Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sociopaths: net gain or loss?

From a reader:

This is about a one minute clip of David Mitchell, british comedian, talking about atheism and religion in general. I don't know why, but it made me instantly think of your blog and book, and the way you talked about including mormon faith as a guidance in your life. I have had similar thoughts of catholicism and religion in general for quite a long time, and I think Mitchell brings up excellent point, where beliefs are not really there to be right or wrong, but to provide comfort in life. For me, one of the few emotions I experience is void feeling, grasping me from my stomach up my throat, when i think of death. When my consciousness ceases to exist, I am going to be no more. Unimaginable, yet so tempting to think about. I really would like there to be something after we die!


I related with his suggestion that people often mistakenly identify cause and effect relationships. Are religious people war mongering killers? Or do war mongering killers just find a helpful vehicle in religion. And if the former, if we took out religion, would there be fewer wars and deaths? Would something replace it? Is there some offsetting advantage to religion? Perhaps certain aspects of religion increase the likelihood for violence and hatred and other aspects decrease it so that there it's a wash? (Also it's funny that we as a society used to think that it was the godless atheists that were the cause of all the world's horrors, so it's still a little funny to see the opposite argument getting made all of the time).

The religion angle is interesting to me personally, but more interesting for purposes of this blog is the tendency for people to reduce complicated correlations into simple cause and effect relationships where they believe that if they only removed the cause, the effect would stop happening. For instance, if a sociopath wreaks a little bit of havoc and we remove sociopaths, there would be less havoc and the world would overall be better. But will something else take their place? At least in certain circumstances?

Imagine the example of someone who chronically speeds while driving. He gets pulled over by a police officer who cites him for speeding. In some ways the police officer could be seen as the cause of the ticket, but if that particular cop didn't pull him over, does that mean he would never have gotten a speeding ticket that day? Or worse, have gotten in a serious accident? The existence of police officers might seem terrible for speeders, but are speeders actually better off without a particular police officer? Or police officers in general?

The other argument is that even if sociopaths do bad things, could it be possible that they also do good things? Enough good things to make them overall beneficial to society? Isn't that true of most of us? We sometimes cheat on a spouse or don't pay our taxes or lie to our boss or fudge a CV or steal cable or exaggerate a claim for reimbursement, but we also volunteer for our church or coach our son's football team or plan parties for our co-workers' birthdays or mentor young sociopaths? :)

I'm just saying, I've met some people who have asserted that sociopaths cause billions of dollars of damage a year, and part of my does not doubt it, but the other part of me wonders if it's possible that their risk-taking in business and go-getting mentality doesn't earn even more for the people that back them.

I know I've said this before, but from a recent comment, if you dare take a sociopath's word for it:

I absolutely think sociopaths can be morally good people. In fact I would argue that sociopaths have the potential to be more effective citizens of society. Because I am not clouded by emotions as more empathetic people are, I make decisions based on logic, reason, and common sense. I'm charitable, kind, and compassionate because I know that will improve society.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Liar, liar

One thing I am always a little surprised by is how horrified people are of the idea of sociopath mask-wearing and lying. Doesn't everybody? The main difference seems to be what sorts of things people bother to lie about? Maybe not even that? From the New Yorker blog's "How to Tell When Someone is Lying":

People lie all the time. According to the psychologist Robert Feldman, who has spent more than four decades studying the phenomenon, we lie, on average, three times during a routine ten-minute conversation with a stranger or casual acquaintance. Hardly anyone refrains from lying altogether, and some people report lying up to twelve times within that time span. I might open a conversation, for instance, by saying how nice it is to meet someone—when I’m really not at all happy about it. I might go on to say that I grew up in Boston—a lie, technically, since I really grew up in a small town about forty minutes outside the city. I could say that the person’s work sounds fascinating, when it’s no such thing, or compliment him on his (drab) tie or his (awful) shirt. And if the person mentions loving a certain downtown restaurant where I’ve had a terrible experience? I’m likely to just smile and nod and say, Yes, great place. Trust me: we often lie without giving it so much as a second thought.

We lie in most any context—Feldman’s work has turned up frequent lies in relationships ranging from the most intimate (marriage) to the completely casual. Some lies are small (“You look like you’ve lost a bit of weight”) and some bigger (“I did not have sex with that woman”). Sometimes they are harmless, and sometimes they are not.

Interestingly, although it is very difficult to become a personal lie-detector, studies suggest that people are pretty ok at subconsciously detecting lying:

In a series of studies, out this month in the journal Psychological Science, the Berkeley team had students watch a video of a possible criminal who was being questioned about stealing a hundred dollars. As in an actual interrogation, the suspect responded to both baseline questions (“What are you wearing?” “What’s the weather like outside?”) and target questions (“Did you steal the money?” “Are you lying to me right now?”). Half of the potential criminals were lying; half were telling the truth. Each participant watched one truthful and one deceptive video.

Next, the students completed a simple assessment: Were the pleaders in the videos telling the truth? Just as in prior studies, ten Brinke’s subjects, when asked direct questions, did no better than chance at determining who was truthful and who wasn’t.

But then the students participated in one of two unconscious lie-detection tasks. In each, they saw still photos of the two pleaders alongside words that were associated with either truth, such as “honest” and “genuine,” or lies, such as “deceitful” and “dishonest.” Their goal was to categorize the words as indicative of either truth or lies, as quickly and accurately as possible, regardless of the face they saw along with it. If “genuine” flashed on the screen, they would press a button to classify it as a truth-category word as soon as possible.

When the researchers dug deeper, they saw that the participants’ unconscious instinct fared far better: in both studies, they were significantly faster at properly categorizing lie- and truth-related concepts when those concepts were presented with the lying or truthful face, respectively, from the video. Seeing a liar’s face made people faster at classifying lie-related words than truth-related words—and seeing a truth-teller had the opposite effect. “When you see a liar’s face, the concept of deception is activated in your mind even if you’re not consciously aware of it,” ten Brinke hypothesizes. “It’s still unclear just how high a percentage of lies our unconscious mind is able to sense accurately, but discrimination is definitely occurring.”

Unconscious discrimination seems to play out in more life-like scenarios, too. In a series of prior studies, conducted by an unrelated group at the University of Manheim, the psychologist Marc-AndrĂ© Reinhard and his colleagues found that the ability of student judges to detect deception improved drastically if they were given time to think—but only if, in that time frame, they thought about something other than the case they were judging. If they had to make an immediate judgment, they did no better than chance. The same was true if they were allowed to deliberate consciously. But when they were kept from consciously deliberating, by, for example, completing a demanding word-search puzzle, their accuracy improved significantly. Reinhard concluded that, in the unconscious-deliberation condition, the brain had had time to integrate the subtle cues that our conscious mind can’t quite perceive into a more complete judgment.

Why is it so hard for people to spot sociopaths then? Could it be that some people are willfully blind?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Podcasts

A reader collected this list of podcasts related to the book (see also list of links below):  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/28/me-thomas-sociopath-diagnosis_n_3517982.html
        517837276.webm - video
        517837278.webm - video


http://audioboo.fm/boos/1579008-confessions-of-a-sociopath
        1579008-confessions-of-a-sociopath.mp3



http://programs.wypr.org/podcast/lawyer-sunday-school-teacher-sociopath-monday-july-22-1-2-pm
        Midday_07_22_13_HR_2_Sociopath.mp3



http://programs.wypr.org/podcast/confessions-sociopath-monday-sept-2-1-2-pm
        same as above



http://ttbook.org/book/beast-me
        tbk130811a1.mp3
        tbkthomasuncut.mp3
        tbk130811a.mp3



http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2013/08/01/confessions-of-a-sociopath/
        Audio | Q with Jian Ghomeshi | CBC Radio.mp3



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQrcqO0Qu7k
        Confessions of a Sociopath....mp4 - video
        Confessions of a Sociopath....webm - video



http://rt.com/shows/big-picture/fossil-fuel-industry-egypt-542/
        bigpicture_0207.mp4 - video



http://audioboo.fm/boos/1475635-how-psychopaths-have-successful-careers
        1475635-how-psychopaths-have-successful-careers.mp3



http://www.npr.org/2013/06/19/193099258/inside-the-mind-of-a-sociopath?sc=tw&cc=share
        20130619_tmm_05.mp3



http://www.opednews.com/Podcast/Interview-with-a-Sociopath-by-Rob-Kall-130628-524.html
        confessions-of-a-sociopath-part--20130628-630.mp3



http://www.opednews.com/Podcast/Part-2-Interview-With-a-So-by-Rob-Kall-130708-879.html
        confessions-2-sociopath-part-2-1-20130708-542.mp3



http://www.cbc.ca/radio/podcasts/arts-culture/q-the-podcast/
        qpodcast_20130802_28534.mp3



http://glucksolutions.podomatic.com/
        glucksolutions_2013-06-20T07_30_59-07_00.mp3



Jefferson Public Radio: The Jefferson Exchange Podcast
        01 Meet a Sociopath.mp3



Life Matters - ABC national Radio
        lms_20130627_0930.mp3


Psychopath Night bittorrent::

http://thepiratebay.se/torrent/9351150/Ch4_Psychopath_Night_x264_AAC_HDTV_

https://mega.co.nz/#!KV5DiaoT!2bhw2HmJh0v38BIEsbYVNdvtpowwG-CwwzZUjeMSQME

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https://mega.co.nz/#!uFZ1FajY!quf0aPOJAlLyx4O1McLsRk0MY4JFUftq_ImgeoOpyHk

https://mega.co.nz/#!XVgUDLxR!HZ8oks4tnpa7btkpSe5i5MQJNIQKSkU4LG2EcLRZgv8

https://mega.co.nz/#!udw2iKTS!xR5JTL6yujplSfWHNSWr2nM08DjGfOqQDdOdpv5lgfw

https://mega.co.nz/#!ONo3jZAJ!tnc2jG-Gu0pi-Fd0TiWPtgFwWgJjGU1UnHDMdCse2T4

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Power and obsessions

A reader asked me, "I enjoy having power over people, and I think that this power will help me in life, however since it is important to me I worry about the possibility of losing it. What are some ways you have lost power or what are ways that I could end up losing power?"

I responded: Interesting question. Probably the most common way for me to objectively lose power is to suffer some sort of defeat or loss, like an accident or getting fired, but usually those don't bother me too much. The losses of power that bother me more are the personal ones.

The most unpleasant loss of power to me is being rejected by someone as a despicable human being. I hate that, it makes me very very angry to the point of a violent all consuming rage, which is its own form of loss of power.

Another form is having an obsession or an itch that can't be scratched. There are a few people that have somehow planted themselves in my mind. To them, I am nothing. I don't even know how they got there in my mind, except that to some extent I invited them there. I wonder about them, what they think about, what they do. They are my playthings in a different way than most -- they're fun and interesting to me because they are *not* mine, and the game is to acquire them. It's not unpleasant, this feeling of obsession. It actually gives me some insight into how to do that to other people -- burrow my way into their minds and take up residence there. There have been times when the obsession starts to get out of control, though. If it gets bad enough, I have learned to talk myself down from the obsession by remembering that they are not really the person that exists in my mind, that I am really obsessed with a figment of my imagination that I have populated with the image of that person. So there's both control and powerlessness in an obsession. Have you seen the movie Vertigo? A delicious depiction of obsession, my favorite movie for how unapologetic it and the characters are about indulging their respective obsessions (and for Bernard Herrman's exquisite score).

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Auteur

A friend recently called me an auteur. She meant that I seem to do things my own particular way, "you are so essentially you. You have such an M.E. signature. You leave an M.E. wake." It's interesting to think about it in those terms, it made me curious about the definition and origin of the word auteur, "an artist whose style and practice are distinctive." Literally meaning "author," it originated as a way to distinguish certain filmmakers whose unique style and artistic vision pervades their films, despite the many other participants in the process. Those filmmakers are the "author" of their films in ways that most filmmakers simply are not, due to lack of control or influence.

I wondered, if I am an auteur of my life, than what is my distinctive signature? I don't feel particularly definite, particularly rigid, or concrete in my beliefs or personality characteristics. My friend is right in that I do happen to have a set of preferences, though, and my choices always reflect those preferences. Although some of those preferences line up with decisions that others based on morality, I wouldn't say that it is a moral code anymore than you could say that Woody Allen's films are uniquely his due to his particular moral code, although it certainly would have some influence.

I don't know how I acquired my value system. I imagine that every aspect of it was once a choice, although it has been so long since I made those choices that I have long since forgotten how or why they were made, or even the very fact of a choice being made in most cases. I guess I just chose to be the way I am because I preferred it over all other options, at least at the time. There's nothing objectively hierarchical about my choices, no inherent judgment as to the choices of others. It's just what happened to happen due to a confluence of events (and genetics).

Recently I was flying over wooded areas demarcated by winding rivers. I wondered at the lack of logic that informed the flow of these rivers. Some of their path was obvious, avoid a hill here, follow a low land there, but some of it was absolutely random. I wondered at the initial water drop that moved in one particular direction over another, making a bend in the river. Maybe a little pebble forced it one way instead of the other, maybe even something as transient as the foot of an animal. The moment before was a universe of possibilities in which the water could have gone any number of directions. After, the cohesiveness of water molecules combined with the ease of repetition meant that every other water molecule would follow suit, self-reinforcing ad infinitum until the universe of possibilities added up to exactly one result.

We talk a lot here about what certain things must mean about a person. If you look at the end product without analyzing the process, you might be tempted to infer any number of different "truths" about a person, project any number of generalizations based on your own experiences, despite how paltry they are when compared to the universe of possibilities. The truth is that human behavior so often defies definition and explanation that any attempt to take such a pursuit seriously seems ill-fated and ignorant. I have been realizing lately that this futility in achieving real understanding applies equally (if not more so) to attempts at acquiring self-knowledge.

In other words, the more I learn about myself, the more I realize how little I know about everything.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Appeal to emotion

Via the Washington Post/Volokh Conspiracy, this political advertisement attacking someone for having been a criminal defense attorney:


RGA spokesperson Jon Thompson defended the ad by commenting, “Vincent Sheheen made a deliberate choice to defend violent criminals who abused women and children. He is unfit and unprepared to serve as governor of South Carolina.” 

The comments are hilarious. From one:

You (as a lawyer) are much too easy on yourself. If you attend a top school and do well enough to freely choose the form of your practice, you should know at that time that you may be judged for your choice. If you followed the money to serve bad clients, and especially if you made a career of it, you should definitely be able to answer for it. If you can't or won't, we'll assume you're greedy, ambitious, or both; these may not disqualify you, but they certainly won't ennoble you

Obviously the author of the original post is biased and is just self-interestedly defending his own livelihood, right? It can't be that he has some special knowledge of the way the world works that makes it impossible for him to believe that justice could be adequately served if we just make sure we "punish the guilty".

Or this slightly more naive one:

I don't agree with the ad's criticism of Sheehen, but I don't see why it's out of bounds. Its an opportunity for Sheehen to respond and explain something about the legal profession, the adversary system, why he does what he does and why he believes that is right and why it makes him a good candidate for office.

Too funny, because the marketplace of ideas works so well and people love a good, passionless appeal to reason. Which is why this guy's comment is so great:

And Romney did a poor job of explaining why private equity firms like Bain are good for the country (if they are) just like the legal profession does a very poor job of explaining why the guy waving his willy at a bunch of kids on the playground gets a taxpayer funded legal aid lawyer.

Yes, that seems right. People just don't do a good enough job explaining why people's negative emotional reactions to things like being a corporate raider or criminal defense attorney may be misplaced. Another:

Why is the comment that this is what this man chose to do with his life out of bounds? Because we think what he did with his life is good? I don't see how its a special category of criticism.

He doesn't stop there:

Neither you, nor [the author] has explained why criticism of the legal profession is in some special out of bounds category. Is it because we think defense lawyers are important? 

Somebody's attempt to provide a well-reasoned rebuttal to the argument:

"Innocent until proven guilty" and "reasonable doubt" (not to mention “equal justice for all”) are no longer operative principles when defense counsel "spins", "lies" and "withholds" (etc.) all in the name of "justice" for a "client" (especially one with monetary resources). Clearly all levels of this nation's regulatory and judicial systems also greatly discount these “ancient” principles, concurrent with the abandonment of "mens rea".  

For those of you not versed in legal speak, mens rea is the mental state required for the commission of a particular crime (e.g. intent to kill for murder, whereas manslaughter doesn't necessarily include intent to kill). I think what this person is saying is that it's not what people do that matters, it's whether they are good or evil people? :)

He continues:

In the prescriptive and procedure driven society we in the USA are burdened with I think it is naive to believe that politicians, prosecutors and attorneys in general are guided by a certain set of highly developed, balanced (i.e., “professional”), ethical standards; like the rest of the populace each individual must consistently demonstrate their personal character and the "ethical standards of behavior" by which they conduct themself.

I think what he means is that people who just follow the letter of the law can still be criticized for not having the right personal character.

If the self-assuredness of people like this doesn't freak you out a little bit, then perhaps you and I have different levels of fear about the strength of emotion-fueled mobs.

Finally, perhaps my favorite exchange:

It's not that the RGA thinks that defendants shouldn't be represented at trial, it's just that the RGA thinks criminal defense attorneys are reprehensible scum who should be hounded out of all decent society to live lives of shameful remorse for their heinous deeds.

Followed by the rebuttal:

There are many members of "decent society" who are not governors of their state.

I mean, these people supporting the advertisement are absolutely right -- this candidate has apparently fallen short of their expectations of moral character. And they have every right to not vote for him based on that. But isn't that a little like saying that it's fine for Catholics to have certain jobs but not be governor (especially if we happen to be God fearing protestants)? That we can allow atheists to join the city council maybe, but definitely not allow them to corrupt our children as grammar school teachers? If you're Sunni and we're Shiite, you have failed our moral character test? I know some of you have strong feelings about morality. I guess I'm just making the point that they are largely subjective and that a lot of people would not agree with you and that they are just as right as you are, or at least you can't prove otherwise. Also, when sociopaths manipulate it is wrong but when other people manipulate to get someone elected with stronger moral character, that is better?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thanks

My family has always been very supportive of me and whatever I've gotten myself up to. The book has been no exception. Some of my family members are supportive because they believe in "the cause" like I do, that sociopaths are often misunderstood, understudied, and that more can be done to integrate them better into society. More of my family are supportive just because they love me and want what is best. They love me for who I am, including the sociopathic traits. A few members of my family and some friends love me in spite of my sociopathic traits. They wish I could be different but they accept me as I am. I'm lucky that I don't really have family that have rejected me, just a few friends and colleagues.

For one of those middle category of family members, I send her an occasional email from people thanking me for the book and explaining that they found some explanation, solace, support, kinship, etc., or that the book otherwise helped them to better understand who they are and conceive of a better way to live based on their own specific situation. I send her these emails because she's interested in these people. Every time she gets one, she says she's surprised. I don't know why she's surprised and neither does she. I guess it's one thing to know someone who has been diagnosed as a sociopath yourself, but I think she is never expected that there are so many with all different backgrounds who read the book and identify with what I've written there. Or perhaps didn't think this type of people would find it helpful to read the experience and thoughts of others like them? Or maybe she believed that this type of people would not care enough about the experience to write me about it? So I keep sending her the emails periodically and she reads them and thinks the whole thing is fascinating, and I think her reactions are what is fascinating. I wonder if some of you would be surprised that rather than this being just a place for sociopaths to self-justify bad behavior, a lot of people are earnestly seeking to understand how/why they are different and how to do/be better at whatever it is that is important to them. Which is a very human experience and desire that I think almost anybody could identify with. 

But this the type of email that I will forward her, under the subject "A startling clarity, brought to me by you":

I've just finished your book, and felt the need to reach out to you because you've made yourself available, and because I found your story and message so engaging and refreshing. 

I appreciate what you've done. The "cause" as you call it, is greatly in need of individuals like you, who are willing to lay out their experience in hopes of allowing others to gain some perspective. I'm aware that you hear this often, but I found it quite satisfying to be able to stare, for a few minutes each day, at a few squiggles arranged and printed onto paper, and feel, suddenly, a sense of understanding I never imagined possible. I have never been able to relate, in earnest, my worldview and experience to anyone I've known in person. After reading your book, don't feel the need to. I understand what I am, and that I'm not alone. I don't necessarily feel a sense of belonging, but I do feel as though a veil has finally been pulled from my eyes. 

I won't bore to you the details of my life or my recent self-diagnosis, but I will say that I discovered you at the time in my life at which you were most needed. I have never looked to another human for direction, held a role model, or knelt to idols, but you should know that I have a curious reverence for you. 

I hoped you might be able to offer perspective on some things, not only as a sociopath, but as a functional and seemingly successful member of society. 

I want you all to know that I feel the same way reading the things that you choose to share, either by emailing or commenting on the blog. I feel like I've learned so much from reading your thoughts, either because I identify/agree with them or because I don't. I've changed my mind a lot over the past 5 years or so, which is one of the major reasons why I still love to do it. So thanks to everyone for what you do.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Quote: Hardened

“Young bodies are like tender plants, which grow and become hardened to whatever shape you've trained them.”

― Desiderius Erasmus

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Problems and (no?) solutions

A certain type of reader of this blog would find this comment to be incomprehensible, stupid, disingenuous, short-sighted, illogical, immoral, deceitful, offensive, over-simplifying, and dozens of other terrible things:

We do not always have a choice as to whom is part if our life. If a close relative or a co-worker is a sociopath, we may need to make room for them in our life. My point is that if there was better awareness and acceptance of sociopathy, there could be better harmony and less pain, destruction, awkwardness, hiding and running away for both sociopaths and empaths. 

Our society has learned to accept, even embrace most genetic, behavioral, physical and mental differences - people deformed by polio, people of different races, creed and religion, homosexuals, bisexual, transexual, people with down syndrome, autism, amputees, blind people, deaf people, etc. Are the sociopaths so different that they should never be accepted? Is our society too rigid to make allowance for them? 

The trouble is that sociopaths intentionally hurt people, whereas all of these other types don't, right? Or is it that those other types might intentionally hurt people, but they don't do it for sport? Or is it that those other types might intentionally hurt people, but sociopaths are so much more effective at it? Or is it that those other types might intentionally hurt people, but the types of hurts that sociopaths do are worse? Or is it because those other types are not categorically defined by their propensity to hurt people, but sociopaths are?

It's kind of convenient to say that sociopaths do terrible things and aren't at all treatable (where is the proof?). It basically allows society to wash its hands of this particular subset of people while providing a palatable scapegoat for all of the nastiness that normal people get up to but can't quite face in each other (or themselves). The tricky part is that a lot of us live in civilized cultures where for most people with psychological issues like this we try to treat them or accommodate them. But maybe you argue that sociopaths don't need to be accommodated because they thrive, you say. But what happens when you identify them and then take away their ability to thrive? If they are outted are they thriving? If they are imprisoned, are they thriving? Once you take away their ability to thrive, then do you treat them? Accommodate them? Never, because they don't deserve better? They don't seem like victims to me. If anything they are always victimizers. But what happens if one or more of them truly become victims? Collateral damage in the service of a greater cause?

Maybe even if they eventually become victim they still deserve what they get because they decide to be that way? They decided to be born with the genetic predisposition and decided to be raised in a particular way to cause them to be a sociopath? But they would chosen to be that way if they were given the choice over again? Would you choose to be who you are if given choice? How about they didn't choose to be the way they are, but they do choose to do the things they do? As much as we all "decide" to "do" the things that we do? So they should be punished just like an empath would for the same crimes? More harshly? Less harshly?

I'm being sincere. Let's hear people's best solutions, not just the first step, but all the steps that follow until we've reached some sort of equilibrium. (Or ignore the real issues and start the personal attacks, as some of you like to handle these types of posts, even though there is nothing at all personal about this post).

[Also, we all agree that there should still be leper colonies, right? Kind of their fault getting leprosy in the first place, and if any of you got leprosy you would voluntarily ship yourself off to some dungeon to rot so as not to risk infecting anyone else? I think that's how Jesus would us to handle it?]

Monday, April 21, 2014

Pseudo-science

Psychologists who study personality disorders frequently make unwarranted and unnecessary value judgments and other normative statements. In this article, Psychologist and "autism expert" Simon Baron-Cohen promotes his new book on empathy and makes what I believe are some unsupportable statements that betray a bias that is wholly inappropriate in a man professing to give an accurate, objective opinion on the role empathy plays in human interactions. Here are some illustrative quotes:
  • As a scientist I want to understand the factors causing people to treat others as if they are mere objects. So let's substitute the term "evil" with the term "empathy erosion".
  • Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don't work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness.
  • People said to be "evil" or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum.
  • Zero degrees of empathy does not strike at random in the population. There are at least three well-defined routes to getting to this end-point: borderline, psychopathic, and borderline personality disorders. I group these as zero-negative because they have nothing positive to recommend them. They are unequivocally bad for the sufferer and for those around them.
  • Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world.
  • Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.
Mixed amongst these statements, he cites two extreme examples to justify his conclusions: a BPD wantonly screaming at her kids and an ASPD who bottles a hapless barfly to death for looking at him funny. The odd thing is that although Baron-Cohen acknowledges that there is a spectrum of empathy, he firmly places both the BPD and the ASPD at absolute zero. Interestingly although he is an autism expert he does not mention the relative position of autistics on the scale, presumably because any stories of auties being violent would destroy the symmetry between his zero empathy = evil parallelism. Frankly, this type of hackjob excuse for science sickens me, particularly since I know that the natural consequence of something like this is the masses blindly following it as "truth," self-congratulating themselves while they embark on a modern inquisition ratting out the heretics that dare differ from them in any way. And this guy is worried about religion oppressing people? Doesn't he realize that his pseudo-science is its own religion with zealous adherents ready and waiting to oppress? The hubris of it all is simply astounding.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sociopath suicide?

A reader asks if sociopaths ever experience desires for suicide:

I'm going to cut right to the chase with this one.  I believe I might be a sociopath, but I am not sure if that is because I am one, or if I am just trying to search for the easiest explanation for my actions and who I am.  I'll try to give you as many details as I can to help give a full view on my life and why I believe I may be a sociopath as well as why I may not be (If I can remember some reasons I thought of before).  

First a little bit of basics:  I am a 20 year old Caucasian male, and a very logical thinker. 

My whole life for as long as I can remember I have been extremely gifted in lying.  I don't know when it actually started but I know that in kindergarten, I told the first lie that I got caught in by blaming another kid for knocking down a caterpillar in a cocoon in our classroom that we were observing.  I did not knock it down intentionally but I did blame the other boy intentionally.  I knew I could blame him because his mom was friends with mine, so if I told my mom he did it word would get back to the teacher and his mother.  I cannot recall how I got caught, but somehow they found out.  Anyways, ever since then I can recall being able to lie to anyone without it phasing me at all, even if I didn't have to.  

Another trait that I've noticed I have that seems to match a sociopath is a lack of empathy for others.  I have never in my life been able to feel bad for someone else that I know of, or feel proud of them.  I currently have a girlfriend who I love, but I don't know if I love her because of who she is or what she can provide me.  I try to think of the answer and I feel like it's all just a calculation, even though I know I would be hurt if she broke up with me.  I constantly am in arguments with my parents and don't really have anyone I would consider a friend like the definition.  The only time I really talk to a "friend" is if I need something, or I'm bored trying to pass the time.  I can steal from anyone, whether it be a neighbor, my parents, a friend, or a stranger and honestly feel no guilt or remorse, unless I am caught. 

I can also read people's emotions and what they want to hear and/or are looking for very easily. If someone comes to me seeking advice on a relationship, or even just self worth because they are having a hard time I can almost always make them feel better.  I'm not sure if I do this to keep them around, or because I care about them.  The flip side to this is if someone upsets me, I can find the exact way to inflict as much emotional pain on them as I feel necessary, without feeling remorse.  I've almost never apologized, and when I do I don't mean it and just do it because I have to to get something or to stop someone from nagging me.  

The last little bit about myself I'm going to include in this email is that I have a very explosive temper, to the point where I get violent.  I can go from cold to 100% hot and angry in a split second.  The other day I wanted to go get some cigarettes so I asked my mom if I could take the car to go say hi to my girlfriend and drop off some electrical tape for her mom (her mom didn't need it) and when she said she'd just bring me over, I flipped out and threw a ton of stuff, punched things, ended up punching our outside steel door so hard I left dents in it and cracked the frame around the top hinge.  I also have a substance problem, and will really do whatever I can to get drunk or high, except for stupid stuff like huffing gas or something i think might really damage or kill me.  

If you could please get back to me that would be great.  If you have any questions I'm open to answer anything.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the one reason I feel like I am not a sociopath!  I often contemplate suicide, not how but just the thought of offing myself but decide it'd be a bad idea because I don't want to do that to my girlfriend. I haven't ever really tried suicide, I just kind of pondered it because life seems meaningless really.  It gets tiresome interacting with people when I don't really feel an emotional attachment to them.  It's  like playing chess all day every day.  Thank you for taking the time to read this email, and I hope to hear from you soon.

There were a lot of traits that seemed sociopathic to me, but I was wondering particularly about the suicide thing. For me, I don't have a great love of life. In fact I have a bit of a death wish, but it's because life seems so pointless and tedious sometimes, not because I actively feel a lot of suffering. Does anyone else have any experience with sociopaths and suicide?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

On blogging

It is possible to see everything we write as a letter to ourselves, designed to convey to one portion of ourselves the lesson that another portion has already learned.

- Lawrence Block

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sociopathic decisionmaking

Along the same lines as yesterday's post, another reader writes about what motivates him (gratification) and what keeps him from doing other things (negative consequences). From a reader:

dear m.e. thomas:

i just wanted to write this to you to express gratitude.  until reading an excerpt from your book, i had always had the vague sense that there was something different about me.  perhaps it was always wishful thinking, or some kind of desire to be special.  who knows? i've never been fully examined by a psychologist or any other kind of -ist, for that matter.  so, after all these years of wondering and suspecting, i came across your writing.

now, all i have is relief.  can sociopaths feel relief?  i don't know.  i have no better explanation for it than that. i am relieved at having read your writing.  the feeling of relief was so palpable that it brought tears to my eyes.

i am 30 years old, and i've felt this way to one degree or another for most of my life. i think it started when i was younger, and had to learn to read people to gauge their responses to my words and actions.  it wasn't until later that i learned that empathy is usually what people use to do those things.  i've always had the burning curiosity, and the desire to experiment.  i truly enjoy experimenting, and over the years it has gotten me into minor troubles, but thankfully i learned early on that i can't just do things for the sake of my own desire.  

i can relate to many things you write about.  i especially relate to the desire to hurt others who have seemingly slighted me.  the only reason i don't act upon my urges is the knowledge of reprisal.  i don't necessarily fear consequence; i simply acknowledge it as being more inconvenient than some short-lived gratification. as a matter of fact, the inconvenience of consequences is the only thing that holds me back from my desires.  the wants themselves run the gamut of importance... sleeping with a woman who isn't my wife is not ethically or socially objectionable to me.  overall, the impact on the world because of 'cheating' is incredibly minimal.  the risk-analysis of temporary physical enjoyment Vs long-term stability is more effective in decision making than any kind of ethics. refusing to slow down at an intersection, when i have the right-of-way and someone pulls out in front of me, is not ethically or socially objectionable to me.  however, going to jail and being locked in a cage seems especially repugnant- not to mention the hassle of repairing my vehicle.

i think things that don't seem to be commonly thought.  i've gone to the point of isolating myself from society because i know i'm different.  the quality of the difference has always been irrelevant, but now i have more to think about.  i constantly want to test and experiment with the 'norm'.  i want to change things, both for the better and for the worse, and i want to observe the reaction.  i WANT to do so much. the gross inconvenience of consequence is the only thing stopping me.  guilt and shame are non-existent. the only thing i truly feel with any kind of passion is a certain amount of hatefulness towards that which i can't control.  the barrier between my wants and satisfaction is maddening.  obviously i can cope with that; you'll not see me in jail any time soon.

please realize that these are merely statements of fact. i would no more act upon them than i would t-bone the car that pulls out in front of me, or fuck a woman simply because i can.

thank you for your writing, and for being straightforward in your words.  if you wish to reply, please do.  if not, i won't really be that upset, will i?

I still get a lot of emails from people that suggest that they don't really understand the sociopathic decisionmaking process. Is it because they make Decision X a particular way, let's say by using empathy, so they expect that anyone without empathy would not be able to reach Decision X? I find that religious people can be this way -- assume that atheists must do bad things because atheists have no reason to be good?  Likewise, do some people believe that sociopaths only choose bad? And if so, what consequences, if any, do they suffer? I feel like there are people who fall into either extreme: believe sociopaths magically get away with things (i.e. won't suffer any consequences) or think that sociopaths will eventually suffer for every choice they make (i.e. karma's a bitch). The reality is that sociopaths probably get caught a little less often than other people because they're better liars and manipulators, but even the best laid Ponzi scheme will eventually collapse. Not all sociopaths are intelligent and sociopaths as a group tend to fail to learn from their experiences (possibly because punishments don't affect them as much as normal people?) but sociopaths are also sensitive to consequences in the form of incentives. So yes, sociopaths are capable of and often do take into consideration consequences (e.g. the reader's comment "thankfully i learned early on that i can't just do things for the sake of my own desire"). And maybe this explains why sociopaths can often function very well for a stretch of time, but willpower has its limits for everyone and sociopaths don't have great judgment, which maybe explains how sociopaths can also self destruct in huge ways.

Or am I wrong? Are sociopaths always scheming ne'er-do-wells? And if so, do they always get what they have coming to them or get away with everything? 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sociopathic savior

When I was growing up I had such insight into the psyches of others (and when I was younger, not enough of a filter from saying creepy things to people's faces), that people would tell me that I should be a psychologist. Often I feel like people either seek me out because they are interested in having me see through them or someone else they're trying to understand, or at the very least it contributes a lot to what my friends seem to get out of our relationships. That's why I thought this email from a reader was an interesting take on the reasons why a sociopath might choose to help people:

First of all, I just wanted to thank you so much for Confessions... I personally have several male sociopath friends (we just attract each other!), but no fellow female sociopaths have ever come my way. As such, I was naturally curious how other women display their sociopathy, and how the display of my own characteristics "measured up" to other females. I'm happy to say that much of your book felt like stream of consciousness coming from my own mind. There were even a couple of adages or quotes I found within your book that I've been saying for years, haha. It was a pleasure to read.

All gushing, flattery, and gratitude aside, I wanted to take a chunk of my own life and throw it to the wolves, as it were ;) I'm not asking for clarity on whether or not I'm a sociopath (I know I am, and I don't need "reassurance" for such things), but I suppose I would like to initiate a bit of discussion among your readers as to how sociopathy can play out.

Growing up, I had all of the classic symptoms of a sociopath. I used my parents' divorce to manipulate, guilt-trip, and ultimately profit from both parents, I would get in fights at school, covering up quickly by claiming the other child wanted me to hit them because they wanted to see what I was learning in martial arts, I learned how to fake guilt in that "I guess I took it too far," with crocodile tears to boot. I would lie about the most mundane of things, like whether or not I had brushed my teeth a particular morning, and sometimes I would lie just to create emotional outbursts "for the fun of it" (ie: I was homeschooled by my stepmom, who I despised entirely, so occasionally I would come to my dad in tears, confessing I had "failed" a really important test, that I felt like I wasn't taught any of the material covered. In reality, I always got very high marks, but I gained a sort of satisfaction in watching my dad blow up at my stepmom for "ruining my education.")

All of this took a turn when I was sixteen, when my dad, in one of his outbursts, killed my stepmom, baby sister, and himself. (I was also shot, but survived.) I was "sentenced" to court mandated therapy, which was entirely necessary as I was having flashbacks, nightmares, etc. But my therapist noticed something: aside from my dad--who, at very least, had sociopathic tendencies, though his primary dx was bipolar... he was incredibly intelligent, however, and through his own wits and ways of "bending the law," he went from being a high school dropout, son of a hooker to a multimillionaire by his early twenties. I still admire and respect him, probably more than any other person--aside from my loss of this influential role in my life, I did not grieve. I was not concerned for my losses, except the man I saw as most contributing to my education and growth (he spent hours every week teaching me about social manipulation, business strategy, etc)--someone I had seen as "useful." My therapist chalked this up to a delay in grief caused by shock, but five and a half years later, I have never been so much as concerned to think of the others. 

Though I was not grieving, being in therapy taught me how I "should be" grieving. My therapist used a lot more suggestive questions than she probably should have, likely to try to draw me "out of my shell" or to help me put a name to emotions I was "experiencing," but didn't "understand." So I created a persona based on this "grieving me." My performance won me a full-ride scholarship to college, many families opened their homes to me, and I noticed something odd--people came up to me, seemingly out of the blue, to talk to me about their problems, thinking "if anyone could relate," it would be me.

Having been in therapy, and having keenly observed my therapist, I simply played counselor to these people. And they would look at me and tell me how much I inspired them and gave them hope... Several told me, eventually, that had it not been for me, they would've killed themselves. The power and influence I had over these people was astonishing--and I loved it. 

So I used my education to get my BA in psychology, and in the near future, I will be pursuing a MA in Grief and Trauma Therapy. I currently volunteer once a week at a grief center for teens (I specifically work with teens who have lost someone to suicide, which earns me double points for 1. working with "the toughest cases," and 2. for being "strong enough to open up to relate in such a personal way to these teens"). I also work at a residential treatment center for adolescent girls who have been through trauma and abuse. Everyone I tell my persona's story to gushes at me in admiration, and more often than not, opens themselves up ever so completely to me. They trust me, in many cases, more than anyone else they've ever met. Trusting someone is laying down your defenses completely and being bareboned honest, fearless of the consequences. People trust me so much as to let me in where no other may go. I saved their lives, and in essense, now control their lives. The power of that is incredibly intoxicating.

So, yes: these days, I help people. And I am damn good at it. But I'm tired of hearing so many people (mostly empaths and wanna-be-sociopaths) tell me that no "real" sociopath would want to help people the way I do. Even some sociopaths are skeptical. But the display of sociopathic behavior is rooted in what we want. We want power. For me, I've found the most success in gaining power through letting people trust me on what they believe to be their own terms. Yes, I could ruin them, and that is a delicious fantasy (and one, admittedly, I play out now and again with lovers)... but if I did so with clients, my reputation could be ruined more than it would be worth. By being "responsible" with my power, I gain more of it. 

I'm curious what you and yours would remark on my endeavors. I don't help people because I feel "compassion" or any nonsense like that. I don't feel any sort of "trauma bond" either. Simply, I'm good at something, and people admire, praise, and depend on me (to the point of stopping themselves from suicide) for that. Any other "savior sociopaths" out there? (After all, being a Savior entails being someone's God...)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What am I?

From a reader:

Over the past couple years, I’ve begun to think I’m a sociopath, and the most frustrating thing about being it, is that I’m alone in a way that normal people could never even begin to fathom. Granted, I rarely feel "lonely" anymore, but in my heart I know that I am, and always will be, TRULY alone. I will NEVER know [again] what it feels like to long for another person's company, to miss them when they are not there, or to be excited to see them once more. I haven't felt any of that in years. I can't even remember what it feels like. I will live and die alone, forced to watch every person around me chase that high that only emotions can deliver... that I'll never be able to feel... That’s what I mean by alone, I often wondered if other people felt like this and just acted happy to see an old friend because it’s the normal thing to do, but ever since I looked into the human condition of being normal, it quickly dawned on me that me not giving a shit about anyone or anything that doesn’t affect me wasn’t exactly a normal thing.

I’ve often wondered about ways in which I could convey this feeling of total emotional emptiness. Easier said than done though, how can you tell someone who has, say the ability of speech, what it’s like to be unable to communicate with the world? If you told someone to think about it, they could maybe have a rough idea but they’ll never be able to truly understand. But here’s the funny part, I just don’t seem to care about my inability to feel real compassion, I don’t think of it as a loss, or a disadvantage, I have a sort of… indifference towards it, or usually I see it the total opposite nothing more than a gift of clarity and reason, the only way I could ever describe it is if I use my life as an example, because I’ve never really known anyone to feel this way before

I've got a lot of friends. Well, acquaintances, rather. People like me, and not just because of some strange charm that a lack of feelings is meant to give. True, a good bit of my charm is superficial, and yeah, most of my social interactions feel forced or even downright faked, but people like me for a different reasons. Despite my less-than-human existence and my inability to form emotional connections, people are always drawn to me when they need help or advice, I used to think I was pretty emotional before I realised I was only doing it because I felt like it was easier than saying “sorry, but your problem’s a load of crap and the fact you haven’t figured out how to sort it out yet, despite the fact it’s staring you right in the fucking face. Is totally yours to deal with, mainly because now that you’ve told me all about it, it’s not interesting anymore and so I don’t really give a flying fuck.”

But no, people are drawn to me because I know how to listen and care (when really I just know how to pretend to listen and care, when really I just don’t). More than that, I know how to listen without judging. I'm not clouded by petty, trivial emotions, so I don't look at other people with the same silly emotion-based prejudices that everyone else does. If I like someone, I accept them for all of who they are, the good and the bad, but it’s truly unconditional. I can be "friends" with anyone. 

So how can I let people see my reasoning, well think about all your friends. Think about how you feel about them. Hold on to that while you read this next part: 

I've got friends that I've known pretty much all of my life. I've got friends that should be closer than family. I've got friends that have been through hell with me, who would show up at my beckon call if needed... and that bothers me... a bit... because I'll never be able to return that.

It's very hard to explain, but no matter how much I want to want other people, I never do. No matter how much I want to need to feel close to another human being, I never do. No matter how much I want to be human, I never am.

I don't miss people when they walk away. Not anymore. Out of sight truly becomes out of mind. And I do almost feel bad about it from time to time, but it doesn't change. It never does. People walk out of my life and it feels as though nothing has changed, I recently moved to the other side of the country and I won’t be able to see my friends (with whom I’ve spent the everyday with for the past 9-10 moths with, probably about 19 hours day with, whenever I was up, I was with them) and now that I’m gone, they all say how much they miss me, but I just don’t miss them, at all, or even my parents for that matter.

I remember I had to go to a funeral a year or so ago, and it was for beloved family member, someone that I “loved” and “cared” for a lot, but she was a very nice lady, caring, compassionate person. But she always knew I didn’t care for that, and always treated me as an equal even from a young age. I liked her a lot for it, she was the only person who ever treated me the way I wanted to be treated, just let me get on with my own thing (mainly games, television and smoking, once I started last year, she was the only one who didn’t really mind it). She was one of my favourite family members, the more I researched into who I was and sociopathy as a whole the more I thought that she was one, and recognised even from an early stage that I was as well.

But when I found out she died, I felt... nothing. Most of my family were standing around fighting tears or shamelessly crying and I felt cold and empty.

They say I don't feel guilt, but I almost do. I felt what could have been misconstrued as guilty that day. I felt guilty that this women I liked and came-as-close-to-caring-about-as-I-could died and all I could do was think "wow, that's... sad… I guess."

And a few moments later, it was as if nothing at all had happened.

I know I'm a different. But am I right for thinking I’m a sociopath?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Meet ups

A couple people have asked me to put them on a mailing list or to email them if there is ever any sort of activity in their area that they can attend, even something informal like meeting up for coffee. I had been keeping a list of those people, locations, and contact information, but I've lost it. So I created a link to a Google form soliciting the same information. It's completely optional and anonymous, but the idea is that if something big comes along, I can email you. Or if I ever happen to be in your town for something, there might be a chance to meet-up at an event, etc.

Here is the link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1JglHcrACWZMOiNOk2CaqNKQeVTsDCLgdWUJTl-vAu8M/viewform

And can we all promise not to kill each other, should any of this happen? :)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Enough about religion

A reader asks about my religious faith:

Good evening ME,

Thank you for an interesting blog.

Lately you have been writing quite a bit about your religion. I am curious , do you REALLY believe in any of your religion? One of the basic traits of sociopaths is, according to Hare and others, “free from delusions” and I dare say that anyone who is not delusional cannot believe in any religion since they by definition require you to believe something that clearly cannot be true (mostly because there never is any real evidence at all, just books and pastors but also because if you look at any religion with a clear mind it is quite obvious that people believe it because others have told them to believe it in combination with that reality(there is no heaven etc. ) is unbearable for empaths).

I am not saying there cannot be grains of truths and/or wisdom in any religion but the basic tenets cannot an are not true. Do you see this?

Yeah, I realize that a lot of people don't understand, or don't like, or don't like reading about how I relate to religion. And I'm sorry if it seemed like I over-posted about it before. I don't mean to inundate readers with anything they'd rather not hear about. I started posting more about religion when the book came out because I was no longer as worried about hiding certain aspects of myself from being used to identify me. Before that, I intentionally kept most of what I posted generic, both for the identity purposes and so people who shared those traits could project their own experiences onto what I wrote to be able to relate better. After doing that for several years, I thought that it might be interesting to change it up by giving people a more fleshed out portrayal of someone who has been diagnosed with this disorder. I know some of you didn't like that change, just like someone of you didn't like any of the other changes that I've made or things that I've done in the public eye. But I don't really know what I'm doing or have a master plan. I just try things out and sometimes they work ok and sometimes they are disasters.

But yeah, after the book came out I started talking more about things I had been quiet about before: being female, more about being in my particular profession, and more about some of my other specific formative life experiences.  Because I do feel like a lot of the way I think and present to the world is influenced by these things: growing up in a big, smart, (a little trashy) Mormon family; being female; studying and practicing law; being American and a Californian; being a classically-trained musician; etc. I don't think those things necessarily have much or anything to do with sociopathy, but they do have something to do with the sorts of choices I make in how I live my life. And I realize that a lot of people (most?) are not interested in me as a person, and I realize a lot of you believe that I am a narcissist for various reasons (maybe even narcissistic personality disorder? which I definitely show signs of), including that I talk about myself a lot (and use the word I and me a lot and seem delusional, or as my friend puts it, like a megalomaniac). But thanks everyone for your feedback and I hope to do better. But also sometimes I wrote posts more for niche audiences (or at least hope to), because although I understand that not everyone is interested in certain topics or certain aspects about me, I think others are? Maybe other Mormons, other musicians, other INTJs, or other people who have been diagnosed as having Asperger's (as my most recent therapist suggested, funnily enough). And often I just use this blog as sort of a journaling project to write about the things that are on my mind, not knowing whether they will appeal to outside audience or not. So feel free to skip the posts you find boring or inapplicable, and hopefully we'll pick up with something more to your liking in a later post.

But here is what I replied to this reader:

This is an interesting question. First, I think that everyone suffers from delusions because we cannot correctly perceive or understand reality. So when they say free from delusions, I think they are largely making the distinction that sociopaths do not suffer from psychosis. There may also be a small distinction between other personality disorders like narcissism, which seem to be a little more out of touch with reality than sociopathy manages to be?

In response to religion being delusional, we are always being delusional in some unknown way. We used to believe that homosexuality was unnatural and a mental illness. We used to bleed people. We used to think the world was flat. I do not flatter myself that I would have been immune to any of those delusions had I lived in those times and with that knowledge. I'm aware that the things we don't know vastly exceed the things we do know. So believing, perhaps delusionally, in religion is not a problem for me.

If anything, it has helped me to manage having a personality disorder. For instance, although I don't really feel like I am any particular person or have a strong sense of self, my religion teaches me that I am, I have a soul, and so does everyone else, and our main job in life is to become more perfectly who we were meant to become and to help others to do the same. My religion teaches me that just because I have done bad things does not mean that I am a bad person who is incapable of ever changing or doing good things (or my dad, or anyone else who has hurt me in the past). My religion teaches me that my brain and other physical defects can distort how I see the world, who I believe myself to be, and how I act in a way that is not really "me", and I can do things to minimize those effects and (eventually) become free from those. My religion also teaches me rules of morality are not determined by consensus and that I shouldn't worry about the judgment of other people so much as the judgment of a more perfect arbiter, so I try to focus on the big stuff, like achieving enlightenment, and not necessarily on the small bad stuff that currently happens to be most controversial in the world. My religion teaches me that although I can change, I have been given certain gifts that are essential to humanity, that no one is trash or sans value, and that all of us have a specific role to fulfill as part of the body of Christ. I'm sure some or all of this sounds ridiculous, but the net effects of believing it are good for me, and so I (like everyone else in this world?) maintain certain beliefs that are good for me that may otherwise seem entirely specious.


Sorry for all of the recycled posts. I'm on vacation.

Also, this Brene Brown video on returning to religion as a researcher.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Road rage

A funny thing happened to me while I was travelling. I had gotten a car and was having a few problems with local drivers. I had grown up and learned to drive in a place where everyone quickly becomes an expertly efficient driver, or faces very stiff social sanctions, including possibly death. This place had no such rule of the jungle. Everyone, including their cars, was fat and bloated from years of complacency.

I got stuck out on the road during their rush hour, which seemed odd given the size of this place. There was something about their driving that suggested that they were not used to traffic, that maybe it had sprouted up only in the past 5 to 10 years and not everyone had learned to adapt. I was headed south on a broad, multiple lane boulevard and came upon a backed-up the intersection of another large boulevard with highway entrances. I waited in line for two lights, passing the time reading comments from the blog on my smart phone. During the green light that should have allowed me to cross, someone cut into my lane, slowing me down enough to keep me from proceeding through the intersection. I didn’t really mind. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go, and I was entertaining myself with my music and reading material.

Cross traffic took their turn, but quickly became backed up in the intersection. Cars just kept coming even though there was no way for them to clear the intersection in time. When the light turned green for me again, there was a car completely blocking not just my lane, but the lane next to me. I wondered at the driver's stupidity and waited for social sanctions in the form of honking, yelling, and fist shaking, but they never came. Was that my role as the driver closest to her, best informed as to the problem? I let out a few beeps in quick succession, heard a longer one from a few cars back in response, but nothing else. But when I looked at her, I didn’t feel like doing anything more. Both hands were on the wheel at 10 and 2, fists clenched to the point of whiteness. She purposefully avoided eye contact, staring ahead as if realizing she was about to endure the worst 1 minute of her day. She was so rigidly focused on enduring her fate that she didn’t even attempt to move one lane over, which if maneuvered correctly could free up at least one lane of traffic. I felt badly for her.

We waited that light out, staring at her. When she finally cleared the intersection and cross traffic picked up again, I was determined not to let the same situation happen again. I creeped further into the intersection myself, rolled down the window and gave various gestures and commands meant to dissuade others from enter the intersection unless they could safely clear it. When the light turned green, I sped off, taking back roads the rest of the way.

I had a small crisis of identity. Had I just empathized with that woman? Was I finally tapping into that piece of humanity that I lacked? Looking at her, clearly in a state of nervous discomfort, I myself felt nauseated and uncomfortable. Was that me mirroring her own emotions, or was that the heat, the humidity, and my food not agreeing with me? Twenty minutes later I determined affirmatively that it was the food, but for those twenty minutes I had a very Grinch moment of wondering whether my heart was growing three sizes. It wasn't at all unpleasant.

Moral of the story is that road rage kills, kids.

UPDATE: Interestingly, since this post was initially published, research has shown that sociopaths actually can feel empathy in certain situations when their attention is drawn to the task of trying to imagine what it might be like to be that person.  
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