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Heidi Maibom in her essay at Aeon Magazine explores some the psychological and philosophical insights into morality gained by observing the behaviour of psychopathic individuals.  I recommend going to Aeon and reading the entire article, its quite insightful.

 

“The psychopath’s response to people who suffer indicates that what we recognise as morality might be grounded not simply in positive, prosocial emotions but also in negative, stressful and self-oriented ones. This is not some cuddly version of empathy, but a primitive aversive reaction that seemingly has little to do with our caring greatly for the humanity of others.

Yet what exposes our common humanity more than the fact that I become personally distressed by what happens to you? What could better make me grasp the importance of your suffering? The personal part of empathic distress might be central to my grasping what is so bad about harming you. Thinking about doing so fills me with alarm. Arguably, it’s more important that I curb my desire to harm others for personal gain than it is for me to help a person in need. Social psychology research has focused on how we’re moved to help others, but that’s led us to ignore important aspects of ethics. Psychopathy puts personal distress back in the centre of our understanding of the psychological underpinnings of morality.

The last lesson we can learn concerns whether sentimentalists or rationalists are right when it comes to interpretations of the moral deficits of psychopaths. The evidence supports both positions. We don’t have to choose – in fact, it would be silly for us to do so. Rationalist thinkers who believe that psychopaths reason poorly have zoomed in on how they don’t fear punishment as we do. That has consequences down the line in their decision making since, without appropriate fear, one can’t learn to act appropriately. But on the side of the sentimentalists, fear and anxiety are emotional responses. Their absence impairs our ability to make good decisions, and facilitates psychopathic violence.

Fear, then, straddles the divide between emotion and reason. It plays the dual role of constraining our decisions via our understanding the significance of suffering for others, and through our being motivated to avoid certain actions and situations. But it’s not clear whether the significance of fear will be palatable to moral philosophers. A response of distress and anxiety in the face of another’s pain is sharp, unpleasant and personal. It stands in sharp contrast to the common understanding of moral concern as warm, expansive and essentially other-directed. Psychopaths force us to confront a paradox at the heart of ethics: the fact that I care about what happens to you is based on the fact I care about what happens to me.”

    We’ve all experienced the inner hardening, and turning away when faced with another human being in need.  Of course it isn’t indicative of us being a psychopath, but the ability to realize that ethical distance is trait we all share.  I realize the pain and suffering of people who are starving, but they are far away and I can turn away and ignore their suffering and get along with my life.

Seems kinda shitty once you think about it, and the fact that most people do it doesn’t lessen the gravity of this particular ethical failure.  Yet, the behaviour will persist, a dubious solution to the real life situations that run up against our moral understanding of the world.

This sort of ethical dilemma is illustrated in the series Breaking Bad.  I’m almost done (two episodes left) watching Breaking Bad, and the moral path Walter White chooses to walk seems to illustrate the how muddy ‘good ethical behaviour’ gets once it hits the real word.

To be clear, a moral injury is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it’s an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work—a compromise of the conscience when one is butted against an action (or inaction) that violates an internalized moral code. It’s different from post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which occur as a result of traumatic events. When a soldier at a checkpoint shoots at a car that doesn’t stop and kills innocents, or when Walter White allows Jesse’s troublesome addict girlfriend to die of an overdose to win him back as a partner, longstanding moral beliefs are disrupted, and an injury on the conscience occurs.”

What quality makes people bounce back from a moral injury, or turn further toward questionable moral choices?  We’d all like to think we belong to the class of upstanding, moral citizens – but how long does that last once the unkind vicissitudes of life go into overdrive?

 

 

 

I do love readinng Aeon Magazine. This essay by Bence Nanay questions how much control we have over our desires in society.  It is a fascinating question as I think the commonly held belief we all have is that we, as individuals, are ever-present and mostly unchanging over time as we interact with society.  It isn’t really the case as we are far from the immutable social islands that we think we are and more like a slowly flowing stream that is in a gradual state of constant change.

Unfortunately advertisers have latched onto this very human tendency and try to exploit our quasi-fluid state of desiring things by shaping advertising messages to foment desires with us, to get us to buy their particular product.  Quite insidious, really.  But then again, most of capitalism is.

 

“But what would be the screening mechanism for direct desire infection? Beliefs form a coherent network, but desires don’t. We can, and very often do, have conflicting desires. Just because a desire I acquired by means of desire infection contradicts some other desire of mine, I will not normally reject it. Contradictions between beliefs are easier to spot than contradictions between desires.

Cigarette or beverage commercials are very efficient ways of infecting you with desires. They are not trying to communicate a message. If they did, they would probably choose a more efficient message than Real men smoke a certain brand of cigarette. Such commercials are trying to trigger desires in you, bypassing your screening mechanism, which is probably against smoking and consuming sugary beverages. And they do so very efficiently: even though you think that a certain brand of sugary beverage is very unhealthy and bad for you, if the commercial is well-done, it will nonetheless trigger a desire in you.

Is there no screening mechanism against direct desire infection then? Here is one option: we want lots of things, but we want to only want very few things. Wanting to want something is what makes it stand out from the crowd. So this second-order desire (of not just wanting but wanting to want) could be thought of as the screening mechanism for direct desire infection. We screen out desires we do not want to have. And there are desires we do want to have – these are the ones that pass the screening and get to be endorsed.

This would give us a nice parallel with the screening mechanism for beliefs based on testimony. The problem is that it is unlikely to work. Second-order desires are also desires. So given that we can acquire first-order desires by direct desire infection, there is no obvious reason why second-order desires could not be acquired by direct desire infection. But then what would protect us from the infection of our second-order desires? Maybe third-order desires? If we need second-order desires to decide which of our first-order desires are infected, we would then also need third-order desires to decide which of our second-order desires are infected. And so on. As a screening mechanism against infected desires, this won’t work.

The contrast I made between the screening mechanism of beliefs and that of desires is not supposed to be absolute. Our screening of false beliefs often fails. And, as some techniques in psychiatry show, some ‘unwanted’ desires often do get screened out, for example, by making the conflict between them blatantly obvious. But while there is a default mechanism for the screening of beliefs, there is no comparable default screening mechanism for desires. And this has serious potential implications for how we think of the self.

Our desires change. The question is, what changes them? We acquire many of our desires by means of desire infection, and there is no real screening of these desires. But this means that many of our desires are, in some sense, inherited from the people around us.

A radical consequence of this argument concerns the way we should think about the self in light of these considerations. A widespread way of thinking about the self, going at least as far back as the 18th century and David Hume, is that it consists of the set of all our desires (besides some other mental states). But if this is so, then who we are (or the self) is a result, to a large extent, of random desire infection.

We know that we systematically ignore the possibility that our future self could be different from our present self. This is called the ‘end of history illusion’: we have a tendency to consider our self a finished product, but it is blatantly not. And this ‘end of history illusion’ makes it even more likely that we will try to give post-hoc rationalisations for any desires we might acquire by means of direct desire infection.

So the self changes. The question is, how much of this change is under our control? Some of it is: we have pretty good control over what new beliefs we acquire. And we might even have control over really wild, crazy desires. But we have no full control. Direct desire infection can have a real effect on who we are and whom we become – it is a phenomenon we should take very seriously.

A video by Vsauce that challenges some of the narrative around the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Some further reading on the SPE.

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1998-04417-001
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167206292689
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0098628314549703

Watch the presentation or read the full transcript here.   Now watch what happens when we bring an empirical fact based approach to understanding why our justice system is broken when it comes to sexual assault.  So, now we have some evidence of what is happening to people who have experienced sexual assault, it is our duty to push for changing the system to move toward a more just application of the law and concomitantly a more just society.

[ed. I think this is a very important presentation, I encourage everyone to reblog, excerpt, and reproduce this or the original article]

“I want to discuss how research can inform a very longstanding problem in the criminal justice system — sexual assault case attrition. We know, of course, that not all victims report the assault to the criminal justice system, but of those that do — of the reports that are made to the police — only a small number of them are actually going to be prosecuted.

So what I want to do today is bring together research from multiple disciplines to try to understand how and why this is happening. I’m going to begin by talking about what we know from criminal justice research on the problem of sexual assault case attrition. Then I want to bring in what we know from psychology and psychiatry about victim behavior and the neurobiology of trauma. If we bring these two worlds together, do we get empirically based recommendations for how we can change practice?

So to that end let’s start off by talking about what we know from criminal justice research on the problem of sexual assault case attrition. I want to start with three simple quotes — three short quotes from qualitative research I’ve done. One quote is from law enforcement, one is from a rape victim advocate, and one is from a survivor.

So let’s start off with a quote from law enforcement. This is a very seasoned detective, 15 years in a sex crimes unit. When I asked him sort of what happens when victims come in to report an assault to the criminal justice system, this is what he said. He said: “The stuff they say makes no sense” — referring to victims — “So no I don’t always believe them and yeah I let them know that. And then they say ‘Nevermind. I don’t want to do this.’ Okay, then. Complainant refused to prosecute; case closed.”

So now let’s loop in the rape victim advocate perspective: “It’s hard trying to stop what police do to victims. They don’t believe them and they treat them so bad that the victims give up. It happens over and over again.”

So now let’s loop in the victim’s perspective. In reference to her interactions with her law enforcement officer, she said the following. She said: “He didn’t believe me and he treated me badly. It didn’t surprise me when he said there wasn’t enough to go on to do anything. It didn’t surprise me, but it still hurt.”

So what do we get from these three simple quotes? What these three quotes show us right off the bat is that sexual assault case attrition happens very early on in the criminal justice system. It’s happening in the first interactions between the victims and law enforcement. Indeed, if we take these qualitative data and look at them from a quantitative perspective, we see very similar findings.

So this is a quantitative study that my colleagues and I just finished. This was an NIJ-funded research project looking at the issue of sexual assault case attrition in six different communities: two rural communities, two mid-size communities, two large urban communities. All six of these communities had sexual assault nurse examiner programs, so there was a place in each of these six communities where victims could get a good quality medical forensic exam. So what we did with these six communities is start with the same program the patients that came in for a medical exam. We wanted to see what happens afterwards. So did they make a police report? And if they made the police report, now let’s track and see how far it goes through the criminal justice system.

So then what you see going along the side there are the different outcomes that we coded. So when a case came in, had the exam, and made a police report, what was the final outcome? Was the final outcome that it was not referred by police onto the prosecutors or if it made it to the prosecutors it wasn’t charged? Was the final outcome that it was charged by the prosecutors but was then dropped, for whatever reason? Was the final outcome that it was plea bargained? Was the final outcome that it went to trial but acquitted? Or was the final outcome that it went to trial and it was convicted?

So we looked at over 12 years of data across these six different jurisdictions, and here’s what we found.

This is the row that you want to pay attention to. This is the very first step in the criminal justice system. On average, 86 percent of the reported sexual assaults never went any further than the police. The vast majority of these cases were never referred by the police on to the prosecutors.

So let’s dig a little deeper now and try to understand what is happening in this interaction between the victim and law enforcement — that very first interaction. Well, unfortunately, the research tells us that what’s happening in that first interaction between the victim and law enforcement is what we call “secondary victimization.” Now secondary victimization refers to the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of social system personnel that victims experience as victim blaming and insensitive. It exacerbates their trauma, and it makes them feel like what they’re experiencing is a second rape — hence the term “secondary victimization.”

Now, over the course of my career I’ve had the opportunity to interview victims about secondary victimization. What behaviors, what happened in your interactions with law enforcement or doctors or nurses that led you to feel upset and re-traumatized. I’ve also had the opportunity to interview law enforcement and doctors and nurses about secondary victimization behaviors. And I asked them, “Did you do these things?” And I was actually kind of expecting the sort of not quite crossing — oh no, everybody agrees. Everybody agrees that this is happening. You ask the victim, they say “Oh yeah, I encountered this.” You ask law enforcement, he says, “Oh yeah, I did that.”

So what are they doing? Well, what I represent in this graph are some of the most common secondary victimization behaviors. Again, these are composites. This is regional data from large metropolitan surveys. This is not national work, so keep it in that context. But when a victim goes forward to law enforcement to report the assault, on average, victims and law enforcement agree that 69 percent of the time, law enforcement tells them, “Don’t do this.” They discourage the victim from making the report in the first place. On average, 51 percent of the time, law enforcement tell victims what happened to them is not serious enough to pursue through the criminal justice system. Seventy percent of the time, law enforcement ask victims about their dress or their behavior or what they might have done to provoke the assault. On average, 90 percent of victims encounter at least one secondary victimization behavior in their interactions with law enforcement during that first reporting process.

Brutal.  Systemic change is desperately required.

That’s the more theoretical point I want to make, I also want to excerpt another part of the presentation dealing with the victims of sexual assault –

“Tonic immobility is often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis.”

It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable. This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. Because sometimes the safest thing to do to protect the safety is to fight back. Sometimes the safest thing to do is to flee. Sometimes the stupidest thing to do is to flee because it will incite chase. Therefore, our bodies have been wired for a freeze response too — to play dead, to look dead, because that may be the safest thing for the survival of the organism. So it is a mammalian response that is in all of us — we can’t control it. And it happens in extremely fearful situations.

Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.

Research suggests that between 12 and 50 percent of rape victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault, and most data suggests that the rate is actually closer to the 50 percent than the 12 percent.

There’s also some emerging data that suggests that tonic immobility is slightly more common if a victim has a prior history of sexual assault. So if he or she had been sexually assaulted as a child and then was subsequently assaulted in adolescence or adulthood, the likelihood of experiencing tonic immobility at those later assaults tends to increase.

So what I want to do now is share with you a case example from my research on tonic immobility — again, sort of what the victim’s perspective on it is, what law enforcement’s perspective is on this.

This is a case example that I did through research at my university. This was a college student house party — a very common situation for a lot of campus-based sexual assaults. So you see the plastic chairs there, the beer cups, the Miller Lite beer boxes hanging out there.

So this was a 20-year-old woman who went to this party with her friends.

She met a guy there, flirting, liked him. He says, “Do you want to go back to one of the bedrooms?” She agrees. They’re messing around, sexual activity — not intercourse.

She doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse. She gets afraid. She’s like “No, no, no. I don’t want to do this. I don’t know you. I don’t want to do this.”

He doesn’t listen. He physically pins her upper body down with his elbow to hands, not a particularly complicated hold. That hold terrifies her enough that when the HPA axis kicks in she freezes and she goes into a state of tonic immobility during the assault. And she is completely frozen throughout the assault.

He finishes sexually assaulting her. He gets up, sees her laying there, he goes out and tells his friends at the party, “Hey, I just had sex with so-and-so and she’s still there.”

So the men lined up on the porch to take turns going in and sexually assaulting her. And she was multiply raped throughout the course of that evening by men, still lying there in a state of tonic immobility.

Now one of the friends that she was with at the party heard this. She heard the men talking about this lining up to go in and sexually assault her. So she barges in, she gets her friend out, describe — I had the opportunity to talk to the friend — she’s like, “I felt like I was lifting a dead body. I was like shaking her, trying to get her to kind of snap out of it. I had to sort of physically drag her out of there.” And then the tonic immobility state was released.

Took her to the hospital. The nurses there did a medical exam and a forensic evidence collection kit, and she filed a police report.

The police refused to pick up the kit. Because she had been sexually assaulted by multiple men at that party, they referred to it as a sloppy mess — that it would be too difficult to take apart the exam, to take apart the kit to figure out whose DNA was there.

And then they closed the case. I had the opportunity to ask the police officer why he chose to close this case, and here’s what he said. He said, “Well she just laid there, so she must have wanted it. No one wants to have a train pulled on them, so if she just laid there and took it she must have wanted it.”

Now we could have an entire discussion about this one quote. There’s things about it that are very disturbing, and there’s things about it that are very curious. You can hear the questioning in his voice. “She just laid there, so she must have wanted it.” He’s trying to make sense of this. He doesn’t understand why somebody would lay there. So the attribution is “Well, she must have wanted it” because he doesn’t know of any other explanation.

There is another explanation. He didn’t know about it. The explanation is tonic immobility. This is a documented neurobiological condition. This law enforcement had no idea what this was. I brought it up to him in the course of the interview. He literally cuts me off and he says “It’s too late now; the case is closed.” And I said, “It’s too late for this case, but here — let me give you a mini presentation on the neurobiology of trauma” and so on and so forth. And he’s like, “I didn’t know. I did not know that this could happen.”

Tonic immobility is an aspect of our survival mechanisms.  We need desperately to change our societal practices and expectations to accommodate these facts.

 

 

Why do people commit evil?  How does one get from being an ordinary citizen to someone who oversees the genocide of their neighbours?   What are the psychological states that premeditate acts of violence on the personal and societal level?  Noga Arikha is a historian who has looked into the research on how we foment and propagate evil institutions and evil acts.

 

“This is what the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried at the University of California, Los Angeles did with his article ‘Syndrome E’ (1997) in The Lancet. A syndrome is a group of biological symptoms that together constitute a clinical picture. And E stands for evil. With Syndrome E, Fried identified a cluster of 10 neuropsychological symptoms that are often present when evil acts are committed – when, as he puts it, ‘groups of previously nonviolent individuals’ turn ‘into repetitive killers of defenceless members of society’. The 10 neuropsychological symptoms are:

1. Repetition: the aggression is repeated compulsively.
2. Obsessive ideation: the perpetrators are obsessed with ideas that justify their aggression and underlie missions of ethnic cleansing, for instance that all Westerners, or all Muslims, or all Jews, or all Tutsis are evil.
3. Perseveration: circumstances have no impact on the perpetrator’s behaviour, who perseveres even if the action is self-destructive.
4. Diminished affective reactivity: the perpetrator has no emotional affect.
5. Hyperarousal: the elation experienced by the perpetrator is a high induced by repetition, and a function of the number of victims.
6. Intact language, memory and problem-solving skills: the syndrome has no impact on higher cognitive abilities.
7. Rapid habituation: the perpetrator becomes desensitised to the violence.
8. Compartmentalisation: the violence can take place in parallel to an ordinary, affectionate family life.
9. Environmental dependency: the context, especially identification with a group and obedience to an authority, determines what actions are possible.
10. Group contagion: belonging to the group enables the action, each member mapping his behaviour on the other. Fried’s assumption was that all these ways of behaving had underlying neurophysiological causes that were worth investigating.Note that the syndrome applies to those previously normal individuals who become able to kill. It excludes the wartime, sanctioned killing by and of military recruits that leads many soldiers to return home (if they ever do) with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); recognised psychopathologies such as sociopathic personality disorder that can lead someone to shoot schoolchildren; and crimes of passion or the sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain. When Hannah Arendt coined her expression ‘the banality of evil’ in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), she meant that the people responsible for actions that led to mass murder can be ordinary, obeying orders for banal reasons, such as not losing their jobs. The very notion of ordinariness was tested by social psychologists. In 1971, the prison experiment by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University played with this notion that ‘ordinary students’ could turn into abusive mock ‘prison guards’ – though it was largely unfounded, given evidence of flaws in the never-replicated experiment. Still, those afflicted with Syndrome E are indeed ordinary insofar as that they are not affected by any evident psychopathology. The historian Christopher Browning wrote of equally ‘ordinary men’ in the 1992 book of that name (referenced by Fried) who became Nazi soldiers. The soldier who killed my grandfather was very probably an ordinary man too.

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behaviour, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.”

I pondered the conclusions of this essay and am reminded of the work “Ordinary Men” by (also referenced in the essay) by Christopher R. Browning that describes the psychological and sociological contagions that bring out the evil that exists in all of us.  I’m struck by, even as I write, the tendency to pathologize evil as if it were disease that somehow takes root and manifests itself on ‘good people’.  This socially sanctioned frame, looking at the literature, is shockingly incorrect as the data points to the fact that we all possess the capacity to commit heinous acts of violence, even genocide, if the conditions are right.

Arikha states that “empathy is rarely universal” and that “Family belonging and social belonging are separate. When they meet, as happened in Bosnia and Rwanda when families turned on each other, the group identity prevails”.   Chilling statements such as these implode the ideas we carry around about common human decency and common human morality and empathy.  The story we tell ourselves, about ourselves, is bullshite and these bullshit assumptions are what we run ‘civilized’ society on.  I think this false narrative allows people to be repeated shocked and horrified when tales of wanton bloodshed and genocide hit the news – it is seen as a huge deviation from the norm.  Yet, if we look at humans, it isn’t a particular large leap from our observable behaviours.

We – ‘the good guys’ – ran a government sanctioned torture program.  Oh, certainly we had our legal pretzelese to mask and make torture palatable for the general public. Never the less, dodgy legal justifications do not nullify the social and psychological ramifications of one’s nation endorsing the institutional infliction of pain on others.  I think we are still seeing the negative effects of the torture revelations running through our western societies .

Essay’s like Arikha’s make me contemplate how much projection we engage in as a society to protect ourselves from the rather brutish reality of our societal and geo-poltical existence.

(*edited for early morning writing)

 

For those who don’t get the male gaze, another similar concept is the Panopticon and the theory that goes behind it. See also the Observer Effect study by Hawthorne (1950).

Something to brighten, or darken your day.

 

 

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