Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another piece of the puzzle: mindfulness

Okay, hopefully you had time to read the David Foster Wallace commencement linked from my last post. Now, read this:

Psychology Today: The neuroscience of mindfulness

If you're an overachiever, see if you notice the link between DFW's speech and this article. I promise, it's not unimportant.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

David Foster Wallace

Read this. Seriously, it's amazing. It's a commencement address given by a brilliant author, and the topic couldn't be more apropos to this blog.

Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address - May 21, 2005

I'm going to paste a section of it in my next post, with some highlights. In conjunction with some research and some of my own handiwork, I think you might find what's coming interesting.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Social Anxiety Disorder in a milder form

"Social Anxiety Disorder" is a descriptive enough name that I don't have to list its symptoms in detail. Basically, people with this disorder experience a high level of anxiety in social situations in which most other people feel much more comfortable.

Try to imagine what this must feel like. It's possible that some of these feelings are already familiar to you to a lesser degree. Maybe going to a party where you don't know anybody makes you anxious.

Overcoming these feelings serves the obvious purpose of eased social interaction for our own sake, but there's another set of scenarios where the skills of being comfortable in unfamiliar social settings is very valuable. Let's consider the case of Kitty Genovese. You may have heard of her famous case.

In 1964, she was stabbed to death, in a series of attacks that spanned over roughly half an hour, where the perpetrator returned several times to make sure she was dead. His confidence to return seemed to come from the fact that nobody seemed to have reported the attack, despite screams and cries.

Naturally, there was a big furor over this: dozens of citizens had seen or heard bits of the attack, but nobody took decisive action to stop it. It turns out the media significantly exaggerated the facts, and in fact several people did call police or try to scare off the perp. The majority of others reported that they took the screams as coming from just another late night reveler in NYC, or else probably didn't see enough of what was going on to have sufficient reason to react.

The events surrounding her case were studied by social psychologists, who developed the study of "bystander intervention." As described in the wikipedia article on her case, some of the conclusions about why onlookers often fail to act suggest traits of human nature that are reminiscent of those we described above:
The reasons include the fact that onlookers see that others are not helping either, that onlookers believe others will know better how to help, and that onlookers feel uncertain about helping while others are watching.
Think about the last two in particular. Have you ever been in a social setting where you just assume that others know better how to behave "correctly?" How about the feeling of not wanting to look like that meddlesome guy or gal, offering help when others can "obviously" tell that no help is actually needed?

It seems to me that some of the key characteristics of a person who might be described as "the life of the party" coincide with those who are willing to step up and take responsibility when nobody else around is.

So, the next time you're at a party and feeling a little uncomfortable or awkward, and you need a little courage to break the ice, try to remember this. Others may witness your courage to be a little forward, and in their eyes perhaps you'll be the one who's "in the know" about how to act. Who knows, maybe that'll bring you one step closer to being a hero someday.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


This is a fun one I've been meaning to blog about for a while. Its connection with empathy will become clearer later when I'm less lazy. For now, consider this part I in a series of posts which are meant to be striking reminders of why not to judge others too harshly. Weird things are afoot in the human brain, our own included. Today we'll talk about

Anosognosia: a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability.

Patients with anosognosia are often otherwise rational, intelligent people. Consider the case of patients who suffer single-hemisphere strokes, causing partial paralysis--without knowledge of it:
One of the best-known victims of the condition was Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, who suffered a right-hemisphere stroke in 1974 that paralyzed his left side and eventually forced his retirement. He initially dismissed the paralysis as a myth, and weeks later he was still inviting reporters to go on hiking expeditions with him. When one visitor asked about his left leg, he claimed that he had recently been kicking 40-yard field goals with it in the exercise room and soon planned to try out for the Washington Redskins.

Mrs. M.'s form of anosognosia is even more extreme: she not only flatly denies she is paralyzed, she refuses to admit that the limp limb on the left has anything at all to do with her. One such anosognosiac became so incensed that somebody else's leg was cluttering up his hospital bed that he heaved the thing out and was subsequently amazed to find himself on the floor. Another claimed that the arm on the left belonged to his daughter, who was trying to seduce him.


Neuroscientist Edoardo Bisiach at the University of Milan in Italy reported one 74-year-old stroke patient who repeatedly claimed that his left hand belonged to the doctor examining him. The doctor finally grasped the paralyzed hand between his own two and held it up to the patient's face.

"Whose hands are these?" he asked.

"Your hands," the patient replied.

"How many of them?"


"Ever seen a man with three hands?" the doctor asked.

"A hand is the extremity of an arm," said the patient. "Since you have three arms, it follows that you must have three hands."

This would all be humorous but for the pause it should give us:
"Looking at patients like Mrs. M. can be spooky at first," says Ramachandran, a neuroscientist and physician at the University of California at San Diego, and the Salk Institute nearby. "But then you realize you're really looking at yourself, in amplified form."
It makes one wonder to what extent we all confabulate in our seemingly honest, rational lives.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Snubbed by a computer

I'm reading an article from CNN about rejection online (e.g., un-friending on Facebook), and found the following section incredibly amusing:

These data include Williams' "cyberball" studies, which ask a participant to play a virtual ball-tossing game with two other icons. In one study group, the participant plays the game for the entire six minutes, but in the second group, he or she is included for only a fraction of that time and then ignored. The second group reports feelings of anger and lower levels of self-esteem.

Whether participants believe they're playing with humans doesn't appear to affect their feelings of rejection.

"Even when people get rejected by the computer, they feel bad," Twenge said.

Amusing, although I'm sure I feel exactly the same way.

Kenneth Loflin, a student who participated in Williams' study, got so frustrated by his fellow players that he gave the computer screen an offensive gesture.

"I'm a people person, and I like people to like me," he said.

So that's how to be a "people person!" Screw that Dale Carnegie nonsense.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hitler was a vegetarian!

I'm going to interrupt my mini-series on responsibility for an idea that just popped into my mind. You may have come across the argument that Hitler was a vegetarian. Notice I didn't mention what it is an argument for, because it doesn't really seem to be an argument at all. If it's an argument against vegetarianism, then Hitler loved his mother is an equally good argument against loving one's mother.

Luckily, most (but not all) of the times I've heard it were in jest. Today, randomly, I decided to see if there was any truth to the claim, and the answer is interesting. As it turns out, the details are still debated amongst scholars, who generally agree that he was kinda-sorta against meat eating... sometimes. But historical accuracy is irrelevant to the story, so I'll go ahead and present the side that's interesting.
"Do you know that your Führer is a vegetarian, and that he does not eat meat because of his general attitude toward life and his love for the world of animals? Do you know that your Führer is an exemplary friend of animals, and even as a chancellor, he is not separated from the animals he has kept for years?...The Führer is an ardent opponent of any torture of animals, in particular vivisection, and has declared to terminate those conditions...thus fulfilling his role as the savior of animals, from continuous and nameless torments and pain." —Neugeist/Die Weisse Fahne (German magazine of the New Thought movement)
(Emphasis mine). Here's an (nth-hand) description from Wikipedia regarding the BBC series "The Nazis: a Warning from History":
In this series an eyewitness account tells of Hitler watching movies (which he did very often). If ever a scene showed (even fictional) cruelty to or death of an animal, Hitler would cover his eyes and look away until someone alerted him the scene was over.
Why is this interesting? Well, these and other anecdotes actually do suggest that, regardless of his dietary habits, Hitler was actually able to empathize with animals. In fact, upon further reading, it seems unequivocally established that he was quite fond of dogs -- as were at least some of his compatriots.

So the warning that Hitler was a vegetarian seems to be saying something after all. It's a solemn reminder that the ability to empathize is not enough. That "being good" in some particular regard is no guarantee that our moral compass is set straight. But maybe it's also a source for hope: that even in the most seemingly lost causes, that twinkle of humanity deep down is never fully extinguished.

Lest I lose more of my audience to boredom, rest assured I'll have more science and less pontificating in the near future :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What I am and am not responsible for

Everything I say in this (long, rambling) post has been covered by countless wiser and more eloquent people than I, but it's nonetheless relevant to this blog, and important to me (and it's my blog, so nyah!).

One popular description of becoming an adult is that it entails both the development and recognition of one's responsibilities in the world. What is less often discussed -- perhaps because the first hurdle is already a pretty high bar -- is the recognition of what one's responsibilities are not.

To paraphrase Dr. Larry Brilliant (talk about an ambitious name), the question is how "to live ambitiously but without ambition." If this sounds paradoxical, it's not only the fault of the English language's imprecision. Consider the common maxim "live every moment as though it were your last." I don't know about you, but the images of mayhem that evokes for me are not really what I want the world to be like. And yet there's something to the idea.

Let's consider a different example. Suppose I educate myself on the ways in which I feel the meat industry is wreaking havoc on animal welfare, the environment, human hunger, or whatever my concerns are. I may rightly feel I have a moral obligation to stop eating meat. I may also feel that I have a duty to educate others on the industry's perils. But what if I start feeling responsible for actually changing other people's minds? That sounds like a slippery slope toward enforcing my will on others, which is how otherwise well-intentioned activists end up becoming terrorists.

Things quickly become murky: suppose I witness somebody kicking a dog, and I feel strongly that it's wrong. Is it my responsibility to stop him? What if there's a crazed gunman about to kill everyone in the building, and I am in a unique position to shoot him and save many lives? If the answer to either of these is that I am justified in taking action, then where is it that the "eco-terrorists" and their ilk are going wrong?

One answer that springs to mind is that killing the gunman and saving the dog will get you labeled a hero, whereas blowing up a Hummer dealership or abortion clinic will get you labeled a wacko (not to mention a felon). The latter is clearly not beneficial to your cause, so such rash actions fail to meet the criterion of practicality. That is, with a modicum of cleverness, you should be able to see that blowing shit up is not effective in helping people see things your way.

But that can't be all there is to it -- it's not that all people who are passionate about a cause can be partitioned into "people who blow shit up" and "people who want to." Well, a third obvious category is "those who seek more reasonable ways to effect change." But what if none of their efforts there seem to have any impact?

I'll stop here with a "to be continued..."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A subtle fallacy

Earlier, I was watching a lecture on YouTube from the series "Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?", by a man who I assume is a professor of political or ethical philosophy at Harvard. He begins the lecture by presenting a well-known moral dilemma:

You're the driver of a runaway trolley that is about to kill 5 workers on the track. If you pull a lever, the trolley will redirect to a second track, where only one worker is standing and would just as surely be killed. Do you pull the lever?

In a second scenario, you're on a bridge overlooking an empty runaway trolley that is about to kill 5 people standing on the track. There's a man next to you leaning over the railing, and he's just large enough to derail the train (and be killed in the process). Are you willing to push him over to save the 5?

The vast majority of people answer "yes" to the first and "no" to the second. It also generally takes a lot of reflection to give a cogent answer as to how the different answers can be reconciled. In the video, the audience struggles to reason through the arguments.

The lecturer uses this and other examples to illustrate how complicated moral reasoning can be, and describes why it's so important to not take the "skeptical stance," i.e. throw your hands up and declare the whole set of questions unanswerable. But in stressing the importance of carefully examining the various moral arguments that can be applied, I think he's doing a disservice to his audience: he's artificially magnifying the variance in people's tendencies.

What do I mean? Well, in his trolley car questions, there's an implicit assumption: "what do you choose" is assumed by the audience to be roughly equivalent to "what is the right choice?" He knows that the vast majority of his audience is likely not sociopathic, so that even if two people disagree on their actions, the difference is very unlikely to be caused by one person arguing that more death (or more generally, more harm) is the desired outcome.

So what? Well, if the goal is to debate philosophy from an ivory tower, this is a fine way to do it. If one is simply seeking to improve the condition of the world, however, there are much easier ways to go about it. Namely, notice that the vast majority of problems we face are not caused by differing assumptions on right and wrong; far more often, they stem from our inability to live in accordance with those beliefs.

When examining the causes of the Holocaust, it seems much more relevant to ask about the circumstances under which normal people (e.g., the vast majority of the Nazi army) can be induced to commit atrocities against their natural better judgement than to debate the subtleties of the argument for eugenics.

There are of course legitimate moral disagreements (e.g. abortion) that are relevant to us today, but we can be easily tricked into spending a disproportionate amount of time debating them and forgetting about the fact that we're doing oh-so-badly acting on millions of things we already agree on. The day humanity's greatest challenges stem from the difficulty of choosing between two arguably correct choices will be glorious, indeed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Compassion for everyone

Okay, now onto an empathy-related post. As I may have mentioned, in 2008 I attended a 3-month meditation retreat, loosely modeled after a meditation study known as the Shamatha Project. The goal of the Project was to monitor data along many dimensions of cognitive and physical well-being of subjects practicing attention-focusing and compassion-generating meditation, 8 hours a day, for 12 weeks.

There were no scientific examinations done on me, but I am not surprised by some of the things they found in processing the Project data. One point in particular is relevant to the topic of this blog:
The study hypothesized that training in compassion would reduce the intensity of emotions that cause people to pull back from others who are either suffering or doing things that are unappealing. Consistent with this prediction, preliminary analyses show that after viewing scenes of the Iraq war (in which American soldiers bragged about getting psyched up to shoot Iraqis by listening to heavy metal music), followed by images of suffering Iraqis (including children), the retreat group reported significantly less contempt than the control group.
Did you catch that? The interesting thing isn't how they reacted to seeing victims -- we'd all expect an improvement in that from compassion training. It's how they responded to the tormentors.

If my own intuition is correct, the idea is that their innate tendency to split the world into good and bad, right and wrong, victim and offender, was suppressed. The situation itself could be seen to be detrimental -- most obviously for the children, but also for the soldiers who are training themselves in sociopathy, thereby setting themselves up for a lifetime of maladjustment or worse. Could the soldiers have taken the "moral high ground" and refused reprehensible orders? Sure, but a tremendous corpus of psychological literature, as well as personal introspection, should make it obvious that taking such a stand in the heat of war is... well... not easy to expect of average male youths of any culture.

Viewed as this more complex scenario, it's once again obvious why compassion isn't something to be reserved for those who we see as downtrodden. Those same victimized children, if raised in the same environment as our offenders, could not be expected to act any differently -- at least not without some sort of specific training.

It is this training I hope to persuade you is crucial to our very humanity.

Look out for posts soon on the Fundamental Attribution Error as well as an invention of mine I call "cheat sheets." This is here as a placeholder to remind me to write about them, as well as a promise so that I don't duck out of doing so.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Garcia effect

It's been a while, and to get back into the swing of things, I'm actually going to do a post that's not about empathy at all. Gasp. But it is about psychology, and not entirely tangential to the purposes of this blog.

It's about the "Garcia effect." Although that term can actually be used more broadly, I'm using it in the sense of conditioned taste aversion. It turns out that our sense of taste is particularly good at making us associate stimuli and negative responses.

You've all heard of Pavlov's dogs, one of the earliest studies in "classical conditioning." Normally it takes many trials for dogs to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of food. But for animals, and even humans, the onset of nausea symptoms causes one to quickly associate the sickness with whatever novel taste stimulus we can easily recall.

That is, if you try sushi for the first time, and then go on a roller coaster that makes you nauseated -- many hours later (I'm told even up to a day later) -- you're likely to become convinced that the sushi made you sick (even if you should know better), and avoid it in the future.

The thing I find fascinating is that it can be conditioned with just one trial, and is strongly resistant to cognitive control. It causes endless problems for chemotherapy patients, who eventually "learn" to associate all sorts of food with sickness, causing nutritional deficits, as if their primary troubles weren't enough.

So the next time you're certain that this or that made you sick, see if you can separate out the feeling of certainty about what caused it. You might not be able to break the feeling that the food certainly caused your sickness, but you should be able to break the certainty itself.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Crying, revisited

Indeed, as suggested in the comments section of the post on the Pittsburgh Shooter and catharsis, the usefulness of crying to relieve sadness is (unsurprisingly) more multifaceted than revealed in previous research.

Scientific American Mind on Crying

The takeaway? In the lab, people seem to feel worse on average after crying. But the lab isn't anything like the real world (say, your own bedroom), so take that with a grain of salt. In real life, people report feeling better. But real life isn't like the lab, where they can make much more accurate assessments.

More interesting details:
Criers who received social support during their crying episode were more likely to report mood benefits than were criers who did not report receiving social support. Likewise, mood benefits were more likely when the precipitating events of a crying episode had been resolved than they were when events were unresolved. Finally, criers who reported experiencing negative social emotions like shame and embarrassment were less likely to report mood benefits.
Some people do report feeling worse after crying, in the real world, too. So I guess forget about folk wisdom for now, and make your own decisions about crying :)

Monday, August 17, 2009

What the world needs more of

The recent trend towards more interactive authorship on the web (wikis, YouTube, etc.) seems to offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of "regular people." In particular, the comments sections on news sites are great for the subject matter of this blog. While not at all scientific, I find them quite useful in broadening my understanding of how people see the world.

I could devote pages to the fascinatingly mean-spirited comments that can be found on these sites (and the irony of all the armchair psychiatrists spewing vitriol at the jerks who are clearly to blame), but today I want to share a few that really inspired me.

There was a story this morning about a man in Washington who was shot dead while brandishing a gun at hospital staff. He'd been brought there because of head trauma, and although he had been peacefully disarmed of two of his handguns, he ended up producing a third and threatening a nurse with it. A police officer shot and killed him during the confrontation, and thankfully nobody else was injured.

Amidst the usual slew of cruel judgements we find these (emphasis mine):
Joseph Burkett was my dearly beloved, but troubled, nephew. The messages I've read so far on here have been so judgemental and cruel. He was mentally ill and in need of his medication. I DO understand that poeople will judge him harshly, but he was such a wonderful person when he was himself. I'm grateful no one else was injured, but so saddened that our Joey had to be taken from us in this manner. The police officer was just doing his duty . . .no blame there. Joey was such a lovely child and young man, but drugs and alcohol had taken it's toll. He is at peace now, thank God

As Joe's cousin, we are saddened by what happened. Of course no one know's him the way we did. He had mental illness and while we aren't defending what he did, it played a huge role in this. We are thankful the officer involved went home safely to his family and that innocent people we not killed or harmed, we do realize though that the officer will have to bear the scar of this his entire life. We loved Joe. Help was sought for him repeatedly but proved unhelpful. After someone feels "normal" with their meds they frequently stop taking them feeling they are well. My aunt is a wonderful person and my heart breaks for her and his siblings. This has been huge blow to our family.

This man was my cousin and before you people start going crazy you all should know there is WAY more to this. I am so very thankful that he didn't kill anyone and that the officer could go home to his family. I loved my cousin but he did have a mental illness and was heavily into alcohol and drugs, mixed with his mental illness wasn't a good thing. My Aunt tried very hard to help him, she was even there when all this happend. My heart goes at to her. I do not agree with what he did nor am I protecting anything. He was fine and then just snapped, we dont know what happend or why he did what he did. All I can say is thank you to the officer and I am glad that you are able to be home with your family.
These accounts do something that couldn't be accomplished even if the story's author had done due diligence in reporting on the man's mental illness. They're a striking testament to how difficult this situation really must have been, given the incredible compassion of his loved ones.

If only such accounts were more prominent in the media...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Pittsburgh Shooter

You probably heard the story last week about George Sodini, the man in Pittsburgh who killed 3 women, injured 9 more, and then turned the gun on himself at an LA Fitness gym. You've probably also heard it mentioned that his choice of location wasn't aribtrary: he was bitter and resentful against women in general, and picked a place where he could target his supposed tormentors.

I'll start with some quotes that won't surprise anyone, just to reinforce an important point:

Sodini was not a bad-looking man; he was intelligent and had a good job, so his failure to attract women must have had something to do with his behavior, Meloy [a psychologist] said. But Sodini couldn't see that.

"He had difficult and unhappy and unsuccessful relationships with everybody," Fox said. "What he was never able to do was to see that perhaps the problem was him. Maybe there's a reason why everybody rejects him, no one wants to be close to him. Maybe it's something about his own personality.

"But mass murderers don't look at things that way. If they saw themselves as being the culprit, perhaps they would just commit suicide. But no. Everyone else is to blame."
Anyone who's reached a reasonable level of maturity (post high school, maybe?) would have realized that it's not sensible to blame others for not liking them. Not just that it doesn't work -- even our shooter may have realized that -- but that it doesn't make sense. Now probably most of us have wished at one time or another that this or that person would feel differently toward us. But the mindset that they are to blame for it is probably quite foreign, and perhaps it's worth attempting to don that viewpoint if only to see just how different perspectives can be.

Anyway, on to more novel things. First, I'll shamelessly steal another quote from the article:

"There's this myth that mass killers just snap and go berserk and suddenly, without warning, shoot indiscriminately," Fox said. "Well, he had been thinking about this for some time. He had originally planned to commit the mass murder in January [but] 'chickened out,' as he said. But this shows a lot of methodical planning, thinking."
This brings us to an interesting fallacy about emotions and their regulation. We like tidy analogies and generalizations, and I'd like to poke a hole in a cherished one: the assumption that we must either bottle up or vent our emotions.

George produced a home video that's now available on YouTube, and at the end he pans past his punching bag and mentions it in passing.

Now, YouTube isn't renowned for its brilliant comments, but one or two people seemed to suggest that he wasn't utilizing that obvious source of anger release. Well, guess what? It's been studied, and venting doesn't work. In fact, the use of punching bags has specifically been tested, and it leads to more anger and aggression. Moreover, it doesn't work for sadness, either: having "a good cry" generally leads to more sadness in the future.

It probably comes as no surprise to you that ruminating isn't any good, either. Unlike with catharsis, which has been thoroughly debunked by psychological science, studies uphold the common wisdom that stewing in resentment only serves to magnify it.

If you can't think of a third option to overcome negative emotions, you're probably not trying hard enough: even distraction is generally a better choice. But even that probably isn't the best we can do. Actively practicing positive skills like gratitude and forgiveness are known to help quell undesirable emotions -- but first, we have to really accept that such feelings as bitterness really are undesirable.

That may seem like an obvious suggestion, but I suspect it's one that people like George never really absorb.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unlucky bastards

First, a shout-out to my homie Esther Pun. She and I were chatting the other day, and the topic of genocide came up (yep, just your usual inane banter). She inspired me to do some writing. Genocide is still too big a topic for me to tackle just yet, so I'll try to place another piece of the puzzle.

Today's topic falls under the heading of system justification. That's the tendency of people in a society to justify the status quo. It's a cognitive bias that manages to quell or circumvent emotions that might otherwise lead to beneficial change.

One statement that reflects this bias is the idea that bad things happen to bad people. Now, while it may be the case that "bad people" bring additional misery to themselves, the bias runs deeper than that. The fascinating discovery I want to share today is how pervasive and irrational the tendency can be.

As usual, I'll save myself some time and you some misery by pointing you to the original piece, this time on "the lucky effect."

For those of you too busy to read this fascinating article, the sum-up is this: when we associate even a few members of a particular group with unlucky outcomes, we tend to see the entire group as deserving of arbitrary misfortune. If I show you that a blue-shirted (!) individual has had is home broken into while a red-shirted one has won the lottery, along with one or two more polarizing examples, you're likely to prefer red-shirted people in general. And presumably what's going on inside your head is a justification that red-shirted people must be somehow deserving of the obviously-random fortunes that have befallen them.

It happens in adults, who should know better, and in children as young as 5, who are presumably too young to have been taught this directly. It's disquieting enough to realize that young children dislike victims of random misfortune, instead of being more compelled to help them. To see that they (and we) generalize this tendency to entire groups is even less inspiring.

What is inspiring, I think, is that we're beginning to investigate these issues scientifically. And as G.I. Joe taught (okay, told) us, knowing is half the battle :) The other half, I think, belongs to the field of contemplative science. Perhaps it's time to devote a post or two to that in the near future...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Imperfection and forgiveness

Wow, almost a month without posting. Will get back on the wagon soon.

Can't do a long post today, but wanted to share some more excerpts from a bookmarked article. This is a piece from earlier this year about empathy and forgiveness. Again, something that perhaps many people know intuitively, but good to see research on it.

I will re-post the entire quote this article picked from the research:

Takaku’s experiments showed that an offended party was more likely to accept an apology, and extend forgiveness, when that offended party had an opportunity to reflect on his or her own “imperfect nature” (p. 506).
[. . .]
Takaku’s research offers important insights on how apologies “work.” Mutual empathy is key. While the offer of an apology may be the result of, and an expression of, the offender’s empathy with the offended party, forgiveness requires empathy from the offended to the offender. Empathy must be experienced by, and communicated by, both parties to the conflict, not simply one or the other. In other words, to be effective in resolving conflict, apology and forgiveness are best viewed as interactive processes, not simply one-sided speech events.

Takaku’s research demonstrates that an offended party has the power to shift the nature of a conflict interaction by reflecting on his or her own “imperfect nature,” developing empathy for the offender, and thus being open to the process of apology and forgiveness. Some people can undertake such reflection on their own; others might need to be prompted toward reflection. However, Takaku also urged caution: care must be taken regarding who prompts the offended party to reflect on his or her own imperfections. For example, if the offending party makes the prompt, it would likely generate resistance on the part of the offended party and actually escalate the conflict.

Takaku’s research also suggests that there could be a benefit from “outsiders” to the conflict (such as friends and family, coaches, therapists, mediators, managers, and others) helping the apology-forgiveness interaction by encouraging empathic reflection on the part of the offended party. But the risk is that, if the prompt is too harsh, directive, insistent, or clumsy, it could generate resistance rather than reflection. I would suggest, on the basis of Takaku’s research, that an appropriate communication approach for such “outsiders” in these circumstances is actually a time-honored strategy for encouraging reflection without creating resistance — active listening (Rogers & Farson, 1987).
Makes so much sense, doesn't it?

The research points out the difficulty of getting the offended party to reflect on his/her "imperfect nature" after the harm is done. I would hope there is research being done on the effects of self-reflective meditation on this ability. In my own experience with Buddhist practice, this is a common theme: by noticing the bilge floating through the practitioner's mind, he may be able to proactively adopt forgiveness as his default stance for conflict resolution instead of relying on it post-hoc.

Thinking on it more: although it can be argued that all religions have as a common goal social harmony, and contain instructions on forgiveness ("let he who is without sin cast the first stone..."), practices such as suggested above seem to go beyond that. For if true, such reflections can be seen as merely ways of adopting more rational and accurate views of reality and human nature. As such, they seem like excellent ways of integrating seemingly spiritual approaches into the inherently empirical methods of science.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Working memory and morality

Sorry I've been away for so long! Lots of things going on, but I figured I'd get in a post today since it's been some two weeks.

I want to share the results of a study that hopefully connects another puzzle piece: People with higher working memory make more balanced moral decisions.

Working memory is the kind of memory you use when solving a math problem in your head: it's like a blackboard, where you temporarily keep facts and figures that you'll need to reason through or solve immediate problems. It's also strongly correlated with well-accepted measures of fluid intelligence -- the ability to learn new things. So why should that relate to making moral decisions?

Well, as the authors point out:

Previous studies have suggested that moral dilemmas can evoke strong emotions in people and tend to override thoughtful deliberation and reasoning.

However, a new neuroimaging research has shown that sometimes people are capable of voluntarily suppressing these emotional reactions, allowing for decisions based on reasoning and careful deliberation of the consequences of one’s actions.

This latter skill (voluntary control of emotion) is precisely the kind of training that one develops in certain kinds of meditation -- some of which have also been implicated in improving working memory itself. We'll delve into that another time, but it's an interesting point to ponder for those who may not have made the connection before.

In their conclusions, the authors note:

“This suggests that emotional reactions to moral issues can drive our judgments and motivate action but can also blind us to the consequences of our decisions in some cases.”

This sounds like an extremely relevant piece in the Sotomayor controversy: I would bet that the definition the Republican party uses when questioning the utility of "empathy" on the judicial bench reflects the supposition that empathy must involve emotional expressions which can lead to ill-founded biases. When properly executed, however, the effects should be something more akin to those described in the article:

Researchers found that in such emotion laden scenarios, people with high working memory capacity were not only more consistent in their judgments but their answers indicated that they were considering the consequences of their choices in a way that the other participants were not.

Leaving aside the definition of empathy, the above sounds like a skill we can all agree is valuable.

As an added bonus in this post, I'd like to make a quick offshoot to cognitive psychology: how can one train working memory, seeing as it's at the core of both intelligence and empathy?

Well, there was a big brouhaha last year about a task called the "dual n-back" task. The science is solid (there have even been good neuroscience followups on its effects), and the best implementation I've found so far is here:

It's hard, but the evidence suggests it's well worth the effort. Both for your raw intelligence and for the well-being of those around you :)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where's my jet pack?

Again I have the good fortune of a piece that lays the groundwork for me. I came across it the other day, and the title ("Where's my jetpack?" -- at least that was the name of the link from the homepage) immediately gave me hope that it might be relevant.

Why? Well, here in Silicon Valley, the Twitters and Zazzles and Floobles (I made that last one up... I think) are a dime a dozen. You can almost drown in the tech Kool-Aid here, so overpowering is the reek of desperation for shiny gadgets to fix all of our problems.

The other day, I came across the abstract of a talk purporting that Thorium reactors were the answer to all of our energy problems. I don't know much about Thorium reactors, but if human history is any indication of its future -- and it is -- then it's probably not a solution in the sense one might hope. Yes, it might help us rid ourselves of fossil fuel dependency and the environmental pillaging that goes with it, but you can be sure we're going to find new and clever ways of depleting it as fast as we can.

So anyway, back to the article. I quickly scanned and pulled out two key quotes. First:
"Scientists are OK at predicting what technology is going to happen in the future," Wilson says. "They're really bad at predicting how it's going to affect us."
It's a relatively recent finding that humans are incredibly inept at estimating how well they'll feel after a particular event or in some circumstance. This topic ("affective forecasting") is much more than another intellectual curiosity. Its relevance should be immediately obvious: how are we supposed to decide what to do with our lives if we can't even predict how the outcomes will feel to us?

As it is, it's hard enough to predict both how long you'll feel happy and how happy you'll be after experiencing something as simple and common as your favorite football team winning a game. How much sense, then, does it make to believe you know how much you'll improve the life of someone across the world when your website that (pick something... anything) launches? Hint: none.

The second quote basically summarizes the point of the article and this post:
"At some point, you can't expect a miracle to come in the form of technology to save us," Verheiden says. "At some point, the miracle has to come from a change in attitude and a new outlook."
It seems like a much more viable solution to start from the ground up. First find out what it is that makes people's lives subjectively better. There's already plenty of research out there (which we'll explore), and the amount of data is constantly growing. Don't assume you already know the answer, because our intuition for these things is incredibly faulty.

Then, if technology turns out to be the right answer, go for it! But I suspect it'll be some time before an improvement in Internet bandwidth is actually the lowest hanging fruit for improving lives.

Because it's a form of intelligence

The title of this post is one obvious answer to the question "why empathy?"

It's been a little while (okay, a week) since I last posted, and the topic is one I've already covered at length, so I'll keep it short before moving onto some stuff I consider even more interesting.

I just stumbled upon this piece on CNN about a woman who was convinced her husband was a Rockefeller. Well, it turns out a more accurate term than "Rockefeller" is porbably "psychopath." In her own words:
"The defendant (note: her ex-husband) was often very unpleasant -- lack of empathy, anger, control issues, absolutely. I'm not a psychologist, but he was hard to live with ... I saw behavior that made me think that he wasn't at all well, yes,"
There's quite a bit of literature on the topic of deceitful marriages that sound incredibly similar to her own story. One point that needs to be driven home is that it doesn't just happen to morons. Even smart people get taken in:
[His defense attorney] asked how a successful businesswoman who was educated at Stanford and Harvard universities could fall for an impostor who called himself Clark Rockefeller.

"There's a big difference between intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence," Boss explained. "I'm not saying I made a very good choice of a husband. It's obvious I had a pretty big blind spot."
I've often asked myself the same question: how is it even remotely possible that an intelligent person could be unable to detect something so striking as an incapability for empathy in a potential spouse? It reminds me of those common articles titled something like "10 Things You And Your Spouse Should Discuss Before Marriage." They're often filled with questions about finances and where you want to live, and miss the big one: what is he really like? What's going on in that noggin'?

Besides the common use of empathy in helping other people, it's a pretty critical piece in helping oneself. There are simply fewer surprises when you have a mental model of what drives other people.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Another quickie

Woo! As I was chatting with a buddy about how "his" sports team (I never found out which sport it was) was going to beat "mine," I fortuitously stumbled upon this xkcd comic, which is more amusing than what I would have written.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fun facts

I don't have time for a long post today, so I'd like to use the few minutes I have to share some fun tidbits I've come across in my research.

I'd like to cover some of the topics from this wonderful article about The Forgiveness Instinct later, but for now I'll quote a piece that I find telling as a dog lover:

Chimps kiss and make up in the same way people do. Chimpanzees aren’t the slightest bit unique in this respect. Other great apes, such as the bonobo and the mountain gorilla, also reconcile. And it gets more interesting still, for reconciliation isn’t even limited to primates. Goats, sheep, dolphins, and hyenas all tend to reconcile after conflicts (rubbing horns, flippers, and fur are common elements of these species’ conciliatory gestures). Of the half-dozen or so non-primates that have been studied, only domestic cats have failed to demonstrate a conciliatory tendency. (If you own a cat, this probably comes as no surprise).

On a tangentially related note, I've been wondering: could it be the case that certain breeds of dog (American pit bull terriers come to mind) who are prone to unpredictable attacks (even on their owners) are displaying a trait similar to psychopathy? Or is a separate mechanism at work? Is there any relationship between the two? Might be interesting to investigate later...

This second piece almost makes you respect our fearful cousins, Pan Troglodytes: chimpanzees are vengeful but not spiteful. That is, they will retaliate if specifically harmed, but display no particular antipathy to merely personally disadvantageous scenarios. Leave that one to us.

Jensen said such spitefulness "is the evil twin of altruism." Just as an empathetic person may help someone even when the only reward is feeling good about the charitable act, a spiteful individual could hurt another even when the only reward is enjoying, or gaining satisfaction from, the other's suffering.

This also touches on the concepts of schadenfreude (delight in another's suffering) and its opposite, "mudita" (Sanskrit). The fact that English doesn't have a single word to describe the concept of empathetic joy is perhaps telling, and hopefully I'll get around to writing about the relationship between language and emotion some other time.

Columbine revisited

I wasn't planning to post today, but I came across this insightful piece about the Columbine shootings. I'm way late to the party, but Dave Cullen is an incredible writer, and he does a much better job explaining this stuff than I'm able to, so I'd like to share it.

Everyone probably remembers the horrific story of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two "school shooters" whose names were etched into my memory as a high schooler. But I had never been aware of the true story of the tragedy, one that is much more complex than the media led me to believe.

I'll leave the details of their intended exploits for you to read, but I do want to highlight a few sections. The first point is that while Klebold was apparently indeed "just" an angry young man, all clues point to Harris being a psychopath. Take note of the last parenthesized section in particular:

Diagnosing Harris as a psychopath represents neither a legal defense, nor a moral excuse. But it illuminates a great deal about the thought process that drove him to mass murder.
It begins to explain Harris' unbelievably callous behavior: his ability to shoot his classmates, then stop to taunt them while they writhed in pain, then finish them off. Because psychopaths are guided by such a different thought process than non-psychopathic humans, we tend to find their behavior inexplicable. But they're actually much easier to predict than the rest of us once you understand them. Psychopaths follow much stricter behavior patterns than the rest of us because they are unfettered by conscience, living solely for their own aggrandizement. (The difference is so striking that Fuselier trains hostage negotiators to identify psychopaths during a standoff, and immediately reverse tactics if they think they're facing one. It's like flipping a switch between two alternate brain-mechanisms.)

Lest you worry that "empathy" is merely a touchy-feely word used to usher in the Age of Aquarius, here we have a poignant example of where the ability to understand another's viewpoint serves a vital purpose.

What else does it suggest? If the current views on psychopathy are correct, then the shellacking Harris' parents surely received -- presumably for being lousy role models -- is exceptionally cruel. Imagine living an honest life, having earned several meritorious service and commendation medals in the USAF. You spend 18 years trying to impart some wisdom unto your progeny, and your first reward is a particularly clever son:

Klebold and Harris had avoided prosecution for [a] robbery by participating in a "diversion program" that involved counseling and community service. Both killers feigned regret to obtain an early release, but Harris had relished the opportunity to perform. He wrote an ingratiating letter to his victim offering empathy, rather than just apologies. Fuselier remembers that it was packed with statements like Jeez, I understand now how you feel and I understand what this did to you.

"But he wrote that strictly for effect," Fuselier said. "That was complete manipulation. At almost the exact same time, he wrote down his real feelings in his journal: 'Isn't America supposed to be the land of the free? How come, if I'm free, I can't deprive a stupid f---ing dumbshit from his possessions if he leaves them sitting in the front seat of his f---ing van out in plain sight and in the middle of f---ing nowhere on a Frif---ingday night. NATURAL SELECTION. F---er should be shot.' "

After discovering the inconceivable nightmare he has wrought, your next prize is 85% of Americans blaming you and lawsuits up the wazoo. Oh well; at least you can rest soundly at night, knowing that the vast majority of your peers are holier than thou.

As for Klebold, well, who knows what might have happened had he not been drawn into that lethal partnership? There are plenty of angry, depressed teenagers with gentler destinies.

The psychiatrists can't help speculating what might have happened if Columbine had never happened. Klebold, they agree, would never have pulled off Columbine without Harris. He might have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help in the process, and conceivably could have gone on to live a normal life.
Eric, a lost soul whose neurons could never hope to orchestrate the symphony of intimacy so many of us take for granted. Dylan, who couldn't be rescued from his own pain despite a glimmer of hope: he had blamed himself for his problems. And their parents, who we can only hope were left with enough sanity and courage to carry on, without the support their fellow countrymen couldn't see they both needed and deserved.

If I were more clever, perhaps I could have motivated a tidier conclusion. Maybe some hints about who to blame and who to absolve. Instead, I can only manage to gape in awe at the intricate weave of causes and conditions shimmering just under the surface.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A shocking experience

You've probably heard of the famous Stanley Milgram "shock experiment," in which participants were instructed to deliver a series of increasingly painful electrical shocks to an unseen (but clearly heard) subject, with voltages increasing to an incredible 450 volts. As the voltage increased, the subject (who was actually an actor and not really receiving the shocks) banged on the wall, confessed he had a heart condition, and eventually went silent.

As for the results, you're probably aware of some, but I'd like to highlight some of the lesser-known details.

  • 65% of the 40 participants complied to the very end, although every last one of them paused and questioned the experiment.
  • Only one participant refused before the 300 volt level.
  • None of the 35% who stopped before the end insisted that the experiment be cancelled, nor left to check on the health of the victim without getting explicit permission.

65% is a pretty surprising number, but subsequent replications seem to bear it out. Milgram polled 14 Yale psychology major seniors as to what they believed the percentage would be; they guessed on average 1.2%. Given that people tend to believe that they are more ethically responsible than their peers, we can guess that fewer than 1.2% of such students believed that they themselves would complete the gruesome task.

So where's the disconnect? One hypothesis was that the actor wasn't sufficiently convincing, and that the participants knew it was fake. Despite the extreme duress witnessed in the subjects, one research group decided to test out the hypothesis -- by using real shocks on a real puppy.

The results? All 13 female participants delivered the final zap (although apparently, many were very distraught and some cried openly), as did 7 of the 13 men. Shocking, indeed.

But I'm curious: although the results have been consistent across replications over time, must it always be this way? To that end, I'd like to point out one of the more inspiring outcomes of the study:

84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated, 15 percent chose neutral responses (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants.
Okay, so first of all, we can probably assume that the original 40 participants would behave differently if "tested" again. We might even suspect that people who are merely familiar with the outcome of the experiment would have a lower compliance rate (indeed, researchers replicating the experiment are always very careful to select subjects who aren't aware of the original study).

But how well does this generalize? Does knowledge of the dangers revealed by this experiment give people moral fortitude in other stressful situations? It seems to have in at least one case:

Six years later (at the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was glad to have participated despite the stress:

"While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…"

What about people who haven't taken part in (or even heard of) this experiment? What other sorts of experiences equip one with the presence of mind to act in accordance with their beliefs under duress?

It's not always possible (or even ethical) to insert people into intense situations that can so deeply ingrain the courage alluded to above; a gentler, more gradual approach would be preferable.

We've already seen that only a small percentage of people -- so-called psychopaths -- are (apparently) completely lacking in empathy. If "the rest of us" could just figure out how to ensure that our existing decency cannot be so easily subverted, we just may be onto something.

There will always be Hitlers, but perhaps there won't always be conscripts ripe for the picking. Stay tuned for an exploration of how such a fantasy may one day come to pass...

(Note: all the above data and quotes are from the Wikipedia article on the Milgram experiment)

Sunday, May 17, 2009


As I was finishing my last post and referring to some of the false barriers we construct as we age, I was reminded of a favorite quote of mine, from Tolstoy:
"...just as now a young man is ashamed to show his rude egoism by eating everything and leaving nothing for others, by pushing the weak out of the way that he must pass himself, by forcibly taking that which another needs: so he may then be equally ashamed of desiring increased power for his own country; and so that, just as it is now considered stupid, foolish, to praise oneself, it shall then be seen to be equally foolish to praise one’s own nation, as it is now done in ... national histories, pictures, monuments, text-books, articles, verses, sermons, and silly national hymns."
I suspect Tolstoy and the Bush administration wouldn't have gotten along so well.

Teaching your child empathic skills

Just came across this piece on CNN about raising your child with good social skills. I'll pick out a few quotes and let you read the full article.

The key point:

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that children whose mothers often talked to them about people's feelings, beliefs, wants and intentions developed better social understanding than children whose mothers did not.

Tips on implementing it:

Weisman recommends to her patients that they use opportunities such as television shows and movies to talk to children about what the characters may be feeling as a result of the actions on screen. If someone is yelling at the supermarket, this is another chance to talk to a child about other people's feelings, she said.


"Let's say a young child grabs a toy away from another young child. It's helpful for parents to say something like, 'That makes him sad when you take it,' " rather than saying 'don't grab' or 'stop it,'" Huebner said.

And a caveat:

But social understanding does not guarantee good behavior, the authors said. Children who showed the most sophisticated social skills in this study also behaved the most negatively toward their mothers in the team task of steering a model car around a race track. This suggests that social understanding isn't everything and must be used in beneficial ways, Yuill said.

The article's title refers to "social skills," but the real benefits go far beyond learning to be popular. These abilities lay the foundation to being able to engage other people and the world as a whole in less selfish and harmful ways. And teaching them at a young age has the added benefit of preempting the artificial barriers of political / religious / other differences that eventually fool us into seeing many of the world's problems as being caused by fundamental differences in philosophy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Those wascally tewwowists

This morning I was woken by a series of ear-splitting bird calls, which in my groggy stupor, I mistook for a car alarm. I angrily decided that the beautiful sounds of nature were a pretty daft choice for theft deterrence, until I realized that one of the sounds was in fact the same one I had asked my grandparents about the day before: that of the quail.

Now, I know only one thing about the quail other than that it has an incredibly beautiful call: our elected officials like to shoot them in their spare time.

Most famously, we all remember Dick Cheney's unlucky potshot in 2006. So I started reflecting on all the ways in which that man is a great example for this blog.
Cheney said Obama would regret his commitment to closing down the Guantanamo Bay internment camp and ending harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects.

"These are evil people. And we're not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek," [Cheney] said.
(AFP 2009)
We've seen this one before: by golly, we have the right to torture them! They're eeevillll! That's why they do evil things! It's probably not a complex interaction of differing faiths, aggressive policies, and various socioeconomic factors. It's cuz they evil.
“The United States provides most of the leadership in the world… I don’t think we have much to apologize for.”
Cheney on Obama "apologizing"
Yeah, apologies are for losers. (I have no intention of turning this blog political, but I will point out that apparently Obama's "apologies" amount to expressing his intention to stop with the torturing.)

I'd like to build the case that the above tendencies are all related, but I'm going to have to work around the edges, as I'm not aware of any studies directly linking them.

I could point out, for example, that animal cruelty is strongly correlated with a wide variety of criminal offenses, and try to establish how a lack of empathy contributes in both cases. I could also try to argue that Cheney's black-and-white us-vs-them mentality is a reflection of the holier-than-thou effect I reported on earlier. Lastly, I could suggest that one's willingness to both apologize and forgive reflects his/her appreciation of the subtleties of human intention and behavior.

But all of these are nebulous without hard data, and each requires some space to delve into. For now, I'd just like to point out that I don't disagree with Dick Cheney's assessment on the severity of the problems terrorists pose. I would, however, like to suggest that the cowboy antics he espouses are the result of a deep misunderstanding of human nature -- i.e., a failure of empathy.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wisdom from Oprah. No, seriously.

Haven't had a chance to blog much lately, as I've been traveling through various parts of India. On the other hand, the surroundings here in the village are a good reminder for the case for empathy, so here I am at the local internet cafe.

Today I'd like to switch gears to bring up another central point I'd like to build on as my collection of ramblings grows: that we may be harboring faulty intuitions; that they may be counterproductive; and that they are not immutable.

What do I mean? Well, to take one example from a previous post, our implicit assumption that others share our own sense of empathy or moral responsibility may lead us to the faulty conclusion that their behavior is malicious instead of merely reckless. To use a more accessible scenario: when I get cut off on the freeway, my immediate impulse is to return the favor and "teach that guy lesson." Now, if "that guy" is actually a jerk, I'm not only likely to cause a potentially dangerous escalation, but there's little chance that he'll learn anything (except for, perhaps, what an aneurysm feels like). And if he's a nice guy who made an honest mistake, then it's probably disingenuous to claim that my tit-for-tat antics were a noble attempt to educate him on the virtues of paying attention.

Returning to the theme of vestiges from my last post, we can probably trace the development of retributive tendencies to their evolutionary origins in social justice. Publicly chastising or punishing a wrongdoer clearly has implications for rehabilitation, and we can see this instinct in other apes. But as is probably the case with other emotions, the thirst for vengeance is potentially maladaptive in scenarios that are uniquely modern. It's hard to blame your ancestors for this faulty association; after all, your caveman forefathers probably never got cut off on the freeway.

Anyway, back to the central theme, and to the title of this post: I'm heartened to see potentially harmful intuitions being challenged in popular culture. In particular, I got the idea of this post from an article I read on CNN (syndicated from, titled "Is it love, or a mutual strangulation society?". This section in particular caught my interest:
"I can't live," wails the singer, "if living is without you." The emotion that fuels this kind of relationship isn't love; it's desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it invariably fails to meet either partner's needs.

If this is how you feel, don't start dating. Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person responsible for them: you.
I think it's incredibly insightful, because though I've heard the song a thousand times, and I fully agree with the assessment above, it never struck me that such an insidious source of mal-intuition lay right under my very nose. Sure, poetic license yadda yadda, but I think it's important to call out such transgressions, lest we lend implicit support to the unfortunate -- but all too common -- notion that suicide (or even homicide!) is an appropriate response to a fairly mundane situation.

We'll actually investigate that particular topic (passionate vs. companionate love) in a separate post, but for now, I want to put a challenge to you: where else in your daily experience do you find potentially disastrous behaviors championed? (And where else, besides the case of romantic love, is it deemed fashionable to flaunt one's psychological or emotional instabilities?)

Thursday, May 7, 2009


The terms "psychotic" and "psychopathic" are commonly confused, even in reputable media. But while it may not seem like a big deal to mislabel a "psychotic killer" a "psychopath," we'll see that understanding their differences is crucial for solving the problems caused by the conditions. Moreover, as we'll see again and again in coming posts, empathy -- the ability to see the world from another's perspective -- may aid us in coping with the harmful consequences of sometimes unfathomable decisions made by others.

Today let's focus on psychopathy (used in a specific sense, as opposed to general psychological pathology). In order to qualify as a "psychopath," a person must be incapable of feeling guilt, empathy, compassion, remorse, shame, and a host of other social emotions that keep most of us in line. (Technically, to differentiate it from similar antisocial diagnoses, other traits such as grandiosity and manipulativeness are required, but let's focus on the above for now.)

Through employing a variety of psychophysiological testing (such as heart rate and skin resistance monitoring, and more advanced methods like fMRI brain scans), we know that psychopaths process emotional stimuli very differently than the rest of humanity. And critically, to the best of psychiatric understanding today, psychopaths are born, not made.

Why should any of this matter? Consider the following quote from a psychologist treating a psychopathic child.
I remember a conversation where he told me, "People know when something is wrong because it feels wrong. I have to remember or be reminded that stealing from someone is wrong. I don’t feel bad if I take something."

Meeting this young boy changed my opinion of a psychopathic personality. Why? Because children with this condition are "emotionally blind." And while I do not excuse cruelty or criminal behavior, I have sympathy and appreciate how hard it is for some people to learn how to act responsibly.
Another theme we'll come across again: while practical measures such as incarceration may still be warranted, malicious feelings that often accompany a thirst for vengeance are often counterproductive. In the case of psychopaths, the response you're most likely to evoke by expressing indignation is probably amusement or satisfaction. By coming to understand the perspectives of our perceived enemies, we may be able to better deal with our own painful feelings of resentment and bitterness, and eventually come to recognize them as vestiges we're better off without.

Estimates of psychopathic prevalence put the figure at ~1% of the population. If we group it with similar conditions such as Antisocial Personality Disorder, that number goes up to maybe 5%. So, what about "the rest of us?" As we'll see, the mere existence of the brain structures that give rise to compassion -- the ones that reveal our shock at seeing a dog kicked, even if we try to hide it -- are cause for hope.


Power and compassion

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." --Abraham Lincoln
It's fun when new studies corroborate old wisdom:

Does Power Mitigate Compassion?
The results, reported in the December issue of Psychological Science, reveal that individuals with a higher sense of power experienced less compassion and distress when confronted with another’s suffering, compared to low-power individuals.

NY Times on Righteousness

NY Times on Righteousness and the "Holier-than-thou effect"

Many studies have shown what has come to be known as the Lake Wobegon Effect: the human tendency to overestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others. It's named after a fictional town in which, supposedly, all children are above average.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effect holds for such virtues as righteousness: we tend to believe we're morally superior to those around us. You've probably seen it manifest countless times, in the form of cocktail party conversations that go something like this:
Good Guy #1: Man, did you hear about that latest Wall Street scandal?

Good Guy #2: Oh yeah! And to think, those BJH employees are still accepting their annual bonuses!

GG1: The gall! I would never do something as obviously immoral as that!

GG2: So true! If only we Good People were more plentiful... Hey I'm gonna go grab some more caviar. Refill on your champagne?

Dr. Nicholas Epley summarizes it best in a quote from the article:
“The problem with these holier-than-thou assessments is not only that we overestimate how we would have behaved. It’s also that we blame every crisis or scandal on failure of character — you know, if we just fire all the immoral Wall Street bankers and replace them with moral ones, we’ll solve the problem.”

This theme will come up over and over again: imagining that they, the forces of evil and stupidity, are what's causing misery for us, the good people of the world, is not merely naive and shortsighted. It's also a major hindrance to discovering a practical solution to the problems we face.