottom line,"will behave more ruthlessly and selfishly in prisoner's dilemma style games:

The study involved normal undergraduate students around age 19. The students were divided into small groups and told to converse on a topic of their choice for 10 minutes. Then, they were separated and given a questionnaire to measure their psychopathic tendencies. The questionnaire asked them to rate their agreement with statements, such as"what matters for me is the bottom line," or "I am often angry in social situations." There are two kinds of psychopathy, but this study was looking at the classic "conniving and cold" psychopaths.

Next, the researchers had the students play a "prisoner's dilemma" game, in which each person was given a sum of money that they could keep for themselves or transfer to a partner, for whom it would be doubled. For example, both people would start with $3; they could either keep $3 or give $6 to their partner. If the game has several iterations, it is in both people's best interest to cooperate and give the money away, because both will receive $6 instead of $3. But if it's just a one-shot game, it's in a person's best interest to keep the $3 for himself or herself, as there can be no consequence of not cooperating. (This experiment involved a one-shot game, though participants weren't told that fact.)

The students who scored higher on the questionnaire (meaning they were more psychopathic) were more likely to betray their partner and keep the money for themselves if that partner interrupted them more frequently (a sign of disrespect). The more psychopathic students were also more likely to betray a partner with whom they appeared to have less in common, and were therefore less likely to see again. In other words, those with more psychopathic tendencies only cooperated if there was something in it for them.

The conclusion:

"Traits such as deceitfulness and conceitedness — as opposed to honesty and humility — involve a willingness to take advantage of others when the opportunity arises."



  1. Academia always has problems with any value that's not numerically quantifiable. Problems of engineering are far easier to verify than problems of the mind.

    If the metric you're using is flawed in such a way that any measurements you make can be skewed to conform to common social explanations, it stops being science and becomes an exercise in in-group thinking.

  2. Could someone please define what is meant by "more psychopathic" or
    "less psychopathic?" I always thought you either were, or were not
    If an empath behaves out of character, in a "psychopathic" way, (like a
    guard at a concentration camp.) He's doing it because it is demanded by
    social proof. "Show us your loyality, everybody else is cooperating."
    That doesn't make him a psychopath, he's only behaving like a psychopath
    in a given situation. This is why we shouldn't "identify" with our roles.
    We "wear" them like a garment of clothing that can be put on and taken off at will. The true psychopath is a psychopath 24/7. He can appear
    "normal" in short bursts, but his true psychopathic character will always
    assert itself given the apporate "stressors." He is playing a role, and
    can play it for only so long. He throws in the towel and engages in some
    anti-social activity from theft to murder. This satiates his urges for a
    time, but sooner or later he goes right back to "trolling."
    Given societal pressures,(War time, anaracay, for example.) an empath can
    behave in a "psychopathic" way, but will resume his empathic behavior.
    With the "true" psychopath it's the opposite. He "plays" the empathic role and resumes his natural psychopathic behavior after a time.
    That is why the empath believes that the psychopath never learns for his
    mistakes. But from the psychopath's viewpoint they are not "mistakes" at
    all. It's the "empath squares" who have the problem.

    1. "Could someone please define what is meant by "more psychopathic" or
      "less psychopathic?" I always thought you either were, or were not


      This is a problem in psychological circles and depends solely on the diagnostic being used for the assessment of psychopathy/sociopathy. For instance, with the de facto standard, Hare's PCL-R, for assessing sociopathy, there are thousands of ways to be diagnosed as a sociopath. The test attempts to measure the magnitude of 20 different psychopathic traits (of which some seem very arbitrary) on a three point scale. So, under this diagnostic, a person who is 'more' sociopathic is one that has a higher score than those that do not.

      However, this is arbitrary in many ways. For instance, take the trait of "multiple short-term marriages". A sociopath that leeches relationships dry on a frequent basis seems to get at the 'spirit' of this trait, but would receive a 0 on the diagnostic for this trait. A 'more' sociopathic individual would be one that actually made those relationships legally recognised and engaged in the same behavior. The same problem is found in the assessment w/in the PCL-R of conduct disorder and juvenile delinquency. One who never got caught and has no case record of such (even though they did have those traits) would be docked points that the less intelligent or cautious sociopath. So this idea of 'more' or 'less' sociopathic can be junk in subintervals of the 0-40 range of scores on that assessment. This is further implied by, at least off earlier versions of the PCL-R, the presence of a relatively large standard error on scores.

      So really it depends on how good your diagnostic tool is as to whether that question can be appropriately answered. Ultimately, does the question even matter in the fine range? Who is more dead? The deceased in the ground for a year, or the pile of dust that has been in the crypt for millennia? A self-reflection of the 'accepted' traits to better understand the self should be sufficient, regardless of the exact degree of sociopathy implied by an assessment.

      Until we reach that Orwellian state where all of our brains are scanned and research has shown exactly what level of activity in which areas of the brain correspond to different "levels" of sociopathy, these diagnostics are the best we have. You may argue that the degree and number of 'unacceptable' actions we commit could be an indicator of "more vs. less" sociopathy, but that is insufficient as non-sociopaths can behave badly too if the price is right.

      To come full circle back to the article, research can only be as good as the assessment. If the assessment is flawed, the results may be flawed. And if the results are flawed, good luck trying to pass off the findings as true science. But, with sociopaths, people will gobble up any negative characterizations of us as they can, regardless of whether the conclusion follows from the 'facts'.

    2. I would like to add some thoughts on the 'more or less' of a psychiatric diagnosis topic in general. This might not be entirely comparable, but in case it is I think it is worth to mention.

      Other personality disorders exist other then sociopathy, and these exist on a scale of 'more or less' as well. People with a paranoid personality disorder for instance, are not all equally paranoid.

      When coming to moral sense, empathy and emotionality, we are not all equally moralistics, empathic or emotional. There are some of us who might well be one or the other group (empaths or not), but we have different tendencies even so. For instance, even as an empath you can be unusually cold hearted and calculating, but loving and empathic towards those in your own group, while others are constantly loving and caring to whatever it is.

  3. So the necessary mindset of the concentration camp guard and it's different representations were fine? Only psychopath are something to worry about? Duty versus nature only?

    Duty is a long inner private dialogue with Kant over the centuries, looking back post 1945 into the century of Enlightenment.

    Returning to Patrick Bateman. ;)

    1. Personally, I would prefer people that are consistently apathetic or unemotional & lacking empathy to ones that cannot be relied upon to always react empathetically or otherwise 'accordingly'.

      As Jack Sparrow would say, you can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest...

    2. I wasn't clear I guess above. I meant I have a decades long dialog concerning "duty" with Kant from a post 1945 perspective. ...

      Personally I don't think many people are consistent. And surely not emotionally consistent. No matter if "psycho/sociopath" or "neurotypical".

      Concerning your preferences imagine what a boring world it would be with all people acting according to your own preferences.

      I know that quite few people have problems with me, since I do not show emotions. Does it bother me? No, not very much.

      I like psychogendered's comment above.

      Sometimes the problem with the research or logic is the complete circularity of the research

      Many decades ago, I read a little psychology when a friend prepared for an exam. The above "revelation" wasn't so uncommon in some study designs which seemed to be designed occasionally to render a certain conclusion, it seemed somehow built into the design.

      on the other hand:
      For instance, I wrote about research suggesting that the sociopath's corpus callosum is longer and thinner than the average person's brain, resulting in a faster rate of transfer of information between the two hemispheres of their brain.

      Why not compare "psychopaths" and "musicians"? Hopefully ME's curiosity does not ultimately lead to the non-sociopaths or non-musician needing whatever type of artificial enhancements?

      In any case I am pleased that my "mal" was too "petit" for any Callosotomie adventures. I was also admittedly very, very fascinated by it.

    3. "As Jack Sparrow would say, you can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest..."
      Always keep a dishonest friend and learn to know him. For he is the most likely to help you do dishonest things, when you need it.

  4. is the pcl-r a tool to measure criminality or psychopathy?


  6. ME I studied evolution and genetics and anthropology before I went into medicine and then family practice. I've been dealing with these problems you refer to as junk science now for thirty years, and like you I am curious and more intelligent than most experts. You are new to science but have the right impression of most of the research and the fallacies of most of the researchers, perhaps because lawyers are taught more about fallacies than most scientists. After a couple decades of watching them you'll probably be even better at knowing what new ideas don't pass the sniff test, and you will probably find that you are a better predictor of future consensus than the experts who are stroking their own egos, probably common in us empaths, because like me you care more about knowing the truth than being seen as smart or influential.

    The biggest fallacy I see is when they say something is not free will because we found an anatomic or PET or FMRI finding associated with it. The fallacy being that free will couldn't effect anatomy or physiology. Carried to the extreme that kind of thinking would lead one to conclude that if they found a part of the brain that lights up when they told someone to think of the color red then that proves thinking of red cannot be a free choice. You seem to be on to this and sometimes present neuroscientists who are not so illogical, or maybe my theory that they couldn't get away with this fallacy for yet another decade is right and it is starting to go away.

    Another good way to find the junk is to look for the experts who feel free to delve into a subject they know virtually nothing about, like evolution for most of them (and sociopathy for some of them-I'm sure you've noted that some still equate it with criminality!). Anyone who understands genetics and evolution would never go near any suggestions of anything resembling eugenics, and not just because of the ethical quagmires. It simply shows a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of the subject. It is well known by experts in those fields that the multiplicity of genes involved and the poor correlation of genes with traits and the size of the world combined with the number of centuries or millennia one would need to complete the project make the whole idea extremely naive.

    I only just encountered the phrase "warrior gene" here for the first time, but I bet in 10 years they'll be talking about how stupid and misleading it was to call it that.

    Oh and I love the one where they say they found a gene that's associated with multiple psychopathologies including bipolar, as if they don't know almost everyone with any of the hard to diagnose psychopathologies hasn't been told they are bipolar at some point. Most of my mentally ill patients can list many diseases they've been diagnosed with. Anyone who thinks most psych diagnoses aren't largely cultural constructs that change every decade hasn't been paying attention. Depression might seem straightforward but we still can't figure out when it's just normal. Sociopathy seems pretty well defined though, thanks in part to you.

    So thank you for bringing logic to science, never mind for your personal perspective that has given me the understanding I was looking for.


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  15. science is the greatest thing of our's makes our life easy and comfortable.But junk science is very bad.That is why the empath believes that the psychopath never learns for his
    mistakes. But from the psychopath's angle they are not "mistakes" at
    all. It's the "empath squares" who accept the problem.


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