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Are We All Racists?

Private thoughts and public acts

Scientific American (cover)

Novelists often offer deep insights into the human psyche that take psychologists years to test. In his 1864 Notes from Underground, for example, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky observed: “Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

Intuitively, the observation rings true, but is it true experimentally? Twenty years ago social psychologists Anthony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek developed an instrument called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that, they claimed, can read the innermost thoughts that you are afraid to tell even yourself. And those thoughts appear to be dark and prejudiced: we favor white over black, young over old, thin over fat, straight over gay, able over disabled, and more. (continue reading…)

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Positive Psychopathy

A review of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton. A a version of this review was published in the Wall Street Journal on November 6, 2012 under the title “When Madness Pays Off”.

The Wisdom of Psychopaths (book cover)

In one of her standup comedy routines Ellen Degeneres riffs on those commercials for depression medications that begin “Do you ever feel sad?”, to which Degeneres responds sardonically, “Yes, I’m alive!”

The problem with all diagnostic tools is that they attempt to squeeze into a well-defined box symptoms or characteristics that are often fuzzy, ill-defined, context dependent, and on some level a part of daily life, so the criteria lists grows and the diagnostic labels broaden into spectrums. Everyone occasionally feels sad, so some depression might indeed be considered part and parcel of living. Recent research suggests, for example, that mild depression may be one way of coping with a bad situation that, like pain, is a signal to make a change. But as it ratchets up in intensity to the point of causing dysfunction, then depression may indeed be a diagnosis in need of a treatment. Autism is another example, with the “autism spectrum” ranging from barely functional children requiring full-time care to the famous author Temple Grandin, who earned a Ph.D. in animal science and was ranked by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. A single word fails to capture the spread.

“Psychopathy” suffers the same problem. Psychopathy is a spectrum personality disorder characterized by callousness, antisocial behavior, superficial charm, narcissism, grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy and remorse, and poor impulse control and criminality. A slate of publications on psychopathy over the past two decades—from Robert Hare’s path-breaking 1991 book Without Conscience to Simon Baron Cohen’s 2011 The Science of Evil—reveal that about 1–3 percent of men in the general population are psychopaths, and that about half of all violent criminals in prison have been diagnosed as psychopathic. Indeed, psychopathy is almost always associated with criminals and serial killers, but as the University of Cambridge research psychologist Kevin Dutton argues in The Wisdom of Psychopaths, within psychopathy there are shades of grey, from one end of the spectrum inhabited by CEOs, lawyers, salesmen, Wall Street Traders, and tough-minded bosses who enjoy growling “You’re fired!”, to the other end inhabited by the likes of Ted Bundy who, after raping and murdering 35 women in the 1970s, boasted “I’m the coldest son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.” (continue reading…)

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