Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Psychopathy in the Army

From a reader:

As a veteran reading “Natural Killers – Turning the Tide of Battle” by Major David Pierson, I was a stricken by the assumption that it’s sociopaths who make up “natural killers” on the battlefield.  A member of Joint Special Operations Command, I was one of the guys sneaking around at night snatching up all those high value targets in the war on terror.  I was also a sniper in one of these units.  More than one source of data suggests psychopaths are drawn to commando units and sniper teams in particular.  Hell, I remember feeling a vague sense of discomfort after reading the last DSM criteria for ASPD, which listed impulsivity, aggression, tendency to break social norms, enjoy alcohol, and engage in a series of sexual relationships with little emotional attachment.  Most of us in my unit really enjoyed our time overseas, had fun in combat, and still crave the thrill of assaulting an objective.  The implications are… unnerving.  

But despite Pierson’s presumption, there’s a more nuanced perspective of ASPD, psychopathy, and sociopathy in relation to his idea of natural killers on the battlefield.  I believe archetypal psychopaths, though drawn to commando units, typically wash out of the elite selection processes.  This is because elite military units require a strong sense of social cohesiveness.  

Major David Pierson’s research draws heavily from Colonel Grossman’s research for his book On Killing, which drew heavily from the Gen. Marshall study on soldiers’ ability to kill following WWII.  Pierson describes an experience in Iraq, in which he witnessed a friend of his, a soldier, who had become battle fatigued after a brief fire fight.  He described the soldier as being “shaken by the episode,” and “not a natural killer.”  A natural killer wouldn’t have been shaken by the incident above.  A natural killer, Pierson goes on, is callous, adventurous, possesses a dark sense of humor, is athletic, and enjoys fighting.  

These are all the common traits of the unit I served with, and traits which couldn’t describe me better.  My unit rarely had problems with guys being battle-fatigued, and never had problems with guys failing to pull the trigger when needed.  Indeed, Pierson points out that aggressive psychopaths seek out positions in “airborne, Ranger, and special forces” units.  However, Pierson jumps to the conclusion that natural killers in combat are necessarily aggressive psychopaths.  After all, the traits described above do not necessarily a psychopath make.  In fact, they only apply to some facets of the diagnosis for ASPD in the DSM.  Though many expect most of us to be sociopathic, there’s actually limited data to suggest psychopaths are overrepresented in the profession. 

In my experience, commandos do have a certain profile that is almost ubiquitous in the industry.  Obviously, thrill seeking is the biggest prerequisite for special operations, but other, maybe surprising traits tend to pop up in the community.  We tend to be obsessive, single minded kind of guys, so the addiction trait is quite, quite common (every guy I know, including myself, are mild to severe addicts).  Next is some form of mild Attention Deficit Disorder.  Last, the guys are generally smart and eccentric.  These are not the “military” types you see running around with cropped haircuts and army boots in their off time (think – Marine) though they are tough guys.

That being said, some traits above do tend to mesh with some ASPD criteria.  Being an elite soldier means jumping out of planes and helicopters, mastering weapons of violence, applying medical trauma skills at the EMT-P level, and enjoying hand-to-hand combat.  There must be a powerful intuition to suppress emotions and engage in violence.  So to a certain extent, lack of empathy and remorse, a desire to break social norms, impulsivity, and aggression are prerequisites of the job.  While Pierson’s essay encourages leaders to identify natural killers in their units, the selection process for special operations units does a brilliant job finding them, institutionally.  

The selection process for elite units can be divided into two major assessment portions.  The hard physical selection weed-out process, like hell-week for navy seals’ Basic Underwater Demolition School, or the first week of the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program, coerces groups of cadets into performing strenuous group activities which depend on cooperation.  These drills require a sort of pack-like behavioral sense for cadets to succeed.  I can’t stress enough how socially demanding group drills are in a selection setting.
On the opposite end, however, comes individual talent drills which do not allow for others to pick up any slack.  One way the army selects for individual talent draws heavily from the British commando schools of the 40s, by requiring land navigation challenges, orienteering for the civilian reader, to assess whether an applicant can think on his feet and surmount arduous physical demands without any help from a comrade.  Land navigation, basically being dropped in the woods with a map and compass and told to find a bunch of points, is the LSAT or GMAT for the commando.  I suspect an intelligent psychopath could thrive on the latter, though struggle with the former.  

It’s hard to explain the mindset of working in an elite military unit.  While individual skills are necessary to succeed in the environment, group cohesion is equally important.  Small unit movements are a thing of awe.  Each member of the team works off one another, effortlessly, to flow through rooms, maintain 360 degrees of security, and achieve an objective.  There is an almost preternatural sense of being aware what the entire unit is doing, an exercise of reptilian and mammalian brain functions.  It takes a degree of yes, empathetic feeling to experience this as second nature.  The less you have to concentrate on what everyone else is doing, the more your cognitive attention can focus on what’s in front of you, and how to accomplish the larger mission.  This takes a lot of practice.  I would conjecture that the psychopath, who has a remarkably lower blood flow to the socially activated portions of the brain, would have a harder time concentrating during small unit tactics.  At least he’d have more difficulty developing the bonds necessary to thrive in the environment.  

All that being said, during my time as a DOD contractor and commando in Afghanistan and Iraq, I did come across what you’d call a traditional psychopath, albeit rarely.  I’m talking about the archetypal psychopath, the guy who stares at people and makes them uncomfortable, the guy incapable of reacting to other peoples’ emotional states without effort, who genuinely won’t feel guilty after a bad shooting incident, who sincerely enjoys playing head games with people.  But they had a hard time staying in a crew.  Sometimes it’d be the occasional inappropriate assault, sometimes the attempted murder of a comrade (yes, I’m not kidding).  There were a couple guys I knew, though, traditional sociopaths, but smart enough to fake it and control themselves to gel on a team.  I tended to enjoy their company, actually.  There’s a lot of entertainment to be had with a legit sociopath. 

Last, Pierson makes some great observations in identifying killers in a unit.  Overwhelmingly, guys in special operations come from middle-to-upper class backgrounds, are extroverted, and have higher technical scores than the rest of the military.  The class background in particular warrants further study.  While many who join the military do so for job skills or college money, men who enlist for commando units have no expectation of gaining either of these.  The types who volunteer for a professionally worthless job skill do so for adventure, and little else.  Ironically, volunteering for the most arduous, Hollywood positions in the military comes from a position of privilege.  I still struggle to wrap my head around that.  

Ultimately, I suspect most true aggressive psychopaths drawn to commando units wash out during some point of the selection process, or are kicked out because they either have a hard time getting along with comrades or get caught conducting illegal activity.  Otherwise Pierson’s description of a natural killer is pretty accurate.  To most of us who thrive during our time in a deadly unit, we have just enough ASPD traits to do well, but also enough empathy to flow as a cohesive unit and genuinely care for one another in the event of a casualty.  You could say we have ASPD in all the right places.  


29 comments:

  1. Dont think anybody has to worry much about "organized" socios, not in the military & not in the mob. These creatures are not suited for "organized" activity with lots of discipline, tedious routines & team work.

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  2. Is anyone else thinking of the Natural Born Killers soundtrack? Loved that movie. I really liked this post. I like studying violent behaviors.

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  3. We are entering an era of history where everybody will have to be a
    sociopath just to survive.
    When that radicalized chimp charges at you with a meat cleaver to cut
    off your head, you must have some means to come out of it alive.
    When we have to flee into the countryside to escape the Ebola filled cities
    and/or the coming economic break down, we will see what is meant by
    the addage "Only the strong survive."

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    1. Keeping Reynolds Wrap in business, aye?

      N

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  4. What a strange world we live in. All around me I encounter people who glorify and worship altruism and empathy and deny the "dark side" of human nature. I am a strange neither "fish nor fowl" creature. I am old (70) and never would have been suited for the kind of "survival of the fittest" life the author of this post celebrates. Yet something of it speaks to my nature and spirit. I volunteer for a local law enforcement agency, and its members have some of the same qualities he speaks of. I have encountered at least one person in the unit who apparently has served in both the military special forces and in the (somewhat demoralized at the moment) Secret Service. I irritated him once by casually speaking of a thin line between the psychology of criminals and of police authorities. He fiercely retorted that there was a clear line in his own mind and that he had no doubts he was on the right side. I think what he said is compatible with this post.

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    1. Well said RA. :)

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    2. Only the Paranoid SurviveOctober 8, 2014 at 12:37 PM

      "All around me I encounter people who glorify and worship altruism and empathy and deny the "dark side" of human nature."

      It's because humans are manipulative and hypocritical by nature.

      Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

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    3. RA,

      In days gone by people had more outlets in real life for their dark side. Executions, hanging or burning at the stake, were public spectacles. Physical violence was commonplace, including in the home where a husband was legally entitled to beat his wife and his children. I'm not making a moral statement here, just about facts.

      Nowadays, boys get into a scuffle at school and the whole thing is blown out of all proportion. Outlets are virtual, movies of violence, extreme porn, gory video games. The average child sees how many deaths on TV and in movies before they turn 18? But show a real execution by the state, no -- not allowed, or the ISIS videos of real beheadings generate moral outrage and wholly disproportionate fear.

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    4. You can find scenes of torture and execution even on youtube and many youtubers are not outraged, they like it.

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    5. Anyone who "volunteers" with a police unit full of psychopaths, must be one himself. FghtGangStalking(dot)com

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  5. That's a great article. One point about AsPD that I haven't seen discussed:

    A requirement for diagnosis of AsPD is the presence of conduct disorder prior to age 18. Conduct disorder involves breaking rules as well as violating the rights of others. I guess the highly regimented, rule based daily grind of military life or special forces in particular would weed out people like that, as well as 'high functioning sociopaths'.

    I wonder how many people could self-diagnose as having had a conduct disorder in childhood or adolescence -- according to criteria for instance here: http://psychcentral.com/disorders/conduct-disorder-symptoms/

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    1. After reading this, I have to say that I'm just thankful for raising my sons in a rural community. We're they will learn responsibility and respect for the land mother nature has provided for us. Yes, we do kill animals as part of the natural life cycle of eating & surviving, and do sell our meat to farner market's. It's just like going to the grocery store to by a slab of meat. We just see the process of it all in- between before it hits the store to sell. My boys build forts with tools, and just made a bridge across the pond for their sister with their bare hands. My husband's throws the tools at them . Lol. They love her to bits and bits and show her so much care.
      Do they have the genetics to act in a conduct disordered way, maybe? Idk. I worry about one boy. He is a toughy and probably the most compassionate you'll ever meet. He picks his scabs, and loves the way the blood feels he told me. He will protect you at all costs. He will love hard. But he will rage quicker than any other boy I have. His temperament is tough, rage, cry, love, happy, loud. God how much I love him, but do worry. His teacher & I work with him because his sensory system is hyper-sensitive. And her room is filled with sensory activities. I begged the school to keep him in her class one more year because she understands him. He is gaining in strides. He is my joy! I can't help but see this boy displaying some borderline like his mother. Then I think is it a genetic response to his surroundings and just the way he copes to it. Is he just a normal boy and we've pathologized everything. But I swear the cure is to keep them busy with stuff to do and give them outlets to build on their achievements. Builds on their positive emotions. Work the land. Take care of the animals.. :)

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    2. DrSF:

      Regarding conduct disorder, I always wonder how many people could have fit the criteria for conduct disorder but never received the diagnosis because they were either able to hide/get away with the deeds that would qualify them for it or because their parents were in denial and kept it swept under the rug. How would the testing weed out people who were simply able to do such a good job of hiding their disorder that there are little to no official records of their deeds?

      N

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  6. Hi N,

    In the past people were not so obsessed with taking children to therapists or psychiatrists. What I was saying about weeding out is that people who from an early age do not follow rules and violate the rights of others (whether they are diagnosed or not) are going to have a hell of a hard time fitting into the regimented, restricted and rule based life of the military. That's my hypothesis anyway.

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    1. DrSF:

      Ahh, I see.

      I took a look at your link for conduct disorder. I knew I was a "mean girl" girl in school, but I never thought about it much until I saw that list of criteria for CD. These applied to me as an adolescent:

      • often bullies, threatens, or intimidates others

      • has been physically cruel to people

      • has deliberately destroyed others’ property (other than by fire setting)

      • often lies to obtain goods or favors or to avoid obligations (i.e., “cons” others)

      • has stolen items of nontrivial value without confronting a victim (e.g., shoplifting, but without breaking and entering; forgery)

      • has run away from home overnight at least twice while living in parental or parental surrogate home (or once without returning for a lengthy period)

      Brings back memories. Quite a few of them made me smile!

      N

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  7. Only the Paranoid SurviveOctober 8, 2014 at 12:16 PM

    I see no difference between soldiers and terrorists. They're either brainwashed idealists being used as expendable pawns by power-hungry psychopathic leaders or they just want to find a way to kill and get away with it.

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    1. You sound like someone I know and mock.

      I'll let you in on a secret... You're even dumber than you appear.

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    2. He's either dumb or brillian, hell if I know which.

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  8. Humans are advanced predators. It's just what they are.

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    1. No, anon, it's more complicated than that. We are omnivores. Some of us holler, "I am a vegan! I hug my carrots. I spend thousands of dollars at the vet trying to extend the life of my elderly dog that can barely gum its kibbles."
      Others of us sneak into the house of the vegan and rip apart the vegan and her toothless dog with our bare teeth. We are not advanced predators. We are simply confused omnivores with delusions of grandeur.

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  9. I'm not sure I buy into the idea that a sociopath would be unable to fit into the group assault scenario presented here. Is it really "empathy" that the soldiers are using? Isn't it more like body language, subtleties of movement, signs, choreographed dances, etc.? I would think these are things a high functioning socio would excel at, especially one with some motivation. Who wouldn't be better, actually? I've read nothing in this letter to disqualify any but the most base sociopath, who was probably headed for prison anyway. I think a sociopath has his/her own kind of empathy. It's called paying attention.

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    1. I completely agree with this. I am in the military and, although not special forces myself, am acquainted with many of them personally and professionally. If these guys had any *highly developed* sense of empathy or emotion, I think it would be exceedingly difficult to do their jobs.

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    2. A little late to the party (I found this post after Googling some more information about Pierson's article on natural killers), but I figure I could pitch in my opinion and maybe provide some insight.

      I served in a special operations unit for the latter half of the Global War on Terror, conducting the similar (if not the same) direct action raids on the insurgencies in Afghanistan/Iraq. I relate heavily to what the author is saying, to include his bit on empathy while conducting assaults.

      Keep in mind that the author specifies that he has "enough empathy" to flow cohesively as a unit and care for each other. I believe your interpretation of his use of the word 'empathy' is in its extreme and complete case, when in actuality you are describing exactly what the author intends to convey: he, as well as the others conducting the assault, has the capacity to understand and identify the other members of his teams' mental states and perspectives. This includes reading body language, signs, etc, and understanding what his team members' intentions are based off the what is being expressed in these small actions. Clearing rooms (and on a larger scale, assaulting a general objective) requires the assaulter to understand what is happening with all moving pieces of the objective. In that sense, the assaulter has a certain degree of empathy for/of the other team members he is working with in that he can place himself in his team members' shoes and see things from their perspective, but not necessarily 'feel for their emotions,' or anything to that extent.

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  10. Wow! This is the first time I've read something on this blog that actually makes sense! I'm shocked that it was posted.

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    1. Anon 8:01, When I was young, the Internet was the "wild west." You could post or say anything (except perhaps a threat on the life of POTUS) in "newsgroups." Of course, As Dr. Si-Fi pointed out yesterday, even the 1950s were a pale imitation of the joy of lynchings in the American south, or the public hangings and executions in Elizabethan times.

      Human beings keep trying to tamp down our vicious side. Like a Jack in the Box, it keeps popping up. Lets all thank the Jews of Israel and the Muslims of Iran, not to mention the Buddhists of Burma. Perhaps the Catholics and Protestants of Ireland will light their old fires again and show us the good old time Christianity.

      Don't worry. The world is filled with nuclear weapons. It's only a matter of time until somebody figures out how to "weaponize" Ebola.

      Enjoy while you can. It's only a matter of time before some nanny shuts down this web site as being a danger to those wimpy empaths. Like me.

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  12. I'm ex military myself, is anyone else on here too?
    I known a guy who was in special operations for 5 years, later declined a proposition from Blackwater. When I asked him why, he told me "You'd need to be a psychopath to be there, they do inhumane things", and then described. Funny enough, he had a lot of ASPD traits, but like said, "in all the right areas". By that I mean he excelled in the military but he's a failure in civil life.
    So yes, I generally agree with this post, both as ex-military myself and, well, logically. ASPD's wouldn't last too long due to the complex social dynamics in some units in the military where those are required, having to have very strong sense of self control or at least to act against the instinct and doing "the right thing" even if it doesn't "feel" right (or doesn't feel at all). Or you could get around it by manipulating, intimidating and controlling. Take your pick.

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  13. fuck this post

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  14. "Ironically, volunteering for the most arduous, Hollywood positions in the military comes from a position of privilege. I still struggle to wrap my head around that. "

    I think makes perfect sense, their privilege gives them a fallback in case things don't work out in the field. It's desperate people who can't afford to go into something with no career prospect at the end of it.

    ReplyDelete

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