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.