A Moral Sketch of Psychopaths

In psychopathy intention plays an integral role in the observers evaluation of the moral weight of the psychopaths actions.

So a psychopath slices and dices a person up. Is the psychopath wrong. Well, consequentialism would tell us yes, duty would tell us yes, and so would utilitarianism.

But, his motives may have been largely determined. Such that, an incapacity for moral autonomy decreases the ethical weight of motive in the context of an ethical crime.

This understanding of a psychopaths moral autonomy only serves the purpose of developing the idea of choice. That choice depends upon many different things. For psychopaths, the choice is comparatively very narrow.

Living things have certain biological needs. Humans have a biological need to eat. That need is reflected in us evolutionarily as a desire (explain complexity of that need-desire relationship). Yet we only call eating in certain contexts a ‘choice’.

A choice is presented when there are two or more options, reflected in one or more alternatives. In respect to people eating, there aren’t generally any choices (irrespective of feeding tubes, liquid diets, supplements etc…). The alternative to not-eating increasingly grows in complexity, leading up to fatality. If you choose not to eat once, the consequence is hunger. So the options are ‘don’t eat’ or ‘eat-later’, or ‘be hungry’ (without any plans to eat later). The third choice, is almost never a choice – because eating is a need, the third option represents an implicit understanding or admission that food si readily available, and so the choice to eat has still been made (eating later). If you repeatedly ‘chose’ not to eat, over time, you will suffer and eventually die. So in that sense, eating isn’t a choice, it’s a need.

Needs are reflected in people internally as a very compelling requirement – as a non-option (you have to do it). If you were to apply the same logic used above for ‘choice’ to ‘needs’, for the individual the options would be: a) fulfill need-requirement, or b) die. Needs represent vital biological requirements an individual must meet to survive. They are quantifiable in the life of an organism. If the needs aren’t met, there are consistent, and obvious biological implications. (There are social needs as well, but we don’t have to get into them for this explanation.). Needs are the function nature uses to awake awareness within an organism or individual.

It’s possible that for some people, certain things are biologically encoded as needs which do not represent a vital biological requirement, but are gross exaggerations of other needs taken to extremes. For instance, we can all agree that organisms have needs that positively increase with the organisms complexity, the communities complexity and the complexity of it’s environment. So things like ‘competition’ which isn’t a vital biological requirement to keep an organism alive in isolation, become vital needs in the context of a community. In certain environments (most, actually) competition is required for survival. Other needs will then act on that need depending on the environmental cues. If food is at stake, the need for competition increases. If a mate is at stake, the need for competition increases. Those needs then will evolve into requiring other needs. So aggression becomes a need in certain circumstances. (These needs can be represented giving increasing and decreasing primacy (primary, secondary etc…)


In psychopaths, it’s been consistently demonstrated that certain things distinguish them from any average representative in a given population of humans. They tend to be male, have a reduction in non-verbal communication, empathy, cortical dysfunctions (prefrontal cortex and amygdala), higher-than-normal levels of testosterone (there are other correlates as well) as well as certain personality traits (narcissism, a-social, detachment etc…). What all of these things share in common is that they express a decrease in the individual for a capacity of what we would call ‘free-choice’. To the Psychopath, killing, hurting, is a need. It comes at a cost – ‘choosing’ is as compelling as eating.

In the psycopath, choice is subjectively, as well as objectively, expressed far differently than in the general population. This effect has a noticeable effect on psychological functioning, on survival, on mental health and well-being, on happiness, and on morality. It’s grossly dysfunctional, but in the context of morality, whether or not the psychopath can be judged as similarly as a ‘normal’ average person (a morally autonomous individual) is still up for debate. This is particularly confusing giving the extreme weight of the moral violations which are so common to psychopaths. The crimes represent moral polarities, and so the need for conviction in our moral outrage is high. But I think this added complexity needs to be matched with added complexity – if we’re to establish some equilibrium. Or else we risk losing sight of our moral philosophy and the principles that cement it to our reality.

For a psychopath, the intention to do harm is not present like it would be in someone like myself. I understand the consequences of a wrong action, and so if I am motivate just to hurt someone, than I am intending to be immoral. For psychopaths, it’s much different.


Our Obsession With Pathology.

When the ill try to recover, what is it they are trying to recover from? Is a depressed woman trying to overcome depression? Or is she trying to move past her memories? Perhaps she’s trying to work with her genes and neurochemistry to find some sort of balance. No matter what we name the object of our struggle, I think that there is little benefit to focusing on the pathology itself. I’m not suggesting we pretend as if everything is okay; ‘fake it ’till you make it’. I’m simply suggesting that it is much easier to overcome a problem if you look at that problem in terms of its parts, rather than obsessing over the whole (common sense stuff, yet it is still something we all continue to do). We must set a succession of reasonable goals to achieve; we cannot overcome ‘depression’ all at once; however, if you concentrate on the whole pathology, that’s precisely what you’re trying to do. (I chose depression because mental illness is uniquely suiting, although this principle applies with relative ease to many of our problems).

When an army of soldiers stands on the battlefield waiting for the fighting to commence, would it benefit each soldier to think of the battle, of the war, in terms of its most general abstractions? Would they perform to the best of their abilities if they looked at the army opposing them as one strong, stolid body of fearless men? Or perhaps it would be more wise instead to replace  the army itself with the individual soldiers, and those individuals whom one soldier is likely to meet on the field of battle. Or to the individual battles, and objectives.

The same is true of disease, disorder and disarray. It is also uniquely true to mental illness. When a patient attempts to overcome her depression, it would benefit her little to immerse herself absolutely in that bold, unforgiving world; talking to only depressed people, reading literature on only depression, thinking only of depression. If she befriends only those with depression, her whole life will be infected with the gray dullness of depression; and it will only continue to grow until all the light is gone. They will swap stories about their struggle, about how hard it is, and about how little people understand – what good can come of that, if that is all the talk you are having? She will develop certain behaviors via operant conditioning, and will regress rather than move forward. Instead, focus on overcoming in stages, and battling back. Focus all your energy on a positive object and fill your life with hope. Depressed people are not well suited for a rallying cry. If she reads only depression, she will most likely read of the symptoms – which are all bad. She will read also of the causes, which are mostly deterministic – which will steal her volition. If she thinks only of depression, while depressed, do you think it likely her mind will find and focus upon happy, hopeful thoughts? Instead, distract yourself when you notice you’re doing poorly, fight as often as you can, and never give up hope.  In this respect, the human will is also uniquely self limiting, and one of the most peculiarly frustrating aspects of life, and of our existence as a species of sentient beings. Because our emotions exercise tremendous influence toward the direction of our thoughts, and those thoughts either motivate, or discourage us. It is our motivation which fuels our will, and our discouragement which saps it dry.

Instead, focus on overcoming the depression, rather than living with it. Trust me, the longer you live with it, the more complacent you become. And the more complacent you become, the more you live as it.

I have ADHD, but it is only now that I am most free of my ADHD. It isn’t simply that I am unaware or somehow distracted of my symptoms, or of its effects. It’s almost as if I am in remission – or at least have a firm hold on normality. I am chronically ill, so my attention and drive is focused elsewhere. I also no longer think of my ADHD often, see a doctor for my ADHD, or medicate myself for my ADHD. I read little literature on the subject, and do even less research. I do not communicate with communities of like minded individuals.

When you focus all of your attention on a negative force in your life, that object’s shadow grows darker and looms broader; its weight seems at times unbearable.

For people with any illness, defining yourself by the pathology which plagues you will not help you. When I was at the height of my ADD journey, my Depression journey and my EDS journey, the definitions of the disorders became so engrained in who I was it was, that it was almost as if I took on the form of those diseases and disorders themselves. They were negative, and I delegated a portion of my being as its representative. I cannot will the disease itself to go away – in all likelihood, it will always be around somewhere. If I define myself by a negative, permanent thing, how am I ever supposed to recover?

Do you think its more valuable to define your disorder in terms of the pathology, or rather define your struggle in terms of an object which has little to do with the disorder itself (perhaps that object is being healthy, or not being incredibly sad, or being able to read a book cover to cover without slipping away)? When we try to recover, the will to recover is the most important and powerful force at our disposal. Some have refined, strong wills, and still others are weak willed. We have to focus on our strength, not on the danger and the power of the affliction. We cannot either think of the disorder in terms of a general abstraction. We must take it in steps (if I do aX, I will move myself to stage-1). Its much easier to ascend the face of depression when we give ourselves more than one try.

Are you afraid of being afraid?

The property which causes that sudden feeling of dread when confronted with a painful or stressful situation is anticipation. We are very symbolic beings. Our neocortex alone dedicates millions upon millions of neurons to the task of recognizing patterns; and almost double that number are redundancy neurons which are tasked with recognizing patterns of patterns. When we experience a stressful or painful event, our minds work to symbolize that event, and encode context specific patterns. Any stimulus involved in that event is further associated into that symbolism. As a result, we don’t just experience one stressful and fearful event. We experience thousands of different versions of that very same event. Over time, we begin to consciously recognize this confluence: dread sets in.

We match up this event consciously with representative standards in order to solve the pressing problem stress is meant to create: can we overcome, or do we have to adapt? As a result, if the event (which is now more of a state) in question becomes a stable state of existence, and that state is grossly disproportionate to societal standards, we begin to mourn.

The initial assessment and span of time required to encode and regulate redundancies and consciously digest all the necessary information just simply must be endured. Yes it’s going to suck and it most definately will have a negative impact on your quality of life. All things being equal, I would hope that this wouldn’t happen to anyone. But all things aren’t equal, and so this stuff does happen, and it happens at an alarming rate – for some, at such an alarming rate they cannot find the ability to cope and instead take their lives. You cannot change the fact that it does happen, and you should not change the fact that you become familiar with it. Most people will catastrophize and admit defeat; they believe they are destined for a life of misery and pain. But the only way they can really ‘know’ what misery and pain entail is by matching what they’re experiencing with generic standards. They mourn based upon the difference between the two.

Let’s say it was the norm for a people of a certain society to be blind. In our world, we view blindness as a disability, but in this particular society, it is the norm. If a sighted person became blind in our society, but was informed of another society where it was the norm, is it possible his coping skills would improve? You can obviously make the claim that objectively having sight is better than not having sight, always. Healthy people living in our world with no visual disabilities are absolutely happy and content. Why? Well, because as far as they know, they are at the apex of what we call the ‘generic standards’. Lets imagine some time in the distant future we gain the ability to communicate telepathically, to see and think on a quantum level, and never die. A person living now at the height of his health is relatively satisfied. Lets further suggest even that this person knows he will probably live forever (life extension therapies are available which will ensure his foreseeable lifespan). We can all probably agree this is an ideal scenario and probably accurately guess at this persons sense of well-being. Lets take this person and place them in the future. In the future, remember, people can think telepathically, have incredibly advanced IQ’s, never die, have none of the pratfalls of human biology, and can think at a quantum level. Would that man be happy living there, and then? I doubt it. I think he would be as miserable as the man living in our world without eyesight, or the woman who cannot move anything below the waist.

What I’m playing at is an existential interpretation of illness and disability, rather than a cultural and societal one based upon norms and averages. When we are ill and afraid our minds conjure horribly unbearable emotions and force us into the darkest corners of the most depressing scenarios. The causes of these phenomena are varied and impossibly complex. But for once that complexity does not hint at a mindless fatalism. We think in averages and problem solve with patterns. We are symbolic and allegorical creatures with a knack for intuition and emotional reasoning, but we kind of stink at calculating the cold hard facts. We label realists as unemotional robots (a title I have been affably given, many times…) and praise idealists with their deep insight. The answer isn’t a ‘balance of the two’ – which seems to have become the catch-all category for people who don’t really want to think too hard about the problem. Offering a banal ying-yang response to a complex question fundamentally presupposes that the two poles in question are the only two poles… and further that they are also the correct poles. That’s not always the case, and particularly in this situation it is definitely not the case. In this situation, dealing with fear and with expectations and mourning, the answer comes in the form of a question: why is standard upon which your fears are based the only possibly and necessary situation? Is it really the only possible state of existence? Is it possible things could have evolved differently? Is it possible we could experience pain way differently than we currently do? And death? And why does the thought of death ‘objectively qualify’ feelings of absolute terror – possibly the most aversive feeling in the world. The answer is that it one hundred percent does not. Death is the zenith of symbolic thought. We have absolutely no clue, subjectively, what death entails. And so since we don’t have even a marginally accurate redundancy for death, our patterns will be based solely upon weak metaphor and general symbolism. When we think of death thoughts like darkness and night-time and space, and cold come to mind, accompanied by feelings like ‘where’s mommy’ and ‘someone save me’.

Death is further qualified by the notion that it is inherently bad. But how is it? If it weren’t for death, there would literally be no new life, or any life at all. You are hear reading this only because trillions of ‘things’ died so that you could be here, at this particular moment of terrestrial time. There’s a certain feeling of endowed responsibility and pride in that thought, isn’t there? Further, what is greater in our universe, life or non-life? Non-living things, to be sure. There are more atoms and molecules and mass collections of ‘stuff’ out there than there are complex life forms. There is also more ‘darkness’ than there is ‘light’ – which is another great example of our weak symbolism and metaphor. Darkness is not inherently scary. That being said, place the bravest man in a dark room with loud haunting, staccatto noises and he will surely experience fear.

The point is simple: you qualify your feelings of fear by searching for standards with which to compare your situation to. The problem is in the limited number of standards we can come up with and find, and the definition of standards itself. Human emotion plays us and convinces us that the proof is in the feeling. Next time you’re feeling afraid, think of how that situation may be not a bad situation, or may be a different situation. If you can think of a way in which the painful or stresful situation, in some possible thought experiment, could be good, or at least not as bad, than I assure you your fear will lose a tremendous amount of its potency.

At the end of the day, death is still bad and pain still sucks. We will all face those two things at one point in our lives or another. You do not have to give in to them and they are not the only states of existence out there. You have a choice to change the way you experience them, existentially and phenomenologically  by altering the way you go about thinking about them. Unfortunately society and religion have come together to define what good states of existence are and what negative states of existence are. To Christians, having a healthy body is good, and having an unhealthy one is bad – and usually implies some evil or past transgression. Let me tell you right now that that is fucking bull-shit. It’s a consequence of poor thought and an irrational attachment to cultural tradition. The standards society forces on us can have an unconscious  and profound effect on how you cope with just shitty situations. If you are courageous and strong, and you can bear out the initial stages, you will find a way to adapt. If you think about what I have written for a little bit each time you are faced with a shitty situation, you’ll find yourself adapting to different patterns and experiencing a higher level of peace and satisfaction.

Philosophy of Virtue: prudence and fear (part 1)

The key to fear isn’t any one thing. It isn’t some misdirected sense of courage and honor, abstaining completely from any thought or any pretense of thought pertaining to fear.Luca_Giordano_014 Neither is it giving yourself completely to fear, hoping to learn some invaluable truth by totally offering yourself up to its unforgiving arms.

The key to fear is balance, it’s harmony.

For the longest time I have been vacillating between those two poles. At the one end stands this stolid creature, unwavering and immovable; ready to take on any and all fearful things. And at the other a man who for all intents and purposes appears completely absorbed by his fear, absolutely and completely entrenched.

Both of these ways of addressing fear and living with fear are imprudent and incomplete, but few of us ever understand why. Our society offers up these binary oppositions to us all the time. This time it’s what a man facing his fears should look like, and what a man facing his fears should not. It’s a lie, though; I can tell you from first hand experience that neither work – that is, they are not inherently useful.

So lets take a brief moment to look at our options (options as dictated by society and the media):

  • Option A, distance yourself from feeling fear.
    • entails reckless abandon (only not the romantic type).
    • It involves abandoning your feelings and never thinking about the harsh realities of life
    • It is by definition passive, non-action. It does not entail an active attempt to control fear. 
  • Option B, give in to fear
    • entails, for the most part, a pathological need, an insatiable desire, to obsess and ruminate over all the negative possibilities.
    • It is defined by catastrophising

Society favors option a. It’s clean, it’s easy to mimic,  and it inspires a generic sense of hope. The only problem is, it’s nearly impossible to meet the standards required for execution; or at the very least, it is entirely draining, leaving little room to ride on horseback across the desert shooting Indians or lead the vanguard on Stalingrad.  Some can play this game, but they have won a certain type of genetic lottery. The point is, it talks of reachable conditions nearly impossible to replicate in the average joe’s life.

In response to the impossible nature of option A, most people romanticize their own journey with fear (which usually parallels option b). They talk about addressing your own fears and emotions and sharing those fears and emotions. They say this is ‘healthy’ and ‘it’s what real men, with real  courage do’ (I realize the irony in using the masculine form… but I can only include so many layers of analogy). They talk about their struggles with obsessing and catastorphizing as if they were desirable. They are playing the same game they lost at; pretending they’re something they’re not because facing that fact is too hard.

The real key to fear isn’t option a or option b, nor is it c, d, e, or f. The key to fear is just a balance. It requires wisdom and knowledge to keep yourself afloat.

For the longest time I have been trying to find a way to rid myself of fear altogether. I have been trying to find some nice clean-cut category to fit everything into. I wanted to say ‘fear is totally bad, and we are all better off without it, completely’, or I wanted to say ‘fear is totally good, it was the driving force behind evolution’. But it’s a balance. It’s more nuanced and subtle than any one cliché allows.

In order to get the upper hand on fear, we have to be constantly on guard and diligent with what goes on in our lives. We have to know when to let go, and when to hang on.

There is no such thing as good stress, or good fear. Eustress is a lie, and fear and stress are always bad. So long as we live in this ‘broken’ (I use that word very lightly, and so not in the same way a Christian would) world, we will always have to deal with that fact. One day I hope that we live in a world where no one has to suffer or fear. But until that day comes, all we can do is distance ourselves from fear when appropriate, and try to control ourselves when we need to face it.

I know how obvious this sounds, but look inward into your own life. How many of you are able to successively balance fear? Or have even recognized addressing fear as a scale rather than a categorical imperative? It’s easy to read through this and go ‘oh yeah, that’s just obvious’. Many of the structures in our lives are characterized by an equilibrium, not these black and white categories (shades of grey).

Most of us think in black and white terms, but be diligent for fear is a mix of good and bad. We cannot rid our lives of fear totally, but sometimes fear can save our lives (when we find Allegory of Prudenceourselves in an area plagued by some viral disease, fear makes us diligent and helps us avoid situations which might land us in our death-bed). I’m sure most of us have encountered this evolutionary argument for fear, and anyone who has graduated high-school has learned about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, of fight-or-flight. Fear in non-conscious beings is a great blessing; it turns on when there is a threat, informing the animal of immanent danger. In a way, fear bridged the gap between non-consciousness and consciousness; its the first form of artificial intelligence. But it’s not such a great thing in us conscious beings. We can think and that has proven oftentimes much more vice than virtue.

We cannot evaluate every aspect of every situation, and so fear kicks in and instinctively promotes an adequate response. The problem, is that for the most part people don’t live in conditions requiring around the clock diligence anymore, and so fear has mixed with consciousness, forming this ionic bond – weighted heavily in favor of conscious fear. Our conscious thoughts create this dense mine-field around the central kernel, the real threat. We spend most of our time navigating that minefield trying to reach that kernel, and identify that real threat. The problem is, we rarely get there, but we’re almost always stuck somewhere outside the gates.

We can talk about two different formats of fear: unconscious fear and conscious fear. Unconscious fear  is the form of fear produced by natural selection in order to keep us alive; it is reflexive and instinctive, rarely consciously initiated. Then we have conscious fear; cognitively based, produced by thoughts we create (often takes the form of obsessive rumination and catastrophising) carrying varying degrees of epistemic value. If you’re anything like me, you find yourself afraid of the most trivial things; losing a pen or paper, wasting time, spilling a drink. We understand the function of fear (to keep us alive), but our biology wreaks havoc on the rest of our lives. The ratio of unconscious to conscious fear is sharply titled in bias towards cognition. The problem isn’t any one format, the problems arise when both are at play.

For the time being, all we can do is control our conscious fear. We cannot control our unconscious fear, and nor should we. There aren’t many problems associated with unconscious fear. The problems, again, arise when we start thinking of all the negative possibilities. We have to learn to respond to unconscious fear with instinct and intuition, not with conscious fear, worrying and obsessing. We can learn to allocate a certain degree of distress depending on how threatening a particular situation is.

Exercise prudence:

  • compare the risks of failure 
  • the rewards of success
  • the odds of success.

In respect to fear, the risk of failure could mean death, humiliation, losing social status or financial wealth. The rewards are various and generally universal. This all hinges on the odds of success. That might seem odd, talking about fear, but if we take a different perspective it makes more sense.

The odds of success can mean one thing or another, depending on the perspective you take. You could look at it in respect to the odds the outcome you picture through fear will come to fruition. Or the odds you will be able to control fear.

Allocating attention to distressing emotions depends on these three key things, but most importantly, the odds of success. Ask yourself “what are the odds this fear will be successful” . If you’re afraid of public speaking, and more specifically afraid that you will mess up and lose respect of your friends and colleagues, calculate how likely this is to happen. You can quickly form and test beliefs for each specific situation (fear of speaking generally, or of losing respect to friends or the public more specifically). With more general, conscious fears, the outcome need not be known (there is more epistemic wiggle room). But when it comes to something as precious as your life, you should take a little extra time with your addition and subtraction. A good rule of thumb is not to use belief as a truth-bearer.

When it comes to fear, generally ‘mums the word’. However, upon closer inspection, we find the walls of these traditional archetypes quickly fall away, revealing a vast array of different approaches to fear, and different definitions of what fear is. Some look at fear as a process or a unique entity. I take a secular humanist approach to my analytics, so I opt for the definition which says fear are, not is – that is, that fears exist, and that fear is just the collective abstraction, not a distinct entity. The key here is nuance and prudence. Nuance in understanding ourselves, and prudence in how we respond. Fear is not an entity, but a product of our biology, and the thoughts we create. Fear seems very real and is often very crippling, but it is not fear that brings us down, it is our fears… and we can control those.

There is hope, both that one day we will live in a world without fear, and that we have the tools at hand to respond with control and resolution to fear.

The old man smiled. ‘I shall not die of a cold, my son.  I shall die of having lived.” 

-Willa Cather, Death Comes For The Archbishop.

Fight or Flight

It seems to me that we suffer under the illusion that panic and anxiety enhance our problem solving in times of crisis and duress. Like that gripping, tight feeling of panic when your confronted by a potvaliant bare-knuckle brawler you accidentally eyed at the bar, who now wants to knock the living shit out of you, or when you’ve fallen ill. Or the moment you realize accidentally did send that text to that person you didn’t want to send that text to. We are deluded in believing that giving in to that feeling of fear helps us; but it’s easy. And fuck me if in that moment our bodies sure don’t make a good case for it. But it’s not.

Lets take a pragmatic approach: fear is important. Fight or flight is important. Not giving in to the psychological manifestations of panic, the prolonged shadow of fear, is something everyone has to learn how to do; that is, everyone who wants a happy life. If you die tomorrow, and you spent the last year worried straight, especially when you didn’t have cause to always worry, you’ll feel like you never had the chance to live. Listen to fear. Flee when necessary and fight when possible. But never give in to panic. Don’t spend all of your days worrying and afraid. listen to what your body is telling you, respond, but don’t for a second believe that your body knows exactly what its doing. Life is nothing if not imperfect.

All worldviews agree: fear is a manifestation of weakness and a vestige of our past. I’m not religious. I believe in the order of science; I believe in cartesian doubt. I believe in classical theory and romantic theory. I believe what I think is believable.

Evolution paints a grim picture of existence, depending how you look on it; in this instance, it sheds light exactly where we can’t see.

We also live under the delusion that right now, this point of history, is super important. I’d wager everyone ever believed the exact same thing. Conscious beings place themselves, their time, at the center of the universe. Why? Because we are the center of our universe. Sure we can consider a priori knowledge, but its a posteriori that has the greatest influence over how we act an behave, what we choose to believe, and what we choose not to.

We think that we are the culmination of billions of years of natural selection and evolution. And in a way we are. But fuck me if it ends here. Were just one small dot on a giant non-linear graph. We will evolve further. Millions of years from now, who knows what we’ll be. Or even if we will be.

You may be wondering how that at all helps us with fear; I just told you that your not that important, and that most of what you believe is horse-shit – encouraging stuff… really. This information carries with it the weight of a promise. A promise that so long as things do stay alive, they will tend towards positive progression; they will get better.

Our response to fear is a conditioned response and a programmed response. We have been given the gift of consciousness. That’s the meaning of life, the beauty of it all. That’s why we think that our lives, right now, as your reading this, are of some grand plot – things are going to end with me…. We an change our lot in life. We can be the force of natural selection. Sure there are limitations to what we can do, but so long as we are conscious and capable of rational inquiry, we can surely change our selves – who we are.

the only thing lately that imbues me with a deep sense of confidence is this very fact: that our ‘calling’ is to self-evolve. To take humanity from the weak fucking subordinate position it currently resides in, and elevate that to the tip of the fucking world. That’s what Nietzsche was all about too. Everyone thought he was a weak crazy man, and Christian crackpots love saying he was a deluded schizoid, but he knew exactly who he was, and what he had to do.

Our natural response to fear is to panic. To curl up. Why? Because we associate whatever is causing the fear with its potential negative consequence; the harm it will cause us. Fear is like a phone call or a fax; fear is only a mediator. It is not real. Fear tells us that harm is coming. It’s aversive because it must warn us not to engage. Panic is the opposite; it is non-engagement. So when we panic, we think that we have separated ourselves from the conflict. Panic is also just a mediator. It’s also potent because it has to get our attention. Fight or flight. And this is the psychology of it; the romantic interpretation. Lets look at the classical interpretation.

Take a grazing zebra, for example. Say the Zebra catches a stalking predator in its periphery; the stress response is activated. In order to escape from the predator, the zebras body has to expend intense muscular effort and energy. The sympathetic nervous system activates to provide for these needs (panic). In response to a novel stimuli perceived to be dangerous, the locus coeruleus releases  catocholamine hormones (epinephrine norepinephrine) to fuel the immediate physical reactions, the often violent muscular action.

Fear is complicated and dense; our understanding of all its underpinnings and extensions and interactions will come only with time. In the meantime we have to deal with the problem at hand. If we want to have an enjoyable life, we have to be courageous. It will be hard, and it will take extreme effort; it will be the very hardest thing you ever have to do. But with a little wisdom, a little time and a lot of balls, we can look death in the face and say fuck you; we can turn stress, into eustress. And take any negative situation and turn it into a challenge.

It’s trite and slightly banal, but why wouldn’t you want to try? Why would anyone want to live their lives curled up in a ball, fearful of whatever comes their way? No one does. They just think there’s no way out; their lot is cast and that’s it – there’s nothing left to do. Wrong, as long as you’re still conscious, you can still fight. And I’d rather die fighting to live, than die in a confused panicky stupor… which is where we are all headed if we don’t man-up. This is the key. Listen to the panic; let it say its peace, and tell you what’s the matter, but don’t let it set up camp. Kick it out. Take all that stress and transform it into eustress. Your body is still telling you something is wrong, you’re not going around delusionally believing everythings perfectly fine and kicking all bad thoughts out, you’re just subtracting panic; you’re taking away the aversive feelings. Those are great for the savannah – but were not living on the savannah. Lets replace panic and the subjective feeling we call ‘fear’ with eustress. Lets face fear and stress with a smile and a shit-ton of determination. Everyone is going to die. Lets do it fucking epically!

The Fundamental Attributional Error:

300px-Social_Psychology_Definition_3Almost every day I am grateful that I took that Social Psychology course when I did. Every day I am faced with a situation that I now know I would never have been able to properly deal with if it weren’t for the real eye opener that is social psych; conflict with my doctor, with a random stranger, with a family member or friend. Social psychology is a fast growing branch of Psychology, and a discipline so expansive I could dedicate my life to studying and still only understand and know a small fraction – and I consider myself at least marginally clever. Although this knowledge awards me the humbling task of checking my own biases, human cognition is nothing if not mercurial.

There is one phenomenon that tends to stand above the rest for me, that is the ‘Fundamental Attributional Error‘ (FAE, for short). FAE is just one example of what is called ‘attribution theory (the study of how we infer the causes of other people’s behaviour). Fritz Heider, the patriarch of attribution theory, posited that most people without thinking engage in ‘naive’ or ‘commonsense’ psychology. He says, basically, that we are all amateur scientists, trying to understand other people’s behavior and tying that information into a reasonable explanation – he was intrigued by  how people come to those conclusions.

In general, we don’t always have a very overarching understanding of our environment. In life, it’s rare for anyone to spend most of their time in familiar territory, with controlled conditions. Our environments are always changing, and there are always new, unfamiliar stimuli to process. We tend to think we know ourselves fairly well, and often project that picture onto other people. People generally prefer to attribute internal attributions over external ones. While quite often both are possible, we tend to try to explain things in terms of the person in question, not the environment. It’s possible that we are so focused on the person, that the situation is often overlooked. It is called the Fundamental Attributional Error because even though situational factors obviously could play a role in a scenario, we tend to choose to explain people’s behaviors in terms of internal characteristics; they’re dumb, they’re mean, they can’t drive etc…

Basically, the FAE is a tendency to overstate the value of stable, dispositional personality characteristics (internal factors) to explain observed objective behavior in others, and undervalue situational, environmental factors (external factors). The FAE is often conflated with the ‘Correspondance Bias‘ – which I’ll cover in another post – but the two are very different. Where the correspondence bias looks at attribution in general, the FAE looks for inconsistencies and  bias towards attributing internal versus external factors.

As a general rule, or heuristic (which I’ll cover in another post), we generally tend to put ourselves in the best light possible, while portraying others in a less than favourable one – again, thus putting us in the best light possible. Take that natural law!

for example:

When your teacher hands back a math test during class, you ask your friend what he got; he shows you that he received a C. You automatically find yourself looking for stable, internal factors to explain why he did so poorly; he’s not so smart, he’s not very good at memorizing, he must not be good at math. You over sell things that he has no control over – stable parts of his personality, who he is – while at the same time undervaluing any and all situational factors.

It’s important to remember that most of the time we are left totally in the dark when it comes to another person’s environment. Even if that person is a very close friend, a loved one or even a spouse, we may not know how certain things in their environment affected them, nor are we cognizant of all of the environmental and situational factors that went in to shaping who they are as a person today. So what, if any, information is left?

Perceptual salience is the prevailing factor when it comes to making attributions and falling ‘victim’ to the FAE. Basically it can be defined as ‘information that is the focus of people’s attention’. Functionally, we tend to attach more causal weight to perceptually salient information when making attributions than to any other information. People, not the environment or the situation, are perceptually salient. We see, hear, and smell people, and so its logical to conclude that people, not the environment are the cause of the observed behavior.

In a seminal study by Shelly Taylor and Susan Fiske (1975), two participants were asked to take part in a study in which they would engage in a ‘get acquainted’ conversation. The two ‘participants’ were actually research confederates (actors who were in on the study), but seated around the ‘actors’ were actual research participants (observers) asked to watch the conversation and then afterwards briefly fill out a survey. The participants seated around the two actors were strategically placed.

Tayler and Fiske (1975) FAE_edited-1

To demonstrate Perceptual Salience, they asked the observers specific questions after the conversation was completed. Observers C and F reported that Actor B initiated the conversation and ‘took the lead’. whereas Observers A and D reported Actor A chose the topics and lead the conversation. Observers E and B claimed that it was fairly even; both actors engaged eachother and steered the conversation evenly.

As a result of this experiment, we have a better picture of what influences peoples thought processes. The information we select and the information we choose to ignore is the information that is perceptually salient to us.

Finally, we follow a two-step process of attribution when committing the fundamental  attributional error: firstly, we make an internal attribution; we assume a person’s behavior is due to internal factor. Secondly, we attempt to balance that attribution by considering information from the situation the person was in.

However, we often don’t adjust our attributions enough in the second step, and rush to a conclusion. Why? Well because we are often distracted and preoccupied, and because the second step takes conscious effort and work, whereas the first step is reflexive and intuitive.

We can correct our attributional errors and side-step the FAE into more sagacious territory. All we have to do is take a moment to step away from the situation and take in all the information, not just that which is perceptually salient to us. But how many of us have the time or motivation to do that at a red-light when the driver behind honks his horn at you and flips you the bird?

My only advice is this: in very important situations, or in not so important situations with very important people: stop, take a moment and think on all the information before you make a judgement. If you do this, more times than naught, you will find that the opinions you held of people so firmly before, weren’t entirely accurate.

Source: Aronson et al., Social Psychology, 2011.

Emotional Cognition: Self-Defeating Beliefs (SDB)

A List of Some Common Self-Defeating Beliefs (SDB).

I find myself frequently falling victim to these beliefs. What I’ve found tremendously helpful is to read through this list when I’m going through any sort of significant emotional turbulence; anger, sadness, depression, fear etc…

C.S. Lewis said “It is not reason that takes away my faith. On the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and my emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side, and imagination and emotion on the other”.

Faith doesn’t have to mean a religious conviction (it isn’t so for me). You can have faith that your doctor is telling the truth when he tells you you’re going to be okay. Or you can have faith that when your significant other tells you that they love you, they’re not lying. You can have faith about virtually anything. The problems come about when we forget that the content of our faith is true, and we let our imagination and emotions control our beliefs and our reasoning.

  • Brushfire Fallacy
    • People are clones who all think alike. If one person looks down on me, the word will spread like brushfire and soon everyone will.
  • Spotlight Fallacy
    • Talking to people is like having to perform under a bright spotlight. If I don’t impress them by being sophisticated, witty, or interesting, they won’t like me.
  • Magical Thinking
    • If I worry enough, everything will turn out okay.
  • Entitlement:
    • you should always treat me the way I expect.
  • Fear of Rejection:
    • If you reject me it proves there’s something wrong with me. If I’m alone, I’m bound to feel miserable and worthless.
  • Approval Addiction:
    • I need everyone’s approval to feel worthwhile.
  • Over-generalization:
    • You view a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. You may tell yourself, “this always happens” or “I’ll never get it right”.
  • Mental Filter:
    • You dwell on the negative details, such as an error you made, and ignore all the other things you did right.
  • Discounting the positive:
    • You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count.
  • Jumping to Conclusions:
    • You jump to conclusions that aren’t warranted by the facts. There are two types:
  • 1. Mind reading: Assuming people are being terribly judgmental and looking down on you.
  • 2. Fortune telling:You tell yourself something terrible is about to happen. For example: tonight I’m going to die of Sleep Apnea.
  • Magnification and Minimization:
    • You either blow things way out of proportion, or shrink their importance. You see your negative qualities as huge as mount Everest, but then looking through the binoculars backwards, you see your positive attributes as tiny and far away.
  • Emotional Reasoning:
    • You reason from how you feel. Such as, I feel afraid of death, therefore I’m going to die.
  • Should Statements:
    • You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds,” “shouldn’ts,” “oughts,” “musts,” and “have-to’s.” For example, “I shouldn’t feel so shy and nervous. What’s wrong with me?”
  • Labeling:
    • You generalize from a single flaw or shortcoming to your entire identity. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you label yourself as “a loser.” This is an extreme form of over-generalization.