Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Psychopath Cowboys; Sociopath Herds: A New Theory of How Evil Happens
If you want a simple but accurate explanation for why civilization so often veers toward evil, here's a theory worth considering: Psychopaths are overrepresented in positions of power and they make sociopaths out of large numbers of us.

Robert Hare, psychology's most famous expert on psychopaths distinguishes psychopaths from sociopaths as follows.

Psychopaths are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves ... Sociopathy is not a formal psychiatric condition. It refers to patterns of attitudes and behaviors that are considered antisocial and criminal by society at large, but are seen as normal or necessary by the subculture or social environment in which they developed.

 After WWII, many people suspected that there might be something about the German temperament that made them so willing to comply with Hitler's orders to hurt fellow humans. In one of psychology's most famous experiments Stanley Milgram demonstrated that most of us, regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality will readily comply with an authority figure's instructions to hurt fellow humans.

In Milgram's experiment a man in a white lab coat instructed subjects to administer what they believed to be successively intense electrical shocks to another person. Coaxed only by such statements as "Please continue," and "The experiment requires that you continue," 65% of subjects inflicted the maximum 450-volt shock and none of the remaining 35% insisted the experiment be terminated or left the room to check the health of the victim without requesting permission to leave.

All right so it's not just the Germans. More generally then, what would make any of us sociopathically deferential to a Hitler-like psychopath? Are we all subconsciously sadistic?
No, we're subconsciously bovine. We become herd animals and follow the leader. 

Once we have determined that someone is in a position of moral leadership, we shift from moral autonomy to moral deference. MORE

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