Posts Tagged ‘Psychopaths’

The human mind: Links & comments 2/16/15

February 16, 2015

education-in-liberal-artsHow to Convince Someone They’ve Committed a Crime by Nathan Collins for Pacific Standard.

Brainwashing, which is my worst nightmare, may in fact be possible.  Evidently people can be made not only to confess to crimes they haven’t committed, but to come to falsely believe they actually have committed them.

Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person by Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian.

People like to believe that the arc of the universe bends toward justice.  Faced with injustice they can’t do anything about, people tend to blame the victim.

Psychology: the man who studies everyday evil by David Robson for the BBC.

An experimental psychologist has confirmed that there are people who’ll pay a price just for the pleasure of inflicting pain on others.

The plight of the bitter nerd: Why so many awkward, shy guys end up hating feminism by Arthur Chu for Salon.  [Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist]

It’s natural, but wrong, to blame other people for your internal problems.  That’s a different thing from the external threats faced by many women from misogynists.

Could You Go 40 Days Without Being Mean? by Sarah Miller for New York magazine.

The author experimented with being soft-spoken for 40 days and found, to her surprise, that it made her happier.

Race, IQ and Wealth by Ron Unz for the Unz Review.

The scientific evidence indicates that differences in IQ between nations and ethnic groups have much to do with affluence and development, and very little to do with heredity.

Brains Make Decisions the Way Turing Cracked Codes by Devin Powell for Smithsonian magazine.

Interesting and important work is being done on how the brain works, but this is not a solution to the mystery of consciousness.

Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?  by Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian.

I can’t even imagine what a solution to the mystery of consciousness would consist of.

Money really is a root of evil

July 29, 2013

My mother always thought that in an election, all other things being equal, you should vote for the richest candidate.  Her idea was that if somebody already was rich, they would have less reason to steal.

But studies by Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, contradict this.  He found that people in upper economic classes were more likely that ordinary people to cheat, lie and break the law.

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.  Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

via Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.

 Just feeling wealthy, even with Monopoly money, gives people a greater sense of entitlement and lessens consideration for others, Piff found.

The old Stoics believed that wealth and good fortune were as at least as great a test of character as poverty and misfortune.  They were right.

Click on Rich More Likely to Behave Unethically and Yes, Virginia, Rich People Are Not the Same as You and Me for more.

The power of sociopaths and psychopaths

June 19, 2013

If you look at what’s going on in the country—bailouts of crooked bankers, protection of high-level criminals from prosecution, corporations forcing down wages, public institutions such as the postal service and public universities being strip-mined for private gain, the erosion of civil liberties, the militarization of local police, the crackdown on protest and whistleblowers—there seems to be a pattern.  The pattern is concentration of power and wealth at the top, and preparation to defend that concentration from a popular uprising.

I discuss this a lot with a good friend of mine, and we wonder to what extent this is deliberate and to what extent it consists of powerful and privileged people just doing what comes naturally.   I find it hard to believe that it could be deliberate.  But maybe I’m wrong.   This documentary, narrated by Peter Coyote, suggests that we are vulnerable to being ruled by sociopaths and psychopaths, people without conscience or normal human feeling.

The first 30 minutes consists of interviews with psychologists who have studied sociopaths and psychopaths.  They say such people are skillful at mimicking human feeling and manipulating others, and therefore have a natural advantage in rising to the top in organizations.

The only actual fact presented in support of this was a study of 203 high-potential senior managers, eight of nine of which proved to have psychopathic characteristics.  This is about the same proportion as in the general population, but the eight or nine reportedly had a higher degree of psychopathy.

The next 15 minutes are the most interesting.  It is about how Prozac and other anti-depressant drugs give users some characteristic of psychopaths.  Anti-depressants make people more self-confident, but less emotionally aware.  They help people focus on a task while ignoring all other considerations, which is characteristic of psychopaths.

The final 30 minutes are about what ordinary people can do to avoid being manipulated by psychopaths.  Coyote cites the Milgram experiments on submission to authority, in which participants inflicted intense pain (as they were led to believe) on helpless subjects because somebody in authority told them to do so.  But a lesser-known part of the Milgram experiment was that when somebody was seen to defy authority out of conscience, almost all the participants also defied authority.

Everybody is influenced by friends and also indirectly by friends of friends and friends of friends of friends, psychologists told the filmmakers.  That means anybody who sets an example of integrity influences not only their friends, but their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends.  No matter what our situation, we are not helpless and what we do matters.

The documentary isn’t proof of anything, but it is thought-provoking.  It is long, but you don’t have to watch it all at once.

Click on SociopathWorld for a web log by someone who claims to be a sociopath.  Hat tip for the connection to marginal revolution.

Click on Wisdom from psychopaths? for an article in Scientific American by a writer who sees a positive side to psychopathic charm, focus and ruthlessness.

Click on The psychopathic 1 percent for an earlier post of mine on this subject, and more links.

Click on The Logic of the Surveillance State for reasons for suspecting our society is run by sociopaths and psychopaths.

Psychopaths as role models

September 28, 2012

Some time back I put up a post about how a lot of financiers fit the psychological profile of psychopaths.  Now a British psychology professor named Kevin Dutton has published a book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths (which I haven’t read), and written an article in Scientific American (which I have) about how this can be a good thing, not a bad thing.

The traits of a psychopath, Dutton said, are egotism, persuasiveness, ruthlessness, fearlessness, lack of empathy, lack of remorse and the ability to stay focused on a goal.   These are characteristic of both what he called dysfunctional psychopaths (serial killers, professional assassins, swindlers) and functional psychopaths (CEOs, spies, surgeons, politicians, military commanders).  The difference is that dysfunctional psychopaths lack the ability to control their impulses, especially impulses toward aggression and violence.

How can psychopathic traits be a good thing?  Well, wrote Dutton, take a surgeon as an example.  Do you want to be operated on by someone who feels squeamish about cutting people up?  He quoted a famous brain surgeon.

I have no compassion for those whom I operate on.  This is a luxury I simply cannot afford.  In the theater I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw.  When you’re cutting loose and cheating death, feelings aren’t fit for purpose.  Emotion is entropy—and seriously bad for business.  I’ve hunted it down to extinction over the years.

A military commander, or even a soldier in the field, has to put aside normal human feelings, and to kill and send people to their deaths for the sake of victory.  Great statesmen such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were able to act with coldblooded ruthlessness when necessary.  And studies have shown a correlation of traits of criminal psychopaths and of successful business executives.  Dutton quoted a successful CEO:

Intellectual ability on its own is just an elegant way of finishing second.  Remember, they don’t call it a greasy pole for nothing.  The road to the top is hard.  But it’s easier to climb if you lever yourself up on others.  Easier still if they think something’s in it for them.

I can how the psychopathic traits can be harnessed in a socially beneficial way within a framework of law and ethics.  A surgeon may or may not enjoy cutting people up, but has a mission to be a healer and is subject to medical ethics.  A military commander may or may not be indifferent to human life, but operates within a military code of honor.  Statesmen and business executives are—or at least should be—subject to the law and accountable to the public.

Fascism, Marxism-Leninism and other totalitarian ideologies give free rein to psychopaths.  Lack of empathy, lack of remorse and relentless focus on a goal are the admired qualities of a Mussolini or a Lenin.   These values are rejected, or should be rejected, by a democratic society.

The current discipline of economics in a certain sense assumes psychopathic behavior.  Economics is the study of how human beings respond to material incentives.  While this has great explanatory power, economists sometimes assume that material incentives plus a free market make ordinary morality and ethics unnecessary.  The argument of the Freakonomics books is an argument for people disregarding their moral intuitions and acting on material incentives.

Psychopathic traits may have value under certain circumstances, as Dutton claims.  The problem is keeping the psychopaths under control of people with normal moral intuition.

Click on What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed for Kevin Dutton’s full article in the October issue of Scientific American.

Click on The Great British Psychopath Survey for Dutton’s self-test to determine whether you have psychopathic traits.

Click on The psychopathic 1 percent for my earlier post on psychopaths in business and finance.

The psychopathic 1 percent

January 20, 2012

The board of the failed Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been bailed out by the British government, wants to give its chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, a $2 million bonus on top of his $2 million salary. A “senior banker” told the Financial Times that Royal Bank employees will be demoralized if he doesn’t get it.

Dick Fuld, the former CEO of failed Lehman Brothers, told his staff he wanted to rip out his competitors’ hearts and eat them while they were still alive.  E-mails revealed Goldman Sachs executives gloating about how they’d unloaded worthless securities on unsuspecting customers.

How to you explain such behavior?  Certain British academics speculate that such people are, literally, psychopaths.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

How do people with such obvious personality flaws make it to the top of seemingly successful corporations? Boddy says psychopaths take advantage of the “relative chaotic nature of the modern corporation,” including “rapid change, constant renewal” and high turnover of “key personnel.”  Such circumstances allow them to ascend through a combination of “charm” and “charisma,” which makes “their behavior invisible” and “makes them appear normal and even to be ideal leaders.”

via Bloomberg.

Boddy admits this is an unproved hypothesis.  But he thinks it wouldn’t hurt to have those whose decisions affect the well-being of other people to undergo a psychological test just to make sure they’re not psychopaths.  Does this seem far-fetched?  Two other British psychologists found that psychological profiles of 39 British senior managers and CEOs matched profiles of the criminally insane.

In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses.  They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated.  On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses’s scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients.  In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders.

The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, Board and Fritzon point out, closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for.  Those who have these traits often possess great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people.  Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also unlikely to damage their prospects in many corporations.

Via The Guardian

Brian Basham, a British financial journalist, knows of at least one important bank that gave psychological tests not to screen out psychopaths, but to make sure to hire them.