This post is a review of the talk, “Bad to the Bone: Horrors!–Can Our Genes Help Make Us Act Badly?” by Dr. Barbara Oakley , author of “EVIL GENES- Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend,“ who is on the California leg of the book tour.
I attended the Cal Tech talk, at the Baxter Hall auditorium. The talk started at 2:17 (to be precise) after some remarks from Dr. Michael Shermer, leader of the Skeptics Society the event hosting organization. (Dr. Shermer extemporized about an LA Times editorial criticizing atheists, noting: “40% of Americans believe the earth was created 6000 years ago — about the time the Babylonians invented beer.”)
Dr. Oakley’s talk was what you’d expect if you’d read her book – engaging, educational, and go see her even if you have to drive a long way.
I wanted to see more data, current studies and have the luxury of a real scientist explaining this stuff to me, rather than me putting on hip boots and wading into PubMed by myself and muddling through things.
But that’s not the point. The point is that this is the tipping point: the neuroscience of psychopathy presented for the non-science major crowd. Dr. Oakley brings these concepts mainstream. This talk hits the concepts where most people can access it, without the neuro mumbo jumbo.
Dr. Oakley’s personal experience with her own family of origin clearly clicked with the audience. She tells the story of her sister, who was stricken with polio at a young age, and grew up to have psychopathic tendencies from whatever angle you look at it. Incredibly, her sister kept a diary – and was very articulate. So we see the objective behavior and we understand the subjective thought. Very moving. And disturbing.
Dr. Oakley is far more charitable than I would be, even understanding that psychopathy is caused by an organic deficit, much like, say, mental retardation or addictions. Perhaps because her sister was stricken with polio as a young child, and the virus is known to have neurological residue in parts of the brain relating to attention. A child in an iron lung is a sympathetic figure, even if they do grow up to be holy terrors.
Dr. Oakley also pointed to (and has a horrific personal experience with) Slobodan Milosovitch, the genocidal maniac – - who, when at the World Court and cross examined as to why the bodies of civilians bore marks of torture — replied “I can’t hear you my [translation] headphones aren’t working.”
And that’s the gist of it: psychopaths don’t want to have working headphones. They totally duck introspection.
But, what to do with the slidey scale of free will and personal responsibility?
I think most behaviors are organically caused, yet I blast psychopaths. (See here, “Neurodiversity editorial: Do we have to accept sociopaths?” a post I wrote which was apparently picked up as a rallying cry for sociopaths to feel victimized).
Perhaps there is only limited free will in thought, but there is a volitional acceleration in denying introspection. (I previously wondered if this was sort of anosognosia) .
So maybe that’s the free will component. If you know you have a distorted way of thinking, then you have the knowledge to at least stop it from hurting anyone else. If you choose to just let ‘er rip, well, no diminished capacity for you.
And the talk. Baxter Auditorium was nearly full. (500 people? 1000? I’m a bad judge). People came into a dark lecture hall on a brilliant spring SoCal day. I was initially distracted by Dr. Oakley’s heavy sweater and wanted to say “don’t you know you can’t throw a stone in LA without hitting an image consultant!!!!” but, that’s the Publisher’s PR agent’s job, now, isn’t it? She also needs to de-academic-ize her powerpoints (blue background, bullet points, you know). A more Ken-Burnsian presentation would go over well. I would have liked to seen more brain animations or even some animations explaining why evolution didn’t breed this out of us already (a question from the audience). I’ll wait for the 6 part HBO special.
In the auditorium, I sat about 3/4 of the way up and everyone below me was totally still except for involuntarily nodding their head in recognition of Dr. Oakley’s anecdotes. She had that crowd in the palm of her hand.
She told one anecdote about working in Antarctica. There was a scrawny assistant who would impersonate the big boss when answering the phone, as a power trip. Finally the big boss himself called and busted the assistant. “Who is this?” asked the big boss after the assistant impersonated him on the phone. “Why, it’s you!” said the assistant.
Now, if you know psychopaths, you know they think the truth is relative. It’s what you can get away with. As Bart Simpson said, “You can’t prove it so I didn’t do it.”
The anecdote was doubly interesting for me because while having flaming margaritas up on Sunset a few years ago I met a psychopath who is a screenwriter who actually did a stint in Antarctica. (I asked him why he went to Antarctica, and he said he was trying to impress a girl.) The screenwriter went on to write thrillers about urban areas, but should have written about a psychopath in Antarctica who snows people. Seriously. I’m wondering if that assistant could have been the same person, maybe younger.
About the audience. White. White, white and more white. Lots of seniors. Some students. Faculty-lounge. No African-Americans that I saw, and few people of any color. The midwest starts at Glendale.
I wondered, in advance, if there would be shrinks in the audience who would challenge the neuro- point of view, and Dr. Oakly deserves a medal for diplomacy in that one. (“Shrinks” being shorthand here for lcsw, therapists, counselors, the entire field). The problem is the total lack of data supporting the psychological framework. She started off the lecture by noting that you just can’t do a PubMed on “evil” or “relatives who screw you over” or even the web-hit-wonder “malignant narcissist”. It was validating for me to see that she came upon the term, “Machiavellian” just as I had, as one of the few search terms that actually gets hits. I wish that the shrinks and the neuro-s would get together and agree on some terminology, and lets all just move on with our lives instead of arguing semantics.
But, the lack of PUBMED hits is a symptom of the underlying problem: no data.
People who are sub-clinical, the high-functioning psychopaths or borderline personality (or, “borderpaths”), aren’t seeking help, so they aren’t studied, and that’s that. In fact, the shrinks , don’t recognize these people as being treatment-worthy, usually, until there’s some sort of threshold met. An arrest. A rehab stint. The bread and butter for most shrinks are the people who have been run over by the psychopath/borderline.
I was hoping to see some debate on the shrinks vs. neuro. I think the mental health field is way undereducated, to the point of basically folk medicine. (Remember when ulcers were considered a by-product of anxiety? Nope, we now know its Heliobacter pylori).
The sociological fall out for this is stunning. We get psychopaths in the executive suite because the HR consultant administers Meyers-Briggs or MMPI’s or that ridiculous color-square personality test instead of a brain scan, gene-scan or some other relevant analysis. (A note: the most psychopathic CEO I’ve worked with required his lieutenants to have periodic personality tests and keep those little color-chart things on their desks.) A fiduciary duty to only hire HR consultants who actually assess the BOD or Exec Suite’s neural functioning would go a long way toward preventing this kind of psychopathic self-selection in hierarchical organizations.For that matter, Vegas drive-through weddings should also offer drive-through brain scans, you could keep it in your wedding album. I digress.
Sitting in the audience and looking at the other people I had the impression that the biology of evil is about to break out of academia and into the wild. The scientist establishment has let us down. They are holed up in the faculty lounge arguing about pixels or voxels or the definition of “borderline” or whatever. Dr. Oakley is democratizing of science and getting this information to the rest of us.
(Note: I’m still reading the book, “EVIL GENES- Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend”. So far, the book is an easy read, and the organization is just right. This one goes on the shelf next to “The Sociopath Next Door” — the two together should really be just made of bullet-proof material and sewn into a vest, it’s all most people need to know about dealing with psychopaths/sociopaths in their own lives. )