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Cross-posted at my blog.

Psychologists do interesting things.  Pair them with neuroscientists, and we begin to get
an inkling of how we think and how our brains work.

Here’s an experiment.  Describe the following scenario to a group of subjects.  You are standing on a bridge overlooking train tracks.  Five people are trapped on the tracks below you, and a train is barreling down the tracks toward them and will surely kill these people if it strikes them.  Next to you is a switch that can divert the train to an alternate route and save the five people. However, one person is trapped on the alternate route, and is equally certain to be killed if you switch the train to the alternate route.  What do you do?

Most people will consider for a moment or two, and then say they will flip the switch, saving five people at the expense of one.  Sociopaths and non-sociopaths come to this conclusion at about the same rate and with about the same speed.

Now change the scenario slightly.  Suppose instead there is just one track, but five people are still facing certain death from a train heading toward them.  Now, however, there is another person standing next to you on the bridge, a large person.  In fact, the person is so large that if you throw them off the bridge, they will stop train.  They will die, of course, but you’ll save five people at the expense of one.

Most people take a bit longer with the second scenario and then say they would not throw the person standing next them off the bridge.  That was certainly my reaction when I first read this scenario.  Sociopaths, however, take about as long with the second scenario as the first, and  then decide to throw their neighbor off the bridge.

So, what’s going on here?  Superficially, these two scenarios are the same, right?  In both cases, sociopaths calculate it’s better for one person to die than for five, and they act accordingly.  But most people would see these two situations as different and act accordingly.

These two scenarios appear in the most recent issue of Scientific American. The author of the article cites research that suggests a couple of things are going on.  The first scenario creates distance between us and the potential victims of our decision: we’re on a bridge, they’re on the tracks.  They are “different” from us.  This causes a more intellectual kind of decision-making, involving the cerebral cortex, and a deliberate calculation.

The second scenario keeps the five potential victims at a distance, but the other potential victim is standing right beside us, in our emotional space.  That triggers a different brain area, the amygdala, and causes a different, more emotional, calculation to take place.  In most people, this leads to a different decision.

Neuroscience confirms this hypothesis.  Brain scans show that in almost everyone, sociopath or not, the cerebral cortex lights up for scenario one.  In scenario two, for most people the fireworks happen in the amygdala.  But for sociopaths, the amygdala stays dark in scenario two and the cerbral cortex lights up just like in scenario one.

The amygdala, sometimes denigrated as our “lizard brain,” is the center of emotion, including empathy.  For sociopaths, there seems to be a difference in the amygdala, whether in function,  magnitude or something else no one knows,  that suppresses the empathic response.  In extreme cases, you get Hannibal Lector, who can’t connect at all. In less extreme cases, you might get the hedge fund manager mentioned in the full article who says “insensitivity” is one of the three traits, along with focus and intellect, that most contributes to his success.  Really?  Insensitivity?  And you’re proud of that and mention it in an interview?

Even worse, there’s another article in the same issue about how people choose leaders.  Researchers showed subjects photographs of candidates for governor in the 2010 cycle and asked them to choose the candidate who looked most capable.  Subjects had nothing else on which to base their choice than appearance: no policy statements, no “character” stories.” Nothing. In over two thirds of the actual elections, the one who looked most capable won.

That’s terrifying.

That means that for most people, the actual policies and positions of the candidates don’t seem to matter.  I’m old enough to just barely remember the 1960 debates between JFK and Nixon.  People who watched the debates on TV thought Kennedy won, while those who listened on the radio thought Nixon won.  Now, more than physical appearance counts in this case.  The differences in voice and accent are more pronounced on radio, while differences in physical appearance are more pronounced on TV, so it’s not correct to conclude that Nixon “won” on the issues.  But it does suggest that appearances matter, whether visual or auditory.  They matter a lot, if this research is to be believed.

That same lizard brain, the amygdala, is probably at work when people make decisions on a candidate’s appearance rather than policies. Emotions rather than intellect seem to govern us more than we’d probably like to admit.

What are the implications for political discourse?  Well, reconsider the two scenarios.  Let’s look at them in a slightly different way.  The sociopath sacrifices his neighbor instead of himself.  It would never occur to the sociopath to throw himself off the bridge, or to throw both himself and his neighbor off the bridge.  The sociopath makes an essentially selfish choice, and most of us would agree that’s wrong.  If he jumped off the bridge to stop the train with his own body, he’d be a hero, but that’s not what he did.

The two scenarios set up two populations: “us,” standing on the bridge, and “them,” on the tracks.  Most of us will treat the population we belong to fairly, but are more ruthless and uncaring about exogenous populations.  That’s one reason we’re reluctant to throw our neighbor off the bridge: he’s one of us.  That’s also exactly why divisive politics are so destructive of the body politic: they shred the sense of belonging, of community, which is the necessary basis for  successful human organizations.  Successful coalitions are broad, where people see not only a shared interest but a shared sense of membership.  Whether it’s possible to build such a coalition in the US today remains to be seen.

I’d have to say I think it would be impossible to build successful, cohesive communities under a system that assigns the highest moral value to selfishness.  But then I don’t claim to be a fountainhead of wisdom. I’m just a math guy.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma from game theory also could illuminate this discussion.  Moreover, simulations of the role of cooperation versus competition in evolution suggest that cooperation might actually be more important than competition in the long-term.  But that’s for another blog.

Originally posted to mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 08:22 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  There's another way of looking at the situation. (30+ / 0-)

    that's slightly different. In the first case, the bystander on the spur track is simply in the wrong place and the wrong time and constitutes "collateral damage." In the second case, the large man is deprived of choice, because he has been singled out for his unique attribute - being very, very large - and, presumably he hasn't volunteered, thrown into the path of the oncoming train. This kind of ethical conundrum was brought up, I bleieve, by Emmanuel Kant.

    •  I've seen this before (0+ / 0-)

      Although in the one I saw, the person standing next to you is wearing a very large backpack that is supposed to be what stops the train.

      I find either of these scenarios unsatisfactory, largely because the plausibility of being able to know that throwing someone off the bridge (whether it is because they are a large person or have a large backpack) will without a doubt stop the train is suspect to me.  Logically, throwing a switch to divert the train will work, people throw switches to do that all the time.

      But a person, no matter how large they are, is unlikely to be able to stop a train coming so fast that both the train can't brake in time and the other five people can't get off the tracks in time.  The uncertainty of the scenario looms large for me, and because of that I don't feel that it is at all similar to the scenario of just throwing the switch.

    •  Sorry neither alternate is rational (7+ / 0-)

      And I think that's the problem. In no case would a single human be large enough to stop an onrushing train. Nor would I be. So in neither case would throwing a person in front of the train - or sacrificing my self in the same way - logically be helpful. I think people feel this instinctually and so react differently to the second scenario.

      I am not a sociopath (at least I think I'm not) and I would, in the second scenario, just as rapidly, make the same choice as the first: Throw the huge person in front of the train. As if I could. If he's that huge and doesn't want to go, and is able to take free action, he's obviously not going. Again, the scenario is foolish in the extreme.

      I suspect that's why different brain areas show activity. In the first scenario, the brain is dealing with a simple choice that can be rationally imagined, so the cerebral cortex activates. Rational choice prevails, and you sacrifice the one life in favor of the five. In the second example, however, you are in an irrational situation, there is no "logical" action to take, placing you into a realm of fantasy and irrationality. So the"lizard brain" takes over, activating pre-rational, emotional portions of the brain. In this part of the brain, a pure emotional reaction would seem to be more along the lines of, "How can I possibly throw this big scary person onto the tracks? I would get hurt! He'd probably overpower me and throw me onto the tracks! I'll let those people die to save my own life." It has nothing to do with preferring the life of the big scary guy. What's more, the hind brain is also more likely reacting to atavistic presumptions that the big ape is the dominant ape and I do not cross the dominant ape.

      The "sociopath" response is, I think more akin to the rationalist's response: "OK, this is a silly scenario. It's obviously a false choice, but I'll play along, ignoring the irrational parts, and choose the same rational choice I made the last time: Sacrifice one life in favor of the five." In this case, again, the cerebral cortex is activating to analyze the false choice and come to the same rationalist conclusion.

      Part of the problem is when neuroscientists get to work with psychologists and forget the anthropologists and biologists. And part of it seems to be that the people who invented the scenario are really bad writers and failed to understand how to create believable scenarios. So they forgot the writers, too.

      And part of the problem is in assuming that the "emotional" response is the superior response. I personally believe that I am a liberal and good person because I am rational. All  of my positions are based on the rational and intelligent outcomes of reasoned thought. Good is a rational choice. Compassion is rational. Truth is rational. All of liberalism can be derived from clear-headed, rational thinking. It is irrationality and emotionalism that lead us astray: selfishness, lying, lack of compassion, a proclivity towards hurting others are all the results of irrational thought processes and can be rationally argued against. Thus liberalism is rationally and logically superior to conservatism because it eschews the emotional, irrational, self-serving ideals of conservatism.

      •  totally agree...there were so many unplausable (0+ / 0-)

        variables to the second story. Large man! I am a woman, no part of me believes it would be possible to try to push that guy over. It's not given consideration first because it's not even plausible for me. I don't think I am a sociopath, but the reason it was considered was nothing to do with morality.

        I've read several of these "studies" with different scenarios and always have been unconvinced that the differences could be attributed to the causes assigned.

        I would like to learn more about attachment or validation and what that does to build intimacy and compassion in human beings. I do believe that head trauma plays a role, but I also think that when a small baby, child, is not validated, when they are not made real by the reactions of the environment, they do not develop compassion, and may "act out" their emotion on others, much like a person with borderline personality "acts out" emotional pain on self and others. It makes their feelings real if they see it on the face of another. And if there was some interruption in the validation process (that period of laugh were mom's smile back at there babies, wrinkle their faces, coo in return and practice empathy with a child later in life) then perhaps this is also one cause of the disconnect.

        This is going to be like will have multiple causes, not just one.

  •  Edward O. Wilson, the successor to Charles Darwin, (31+ / 0-)

    has written many books about evolution and his most recent, The Social Conquest of Earth, may well be his most important. In it, he explains how human evolution has resulted in a fundamental conflict between behaviors that favor the success of the individual human and behaviors that favor the success of groups of humans. He says that these two conflicting behaviors have a genetic basis:

    Alleles (the various forms of each gene) that favor survival and reproduction of individual group members at the expense of others are always in conflict with alleles of the same and alleles of other genes favoring altruism and cohesion in determining the survival and reproduction of individuals. Selfishness, cowardice, and unethical competition further the interest of individually selected alleles, while diminishing the proportion of altruistic, group-selected alleles. These destructive propensities are opposed by alleles predisposing individuals toward heroic and altruistic behavior on behalf of members of the same group. Group-selected traits typically take the fiercest degree of resolve during conflicts between rival groups.
    Wilson’s conclusion is that this conflict, this struggle between two kinds of humans, has only one outcome:
    An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.

    … In summary, the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be. To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less than human.

    Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

    by hestal on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 08:38:17 AM PDT

    •  Interesting.... (8+ / 0-)

      until I get to his last comment:  To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less than human.

      What is that supposed to mean?  What exactly is "less than human."  And why would it be so bad to be "less" if bad behavior was reduced?

      Just the egotism in the comment is offensive.....

      The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Mike Whitney

      by dfarrah on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 08:56:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Great post (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      indubitably, Nulwee, GreyHawk

      Thanks for adding this to the discussion!

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 08:57:09 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  The problem I have with the primary focus being (15+ / 0-)

      the individual is that individuals have a better chance as do thier descendents of survival if they are cooperative... In addition the difference between members of a species are relatively small compared to the difference between one  species and another so the passing down of an individuals genes is of minor importance compared to preserving as large of a variety of genes within a cooperative species...

      To me individualism is an existential right to self defense and to live so the conflict comes in what system the cooperative impulse dominates. Take abortion...At one time it was a cooperative versus individual survival issue... Females had to produce offspring to keep the population from dying off. That is no longer true so it becomes an individual survival issue.  We are still stuck in cooperative on that one that is not species survival leaning.  

      Another problem with individualism as opposed to cooperative societies is that bullies rise to the top and can actually damage the groups survival chances including thier own offsprings. We see that with the passing down of great wealth and power from generation to generation that is leading us into cul de sacs such as GW as those who struggle to survive on what the large consumers and sequestarians have left them. We are never going to deal with that without dealing with wealth inequality because those who are struggling to survive will not forgo what may catapult them out of abject poverty and decreased chances of survival.

      I think this is where so many who are considered to be voting against thier own interest are at... They see progressive ideas as cutting them off before they can get a share. There is no reason to exist if you as an individual have no control over your survival and life experience... unless of course you are an ant. Reminds me of a sci fi book Coelescent I believe by Baxter.

      How can you tell when Rmoney is lying? His lips are moving. Fear is the Mind Killer

      by boophus on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 09:03:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Unless we begin aborting (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BrianParker14, GreyHawk

      ...embryos/fetuses with the OXTR gene polymorphism that creates psychopaths without oxytocin receptors. All the oxytocin in the world won't make them feel a thing.

      I know, it's probably not as simple as that, but some scientists are shocked that empathy seems to be down to this factor.

      Now that you can get a sample of the genome of an embryo/fetus from taking blood samples from the mother, perhaps this will become an inexpensive way to tell whether or not you'll have a psychopathic child that might create nothing but misery.

      I await the howls of "eugenics!"

      But evil can perhaps be done away with.

      "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." —John Kenneth Galbraith

      by eyeswideopen on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 01:59:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  skeptical (4+ / 0-)

        However appealing it might be to rid our culture of sociopaths, I'm not convinced that tampering with our genome is the way to go.  The law of unforeseen consequences seems to me to make that too dangerous.

        Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

        by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:18:12 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  MathGuy (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          mathGuyNTulsa, GreyHawk

          Your sig line says it all.

          I suppose a prenatal genetic patch might work. But, as a co-victim of a horrific double homicide by a psychopath, I'm all for it.

          To me, it's like curing cancer or eliminating bird flu or even the common cold.

          "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." —John Kenneth Galbraith

          by eyeswideopen on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:36:42 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  I understand your reluctance (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          But think of what the choice would be if it were a physical problem that led to the death of the offspring. Would it be Ok then?

          This is a choice of preventing the deaths of other people, perhaps. A broken brain is a broken body.

          Women create the entire labor force.

          by splashy on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 09:53:56 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  I could justify aborting clinical psychopaths (5+ / 0-)

        But then I take the position that psychopathy is probably the closest thing to objective evil we have.  These people are physically incapable of empathy and can only be controlled, not cured.  Low-functioning psychopaths tend to become common criminals, but high-functioning psychopaths with the ability to learn and follow the rules and even fake normal emotions can and do rise very high in our society: case in point, Mitt Romney.

        Eugenics was given a bad reputation by people who were not only obsessed with arbitrary aesthetic criteria but who also subscribed to a patently false doctrine of biological determinism.

        To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

        by Visceral on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:35:15 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  not cured? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Is there data on this?  I seem to recall reading an article to the contrary--that sociopaths can control their antisocial behaviors and be productive members of society--but I can't find it.

          Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

          by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:40:54 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I wouldn't call that a cure (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            BrianParker14, ozsea1, Zinman, GreyHawk

            Like I said, psychopaths can be controlled and most of them are controlled ... in prison.

            But the high-functioning ones are smart.  They can coldly calculate when conformity and obedience furthers their own interests: interests that are by definition not bound by normal human inhibitions against harming others.  They can learn to fake normality and won't think twice about using a system designed to control them to their advantage.  If anything, they're the kind of people who can live perfectly normal and productive lives while chuckling to themselves about how easy we are to manipulate.

            To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

            by Visceral on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:50:25 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  I think two different maladies are present (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            GreyHawk, mathGuyNTulsa

            Psychopathy is one, sociopathy is the other. I am not a professional in the field, but I have read Dr. Robert Hare's seminal work on psychopathy in which he makes a distinction between the two based on causation. He claims that psychopaths have a physiological abnormality which is the heart of their problem whereas sociopaths do not. Sociopathy is described as a maladaptive reaction to a brutal social environment early in life. Again, I am not a professional in this field, but this my recollection of how Dr. Hare characterized the distinction.

            Eradicate magical thinking

            by Zinman on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 08:58:37 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  Without those receptors (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        GreyHawk, mathGuyNTulsa

        They must be miserable people.

        Women create the entire labor force.

        by splashy on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 09:51:58 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  You can't seriously postulate Wilson (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      GreyHawk, indubitably

      who gave us sociobiology as the successor to Darwin. I mean, why not Spencer and the rest of the eugenics/social darwinist crew?

      •  His root notion of the conflict (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        GreyHawk, indubitably

        between the collective good in a social species and the individual good is a conservative crock.

        Inherited behvior? Show us the gene. (Neither he nor any of the rest of the sociobiologist/evolutionary psychology people ever do this. In 1979 they had an excuse. Now, with the mapping of the genome, they do not.

        Wilson is pseudo-science at its most aggrandized.

      •  I am serious. Darwin's (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, transformed our understanding of ourselves and his basic ideas are accepted by ordinary human beings almost in the way they accept the boiling point of water. But, except in the field of biology and other life sciences, Darwin's ideas have had little positive impact on our views of our own history and of the possibilities that lie in our future.

        Wilson's book, by letting us know that there is a genetic basis for two different kinds of fundamental behaviors for humankind will produce another transformation of our history, and it will make it essential for us to take into account these two varieties of Homo sapiens as we plan our future. None of the other evolutionists who worked between Darwin and Wilson had such an impact.

        Just conduct a thought experiment: rewrite American history by applying the idea of two varieties of humankind, vying for power in brutal contests, and then applying power once they get it. Which variety would you say was in power in the North or in the South at the start of the Civil War?

        Which varieties hold power right now? This idea, that there are really two living varieties of humankind, can, should, transform our world.

        Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

        by hestal on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 11:39:35 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  There's also physiological research that suggests (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      that the amygdalas of conservatives have greater mass, while their temporoparietal junctions have less mass. The hypotheses are that, as a results, they are much more sensitive to fear and much less capable of altruism, especially to those who are not the same.

      The same studies showed that liberals, on the other hand, have "larger anterior cingulates - which is an area associated with anticipation and decision-making," which has been correlated to a greater ability to entertain ambiguity and uncertainty, and larger temporiparietal junctions, which correlated to indiscriminate altriusm.

      Liberals Are From the ACC, Conservatives Are From the Amygdala?

      Tory voters found to have larger 'primitive' lobe in brain

      Why Is the Conservative Brain More Fearful? The Alternate Reality Right-Wingers Inhabit Is Terrifying

      Altruism, Brain Region Called Temporoparietal Junction Linked In University Of Zurich Study

      Guess What? We Have Bigger Temporoparietal Junctions Than They Do (ourvery own Pluto)

      Purging predominantly minority voters and requiring them to present IDs to vote in the face of VIRTUALLY NON-EXISTENT VOTER FRAUD is RACISM! I hereby declare all consenting Republicans RACISTS until they stand up and object to these practices!

      by Words In Action on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:24:08 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I don't think its two kinds of humans but (0+ / 0-)

      conflicting potentials that have survived in each of us that are individually and group oriented. An individual inherits from successful predecessors an orientation to fulfilling individual survival, mate attraction and reproduction and also an orientation toward using time and talents to benefit the group in ways that might not immediately and directly benefit the individual. We all live with this conflict and part of the art of good human living it to bring the apparent conflicts into a positive working whole. I think that is where the we would be less than human without the conflict.

      Where individuals are way out of balance in their orientations and how they develop in the process of living the rest of us from somewhere in the middling mass judge the appropriateness of that life. The sociopath is mostly reviled and the Mother Theresa type is celebrated. I think the reason the typical judgment is pro Mother Theresa type is that our orientation toward the group side of our biology is very strong.

      In my reading of Wilson's amazing book is that it is the the evolution of eusociality that makes humans a dominant species, as it does with the other creatures who have crossed the threshold and moved into this type of evolutionary process. As much as Republicans promote the "individual" it is never outside the context of our social organization and interaction. All the benefits we argue about are products of our eusociality. I can't any knowledge accumulation, culture, science, technology, economics being possible as an individual achievement at all.

      Love = Awareness of mutually beneficial exchange across semi-permeable boundaries. Political and economic systems either amplify or inhibit Love.

      by Bob Guyer on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 08:25:18 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It has to be two kinds of human beings. (0+ / 0-)

        There are so many things in our nature that exist in two opposites: good and evil, inclusion and exclusion, love and hate, etc.

        And history is full of individuals who tend to act selfishly and those who are generous. Our institutions are reflections of the type of humans that control them. Thus we have institutions that work for the common good versus those that work against it.

        In fact, James Madision, in Federalist 10, said that factions are the greatest danger to our liberties and he defined faction as a group of men who pursue policies that are "adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Madison went on to say that the Constitution was designed to prevent factions from gaining power, and when they do, to keep them from doing harm.

        I think that there are two living varieties of human beings: those who naturally work for the common good, and those who naturally work against it.

        Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

        by hestal on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 02:52:10 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  but the qualities listed in your first sentence (0+ / 0-)

          can and do co-exist within individuals. The fact that people may tend to act more generously or more selfishly doesn't preclude both tendencies existing before the person has fully developed.

          "Okay, until next time. Keep sending me your questions, and I will make fun of you... I mean, answer them." - Strong Bad

          by AaronInSanDiego on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 06:39:40 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I don't agree. If a human being gains power (0+ / 0-)

            over others then one set of characteristics overpowers the other and the true nature of the human in question is revealed.

            Even the American Psychiastric Association agrees. Look at their characteristics for the antisocial personality disorder. Sociopaths. Religious fundamentalists as described by Jimmy Carter, Lord Acton's description of how power affects individuals, John Quincy Adams' discussion of those who own slaves. Look at the personalities of most ancient rulers, Alexander the Great should be called the Grotesque. I. W. Charny, head of an international institute devoted to the causes of genocide says that there are two kinds of human mind: the Democratic and the Fascist. Look at how our own nation divides itself into two populations, one that works for the common good and one that works against it.

            Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

            by hestal on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 03:39:14 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Our forthcoming book is about this (13+ / 0-)

    Book review and book preview: All about "Global Insanity"

    Global Insanity:How Homo sapiens Lost Touch with Reality while Transforming the World
    The Global Economy that sustains the civilized world is destroying the biosphere.  As a result, civilization, like the Titanic, it is on a collision course with disaster.  But changing course via the body politic appears to be well nigh impossible, given that much of the populace lives in denial.  Why is that?  And how did we get into such a fix?  That question has two answers, one historical, the other phenomenological.  First, Western science conceived nature as a machine, a legacy of the empiricism of Bacon, the dualism of Descartes, and the determinism of Newton.  But that metaphor is fundamentally flawed, as Robert Rosen has rigorously demonstrated.  Second, the Global Economy, like any complex system, developed into existence.  Development is a growth- and feedback-driven trajectory of systemic change that reinforces specific dependencies while eliminating alternatives, reducing the diversity that affords degrees of freedom.  The more developed a system is, the less potential it has to change its way of being.  That is why, in the evolution of life, most species become extinct (overspecialization), and ecological collapse is a common occurrence.  But we humans have taken it to a new level.  On a global scale, we built an industrial “metabolism” based on nonrenewable high energy resources, which fueled our exponential growth and socioeconomic development.  As a result, we are now deeply dependent on that system, and are forced to keep repairing it in order to survive.  Unfortunately, not only does the system lack the resources it needs for long-term survival, it is based on the misconception that life is a mechanism, with its implicit assumption that technology has an unlimited capacity to fix all our problems.  Now that we are trapped, people don't want to hear that those ideas are wrong, because that brings to light just how dire our predicament really is.
    The book closes with our thoughts on what options humanity has for negotiating the impending worldwide collapse of social and economic systems—which can also be viewed as a metamorphosis—with minimal suffering, and what we hope will persist through the transition.

    An idea is not responsible for who happens to be carrying it at the moment. It stands or falls on its own merits.

    by don mikulecky on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 08:46:43 AM PDT

  •  This study ignores important research (10+ / 0-)

    there is an enormous amount of research done in the scientific community including psychology and neuroscience that ignores some of the most important root causes of violence and how it escalates. Also this isn't designed to create a realistic scenario.

    One of the most important aspects of how violence escalates is child abuse at an early age. This also leads to the lack of empathy that the sociopaths or psychopaths if you prefer have.

    Also it could be used to study whether or not many people accept the conditions of the research or whether they look at different things. In many cases where they do polls they provide two options which are bad; this is similar to that.

    This particular survey is actually very old and they repeat it in one location after another and rarely ever learn any thing from it. there are other researchers that do much better work studying the psychology of children and how this behavior escalates from a young age but they don't get enough attention from the most authoritarian segment of the academic world.

    The reason for this might be partly that this also involves authoritarian upbringing which also teaches people to obey authority and those in power want obedient masses. Educating the public about this might interfere with that; although they may not understand that themselves. they may believe their own prejudices.

  •  Yet another way of looking at this... (5+ / 0-)

    and not so scary, IMO.  Motivations, in general, I would say, are a better guide to what a person will do than their explicit intentions, so it's perfectly reasonable (or at least natural, evolutionarily speaking) for people to be more influenced by cues that tell them whether or not a person is sincere, benign, empathetic than by their words or arguments.  

    Those cues may not be reliable, and can be gamed, but that doesn't make the strategy "scary" or even stupid,  necessarily.  After all, the most important things a politician does in office is react to unpredicted events, and we want people we think will act in capable and benign ways in the face of the unexpected  What specific policies they have, or say they have, is probably less informative, the future being, as it always is, uncertain.

    Which is why I think Romney is bound to lose.  Not because his policies don't add up, or because Obama's are better, but because he looks like a man who won't act in people's best interest, and Obama looks (and has a track-record of being) one who does.

    And that's not entirely stupid of me, even though it leaves me vulnerable to a plausible conman.

    (And in any case, I'm a Brit, so I don't have a vote for either :))

    •  heuristics (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Febble, Wee Mama, kyril

      We have to use shortcuts, or heuristics, to make decisions.  I agree that's part of what's going on here.

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 09:04:09 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  You dangerously underestimate this (5+ / 0-)

      We're not talking about just conmen, we're talking about true Sociopaths.  All it will take is one true Sociopath, to initiate voter suppression laws around the country, to stack the courts with crazies that will support corrupting the electoral system with money... Oh wait, that's already begun under Bush.  And there are a gazillion Republicans waiting in the wings who will do a lot worse.  It will only take one, to reverse 200+ years of democracy.

      If you don't do the homework to find out what these people will do, stay home and let those who have do the deciding.

      •  underestimate what? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Not sure of your point.

      •  I don't underestimate it all (6+ / 0-)

        And I agree completely with your implied analysis.  That's why it remains to be seen if we can every recover.

        There are good comments downstream about how Nixon was deficient in social skills, and that may have been part of what viewers of the debates saw.  That's a great point.

        I'd say this all started with Nixon.  Bush the lessor was just the most recent incarnation.

        Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

        by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 10:38:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  The solution is simple (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Wee Mama, BrianParker14, SoCalHobbit

        Sociopaths need to be clinically labelled and kept out of all positions of power.

        No one with a clinical diagnosis of sociopathy or narcissism should be allowed to lead a political party, a country, a military unit, a corporation or department in a corporation, a bank, or a church.

        My personal take is that almost all of our problems are caused by people with clinical personality disorders in leadership positions.

        If you remove those people you will have much more reasonable decisions and more sustainable outcomes.

        Now - this sounds harsh and unreasonable.

        But consider that our current systems select for sociopathy instead of selecting against it. Sociopaths are classed as 'winners', because the corporate world and Wall St define winners as people who become rich at everyone else's expense.

        So - politics will remain insane until this changes.

        "Be kind" - is that a religion?

        by ThatBritGuy on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 01:17:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  But it's NOT that simple (10+ / 0-)

          Sociopathy (or psychopathy) are not clinical categories. Anti-social personality disorders  (ASPDs) are, but ASPD is not synonymous with psychopathy.  And in any case, you can't make a clinical diagnosis without a presenting complaint.

          If that changes, then far more than politics will have become insane.  The USSR went down that road.  Psychiatry and politics are a bad mix.

        •  One problem is that the corporation is itself (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          a psychopathic organism in society, as demonstrated in the movie of that name, The Corporation.

          The movie demonstrates how the behavior of a corporation fits the DSM-IV rubric for diagnosing psychopathy.

          It goes on to argue that the individuals themselves are not necessarily psychopaths (or sociopaths), but that collectively, by following institutionally-encouraged behaviors for success, they contribute to and participate in an organization that operates socially as a psychopath.

          What throws people off is that individually those in corporate positions of power may seem perfectly reasonable human beings who are sensitive to the needs of other people, the environment, etc. But given a decision-making task on behalf of the organization, the established rubric they are trained to turn to have no such sensitivity.

          Purging predominantly minority voters and requiring them to present IDs to vote in the face of VIRTUALLY NON-EXISTENT VOTER FRAUD is RACISM! I hereby declare all consenting Republicans RACISTS until they stand up and object to these practices!

          by Words In Action on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:03:01 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I've seen the documentary (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Words In Action

            It's really convincing.  We have ceded control to organizations that are psychopathic by virtue of their legal obligations.

            Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

            by mathGuyNTulsa on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:33:09 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  Except that there isn't a DSM IV rubric (0+ / 0-)

            for diagnosing psychopathy :)

            It isn't a DSM IV diagnosis, for good reasons..

            But I take your point.

            •  True, I should have said symptoms of psychopathy (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Symptoms of psychopathy

              callous disregard for the feelings of other people,
              the incapacity to maintain human relationships,
              reckless disregard for the safety of others,
              deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit),
              the incapacity to experience guilt, and the
              failure to conform to social norms and respect the law

              Purging predominantly minority voters and requiring them to present IDs to vote in the face of VIRTUALLY NON-EXISTENT VOTER FRAUD is RACISM! I hereby declare all consenting Republicans RACISTS until they stand up and object to these practices!

              by Words In Action on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 11:45:50 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  I've also seen research (9+ / 0-)

    that indicates those who are on the sociopathic side also enjoy seeing other people in distress.  

    If they show people in distress, normal people respond with distress; however, for sociopaths, different brain centers light up--maybe the 'pleasure centers', but I can't recall the name of the brain part--when they see someone in distress.

    The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Mike Whitney

    by dfarrah on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 08:59:27 AM PDT

  •  A Complication of the Nixon-Kennedy Debate (14+ / 0-)

    Nixon was severely deficient at interpersonal and social skills. One or more people have reported that being left alone with him for short periods was one of the more painful social experiences they recall.

    This may well have been an important factor in his bad relations with the press and his classifying others into friends or enemies categories, and ultimately the downfall of his Administration.

    It's interesting that Nixon may well have won an intellectual debate, but his later Presidency certainly proves he was a bad candidate to hold that office. Since the purpose of the debate was to choose a President and not to decide some intellectual questions, the TV audience may have been seeing cues about him that gave them the more accurate answer for the question before them.

    As to communities based on selfishness, the very suggestion strikes me as ridiculous. We're a social species, we've been a social species as far back into the dinosaur age as our lineage can be traced. All social animals have drives for both selfishness and altruism, the altruistic drives being essential for building friendships and communities that make social combinations far more powerful and adaptive than individuals.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 10:04:56 AM PDT

  •  History does seem to show, however, that some (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mathGuyNTulsa, etbnc, jessical, Wee Mama, kyril

    non-sociopaths can, in some instances, override the amygdala and use reason even in emotion laden circumstances. Learning how to inculcate and enhance this abilty, imho, is something very important and something we should be doing in schools.

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 10:09:16 AM PDT

  •  the right height (5+ / 0-)

    Height matters, too, and not just for trees in Michigan. There's some research showing we readily associate tallness with leadership.

    As some other folks have noted, there's more where this came from. Our decision-making process seems to be much different than many of us might like to think. I've found it very helpful to pay attention to recent results from psychology research.

    Thanks for contributing this to the Kos knowledge base.


  •  Heh (7+ / 0-)

    Never liked that scenario much -- it always raises the question for me of what is the morality of running over hypothetical people with trains, or finding that an entertaining pastime?  The philosopher has already interjected entirely enough distance to push them all onto the oncoming tracks, photograph the sploosh, post it on facebook and make it all a fine story at dinner.   They are characters, and like Twain we can maneuver them all into wells.

    And of course, there's norms and law to consider.  I am unlikely to be prosecuted for a mechanical change calculated for least harm -- the laws are different for pulling switches than pushing people.  This is arguably as much a function of how recently in our history you could pull such a switch (but pushing people off cliffs is likely as old as our species).

    This whole thing is quite interesting to me in that I agree with your assessment of community and empathy, and I happily use "sociopath" to describe the likes of Ryan and Romney.  But really -- at core -- I am unsure there even is such a thing, flat out, at least in the idealized form punted by students of human behavior.  It reeks of The Stranger, where the court is informed you did not love your mother enough before they vote hang you.  And it ignores the ways people adapt to expedience and how they choose I-thou relations over expedient ones.  Abuse a person badly enough and they will become expedient, or die.  That person may still be entirely capable of I-thou relations with others, but has gotten no good evidence such a mode is workable.

    T&R, both for the provoking diary and "fountainhead of wisdom" :}

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 01:34:11 PM PDT

    •  THanks for comment (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jessical, indubitably, dirkster42, splashy

      Very thoughtful.  

      I like the references to Buber.  "I and Thou" changed my life.  

      Having met sociopaths, I'm convinced that there is a difference in actions and emotional responses, whether you call it empathy or something else.  The neuroscience information, while still quite new and incomplete, sheds new light as well.

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:24:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well (3+ / 0-)

        I am sure there are moral monsters and also perhaps some sharp bimodal differences in how we account for and treat others...and those differences have correlates.  But conveniently externalized evil is extremely suspicious to me...a poster above suggests sociopaths should be labeled and kept from power, as though they are as detectable and consistent as can be.  I lean more toward Arendt and Alice Miller on stuff like this.  How we treat kids and how we define the other...mess those up and I think you get perfectly decent, reasonably empathic, quite principled...monsters, regardless.  But yeah, know what you mean...

        ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

        by jessical on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:48:24 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Spectrum (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I think people fall on a spectrum on these things.  We like to think in terms of rigid, black and white categories, but people aren't like that.  I totally agree that externalizing a group of people as "other" and then calling them evil is highly suspect.  As a gay person, I see that happening all the time. I certainly wouldn't want to encourage that kind of thing.

          Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

          by mathGuyNTulsa on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:36:24 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  You can find more on this (5+ / 0-)

    You can find more on this in this article in the Wisconsin Alumni Magazine.

    A psychopath focuses on a goal — no matter how chilling the consequences. But UW researchers have hopeful news about changing that behavior.

    Joe Newman has spent much of his life in a place no one wants to go, studying a group of people who few in his field believe can — or even should — be helped.

    For more than thirty years, UW psychology professor Newman has been trying to uncover and understand psychopaths, seeking answers to what is happening in their brains that causes them to be so callous, cold, and calculating. ....

  •  I would throw the person next to me off the bridge (4+ / 0-)

    I must be a sociopath. Except that I am a loving mother, teacher, dog rescuer. So I think these scenarios are a bit absurd for trying to label people.

    My dog is a member of Dogs Against Romney: He rides inside.

    by adigal on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 02:13:39 PM PDT

  •  Lizard brains (5+ / 0-)
    The amygdala, sometimes denigrated as our “lizard brain,” is the center of emotion, including empathy.
    In the old triune brain model, it's the mammals, not the lizards, that get assigned emotion.

    At some time following 1977, though, the Dragons started getting nicer.

  •  This is my understanding - (5+ / 0-)

    You say:

    For sociopaths, there seems to be a difference in the amygdala, whether in function,  magnitude or something else no one knows,  that suppresses the empathic response.
    I take the opposite approach to the “empathic response” than you.  You say that the “empathic response” is suppressed.  I think of empathy as not being suppressed, but as something that has not yet evolved in certain individuals.

    The brain itself evolved with the sole purpose of survival.  There was a time when empathy was not necessary for survival. There was a time when it was necessary to kill or be killed.  That was the law of the jungle.  No empathy needed.

    However, over time, it became necessary for humans to live in groups to necessitate their survival.  Thus, empathy evolved within the group to facilitate their survival.

    In some people’s brains however, through no fault of their own, the amygdala has not evolved to the point where they are able to feel empathy. So we have what we call sociopaths.

    Perhaps I am entirely wrong about this as I am no expert.  However, that is the way I have always interpreted the strange phenomena of lack of feeling for others.

    By the way, thanks for bringing this subject up.  It is a special interest of mine.

    As Chief Justice John Marshall observed almost two centuries ago, "we must never forget it is a Constitution we are expounding...intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.

    by LynChi on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 02:29:35 PM PDT

    •  I'm not expert either (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LynChi, indubitably

      In fact, your wording might very well be better.

      Brains sometimes are like muscles.  Maybe you get better at empathy by being empathetic, just like pecs get bigger after you do bench presses.

      It's a good question, and I bet there's data on it.  

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:32:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  If you are interested in neuroscience . . . (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        you might be interested in “the illusion of free will.”  Sam Harris delves into this topic quite extensively and comes up with some startling conclusions.  Just do a Google search for “Sam Harris free will” and read the numerous articles written about him and his hypothesis.  Interesting stuff.

        As Chief Justice John Marshall observed almost two centuries ago, "we must never forget it is a Constitution we are expounding...intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.

        by LynChi on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 04:53:05 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  "through no fault of their own" (0+ / 0-)

      begs a large philosophical question ;)

  •  good diary to generate good discussions. n/t (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    linkage, mathGuyNTulsa


    "I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong." Richard Feynman

    by leema on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 02:33:41 PM PDT

  •  Apparently I'm not a sociopath (6+ / 0-)

    but I'm not 'normal' either.

    I have the same amount of difficulty in both situations - I can't accept the premise (the "only" way to save them? I can't yell at them to move? And you really think I'm going to believe that the train is going to kill five people but I can stop it with a single fat guy? How do I know that, anyway?)

    And even if I force myself to accept the premise, I start asking more questions (After I pull the switch, can I jump down and pull the single guy off the track? Am I not fat enough to throw myself in front of the train? Does the fat guy want to volunteer to jump? Maybe we can both jump and together we can get all five off the track.)

    When I finally stop asking questions about the scenario, I start asking questions about the question: Do you want to know what I would actually do, or what I think is the right thing to do? Am I supposed to take this scenario literally, or is it a metaphor? Are you interested in the answer, or in the process by which I arrive at it? What if I think this is a morally ambiguous situation with no clear 'right' answer?

    "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

    by kyril on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 02:58:42 PM PDT

    •  Great points! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Actually, the second scenario made me question my response to the first scenario.  

      Five potatoes are worth more than one potato.  But people are not potatoes.

      Love your tagline, BTW

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:34:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  What if you knew the five people are (4+ / 0-)

    convicted serial killers who broke out of prison, the person running away on the alternate track is their escaped hostage, and the large person beside you is your parole officer?

  •  Wow! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    indubitably, LynChi, Febble

    Community spotlight!  Only my third time here.

    Thanks, everyone!

    I posted this, then went away to fix dinner.  I came back to find all these awesome comments.  This place rocks.  It's full of smart, intelligent people.  Thanks to everyone for sharing.

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

    by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:37:26 PM PDT

  •  A different (0+ / 0-) and dad on the bridge...the youngest kid, the 4 year old baby  on one track....the five oldest kids on the other...and all can be saved if both mom and dad jump to their doom.....and both parents have a gun...

  •  Interesting stuff (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mathGuyNTulsa, indubitably

    It's been a few months since I've read it, but IIRC these two scenarios were mentioned in David Eagleman's latest work "Incognito." Also, on the question of appearances, I'm surprised the halo effect hasn't been mentioned yet.

    •  it's relevant (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ssffgr, indubitably

      Maybe you could expand a bit?  Or, better, write a diary on it?  I agree it has bearing on parts of the discussion here.

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 04:34:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I could do, but... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mathGuyNTulsa, indubitably

        unfortunately I'm not at all sure I could add much of anything to the discussion, as I'm nowhere near qualified to write about it. That said, I do find such topics very interesting, and enjoy reading about them. The halo effect, in particular, seems compelling and if you look closely is readily observable around us on a near-daily basis. I'm reading Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow" right now in an effort to learn more about how much we tend to trust our intuitions.

        But again, great diary and welcome aboard

  •  Good diary, wonderful discussion threads (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I will come back later and add my thoughts

    Love = Awareness of mutually beneficial exchange across semi-permeable boundaries. Political and economic systems either amplify or inhibit Love.

    by Bob Guyer on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 04:57:53 PM PDT

  •  And if the choice is to push is a corporation? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Panacea Paola, noice

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 05:09:23 PM PDT

  •  You make up these questions, Mr. Holden, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    liberalagogo, etbnc

    or do they write 'em down for you?

    They're just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they're written down for me. It's a test designed to provoke an emotional response.

    Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree. -Martin Luther

    by the fan man on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 05:36:13 PM PDT

  •  As I understand it, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    as an autodidact as opposed to a professional, the lizard brain or limbic system is a somewhat dated concept with contended constituents, is useful as it relates to evolution. Emotions, urges, impulses, etcetera are old features used to manipulate behaviors toward those benefiting survival and species propagation. Rapid changes in environment will render it somewhat conflicted or outdated to it's purpose until evolution can catch up, time and consistent environment permitting.

    Free University and Health Care for all, now. -8.88, -7.13

    by SoCalHobbit on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 07:35:16 PM PDT

  •  I happen to be a clinical neuropsychologist who (4+ / 0-)

    did research and clinical work with sociopaths, both inside & outside prison.    

    Sociopaths' amygdalas do "light up" when they're in danger of losing something they value or want but not necessarily in anticipation of physical or social punishment.

    Sociopaths' try to take other people's perspective for functional reasons but usually assume that other people are just like them, which is why they often do inexplicably stupid things.  Not everybody has no morals or conscience.  When required to take the perspective of someone unlike themselves or in a contrasting situation, they often or even usually fail.

    Verbal content, non-verbal auditory signals ("prosody"), and non-verbal visual signals are all components of the usual face-to-face (or televised) speech message.  (In most people, the verbal messages are processed mostly in the left hemisphere & don't light up the amygdala unless the content is emotional, and the non-verbals are processed mostly in the right hemisphere & "light up" the amygdala because their content usually contains the emotional overtones of the message.)  

    Leave out one of the three channels and you get peculiar effects.  There's a GREAT article by Oliver Sacks in a (very) old NY Rev. of Books about the different reactions of left-hemisphere-damaged and right-hemisphered-damaged patients to a televised speech by Ronald Reagan.  Both groups of patients thought the speech was nonsensical, but for totally different reasons.  The article's a hoot & well worth the search if  you're interested in this sort of thing.  One of my all-time favorites that I used in MANY classes.

    •  And, though I'm sure you know this (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      (as your scare quotes indicate) "light up" just means that that part of the brain has a statistically significant correlation between blood flow and the experimental stimulus.  

      There is a huge hanging question as to what that actually means, in terms of neural activity, or indeed, in terms of what role that region is playing in whatever mental processes are going on.

      •  Shhhhh -- you don't want to talk about the holes (0+ / 0-)

        in the emperors' clothes.   Cynicism aside, there actually is in many cases a fairly good agreement between what fMRI, PET, etc. studies indicate & what clinical pathology studies show as to what at least the functional role of many cortical regions (e.g., the effects on emotional functioning of lesions in the amygdala [s]).   That said, we are a long way from being able to map out the full interconnections and mutual excitatory & inhibitory interactions of most brain circuits.  

        •  Yes indeed (0+ / 0-)

          and in many ways, fMRI is a heck of a lot better than it has any right to be!

          But it's interesting that structural MRI is coming back into its own (especially with sequences like DTI).  And right now I think MEG is shaping up to be awesome!

  •  I liked your diary. I have thought for a long (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    time that many of the players in the political and media worlds lack empathy and have personality disorders. I think the Golden Rule is simple but so wise and if you try to live by it, your path through life is smoother. It's astonishing to me that so many Republicans are practicioners of the hypocrite rule-Don't do to me what I just did to you.

    48forEastAfrica - Donate to Oxfam> "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." Edna St.V. Millay

    by slouching on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 08:00:15 PM PDT

  •  The difference between Dems and Repub is... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    That the republicans threw democrats off the bridge many many years ago ('80s) while the democrats have repeatedly tried to work with the republicans knowing the broader truth.  It's time to throw them off the bridge.

    •  Prisoner's Dilemma (0+ / 0-)

      That's exactly the game theory problem known at the Prisoner's Dilemma.  I don't have time to blog on it, but it's germane to the point your making.

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:42:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Do the ends ever justify the means? (0+ / 0-)

    I'll admit that I may have more sociopathic tendencies than most.  I don't test that way psychometrically, but I spend more time than most people on moral reasoning problems, and so I'm prone to occasionally respond in unexpected ways.

    So I don't particularly admit a difference between the two train scenarios.  If you're willing to kill one to save five in one scenario, I don't see any reason it wouldn't generalize to the other scenario.  But it's not entirely clear to me that saving five at the expense of one IS a moral choice in either scenario.  Is intervening in the natural order to exchange one tragedy for another (a) morally good, if the second tragedy can be argued to be 'lesser', or (b) a net cancellation of evil with evil, or (c) morally wrong because, for whatever reason, you've intervened and caused the death of someone who wouldn't die?  Do the ends justify the means?  I don't think this is at all clear-cut.

    That said, my own personal morality at this moment dictates that freedom in the universe should be maximized, and so I -think- I would choose to kill one and save five in both instances.  But it's a hard (and interesting) question, and I'm not sure I'll be sticking with that answer in a couple days' time.

  •  Is the "large person" (6+ / 0-)

    Rush  Limbaugh?

    That would make my decision a little easier.

  •  Thanks for the link to the article and your (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    description.  My daughter is studying social/neuroscience and we are fascinated with the understanding developing in the field.  I agree that leaders/psychpaths display a disturbing ability to distance themselves emotionally from others.

    "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." Winston Churchill

    by Catkin on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 10:27:41 PM PDT

  •  Overstating the evidence. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    In the test of picking a photograph, the results do not show that the visual overrides the substantive.

    That would only be the case if all photos had a substantive position attached to them. If the one chosen held a substantive position contrary to the preference of the subject choosing the photograph.

    This is an 'all other factors being equal or equally unknown' proposition. The results do show that the visual cues may influence a decision, but not to the exclusion of other factors.

    •  I thought of that (0+ / 0-)

      If the position attached were, say, marriage rights, the candidate's appearance wouldn't matter in the least to me.  

      I thought of adding that to the post, but I was hoping someone would bring it up in the comments.

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:44:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  scenario 1 is pure math. 2 involves uncertainty (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    the person beside (re)presents uncertainty.

    but the sociopath eg is an extreme that doesn't help figure in the liberal conservative spectrum. a corporation is different. sociopathic. so the study compares people with corporations in terms of brain energy/chemistry.

    the psych studies show cons avoid uncertainty more than liberals (or they NEED certainty more.) the conservative is used to dumping the uncertainty- otherwise the need for certainty turns it into stress and fear.

    The amygdala, sometimes denigrated as our “lizard brain,” is the center of emotion, including empathy.  For sociopaths, there seems to be a difference in the amygdala, whether in function,  magnitude or something else no one knows,  that suppresses the empathic response.
    IMO the sociopath is a bad eg because it is used to ignoring uncertainty/fear (denial). and it is at the extreme end of the spectrum. below is a sum of a study re the amygdala, uncertainty, etc.

    but the spectrum is huge and the problem relates to sex energy as it effects and turns on the amygdala.

    here's another study with reference to amygdala:

    By Agence France-Presse
    Thursday, April 7th, 2011 -- 3:55 pm

    WASHINGTON — Everyone knows that liberals and conservatives butt heads when it comes to world views, but scientists have now shown that their brains are actually built differently.

    Liberals have more gray matter in a part of the brain associated with understanding complexity, while the conservative brain is bigger in the section related to processing fear, said the study on Thursday in Current Biology.

    "We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala," the study said.

    Other research has shown greater brain activity in those areas, according to which political views a person holds, but this is the first study to show a physical difference in size in the same regions.

    "Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual's political orientation," said Ryota Kanai of the University College London, where the research took place.

    "Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure."

    The study was based on 90 "healthy young adults" who reported their political views on a scale of one to five from very liberal to very conservative, then agreed to have their brains scanned.

    People with a large amygdala are "more sensitive to disgust" and tend to "respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions," the study said.

    Liberals are linked to larger anterior cingulate cortexes, a region that "monitor(s) uncertainty and conflicts," it said.

    "Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views."

    It remains unclear whether the structural differences cause the divergence in political views, or are the effect of them.

    But the central issue in determining political views appears to revolve around fear and how it affects a person.

    "Our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty," the study said.

    This is a list of 76 universities for Rush Limbaugh that endorse global warming denial, racism, sexism, and partisan lying by broadcasting sports on Limbaugh radio stations.

    by certainot on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 12:10:46 AM PDT

  •  I read the SciAm article and was fascinated (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    etbnc, mathGuyNTulsa, LynChi, kat herder

    to read what I took to be the main point of the article:

    Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers- a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse and the manipulation of others -- are also shared by politicians and world leaders.-
    The article goes on to describe how these same traits are markers for success in certain fields, like surgeons and CEOs, and the difference between the successful people and the killers are that the antisocial aspects (physical aggression and impulsivity) are dialed higher in the criminals.  

    The article didn't discuss it but my guess is that one's socioeconomic situation also may dictate whether you're a criminal mastermind (on the streets) or a criminal mastermind (in the boardrooms).

  •  I'm late to this thread (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mathGuyNTulsa, kat herder

    but I have a question about the first scenario.  

    What is the classification for people who would decide not to flip the switch?  

    I'm not sure what I would do myself in that situation, but I think there's a strong argument that by flipping the switch and killing the 1 person, you are responsible for a death.  Whereas if you don't flip it, yes 5 people will die, but the cause is unconnected to anything you did.

    Maybe I see it this way because I'm a lawyer.  One thing you learn in law school is that there is no duty to rescue.  If you see someone drowning, even if you can swim & could save them, you have no duty to do so.  But, if you do decide to rescue them, and then during the rescue something goes wrong and they die, you've now taken on the responsibility and could possibly be held at fault.

    Obviously having no legal duty to do something, and feeling an internal moral duty, are very separate.

    although it's getting late, you still have plenty of time

    by maracuja on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:05:11 AM PDT

    •  I like lawyers (0+ / 0-)

      Just so you know.  You keep us out of trouble.

      I hadn't thought of it that way, which is another reason to like lawyers.  Different ways of thinking are helpful.

      Anyway, after I read both scenarios, I came back to question my impulse in the first scenario.  Your reasoning provides a logical and moral basis for doing nothing.  "First to no harm" isn't a bad premise, right?

      Of course, as noted above, the scenarios are artificial. THey are  useful for discussion and maybe for experiment, but not very practical.  

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

      by mathGuyNTulsa on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:49:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Problematic conclusion (0+ / 0-)
    Subjects had nothing else on which to base their choice than appearance: no policy statements, no “character” stories.” Nothing. In over two thirds of the actual elections, the one who looked most capable won.

    That’s terrifying.

    That means that for most people, the actual policies and positions of the candidates don’t seem to matter.

    No, I don't think that's what it means. It's not MOST people from whom policies and positions don't matter; it's just voters who do not vote by party or ideology. These people tend to be low-information voters, so yes, they go by appearance and other superficial crap. In an electorate that is divided between committed ideological blocks of roughly equal size, these low-information voters get to decide election after election. And is probably sufficient to produce the statistical effect you mention. That's one of the drawbacks of our political system: the least-informed voters are unfortunately the most influential.
  •  Very interesting diary. Want to come back to (0+ / 0-)

    it later and follow all the links.  Thanks for posting.

  •  Based on personal experience (0+ / 0-)

    My reaction to both scenarios was that I would run off the g*damned bridge and drag those people off the tracks, and in the second case yell at the big guy to get right behind me! In my experience being in two different situations where people would have died if someone didn't act, the rational brain doesn't have the luxury of making the calculations posited in either scenario.

    In fact, if I'd had the time to listen to my rational brain in either situation, I would have stood by and done nothing (by all indications the person was already dead so there was no point in enlisting the help of others to take risky action to try to save him) or given up (accept the fact that I was drowning and the last ditch effort on the part of bystanders who were putting themselves in harm's way to save me--which required focused cooperation on my part--was beyond a long shot).

    Doesn't research show that in life-threatening situations this is how most people respond--they act without thinking, often putting themselves in harm's way even if the situation appears hopeless? I've been enjoying reading about this research and would love to hear more thoughts about how people respond to real life vs. hypothetical situations like the one described.

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