Thursday, August 28, 2014

Change and pure evil

A reader sent me this article in the Scientific Article about evil and about people who have a belief that some things are pure evil (70% responded as such in a recent study). All of it's worth reading, but let me include the essential part of the argument:

Evil has been defined as taking pleasure in the intentional inflicting of harm on innocent others, and ever since World War II social psychologists have been fascinated by the topic. Many of the formative thinkers in the field — Kurt Lewin, Stanley Milgram , Solomon Asch — were inspired by their experiences with, and observations of, what appeared to most people at the time to be the indisputable incarnation of pure evil. But what many saw as a clear demonstration of unredeemable and deep-seated malice, these researchers interpreted as more, in the words of Hannah Arendt, banal. From Milgram’s famous studies of obedience to Zimbardo’s prison study, psychologists have argued for the roots of evil actions in quite ordinary psychological causes. This grounding of evil in ordinary, as opposed to extraordinary, phenomena have led some to describe the notion of “pure evil” as a myth. A misguided understanding of human nature deriving both from specific socio-cultural traditions as well as a general tendency to understand others’ behavior as a product solely of their essence, their soul, as opposed to a more complicated combination of environmental and individual forces.

The issue of whether “pure evil” exists, however, is separate from what happens to our judgments and our behavior when we believe in its existence. It is this question to which several researchers have recently begun to turn. How can we measure people’s belief in pure evil (BPE) and what consequences does such a belief have on our responses to wrong-doers?

According to this research, one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.

Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.

Regardless of whether the devil actually exists, belief in the power of human evil seems to have significant and important consequences for how we approach solving problems of real-world wrongdoing. When we see people’s antisocial behavior as the product of an enduring and powerful malice, we see few options beyond a comprehensive and immediate assault on the perpetrators. They cannot be helped, and any attempts to do so would be a waste of time and resources.

But if we accept the message from decades of social psychological research, that at least some instances of violence and malice are not the result of “pure evil” — that otherwise decent individuals can, under certain circumstances, be compelled to commit horrible acts, even atrocities — then the results of these studies serve as an important cautionary tale. The longer we cling to strong beliefs about the existence of pure evil, the more aggressive and antisocial we become.  And we may be aggressing towards individuals who are, in fact, “redeemable.”  Individuals who are not intrinsically and immutably motivated by the desire to intentionally cause harm to others. That may be the greatest trick the devil has ever pulled.

Until recently, most researchers believed that sociopathy is not treatable (see some of the articles on treatment at this site hosted by the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy). In fact, when you read some of the articles or see interviews with particularly some of the earlier scientific researchers involved with sociopaths (Hare?), it seems pretty clear that some of them have a belief in pure evil, so it's easy to see how sociopaths got labeled "irredeemable" initially.

The possibility of treatment and change has been one that I've been thinking a lot about, now that I (through therapy and the process of writing and promoting the book) finally feel like I have come to terms with myself in a way that both acknowledges and accepts my sociopathic tendencies, while not allowing them to hamper or restrict the way that I want to live my life. Less and less does my identity center around being sociopathic. I may never be normal, but I am forming a sense of self and learning how to identify and experience my emotions in a way that I never thought would be possible even a year ago. Because I still feel like I am in transition, I've been hesitant to speak too much about it or about anything related to sociopathy. But it does sort of bother me that part of that hesitancy is the concern that people will not receive the news well -- that I will be thought of as a sell-out by other sociopathically minded individuals or that I will be further derided as delusional or a fraud for having ever understood the term "sociopath" to describe me. This is too bad. I wish it were possible for us to believe that someone might have been a validly diagnosed sociopath but still was able to make lasting changes, possibly to the point where she could no longer be diagnosed as such anymore. I have my own personal reasons/biases for wanting to believe that story, but I also think in general it's one that we should try to believe in because it is one of hope and redemption instead of hopeless submission either to the evil inside us or to the evil outside us. But I'm not sure that's where we're at right now, unfortunately. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014


I enjoyed reading recent comments comparing/contrasting how sociopaths think/feel about what they do vs. empaths. Often people cite the sociopath's lack of guilt as a reason for thinking that they are inherently more dangerous than people who are capable of feeling guilt and empathy. The problem with that is that empaths seem perfectly capable of turning off their guilt and empathy when it doesn't suit them, e.g. slavery, Holocaust, any of the thousands of genocides, any of the millions of wars. And as one commenter put it:

I wonder though, now that you have learned that the perfectly normal person can in the proper circumstances not just do worse evil than the sociopath but ENJOY it and rationalize it as a MORAL victory, do you find that MORE horrifying? When I do something evil at least I know it is evil. I don't get emotional satisfaction out of it. It might give me a momentary intellectual thrill. The "normal" person though who has been given societal absolution for the evil? The get enjoyment out of it. They get excited. btw Anon. They=you. Yes you personally. You want to remove me personally from society because I MIGHT cause harm. I have in my lifetime saved well over 50+ lives. I do charity work. I am making the world a better place DESPITE the fact that I get Nothing out of it emotionally. I do it because I follow my moral code. If we were both put in a position where we were released from societal consequences for causing harm to others and told to kill a stranger (like in war) I would be LESS likely than you to do it. Think on that. 

So the sociopath never receives the same sort of emotionally driven self-justification for doing bad things, just an intellectual thrill. But people seem to find that thrill more scary than the the ability to blindly follow someone to rape, kill, and maim in the name of some higher good.

The other thing that people find disturbing about the sociopath is that he does good things but not for the "right" reasons:

I do good things, I do them because they are right. I don't do it because it makes me feel good or because it makes me feel morally superior. I do it because I know what I am and I want to be something better.
I believe good and evil to be actions. Seriously, fuck all the moralizing crap, you are what you DO. You have time after time defended empaths who do evil or do nothing (in Tii's example) and reviled anyone who believes socio's are redeemable with an astounding lack of logic. I have no bones with holocaust deniers, to each their own own conspiracy theory. I subscribe to a few myself. I find them a good intellectual exercise. However, I have noticed a particularity about you that I need to address. 

Another commenter makes a similar point:

I have witness a kid fall of a train platform, thank God for him it wasn't too fast. Every one around made a commotion and took out there phones and cameras. No one tried to help, even the mother just watched while screaming and crying desperately. Only one to act was yours truly, Mr Sociopath. I jumped down and pushed him back up, not because I was happy to do it, not because I cared what happened to the kid, and not for the glory or gratitude (I care about that less than the kid). I only did so because it would be a shame to die so young, and because I couldn't stand those idiot empaths hypocrisy. The mother barelty noticed me I didnt even get a word of thanks, the other fools just clapped, it got me so upset (the clapping) I had to leave the platform. Next, my neighbor's dobberman onced got out of his yard and terrorized a young couple. The boyfriends ran away leaving his girl, while she stood there paralyzed and crying (a few morz seconds she might have pissed herself). One witness, actually a pretty cool guy and a good neighbor laughed, another ran into her house. Who put himself between the beast and the lovely dame? Yours truly, Mr Sociopath. I calmed it down and dragged it back to its house (fine the girl was hot, and I wanted to show off and earn point but still). Anyways my point is, just because I don't care, or because I am not genuine, or again because I hide my true feelings and intentions (I guess that would count as not being genuine too but the backspace key is to far) doesn't make me evil. If I have chosen to live my life doing good, and helping other for their sake and not mine, since I don't give two flying shit what happens to people, I shouldn't be seen for what I think. If actions speak louder than words, they surely speak louder than a thought that doesn't make a fucking sound. Whoever said it's the thought that count was just a lazy bitch, or incompetent hoe that couldn't or wasn't willing to act as he thought he should.
Many people call me a hypocrite when I tell them how I truly think or feel, because it doesn't align with my words or my action, or because I don't do good for the sake of others but, because I want to buy my way into heaven. But the way I see it Christianity is about sacrifice, so if I put my own thoughts and wants aside to follow a path that leads me to God (even if I only take it so that I don't end up in Hell), my actions should count more than my thoughts. A pedophile might be regarded as sick, and disturbed in our society but, if he resists all his urges and lies about his preferences because that is the "right" thing, shouldn't he be seen for what he does and not what he thinks? 

The unifying theme seems to be that sociopaths focus on the actions and the results of those actions, whereas normal people have been socialized to care more about whether someone had a "good" or "bad" intention, presumably because they believe that bad intentions make bad people and you can't really trust bad people no matter what:

[P[eople who feel remorse (e.g. who are not psychopaths) are more likely to refrain from committing further crimes than people who do not. This has been explicitly linked to reduced fear of consequences, the absence of shame and remorse and the resultant relative inability to learn from mistakes.

But is that a question as to the morality or the cost benefit analysis of keeping certain people in prison for longer than other people who may have committed a similar crime?

"In a wider sense, I'm not convinced (lack of) feelings of remorse make a 'morally bad' action any better or worse. To take an extreme example, a murder is a murder is a murder. Whether or not the murderer feels guilty about his or her actions, there's still a dead person and a bunch of people negatively affected by that person's absence and the manner of their 'departure'."

The main problem for the sociopath in accepting the empath's point of view here is that to a sociopath, actions can be controlled to a degree (as long as they are not completely ruled by impulse). Thoughts and feelings cannot, particularly to the extent that someone is asking them to feel a certain way about something that is impossible for the sociopath (guilt, remorse, empathy, etc.) So what do you do if you are a sociopath who cares to be better than how they were made? You make choices to do things that you believe to be right -- without any of the usual positive emotional reinforcement that empaths experience and sometimes against your very nature. And is that any less good than acting based on emotional prompts?

I would like you to notice that some of the sociopaths on this site are trying to live by society's rules, though they do not have the emotional "muscle" to help them do that. They have to use their intellect to do it. Can we also use our intellect to understand them? 

And to wrap it up:

I stand by my assertion that you are what you do and what you think or why you do it has no relevance. What I think is smoke and mirrors. Why I save a child or adult is of no relevance. No more than why I hold the door open for the person behind me. It is the right thing to do and I am betting that sociopath that I am I have done more right in this world than you have TJMO.

Does that thought piss you off? For all your hand wringing and moralizing that it is possible that Tii and I have saved more people than you have? That our continued existence benefits society more than your's does? Here is the kicker sweet flower. Most norms do good so they can feel good about themselves, we do because it is the right thing to do. We must fight our very nature to accomplish this task and we do it. Every damn day. For no reward whatsoever. I want you to take that and really think about or feel about it even for a second. Maybe take an hour or two out of your day and meditate on that. Good people do evil things every day. Evil people do good things every day. This is one of things that makes ALL people so damn fascinating to me. Even you my special flower. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Feeling For You"

To file under failings of empathy (and the urge to simplify and reduce humanity into a problem that can be fixed only if you point it out often enough?), from Timothy Burke:

When the streams do cross and someone in a group or a discussion suddenly says, “Actually, I feel pretty hurt or offended by the way you folks are talking about this issue, because I’m actually the thing you’re talking about”, what happens? Sometimes people make non-apology apologies (“sorry that you’re offended”), sometimes people double-down and say, “You’re crazy, there’s nothing offensive about talking about X or Y”. A turn or two in the conversation, though, and what you’ll often hear is this: “Look, I just care about you and people like you. So I want to help.” (Or its close sibling: “Look, not to insult you personally, but people like you/behavior like that costs our society a lot of money and/or inflicts a lot of pain on other people. Don’t you think it would be better if…”)

I’d actually like to concede the sincerity of that response: that we get drawn into these discussions and the judgments they create out of concern for other people, out of concern for moral and social progress. That we feel passionately about people who let their children go to the park by themselves, about people who train their children to go hunting, about people who are overweight, about people who drive big SUVs, about people play their radios too loudly in their cars, about people who buy overly expensive salsa, about people who play video games, about people who raise backyard chickens, about people who demand accommodations for complex learning disabilities, about people who follow the fashion industry, about people who post to Instagram, about people who feed their kids fast food twice a week to save time, and so on.

I’d like to concede the sincerity but the problem is that most of these little waves of moral condemnation or judgmental concern don’t seem to be particularly compassionate or particularly committed. The folks who say, “I just want to help, because I care about you” show no signs of that compassion otherwise. They usually aren’t close friends to the person they’re commenting on, they usually have little empathy or curiosity overall. The folks who say, “Because I care about progress, about solving the bigger problem” don’t show much interest in that alleged bigger problem. The person who hates the big SUVs because they’re damaging the environment is often environmentally profligate in other ways. If the SUV-judger is consistently environmentally sensitive, some other aspect of their concern for the world, their vision of a better society, may be woefully out of synch or weakly developed.

The people I know who really care about others generally aren’t the people going on Facebook to say, “Man, I’m sick of people hiding behind claims of depression” or “If I meet another mother who thinks it’s ok to bring cupcakes to my child’s class, I’m going to go berserk”. The people I know who are really think about incremental moves to improve the world don’t get hung up on passing judgments on someone they’ve witnessed fleetingly in public.

I also liked this comment on the same post:

I think that at least part of these kinds of incidental judgements that people have and the weird fierceness of them in contrast to their weak post-hoc justifications (false compassion) comes from not having a good way to talk about non-instrumental aesthetic concerns.

We (I mean Westerners I guess) cannot really appeal to aesthetics as a justification. Think about grammar. People always justify things like lay/lie or “12 items or fewer” in terms of clarity, as though it were actually likely to confuse someone about meaning. Of course, no one is ever confused about meaning in those cases. However, for someone who has a strong aesthetic sense of which is correct, there is a moment of annoyance, a kind of disgust-related aversion to hearing the wrong one. This is actual source of the grammar pedant’s complaint, but it can’t be expressed as a valid justification because it’s not instrumental to some commonsensical social goal. So they invent concerns about clarity of language. Ditto the driver who is momentarily annoyed by a bicyclist and then concocts arguments about how not sharing in licensing fees makes riders freeloaders. The presence of an element that doesn’t fit smoothly into a mental model of how a system should work (for people like themselves) is the real problem. People do have some interest in keeping their mental model of the world well-defined, if only to lighten cognitive load. What’s problematic is the prioritization of one group’s aesthetic concerns over another’s very lives (e.g. drivers who bully cyclists on the road).

I’m a fat person, or I have been on and off, and I more or less share your take on the situation there. I’m quite sure that people aren’t expressing their real concerns when they talk about health or medical costs. (After all, runners have an extremely high rate of injury and no one thinks that they are anti-social; much to the contrary.) Although I don’t really want to sign up for some kind of identity politics of fatness either, I think it is ultimately rooted in the disgust response, much like the kinds of aesthetic judgements that go along with racism.

I think that not being racist and not being homophobic etc. are special cases of suppressing these extraneous aesthetic requirements with the understanding that some specific dimension of variation needs to be tolerated and integrated into the mental model of how things work — but that tolerance is the result of hard-fought gains specific to each case.

Which of the mental health categories get this type of hate the most? 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Horrible people

From a reader:

First off, let me say that I am not an avid reader nor am I someone to write an author to discuss my fondness and respect for his or her work, but I am so glad that I stumbled across your book. Immediately, I found myself relating to you and your analyses of sociopathic behavior. Oddly enough, I do not believe that I can be considered a sociopath as I do share traits of the empath, but I think it valuable in many ways to model certain sociopathic behavior. This probably makes me seem like a horrible person, actively taking on traits of a subset of the population that cannot help but operate in particular ways, however, maybe you understand that it could also be beneficial to recognize these strengths in some situations. To get ahead in this world sometimes it is necessary to be the predator instead of the passive prey. It is imperative that I dissect every detail and weakness about those I want to be professionally or personally involved with so that when the time is right, I maintain the upper hand. Unknowingly, I certainly target people. I have a type. I have always considered my sexuality as being ambiguous and more about a person intriguing me rather than abiding by the social norms. I do what I want and attribute much of my success to utilizing motives discussed in your book. Though I do not think these admissions can describe 100% of my everyday life, this is certainly a piece of me. Maybe admitting these things categorizes me as something socially, stereotypically 'worse' than a sociopath. Ultimately, I guess I am not seeking advice or answers, but wanted to relay thanks for being brave enough to delve into this topic and recounting your experiences. It is comforting to know that, right or wrong, crazy or not crazy, I am not in the minority to have such thoughts. 

Thanks again

PS- I'm a drummer as well! Hope you still find time to play.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Criminal psychopath and the PCL-R

It must be psychopath week at NPR, because a reader sent me yet another article on psychopaths. This time the focus is on the plight of a criminal who gets diagnosed a psychopath and then is denied parole on the basis of that diagnosis, as well as the legitimacy of a three hour test that basically determines your personality/predispositions/fate -- the PCL-R. The most personally interesting part was the simple explanation of the origins of the original PCL:
"Science cannot progress without reliable and accurate measurement of what it is you are trying to study," [Dr. Robert Hare] says. "The key is measurement, simple as that."

And so Hare decided to make a way to measure: a test for psychopaths.

Hare sat down with his research assistant and together they wrote down all the personality traits they'd consistently seen in the psychopaths they'd studied. Things like lack of empathy, lack of remorse, manipulation, egocentricity, impulsivity, superficial charm, psychological lying.

For each of these qualities, Hare wrote up a description so it would be clear what he meant by, say, lack of empathy.

Psychologists using the test were supposed to ask the prisoners a series of questions to determine whether the trait was present. If it was there, the prisoner got 2 points; if it wasn't, zero; if the psychologist couldn't tell, 1 point was awarded.

The test listed 20 traits to check, and so Hare called it the Psychopath Checklist. Scores were totaled at the end — 40 was the highest score, but anything over 30 certified the test taker as a psychopath.

Hare next tested his test to make sure that it was "scientifically reliable" — that two people using the test on the same person would reach the same conclusion about whether that person was a psychopath. In research settings, the PCL-R's reliability appeared astonishingly good.

Voila! The test was born.
No magic, no revelation from God, no genetic or brain scan research validating each personality trait either, and, as mentioned many times before, the PCL-R was based exclusively on his work with psychopaths that he had identified in prison using what he believed were psychopathic traits based on his work with psychopathic prisoners that he had identified using what he believed were psychopathic based on his work with psychopathic prisoners . . . In other words, circular. So although the test proved "astonishingly" reliable, whatever that means, it does not mean at all that it is valid.

The article really paints Dr. Robert Hare in a pretty good light, as a pioneer in shining more light on a highly misunderstood disorder. I don't mean to criticize him as a person, and I do believe that his work is remarkably insightful and accurate given that it still represents the very early stages of understanding psychopathy.

I do find it odd that he personally wields so much power with regard to the subject matter -- if you haven't studied with him, if you don't use his test, you're basically nobody in some people's eyes -- which gets back to my point about the cult of experts. Thankfully, NPR also linked to a few other experts weighing in on the PCL-R. Here are some selections (all direct quotes):
  • By foregrounding intrinsic evil, [the concept of] psychopathy marginalizes social problems and excuses institutional failures at rehabilitation. We need not understand a criminal's troubled past or environmental influences. We need not reach out a hand to help him along a pathway to redemption. The psychopath is irredeemable, a dangerous outsider who must be contained or banished. Circular in its reasoning, psychopathy is nonetheless alluring in its simplicity. . . . Although modern psychopathy is more nuanced than its 19th century ancestor, diagnosing it remains an essentially subjective task.
  • Thanks to tools like the PCL-R, instead of wasting limited resources on a few bad apples, the justice system can focus those resources on the majority of offenders -- those who can profit from a second chance and are, more often than not, motivated to change.
  • [E]xperts disagree the most on the personality component of the PCL-R, perhaps because scoring it involves much more subjective judgment than does the criminal history component. Moreover, existing research suggests it is the criminal history component of the PCL-R -- not the (less reliable) personality component -- that is most helpful in identifying those likeliest to commit future crimes.
Does the PCL-R just measure the tendency of someone to re-offend by (gasp) asking them their criminal history? Very forward thinking, very groundbreaking.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


I thought this was an interesting recent comment:

The gravest accusation against sociopaths from the "empath-world" seems to be that "aware socios" are said to be very satisfied with their mental condition; if they could remove their psychopathy by pushing a button, they would not do so. Sick folks enjoying their disease! Isn't this somehow a little unfair: how many empaths would remove "supernatural gifts" they discovered one morning: if they could read others minds or see through walls? Most likely not many. All those movies about superheroes, what are they really about? Answer: human longing to be godlike. But socios are not allowed to have that wish. Somehow they are supposed to daydream about other things.. 

I had a little bit of a similar discussion with someone recently. Specifically, they were asking me about this statement in the book "I have chosen to call myself a sociopath because of the negative connotations of psycho in the popular culture. I may have a disorder, but I am not crazy." They assumed that I thought that being thought crazy was something that was even worse than being thought sociopath. I didn't mean that at all. Crazy is just different. In fact, in some ways, I wish that my craziness was more obvious to people in a way that psychosis often is, it would certainly help them to keep more of an open mind about me. Maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems that if I most people had a cousin with schizophrenia, they'd just be like -- oh, yeah, he has mental problems, this is not who he "really is." Or they might wonder where the line between mental disorder stops and he starts. Maybe they would think that it's impossible to tell who the cousin really is because it's impossible to filter out the disorder from the underlying person. And with someone who is obviously crazy, it seems like people pretty much credit anything that seems out of the ordinary to the mental problems instead of attributing it to a personality/character flaw. But with personality disorders, you get ascribed all of your disorder traits as being personality/character flaws (not altogether illogically, or course). If you are borderline, maybe you are a moody bitch. A narcissist = an egotistical control freak. A sociopath is a . . .  Well, especially if the sociopath was honest in sharing his or her worldview, a sociopath would be someone who is obviously delusionally obsessed with power, both in the micro and the macro, someone whose megalomania is only matched by his pettiness and self-involvement, etc. etc. That's who you are, or at least that is who people think you are. Because that's what you look like when you have this particular disorder. They don't really understand (or don't care? or don't care to make the distinction?) that those are just the symptoms of your disorder. 
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