Evolutionary psychology

Paul Bloom, on the recent spate of “evil” books

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Books trying to explain evil scientifically, that is. In “I’m O.K., You’re a Psychopath,” he makes a good point:

People with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, Baron-Cohen argues, are also empathy-deficient, though he calls them “Zero-Positive.” They differ from psychopaths and the like because they possess a special gift for systemizing; they can “set aside the temporal dimension in order to see — in stark relief — the eternal repeating patterns in nature.” This capacity, he says, can lead to special abilities in domains like music, science and art. More controversially, he suggests, this systemizing impulse provides an alternative route for the development of a moral code — a strong desire to follow the rules and ensure they are applied fairly. Such individuals can thereby be moral without empathy, “through brute logic alone.”This is an intriguing proposal, but Baron-Cohen doesn’t fully elaborate on it, much less address certain obvious objections. For one thing, if people with autism can use logic to be good without empathy, why can’t smart psychopaths do the same? And what about the many low-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum who lack special savant gifts and don’t spontaneously create moral codes? On Baron-Cohen’s analysis, they would be Zero-Negative. But this doesn’t seem right. Such individuals might be awkward or insensitive, but they are not actively malicious; they are much more likely to be the targets of cruelty than the perpetrators. (New York Times, June 19, 2011)

It’s refreshing to see reason and common sense invoked to explain human nature, for a change, instead of fantasies about ancestors or studies of apes. More later.

7 Replies to “Paul Bloom, on the recent spate of “evil” books

  1. 1
    CannuckianYankee says:

    I have Asperger’s syndrome, and I don’t think Baron-Cohen’s idea that Aspergers don’t have empathy is correct from another angle. We learn empathy in different ways than others who don’t have the syndrome. We experience long periods of isolation from others by our own choice when we’re young. We learn empathy from being around those people who notice that we’re different, and empathetically attempt to bring us out of the isolation. Through others expressing empathy, we learn empathy ourselves. I guess it’s really no different with “normal” people, but it is more marked in that one particular situation. The one difference is that this tendency to isolate continues through adulthood, and can have extreme consequences if one is not being treated by professionals.

    Autism is quite different, because the autistic doesn’t have the same tools as the Asperger to recognize that there’s an internal problem. To the autistic, what is a problem is perceived to be something external. I’ve worked closely with autistic people in my profession, and one can see that there’s an internal conflict, but it’s expressed in frustration over external influences. Paul Bloom makes a good point though; perhaps autistic people aren’t empathetic, but they aren’t malicious. If you work well with them, the internal conflicts can be greatly diminished, so they do learn to behave appropriately.

    I would not have been able to work well with autistic people if I had not gained a sense of empathy. I guess an Asperger’s sense of empathy is rather selective, though. We tend to be much more empathetic to people who have similar situations to our own.

    Bottom line is, I don’t think empathy is something we are born with. We learn it from others. The psychopath’s problem is not that he/she doesn’t have empathy. They have learned to apply empathy for themselves more than for others.

    And this has implications when we think of “the golden rule.” Without the self part, we would not be able to learn empathy. We learn to do unto others because we want the same to be done to us. Autistic people can learn this as well as any other. They just require more empathy expressed from others.

    The psychopath has perhaps not had enough empathy expressed from others in order to know what to do. Or they have experienced quite the opposite – abuse from others to an extreme, which causes them to also be abusive. I don’t think they are without hope.

  2. 2
    Robert Byers says:

    I don’t autisms etc as that complicated. I see them as simply interference with memory abilities just like retardation which is very extreme.
    over attentive demands over memory abilitys. Likewise the opposite.
    I understand this Cohen guy is related to the comedian movie guy.
    i see them both as wrongly employed and demonstrate why their is a lack of achievement today in these fields.
    They are taking away better peoples entry level opportunities.
    thats why we get this gibberish.

  3. 3
    CannuckianYankee says:

    Robert Byers,

    I disagree. If autism was just a matter of memory deficiency similar to retardation (I don’t think that’s even a necessary symptom of retardation), then there would be no need for a distinction. There’s a lot more involved than memory, and some autistic people are dually diagnosed with mental retardation, some not. I can see then how you could come to that conclusion if you perhaps have some experience with the dually diagnosed, but not with those who are not so diagnosed.

    I think it’s more social than memory, and this is the opinion of most experts. For some reason the autistic person is not social, but isolative; some never learn to speak. Unlike Aspergers, though, they don’t necessarily remove themselves from interaction; they block it out – especially interaction that involves human touch. The typical response to unwanted interaction is the tantrum or self abuse. Also, most people with Asperger’s syndrome, which is arguably a mild type of autism, are not retarded. Many of them go on to become university professors, highly talented artists and musicians, etc, which would not be really possible if all that was involved was a lack of memory ability.

  4. 4
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    CannuckianYankee @ #1:

    A very interesting post!

    Yes, I agree that the striking thing about psychopathy as opposed to autism is that in psychopathy, the problem seems to be not so much lack of ability to see things from the point of view of another (Theory of Mind capacity) but the ability to care. Sometimes, indeed, psychpaths seem capable of exceptional cruelty precisely because they can understand how their actions will “feel” to the recipient.

    Whereas, as you say, with other conditions in which ToM is impaired, there are workarounds, and the ability to sympathise is intact. I’m thinking of Temple Grandin’s book, and her ability to understand how a lifestock facility looks and feels to a cow.

    What seems to be impaired in psychopathy is an emotional response to others (or to anything, in fact) rather than ToM. Whether that is a result of heritable factors or of early experience remains unknown (and both may be important).

    Robert Byers: autism does not appear to be “simply” a memory problem, and indeed some people with autism have extraordinarily acute memory function.

    news: I don’t know where you get the idea that most cognitive psychology is “fantasies about ancestors or studies of apes”. Certainly primate studies are important in cognitive psychology, but it’s a rich domain, and understanding how people think involves investigations at many levels, from behavioural studies, to neuroimaging, to animal models, to genetic studies, to epidemiological studies, to developmental studies, and occasionally even to speculation about evolutionary processes (studies of ToM in our nearest relatives is very enlightening).

    I know you hate evolutionary psychology as a [n un-]] discipline, but really, it’s a tiny subdomain of a huge subject!

  5. 5
    CannuckianYankee says:

    Elizabeth,

    I also have experience working with young sociopaths, which in my estimation is for some of them, pre-psychopathy. What I found common among them is a deficiency in understanding or relating to adult role-models; even though they are now adults. In fact, several disorders considered sociopathic, or characteriological – borderline personality disorder and anti-social personality disorder in particular are seen as partly an inability to substantially transition into adulthood with healthy adult relationships; which can be due to a problem with adult relationships as children through abuse, neglect or some other childhood trauma.

    The interesting thing about the sociopath though, is that they are much more the abusers than the abused when they reach adulthood. They will abuse others or themselves. They are perhaps the least likely to empathize with an autistic person or a mentally retarded person, yet because of their dangerous behavior, they often require treatment in locked psychiatric facilities.

    This may be one of the initial conditions (I’m sure there were others), which led to what in California is known as the Lanterman Act – legislation; which in the 1970s, led to the separation of services towards the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, such that it became illegal to treat the DD population in the same psychiatric treatment units as the MI population, due to the propensity for abuse towards the DD population (among other factors). Of course emergency psychiatric units were exempted.

    So yes, I believe the behavior of sociopaths and psychopaths to be much more chosen and operant than respondent; which is what the experts seem to believe as well, and this realization is well-drawn out in treatment facilities, where I have worked. I had the unique experience of working in a facility, which treated both populations, only on separate locked units where they were not permitted to interact. Since I was in facility management, I worked equally on both units.

    The one thing I would disagree with is that people with characteriological disorders don’t have the ability to care. They do. It’s an issue of choice. In my work, we were engaged in helping people with certain mental disorders to make appropriate choices, and I saw many successes, including among our sociopathic population – mostly those with borderline personality disorder. Some of them had great empathetic abilities, but they tended to use them as they served their own purposes; rather than as genuine reaching out to others. We weren’t there to teach them to be genuinely empathetic however, but to learn to live safely in the community so that they no longer required our services.

    So how do you teach a sociopath or a psychopath to care? The same way you teach others to care. Show them how it is beneficial to them in a society where people value each other – teach them the golden rule. They obviously haven’t learned it yet. It’s not an issue where they don’t have the capacity to empathize; it’s that they haven’t appropriately learned it due to other distracting issues.

    That may sound simplistic, but it seems to work in the real world of treating their disorders. Sometimes psychology has a tendency to get caught up with various theories; which at times some are helpful, but others are not. I often come across theories that are so impractical and distracting in consideration of treatment. The one mentioned in the OP is one such theory. In my view evil will always be a choice, and since there is a choice, there should always be a consequence; which itself is an effective teaching tool. How does one learn appropriate behavior if there is no consequence for bad behavior?

    BTW, in the practical world of behavioral treatment, there’s no discussion about apes. 🙂

  6. 6
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Interesting essay, CannuckianYankee.

    I would agree with all of that, I think, and take your point about “ability to care”. That was poor wording on my part, as it sounds unchangeable.

    Working with psychopaths/sociopaths is obviously very challenging, and I commend you for your career choice!

    But it isn’t hopeless, and we should not regard it as hopeless if we are to have any chance of succeeding.

    Thanks again for your interesting thoughts.

  7. 7
    Robert Byers says:

    CannukianYankee
    I have come to a conclusion retardation is simply and only an issue with memory interference.
    so i then simply further this that all these things are a part of a spectrum and just different levels of the problem.
    I know Aspbergers and autisms are very mild and often those who have them have above scores in schools and results in the workplace.
    I’m saying all these things have nothing to do with the mind but merely the memory.
    Just imagine a person with a severe memory problem and trying to learn just any thing.
    It would look like a classic retarded person.
    i did this thought exercise.and found it persuasive.

    Anyways. This social problem just shows one must pay attention to learn socialization.
    Aspbergers are all about over concentration and under concentration. with results.
    Memory is essential to concentration.
    A distortion in memory would force a person to over concentrate and force them to under concentrate.
    Social problems just show this is going on.
    I see no reason to not simply see everything as a interference with memory .
    If true then healing or coping might be more well done.
    It all might not be that complicated after all.

    A good clue is the case of “idiot-savants”.
    They remember fantastically , the males, particular things. surely therefore the opposite is true.
    Therefore the problem is simply great memory interference with disables learning in these cases in a severe way.

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