Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resconstructing ourselves

A reader gives an update on the child with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) who was featured in the documentary, Child of Rage, discussed previously on this blog here. I always avoid using her name, but you can read the details on the link (and it's always a little shocking to me that they used her name in the "documentary" featuring her, a minor, in what seems a pretty exploitative way, showing her actual therapy tapes? How did her parents allow this?).

There is a happy ending! She recovers from the reactive attachment disorder in a big way and becomes a happy and contributing member of society. The link for the update on her life is here. The quick summary is she is a nurse, she seems to still have a good relationship with her family, and she seems like just a normal person living a normal life.

As I was looking for the documentary I stumbled upon some other child mental disorder documentaries that seemed just a little less exploitative, and then finally a clip of a "news" show interviewing a young, attractive teacher that got busted for sexual relations with a 14 year old student. She was saying that it was a mistake and she had done it because of a troubled past, including mental illness, but scrolling through the comments -- every single person continued to vilify her. Out of the millions of views, not a single one would accept her apology, either as being sincere or as her being capable of change or worthy of forgiveness.

I know that the urge to ostracize and shame others runs deep in humanity's evolutionary past, but (and I've said this literally dozens of times before, including the penultimate post) society's willingness to let self-righteous feelings to dominate their rational capacity and/or empathy to continue to persecute people for something that they did or said in the past... I just struggle to understand why it's still such a problem, and one that is rarely discussed as such. As much as you hear about anti-bullying campaigns, there seems to be an unspoken understanding amongst most people that bullying is absolutely ok if the person you're bullying is a bad person. I hear even intelligent people whom I respect defend the shaming and the shameless poor treatment of their fellow humans for real or imagined wrongs. What society does with its social undesirables is basically one step away from tattooing them with their convict number and hounding and persecuting them through the rest of their lives.

But I sometimes think, what if we talked about more examples of recovery and more stories of people being dynamic and capable of change, maybe we could educate the evolutionary impulse a little so it's not so prone to mob mentality and see our fellow humans a little more accurately -- people that weren't really the same person decades ago and won't really be the same decades from now. Like NPR's Invisibilia piece on the myth of the static personality featuring the story of Dan, a rapist turned good guy: "I'm forever going to be a criminal," he says, "which I'm not. I've become a completely different human being at this point." "I have to atone for my crime. But I realize now I'm just paying for someone else's debt. The person who committed the crime no longer exists." How can we adjust the way we deal with people who we don't want to associate with (for whatever reason) so there can still be an appropriate level of accountability or precautionary measures while also more accurately reflecting the dynamic nature of who humans are?

"Maybe we're not thinking right about who we are and what we could be," says Walter Mischel [author of the famed marshmallow study]. "People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations," Milgram says. "To reframe them. To reconstruct them. To even reconstruct themselves."

(The Invisibilia piece oddly excepts sociopaths from this ability to change, assuming the myth of sociopathy to be incurable without questioning it as most do. But baby steps.)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Baby Boomers = generation of sociopaths?

I have expressed my prejudices re baby boomers before (i.e. generation of narcissists), but someone wrote a book about how they're sociopathic. From the Huffington Post:

In his new book, A Generation of Sociopaths, writer and venture capitalist Bruce Gibney puts forth the controversial hypothesis that baby boomers ― specifically the large subset of white, middle-class boomers ― are, both individually and as a group, unusually sociopathic. Gibney cites mental health data showing boomers have significantly higher levels of antisocial traits and behaviors ― including lack of empathy, disregard for others, egotism and impulsivity ― than other generations.

As a result, boomers have used their substantial voting power to create a society and government that don’t work very well. Or, as Gibney puts it, boomers’ “private behaviors congealed into a debased neoliberalism.”

The author regarding the impact of boomers' dogged self-interest:

There’s obviously been a substantial deceleration of economic growth. The Great Recession arguably began in 2001 and we’ve never entirely recovered ― so that’s 16 years of lost opportunity. 

The second big thing on the economic front is the intergenerational passing of burdens, and the most salient one is the debt. Gross debt to GDP 40 years ago was 34 percent, and today it’s around 105 percent. It’s projected by [the Congressional Budget Office] to exceed the World War II highs by the early 2030s. When boomers start taking control and influencing policies, the policies get worse on the debt, so that now we haven’t seen these levels of debt in more than 70 years.

There are consequences to these levels of debt. ... But that’s not really relevant for the boomers. This is not their problem and they have not been serious about it. The debt wasn’t discussed as a serious issue during the 2016 presidential election, but Social Security was ― because we know that this program is going to be partially insolvent by 2034. And this is the only thing that Trump and Clinton could agree on: Social Security ― untouchable. Medicare ― untouchable. These things are sacred. They couldn’t even agree where to stand on the stage together, and they agreed on Social Security.  

People who know me personally know I rarely pass up an opportunity to take potshots at baby boomers. It's not even the selfishness that gets on my nerves, because really everyone is selfish. It's the delusional self-aggrandizement. Boomers all think they're self-made success stories, just because they happen to have been born perfectly timed to profit from one of the biggest economic booms in known history. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats, but a lot of boomers credit their success to being a particularly skilled captain. I think it's great (for me) when these people apply that hubris to their trades in the stock market, but it generally makes them boorish dinner companions.

Sociopath, though? No, I stick by my initial assessment of narcissists. I'd like to think that the average sociopath is much more self-aware than the average baby boomer.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Rationality of Tolerance

Even when I was little, I had a healthy skepticism for people's professed moral positions. Maybe I just didn't understand (and still don't) the nuances of morality well enough, but to me most people's moral codes seemed horribly inconsistent and regularly skewed to their own self-interest or to the care and benefit of those closest to them. Of course now we have social research cottage industry about the darkside or limitations of empathy. Also, it seems more obvious (at least to me) when there's been a regime change, and the same people who decried the dubious tactics of the previous ruling class adopt the same in order to augment and perpetuate their own power.

Religion, often the seedbed of social moral norms, often has some of the greatest hypocrisies, or at least religious people often act far from what they profess to be their moral obligation to others. I have most experience with Mormons and the LDS faith, so that is where most of my experience is with this as well, and it's such a stumbling block to the church's efforts and to members' experience with the church that they've been doing a social media campaign addressing differences and loving others unconditionally.

But the judgment and rejection that some experience in the LDS church, I believe, is just a reflection of broader societal problems -- writing entire groups of people off as being less worthy of care, being quick to disenfranchise others, judging people harshly based on one singled out aspect of their personality or one single event in their life, etc. None of it is really a rational way to behave, but I see otherwise perfectly rational people try to rationalize these feelings all the time, and even dig in when challenged about them. Mob mentality seems to reign much more powerfully now than I remember at any other point in my lifetime.

I know I've written about tolerance before, but I just see stuff like this and think that empathy seems so limited if it still allows this sort of behavior to happen (and often encourages or is the source of this sort of in/out group thinking). Whereas, think about how much better the world would actually be if people were able to withhold judgment and instead seek to understand and appreciate each others' differences or even just leave each other mostly alone, but try to allow a place for everyone to develop and express their unique talents somewhere in someway in this world. Just because that was not how we were evolved to think, in our tribe-first primitive social brain mentality, doesn't mean that it's not the best way to think now. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Playing a trump card

A reader recently explained why he bothers staying within the lines:

I find it strange, as I do not hide I am a sociopath. People ask why I am the way I am, and I tell them. I get the response aren't you afraid people will try ruining you?

My response is always the same. I am high functioning because it supports the lifestyle I have. If someone takes that life away from me I don't have to care anymore. Do you want to be the person I focus on first?

It makes me laugh a little to read that because there was this guy in the first couple years who found out who I was. I had found out who he was first, back when I wasn't deluged with emails every day (sorry for the late/nonexistent replies everyone!!!) I just googled his email and got a few hits for hacker forums, etc. So I mentioned it to him in my reply, not to freak him out, but just because I found his situation to be interesting and wanted to understand it better. Whatever his diagnosis was (I think he finally settled on schizoid), there was a bit of paranoia in there, and he made it his life's mission for the next 9 months to figure out who I was -- tit for tat. He was successful, not because of anything I did but because of a little slip-up that someone that I knew did in a comment on the blog. After that, he was about two steps away from blackmailing/extorting me. One of the smaller reasons for doing the book and trying to stay in a "glass closet", in which a lot more people would know my identity, was getting out from under this guy's thumb. And sure enough, this was his response after the book came out:

I see you have been outed. It was difficult at times, but I kept your identity a secret for a very long time. Please, return the favor by deleting all emails to/from me, if you would be so kind. If and when your new-found popularity causes problems for you, I would prefer to have as little involvement as possible.

I replied "I have no idea what you're afraid of. ;)" That's the problem with secrets and shaming as leverage -- people only take the hit once, and if they manage to make a comeback, you're in a very vulnerable position. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Legitimate form of life

I tweeted this article about how Oliver Sacks conceives as difference not as a disability, but as a different set of abilities, but I wanted to share some more thoughts on it.

Maria Popova writes:

A voracious lifelong reader, Dr. Sacks had grown enchanted by the H.G. Wells short story “The Country of the Blind,” set in an isolated society where blindness prevailed for three centuries and where a lost Western traveller finds himself the aberrant one, afflicted with sight. Drawing on the Wells story, his own childhood experience of visual migraines that temporarily blunted his color perception, and his neurological work with a painter who had suddenly become colorblind, Dr. Sacks bridged two of his great literary and intellectual heroes — Wells and Darwin — and wondered whether there might exist, not in fiction but in geography, a real isolated culture where total colorblindness — or achromatopsia — had become a basic condition among the population.

Because such mutations are most easily contained in cultures isolated by sea, he reasoned that if such a society existed, it would have to be on an island. After tracking down the appropriate colleague to ask, he was surprised and thrilled to learn that one such island did indeed exist — Pingelap in the Caroline archipelago of Micronesia, where total colorblindness had been coloring the genetic pool for two centuries.
Like all genetic deviations from the mean, colorblindness on Pingelap had emerged due to a formidable brush with randomness. In 1775, a typhoon decimated 90% of the people living on the island. Most of the remaining survivors eventually succumbed to a slow death of starvation, so that of the one thousand islanders only twenty remained. Several centuries earlier, the original settlers had brought to Pingelap the recessive gene for colorblindness, but because the population had been large enough, the odds of two carriers marrying and the gene manifesting in their children had been fairly low. Now, with a tiny but fertile group left with no recourse but inbreeding to repopulate the island, the recessive gene suddenly flourished into growing domination and total colorblindness was soon a common condition.

Oliver Sacks writes:

Colorblindness had existed on both Fuur and Pingelap for a century or more, and though both islands had been the subject of extensive genetic studies, there had been no human (so to speak, Wellsian) explorations of them, of what it might be like to be an achromatope in an achromatopic community — to be not only totally colorblind oneself, but to have, perhaps, colorblind parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers, to be part of a culture where the entire concept of color might be missing, but where, instead, other forms of perception, of attention, might be amplified in compensation. I had a vision, only half fantastic, of an entire achromatopic culture with its own singular tastes, arts, cooking, and clothing — a culture where the sensorium, the imagination, took quite different forms from our own, and where “color” was so totally devoid of referents or meaning that there were no color names, no color metaphors, no language to express it; but (perhaps) a heightened language for the subtlest variations of texture and tone, all that the rest of us dismiss as “grey.”

Sacks brings a colleague, Knut Nordby, who happens to also be colorblind, and experiences the island very differently than Sacks:

For us, as color-normals, it was at first just a confusion of greens, whereas to Knut it was a polyphony of brightnesses, tonalities, shapes, and textures, easily identified and distinguished from each other.

The world wasn't just tailored made for the colorblind, the colorblind people also seemed to have a unique advantage over their counterparts:

The achromatopic children seemed to have developed very acute auditory and factual memories… [They] were oddly knowledgeable too about the colors of people’s clothing, and various objects around them — and often seemed to know what colors “went” with what… We could already observe in these achromatopic children in Mand how a sort of theoretical knowledge and know-how, a compensatory hypertrophy of curiosity and memory, were rapidly developing in reaction to their perceptual problems. They were learning to compensate cognitively for what they could not directly perceive or comprehend.

The best part of the video is at 2:55 where he tells the story of them asking how the colorblind could even tell when a banana was ripe, since they couldn't distinguish between green and yellow. They brought a green banana, and they sort of contemptuously thought -- this illustrates our point, they can't tell this banana is green. But the banana turned out to be ripe. They explained -- you're narrow minded, you would have said this banana wasn't ripe because you would only be focused on color, but they were focused on everything else about the banana -- texture, smell, etc. Similarly, a lot of people who rely on empathy have a hard time understanding how those without it could make the same sorts of judgments or choices for which the empaths rely on it so heavily. Not only can we make the same judgments and choices, we sometimes can get there more accurately without the empathy, because the emotions are not clouding our moral judgment.

The video continues, we do stigmatize people because people have characteristics that put them in conflict with others, but once the population has a large percentage of that type of person, they just seem normal. I think of the debate I got in with someone about which is more dangerous -- maleness, or sociopathy. In my mind there's an easy argument to make for maleness. If you took a female empath and made her a sociopath, she would be much less statistically likely to be a violent criminal than if you made her into a man. That's just the statistical difference between males and females in terms of propensity towards violence. But of course no one seriously advocates for the elimination of men from the human race. Since they are so prevalent, we think of their violent tendencies as being rather normal.

Sacks puts it this way:

There is a sort of critical level, so that if a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life and won’t be marginalized and, sometimes, won’t even be noticed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Virtues of Cold Blood

Sam Harris interviews famous anti-empathy researcher and author of the book "Against Empathy" Paul Bloom in his podcast. They start with the basic premise of Bloom's book, that most people see the benefits of empathy as being too obvious to even warrant any sort of justification, although the perceived value of empathy is highly suspect, and get into several other related areas.

The first hour or so goes into the limitations of empathy and our understanding of empathy. Bloom says that he is very careful to refer to what is essentially affective empathy, that is feeling the way someone else feels. He is also careful to distinguish between this and a general theory of mind (or the ability to imagine the feelings of others and why they would feel that way) and other sort of warm and fuzzy concepts like compassion, selflessness, social adroitness, sensitivity to the needs of others, etc. It turns out that when you isolate empathy as a concept and a personal characteristic, it actually doesn't do much at all. In fact, Bloom mentions at the end of the podcast that there have been meta analyses of studies done in which there is no apparent correlation between someone's degree of empathy and how nice or good of a person they are. In fact, they specifically mention someone's capacity for empathy and research done regarding the validity of the PCL-R which indicates that empathy does not really predict any sort of behavior, either good or bad behavior. Instead, other traits like past behavior and low or high impulse control do.

What empathy does accomplish is to make people susceptible to certain cognitive biases that lead them astray in their moral reasoning. This is discussed in probably the most relevant (and best) part of the discussion in the last 27 minutes or so, where Bloom addresses the question that many have raised to him -- ok, maybe empathy isn't the panacea that some claim it to be, but there's nothing wrong with it, is there? He mentions a few ways in which it can be very harmful. For instance, he argues that empathy is the reason why people will get so riled up over certain atrocities to the point where they want to commit other atrocities, e.g. a costly and violent war. Empathy is also the thing that will make those same people argue against the war that they voted as they hear stories of the collateral damage the war is causing. So essentially, high empathy people are just easily pushed from one extreme to the other with carefully selected personal stories that are designed to tug at heartstrings.

Empathy can also be highly irrational. For instance, he argues that in certain countries like India, the child beggars are almost all associated with huge criminal enterprises that exploit and even sometimes intentionally maim the children for financial gain. When people give money to these children, they're facilitating these efforts. Bloom tells the story of relating this to someone on a radio show, to which the woman responded essentially "but I like giving to children -- it makes me feel good. I feel connected to them". His rejoinder -- it depends on what you want, if you want these children's lives to be better, then don't give to them.

The first and last parts of the podcast are good. In the middle, they go off on this really random tangent in which Bloom seems to be contradicting his own argument. Specifically, Bloom argues that he wouldn't want to feel an expansive universal love, the type to which many buddhist meditation practitioners (such as Sam Harris) seek to achieve. Bloom explains that although love may not have limits, everyone has limited time and resources to spend, and if Bloom loved everyone, maybe he wouldn't spend as much time and effort on his own family. The argument is so odd because he is essentially arguing that the feelings of preferential love are necessary for him to behave in this way that he has prioritized for himself, i.e. preferential treatment of his family over starving orphans in Africa. But this is almost exactly the argument that empathy proponents make about empathy -- that it is a useful or necessary emotional tool in getting to a desired outcome of good behavior. Bloom's position is that empathy is not necessary or even that helpful because rational behavioral constructs and choices are much more efficient at achieving the desired outcome of moral behavior. But if one can just think their way to moral behavior, how couldn't one think their way to giving preferential treatment to their family, despite loving the whole of humanity equally? Oddly he doesn't seem to see any contradiction there. Am I just imagining one? Another odd thing, he basically kills his own argument by arguing that rational thinking (e.g., in this situation, utilitarianism) could easily come up with his desired outcome of preferential treatment to his family because it is more efficient for him to feed his own children than orphans in Africa. Still, he doesn't budge on his position. Does anyone have any insight into this? It truly makes me think less of him and his arguments and academia in general, so if someone has a better explanation for what he is trying to say, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


I was reading this passage by David Whyte on vulnerability and wondered, do sociopaths experience vulnerability ever?

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

I think the answer must be that they do in fact experience vulnerability, in the sense that this in this life no one or nothing is invulnerable. I think to the extent that they feel it, it must be like so many of their feelings -- dull and contextless and over just as quickly as the experience that produced it is over. There are probably exceptions. I certainly have felt a little... traumatized? I guess is the word I am thinking. Gun shy? After some of the more serious setbacks I have experienced, I have experienced a more pronounced awareness of my vulnerability in the world -- a lack of ability to predict, to control, or to deal with what's happening to me. So yes, definitely a situational awareness style awareness of vulnerability in the sense that we're all mortals. And what about an emotional vulnerability?

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