28 December 2012

Strangers Among Us: The Fatal Allure of False Premises and Unstable Systems - I Am Fishead

People tend to think other people are like them: imperfect, but generally striving to be good.  Faithful in the important things, but weak and error prone in the small.  Our self-view itself is probably a bit of a self-serving self-delusion, but that is a topic for another conversation on some other day. But it does illustrate the need for some external standard, and the rigor of self-examination against it.

As you may have heard or observed, most people tend to write their own faults in water, and carve the failings of others in large letters written in marble.

But there are strangers among us, people who are quite different from most in how they approach things. In fact, the variance amongst people is greater than most will allow in their thinking. Not all people are constructed in the same way.

There are those who are not at all self-regulating in the rational way in which we would like to think we all are.   They may be different genetically, or from the way in which they grew up in their formative years, and most often a combination of both. 

But as in so many cases,  generalizations can lead to convenient assumptions, and those can often prove dangerous.  This can cause us individual problems, as anyone who has dealt with a family member or associate who has a serious problem will know.

But the greatest source of mischief, and too often tragedy, is when we design social constructs and commercial organizations that, for the well-intentioned sake of simplicity, assume that people are rational and reliably good, except for a small and easily identifiable minority of physical criminals.

This may sound obvious enough, but in fact such mistaken assumptions can and do happen.  Certain financial and economic formulations of risk for example, are laughable in their assumptions, but nevertheless obtained widespread acceptance and recognition, before it failed miserably.  Why? For a number of reasons, most of which have to do with practical convenience of thought that gets carried too far.

 People thinking in groups tend to eschew individual common sense, relying instead on a sort of shorthand 'group think' that substitutes for experience and the hard work of individual reason.   We are both emotional and thinking beings, and have our roots in pack behaviour and tribalism. 

The 'tell' for this phenomenon is that when confronted with contrary evidence from real life, they either studiously ignore it, citing largely irrelevant counter examples from biased and carefully chosen sources, or merely brush it aside, falling back on generalizations and above all slogans. And when harsh reality inevitably intrudes, it is met with shock, stubborn resistance, and disbelief.

So, and this is the point of this essay, when thinking about social or corporate organization, bear in mind that there are a small but potentially powerfully focused set of people who will not fall into your neatly reasoned assumptions. And this fact may cause your system to be founded on sand, on a fatal flaw, that may even be promoted by those who view it to their advantage in undermining and abusing that system for their own ends.   This is why they prefer to redesign and reorganize completely instead of reform.  It provides a greater opportunity to construct new loopholes for their own benefit.

No one can make a reliable diagnosis at a distance. We tend to distort and project when observing others. And people operate from a variety of motives and intentions. But that is not the point.

The point is that systems must be designed to be, what Taleb has called, 'anti-fragile,' that is, not so reliant on certain assumed norms to be vulnerable to corruption and collapse. In system design we used to call an effective system that was even incidentally reliable at the stated extremes to be 'robust.'

I believe quite strongly that the story of our own crisis is the failure to remember the lessons from the past, that there are people whom it would be fair to call evil amongst us, an that although they may be intelligent and superficially charming, they are every bit as dangerous, and probably even more, than the killer who wields a knife or a gun. And more than anything else, we have ceased to love the truth, for the sake of winning.
“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.

And having no respect he ceases to love.”

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
And that is the descent into Hell.

Here is a brief excerpt from an essay put out by Aftermath, the group founded in part by Robert Hare to assist the victims of psychopathy. It is not intended as a diagnostic tool, because without years of specific training one is not capable of performing such a procedure reliably. But it is educative, to help us to understand that not everyone is the same, not like 'us' if such an 'us' really exists except in broad abstractions.

Below that, for your holiday viewing, I reprise the documentary film, I am Fishead.

Enjoy, and plan accordingly.

"There is a class of individuals who have been around forever and who are found in every race, culture, society and walk of life. Everybody has met these people, been deceived and manipulated by them, and forced to live with or repair the damage they have wrought.

These often charming, but always deadly, individuals have a clinical name: psychopaths. Their hallmark is a stunning lack of conscience; their game is self-gratification at the other person’s expense. Many spend time in prison, but many do not. All take far more than they give.

The most obvious expressions of psychopathy, but not the only ones, involve the flagrant violation of society’s rules. Not surprisingly, many psychopaths are criminals, but many others manage to remain out of prison, using their charm and chameleon-like coloration to cut a wide swathe through society, leaving a wake of ruined lives behind

Key Symptoms of Psychopathy
Social Deviance
Glib and superficialImpulsive
Egocentric and grandiosePoor behavior controls
Lack of remorse or guiltNeed for excitement
Lack of empathyLack of responsibility
Deceitful and manipulativeEarly behavior problems
Shallow emotionsAdult antisocial behavior

Glib and Superficial

Psychopaths are often voluble and verbally facile. They can be amusing and entertaining conversationalists, ready with a clever comeback, and are able to tell unlikely but convincing stories that cast themselves in a good light. They can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likable and charming...

Egocentric and Grandiose

Psychopaths have a narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their own self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the center of the universe, justified in living according to their own rules...

Psychopaths often claim to have specific goals but show little appreciation regarding the qualifications required-they have no idea of how to achieve them and little or no chance of attaining these goals, given their track record and lack of sustained interest in formal education...

Lack of Remorse or Guilt

Psychopaths show a stunning lack of concern for the effects their actions have on others, no matter how devastating these might be. They may appear completely forthright about the matter, calmly stating that they have no sense of guilt, are not sorry for the ensuing pain, and that there is no reason now to be concerned...Their lack of remorse or guilt is associated with a remarkable ability to rationalize their behavior, to shrug off personal responsibility for actions that cause family, friends, and others to reel with shock and disappointment. They usually have handy excuses for their behavior, and in some cases deny that it happened at all.

Lack of Empathy

Many of the characteristics displayed by psychopaths are closely associated with a profound lack of empathy and inability to construct a mental and emotional “facsimile” of another person. They seem completely unable to “get into the skin” of others, except in a purely intellectual sense. They are completely indifferent to the rights and suffering of family and strangers alike. If they do maintain ties, it is only because they see family members as possessions...

Deceitful and Manipulative

With their powers of imagination in gear and beamed on themselves, psychopaths appear amazingly unfazed by the possibility, or even by the certainty, of being found out. When caught in a lie or challenged with the truth, they seldom appear perplexed or embarrassed-they simply change their stories or attempt to rework the facts so they appear to be consistent with the lie. The result is a series of contradictory statements and a thoroughly confused listener. And psychopaths seem proud of their ability to lie...

Shallow Emotions

Psychopaths seem to suffer a kind of emotional poverty that limits the range and depth of their feelings. At times they appear to be cold and unemotional while nevertheless being prone to dramatic, shallow, and short-lived displays of feeling. Careful observers are left with the impression they are playacting and little is going on below the surface. A psychopath in our research said that he didn’t really understand what others meant by fear.


Psychopaths are unlikely to spend much time weighing the pros and cons of a course of action or considering the possible consequences. “I did it because I felt like it,” is a common response. These impulsive acts often result from an aim that plays a central role in most of the psychopath’s behavior: to achieve immediate satisfaction, pleasure, or relief.

So family members, relatives, employers, and coworkers typically find themselves standing around asking themselves what happened-jobs are quit, relationships broken off, plans changed, houses ransacked, people hurt, often for what appears as little more than a whim...

Poor Behavior Controls

Besides being impulsive, psychopaths are highly reactive to perceived insults or slights. Most of us have powerful inhibitory controls over our behavior; even if we would like to respond aggressively we are usually able to “keep the lid on.” In psychopaths, these inhibitory controls are weak, and the slightest provocation is sufficient to overcome them. As a result, psychopaths are short-tempered or hotheaded and tend to respond to frustration, failure, discipline, and criticism with sudden violence, threats or verbal abuse. But their outbursts, extreme as they may be, are often short-lived, and they quickly act as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened...Although psychopaths have a “hair trigger,” their aggressive displays are “cold”; they lack the intense arousal experienced when other individuals lose their temper.

A Need for Excitement

Psychopaths have an ongoing and excessive need for excitement-they long to live in the fast lane or “on the edge,” where the action is. In many cases the action involves the breaking of rules. Many psychopaths describe “doing crime” for excitement or thrills... The flip side of this yen for excitement is an inability to tolerate routine or monotony. Psychopaths are easily bored and are not likely to engage in activities that are dull, repetitive, or require intense concentration over long periods.

Lack of Responsibility

Obligations and commitments mean nothing to psychopaths. Their good intentions-”I’ll never cheat on you again”-are promises written on the wind. Horrendous credit histories, for example, reveal the lightly taken debt, the loan shrugged off, the empty pledge to contribute to a child’s support. Their performance on the job is erratic, with frequent absences, misuse of company resources, violations of company policy, and general untrustworthiness. They do not honor formal or implied commitments to people, organizations, or principles. Psychopaths are not deterred by the possibility that their actions mean hardship or risk for others.

Early Behavior Problems

Most psychopaths begin to exhibit serious behavioral problems at an early age. These might include persistent lying, cheating, theft, arson, truancy, substance abuse, vandalism, and/or precocious sexuality. Because many children exhibit some of these behaviors at one time or another-especially children raised in violent neighborhoods or in disrupted or abusive families-it is important to emphasize that the psychopath’s history of such behaviors is more extensive and serious than most, even when compared with that of siblings and friends raised in similar settings...

Adult Antisocial Behavior

Psychopaths see the rules and expectations of society as inconvenient and unreasonable impediments to their own behavioral expression. They make their own rules, both as children and as adults. Many of the antisocial acts of psychopaths lead to criminal charges and convictions. Even within the criminal population, psychopaths stand out, largely because the antisocial and illegal activities of psychopaths are more varied and frequent than are those of other criminals. Psychopaths tend to have no particular affinity, or “specialty,” for one particular type of crime but tend to try everything. But not all psychopaths end up in jail. Many of the things they do escape detection or prosecution, or are on “the shady side of the law.” For them, antisocial behavior may consist of phony stock promotions, questionable business practices, spouse or child abuse, and so forth. Many others do things that, though not necessarily illegal, are nevertheless unethical, immoral, or harmful to others: philandering or cheating on a spouse to name a few..."

The Charming Psychopath: How to Spot Social Predators Before They Attack