Friday, May 1, 2015

Sociopaths = utilitarians

Sometimes I get people pushing back on the idea that sociopathic are largely utilitarian (think trolley problem, etc). I was looking through some old emails, however, and found this Psychology Today article about there being an actual empirically recognized link between the two. My guess is that utilitarians are not necessarily sociopaths. My guess is, however, that it is true that sociopaths naturally default to a more utilitarian way of thinking because there almost is no other universal, sustainable basis of decision making for a sociopath to choose that would work in almost any situation without the sociopath being run out of town for outrageous selfishness. From the article:

As The Economist recently wrote, a forthcoming paper in Cognition (link is external) reports that experiment participants "who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness" (from the paper abstract). 

From the Economist article in the link above:

One of the classic techniques used to measure a person's willingness to behave in a utilitarian way is known as trolleyology. The subject of the study is challenged with thought experiments involving a runaway railway trolley or train carriage. All involve choices, each of which leads to people's deaths. For example: there are five railway workmen in the path of a runaway carriage. The men will surely be killed unless the subject of the experiment, a bystander in the story, does something. The subject is told he is on a bridge over the tracks. Next to him is a big, heavy stranger. The subject is informed that his own body would be too light to stop the train, but that if he pushes the stranger onto the tracks, the stranger's large body will stop the train and save the five lives. That, unfortunately, would kill the stranger.

Dr Bartels and Dr Pizarro knew from previous research that around 90% of people refuse the utilitarian act of killing one individual to save five. What no one had previously inquired about, though, was the nature of the remaining 10%.
They found a strong link between utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas (push the fat guy off the bridge) and personalities that were psychopathic, Machiavellian or tended to view life as meaningless. 


  1. Soon, these rethorical suppositions will mean nothing!
    By this Monday NOTHING will be as it was.
    We will have bigger fish to fry then the question: "What is a Sociopath?"
    A bunch of Jewish instigated Baboons will be rampaging through the streets
    dragging off women who resemble M.E.
    "Law Enforcement" will be inefective because they will BE LAW ENFORCEMENT.

  2. I often thought I would push the man off the bridge, but I think it would entirely depend on whether it was likely I would go to prison for murder.. Not much point in saving anyone just to get locked up.

    Either let the five workers die or see if you can play upon the fat man's own self-hatred to make him jump, I mean whats he doing just hanging around on bridges for anyway? ;)

    1. As sick as it may seem I had to laugh out loud when I read your comment. I chose that option also thinking everyone would do the same.... I was wrong apparently.

  3. I bet you'd get more people pushing the fat man in front of the train if you assured them that they would not be held accountable for the pushing.

    The thought experiment can be reduced further, to the push of a button in isolation from those it affects. You're given a box with a button on top and told that if you press the button, you will kill one person but save 5 other people from death. The box has a countdown, indicating that every 24 hours, you will have the opportunity to press the button. If you do not press the button, 5 people will die and one will live by your inaction. The box also has two counters, one that increases by five every day you do not press the button (those you don't save), and one that increases by one every time you do press the button (the one you kill).

    Would you press the button, ever? If so, for how many days would you press it?

  4. "The subject is informed that his own body would be too light to stop the train, but that if he pushes the stranger onto the tracks, the stranger's large body will stop the train and save the five lives."

    Yeah - cos nobody ever lies ;) Ask me again on the day this is real to me and I actually have to make this decision. Otherwise it's just a throw of the dice. (Incidentally, nobody said how many people, if any, were on the carriage.)

    1. That's why I simplified it to the press of the button. It lets you look at the economics of the situation without all the uncertainties. Perhaps the utility of the hypothetical train situation is to identify that set of individuals, 10%, who make the snap decision of sacrificing one to save 5. It's not a moral question to them at all, it's a question of numbers. To them, it is as simple as asking the question, "Which is greater, one or five?".

    2. Agreed, but as I don't have to think that way today... (Since I was five years old "Because I said so" was not a good enough reason for me to do or not to do something - so I have a problem with someone telling me my body won't stop the carriage unless they can prove the math.) It's kind of like the "If you had a time machine, would you go back and kill Hitler?" question, but on a smaller scale. With the press of the button scenario, I'd be questioning how that could affect the carriage and why - I'm an awkward bugger :D

    3. Oh, the button scenario is totally unrelated to the carriage question, except for the numbers. The people dying and surviving are unknown. Although, you could make it more interesting by having two separate cages of people. In one cage, there are 5 people one day away from starvation. In the other is a man fat enough to feed 5 people. If you push the button, the fat man is killed and the 5 starving people are allowed into the cage. If they eat him, they live and go free, else they die. If you don't push the button, they starve to death and the fat man goes free. Replace the fat man with a cow, or a giant head of cabbage, and you get to see which types of life are sacred, and which aren't. What if the fat man is a murderer? What if he's not just a murderer, but he murdered someone you love? Fun questions, all.

    4. Sorry, it still means nothing to me today. It's just another hypothetical (it relies upon me believing what I am told without questioning) and I tend to try on hypotheses the way some people like to try on clothes. Doesn't make the hypothesis real. Nothing personal - it just has no meaning for me in my current state. Technically, I don't have a sacred (as in my so-called morality comes from inside, not outside): it is all relative. On another day, I could 'go off on one' and tie myself in knots with my own personal morality. But not today. In 'real life' I try to take everything (and everyone) on merit - which is why I say I can't answer the question until I actually have to do so. To me, a person cannot be replaced by a cow or a head of cabbage because under normal circumstances they don't fulfill the same roles. If I were stranded on a desert island with no other source of food, I might revise that categorization. If I'm asked to 'push the button', I'm most likely to respond with "Why?" (as in Why am I the one outside deciding for other people - isn't it their business?). As I said, I'm an awkward bugger (mainly because I strive to be honest, which precludes generalization) :D

      NB 'What if' is the rope by which I most often tie myself in knots. In the right frame of mind, I can 'what if?' myself to the mortal equivalent of infinity. It's a valid question, but I can't give you an all-encompassing categorical answer at any given moment. I can only give you the answer that I believe to be true at that moment.

    5. To explain, using your second analogy: why are those five people starving to begin with? If it's because you said so, why wouldn't killing you and setting them free solve the problem more completely than pushing a button to allow them into a cage for one or two meals? (Again, nothing personal - the 'you' is generic.)

    6. Don't worry, I wouldn't answer any of these questions in any of their iterations either. There are always 'what ifs' with which to contend, but the bigger issue for me is that the only true answer is "I don't know what I would do." Any other answer is a lie.

      The bystander effect is another interesting issue. It reminds me of the time I was sitting on a bus, minding my own business. Someone got on the bus, a fat woman who was apparently uncomfortable standing. Another woman, also standing, suggests that I should give up my seat to her. I was tired and my feet hurt, so I looked at the woman while she told me how 'gallant' I would be if I gave up my seat. I ignored her, but at the time I was thinking, "What the fuck is this lady's problem? Here I am, minding my own business, and she's making me out to be a bad person because I'm unwilling to sacrifice my own comfort for someone else's. Fuck her."

      I don't like being put in situations like that, it rubs me the wrong way. I apparently was not giving off enough 'leave me the fuck alone' vibes. What if I'm the fat man? If that's the case, I'll stand by eating a corndog while a runaway train runs over 5 skinny dudes. They're probably assholes anyways. Five less assholes in the world, now who's doing the right thing?

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. Previous comment deleted as I realized I had misread one word, which changed a parenthetical comment within the below paragraph. My anal retentive side is having fun today :D

      At 16 I stood up and offered my seat on a bus to an older lady (I would guess 70s); she told me off for being rude. So that would be my answer to the woman trying to teach gallantry to me ;)
      (NB I will still stand up and offer my seat, if I feel it is warranted; I just don't expect any appreciation - the offer stands regardless.)

      I'm not a particular fan of other people foisting their beliefs on me either - they are entitled to them but by the same token I am entitled to mine.

  5. i find that I'd likely have no issue pushing the man. But my re question is, why would I take an effort to save these people? Are they of any benefit to me? Would I be seen as a horrible murderer or a quick witted hero. I like the other persons idea of playing on their self hatred, but that could be time consuming especially if they were one of those jolly fat people (actually those annoy me...I'd push them in that case) Id probably convince them to jump themselves and tell them Id tell the whole world they died a hero. people always want to be the hero.

  6. Trolleyology? Hahaha

    It makes me lol the idea of these science types studying so seriously such a fucking abstract hypothetical experiment that prob has no relation to how people actually behave irl.

    Of course if you have no idea of morality and no ideology by which you live your life then you're going to go for the utilitarian solution to problems. Does it really need a scientific study to prove that?


      Things like this are taken seriously because the deeper you delve into humanity's nature, you find that the only thing absent is what we describe as humanity.

  7. My response would probably be to do nothing- not because I have an objection to pushing the man, but because this isn't a problem I need to solve. The question assumes some obligation in my part to try to save people. If I wanted to save a particular individual, maybe that would spur me to action. If my wife was one of the 5, I'd probably push the man. If the fat man was my brother, I probably wouldn't push him. But it comes down to whether I have a motivation to act. Without that kind of motivation, I wouldn't get involved.

  8. I don't know about this. I've read that 90% of people would save the 5 over the 1.
    I think it's like lessening the scale of the tragedy perhaps. A "well at least fewer people die" sort of reasoning that resonates with most people.
    What ME has posted is directly opposite to that.
    Also makes me think you can spin either side to seem sociopathic.

    1. That's what's interesting. In the original trolley problem, you have a runaway trolley heading for 5 people tied to the tracks. You're near a lever, and if you pull the lever the trolley will switch to another track with just 1 person on it. In most cases, people will pull the switch to save 5 and sacrifice one.

      The fat man problem is much less palatable to people, and the difference between the two cases is a good point of discussion.

    2. This excerpt from Wikipedia is interesting. I have to say, I agree with him 100%.

      Consequentialists, in particular, reject the notion that two acts can differ in their moral permissibility if both have exactly the same consequences, or expected consequences. John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth-century advocate of the utilitarian version of consequentialism, argues that it is a mistake to confuse the standards for right action with a consideration of our motives to perform a right action: "He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble; he who betrays the friend that trusts him, is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations." According to Mill, scrutiny of motives or intentions will show that almost all good behavior proceeds from questionable intentions. Therefore, Mill argues, our moral analysis should ignore matters of intention, and so we should reject DDE (doctrine of double effect), which appeals to a distinction between intended and unintended consequences.

  9. I'd ask fatty if he had some popcorn for the show. XD

    I read recently critique that suggested that one flaw in the design is the degree of certainty of the outcome. How good is your aim, if you will. Tossing an obese person off a bridge is hard work. And, if you have to hit a lever, or even just the tracks - success does not sound assured.

    The problem with buttons is summarized nicely by (Ronson or Dutton?) who quoted a killer who said, "well, there you have your problem. You have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty." It removes the actor from the action.

    Then, as HB points out, why get involved at all?

  10. Hey M.E. - utilitarianism is also correlated with indifference. You'll want to check this article out as it follows up on moral dilemmas, utilitarianism and psychopathy:

    My own (psychopathic) take on it: I have the utilitarian outlook and a tremendous amount of selfishness and indifference. I suspect I'm the guy Dr. Kahane was thinking of. Here's the abstract:

    A growing body of research has focused on so-called ‘utilitarian’ judgments in moral dilemmas in which participants have to choose whether to sacrifice one person in order to save the lives of a greater number. However, the relation between such ‘utilitarian’ judgments and genuine utilitarian impartial concern for the greater good remains unclear. Across four studies, we investigated the relationship between ‘utilitarian’ judgment in such sacrificial dilemmas and a range of traits, attitudes, judgments and behaviors that either reflect or reject an impartial concern for the greater good of all. In Study 1, we found that rates of ‘utilitarian’ judgment were associated with a broadly immoral outlook concerning clear ethical transgressions in a business context, as well as with sub-clinical psychopathy. In Study 2, we found that ‘utilitarian’ judgment was associated with greater endorsement of rational egoism, less donation of money to a charity, and less identification with the whole of humanity, a core feature of classical utilitarianism. In Studies 3 and 4, we found no association between ‘utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial dilemmas and characteristic utilitarian judgments relating to assistance to distant people in need, self-sacrifice and impartiality, even when the utilitarian justification for these judgments was made explicit and unequivocal. This lack of association remained even when we controlled for the antisocial element in ‘utilitarian’ judgment. Taken together, these results suggest that there is very little relation between sacrificial judgments in the hypothetical dilemmas that dominate current research, and a genuine utilitarian approach to ethics.

    1. Me again - I suspect there's something to this that might be grist for your mill.

      I can sit down and reason out what people ought to do (for the greater good) - that's like a math problem. And then when I have to do something, unless I've thought about it well in advance and decided I'm going to do the "good thing" - I'll settle one some other goal and then (pre-attention bottleneck) won't be able to pay attention to anything until I've gotten when I want.

      Does that make sense? Unless I've got the goal to be moral, if you put me in a situation, my tendency will be to do the habitual selfish thing. And due to the pre-attention bottleneck, if I've got a selfish goal, I'll be doing the selfish thing - except the world that I'll be seeing will be limited to the the things I need to see to do the selfish thing that I'm doing.

      Hence, ask me to give a moral problem, I'll give a utilitarian answer. Put me in a real situation I might easily do the most selfish and immoral thing.

  11. "My guess is, however, that it is true that sociopaths naturally default to a more utilitarian way of thinking because there almost is no other universal, sustainable basis of decision making for a sociopath to choose that would work in almost any situation without the sociopath being run out of town for outrageous selfishness."

    This is a different lens on the problem of 'not being run out of town': what about sensitivity to blame?

    I've noticed it with psychopaths in a few different contexts - hints of blame tend to be met with strong reactions.

    I was figuring that blame might be a reliable proxy for guilt or remorse, or just as an indicator that behaviour is outside norms.

    As an example, the FNP received a visit from our boss while in hospital and this guy brought him some flowers. When I visited him, he was rambling on about how our boss must think he is already in the grave, blah blah blah. I said to him "Why do you always take the worst possible perspective on things?". He said, "oh, she's like that" redirecting ownership of those statements to his wife...

    I've noticed it in comments on this blog, too, and on another forum.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Easiest answer: from the time that we are children we are told that everything we say and do are wrong. We grow to understand why over time but nevertheless if you feel attacked constantly your going to eventually develope a defense mechanism. Usually that happens to be to turn the blame around on the offender. Sweet and simple

  12. If the fat man were Dr. Ukaka I would push

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  17. why would sim sacrifice himself to save anyone else? Given the weight of fatso, I might accidentally fall on the tracks myself... It would be much more entertaining watching 5 people die... and as others look on in shock and horror, hit fatso over the head with an iron rod, killing him in the process. Of course, this is playing out in my own mind, but will tell Dr Bartels and Dr Pizarro a different story to suit their needs, while winning trust, deflecting all manner of suspicions of my disposition, which eventually will transform into favours that benefit ME financially... It's a win-win for Sim and that's all that matters

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