Psychopaths and Testosterone

This article on the neuroscience of trust raises some interesting questions regarding testosterone and psychopathic behaviour. One of the key characteristics of psychopaths is their lack of empathy which, as it turns out, is also a side-effect of high testosterone:

High testosterone convinces the brain that others find you desirable and socially powerful. It also inhibits the brain’s release of oxytocin, reducing empathy and the desire to collaborate. What’s more, testosterone’s aggression is contagious, inhibiting oxytocin and trust in team members. 

In my book “The Psychopath Economy”, I don’t get much into what makes people psychopaths, I just assume they do, and will always, exist. But this article made me do some further reading on the link between psychopaths and testosterone. At least one study in the last decade concluded that “psychopathy scores were associated with an increased ratio of testosterone (baseline) to cortisol responsivity to a stressor. Psychopathy was not associated with either of these measures independently, or with baseline cortisol levels. These findings suggest that these highly interconnected hormone systems may work in concert to predispose to psychopathy.”

Both testosterone and cortisol play a role in our appetites for risk, which tend to be high in psychopaths.

Another recent study looking at emotional control found that “people with psychopathy, and especially in patients with high endogenous testosterone levels” demonstrated “significantly less activity in the prefrontal brain regions and less communication between the prefrontal brain and the amygdala was observed”.

I wonder if, in addition to making organisation leaders sit the PCL-R (the standard psychiatric psychopathy test), we could also have them sit for testosterone and cortisol tests?

Psychopaths and Modern Slavery

Four Corners has a story about slavery in our supply chain. Do Western manufacturers know (or care) about the practices of their supply chain? Should Western governments do something about it? According to Four Corners the Australian government recently passed something called The Modern Slavery Act 2018, which “requires businesses of a certain size to report their efforts to keep their supply chains slavery-free”. Unfortunately, the government “has the power to publicly name those that fail to comply, but not to fine or penalise them in other ways. It is hoped fear of shaming will be enough incentive to avoid the reputational, financial and other risks that might arise from public scrutiny.” The problem with shaming is that psychopaths (and, by extension, the companies they run), are pretty impervious to shame. All they care about is winning. They don’t give a shit what you think about them.

Why would the government not put throw-the-book-at-them penalties in place for slavery in the supply chain?

According to “an estimated 25 million people around the world are in forced labour” and it generates US$150 billion in profits for the private economy every year.

That’s Capitalism in action, folks.

Boiling The Frog

I was just thinking this morning that Donald Trump has been POTUS for 2 years and 172 days (6 hours, 42 minutes and 40 seconds but who’s counting?). I remember when people said he would be impeached within his first year. Some said six months. I personally thought he would quit when he realised there was work involved. We were all wrong.

So roughly two-and-a-half years. I was wondering what Germany looked like two-and-a-half years into Hitler’s regime? Say, around 1936? The Nuremberg Laws had been passed in 1935 but weren’t implemented until after the the 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin. While there was some debate around the world about boycotting it, the only countries not to attend were Spain and the Soviet Union.

It feels like Trump has slowly become normalised. I stopped paying much attention a long time ago. My wife, an American, stopped paying attention almost as soon as he was elected. She was just too disgusted to get sucked up into it.

Trump is probably a narcissistic psychopath. But are fascists psychopaths? Jon Ronson doesn’t seem to think so but I disagree. Ronson says psychopaths don’t tend to believe in anything except themselves, and I agree. But I think they also look for organisation and institutions that will help them to get access to the power they crave. They don’t truly believe in any creed or philosophy. But they are willing to commit acts of violence to get what they want – and fascism is inherently pro-violence, which makes it the perfect landing place for psychopaths.

As Stanley Payne writes in his history of fascism:

“The only unique feature of the fascist relationship to violence was the theoretical evaluation by many fascist movements that violence possessed a certain positive and therapeutic value in and of itself, that a certain amount of continuing violent struggle, along the lines of Sorelianism and extreme Social Darwinism, was necessary for the health of national society.”

There hasn’t yet been a dramatic rise of state-sanctioned violence in the US (and crime itself is at historic lows, as it is in most developed countries) but hate groups are on the rise and at an all-time high (although they were nearly as high a few years into Obama’s first term), according to some sources. There’s no official paramilitary support for his rule, although he does claim to have “the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people”. And over the last couple of years, a number of GOP organisations have invited white supremacist groups to provide “security” at their events, and of course there was the infamous Unite The Right rally. The combination of authoritarian leaders and armed militias has never been healthy for a democracy.

However, around the world, including here in Australia, we’ve been seeing the gradual normalisation of cruelty, usually focused on the poorest and weakest people, immigrants fleeing failed states, and usually carried out by people who claim to be Christian.

The increasing cruelty and violence should worry us, but like the old ‘boiling the frog’ story, we will probably just normalise it.

As Fintan O’Toole pointed out, fascism usually grows slowly over time, using “test marketing” to see how much they can get away with:

Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.

Handling Difficult People the Three Illusions Way

How do you handle people in your life who are being a pain in the ass?

Well, for a start, we know that we have no free will. So we’re going to handle them however our current neural state handles them. Our neural state is the current structure of our brain, the way our memories, experiences and genetic pre-dispositions have been encoded in the synapses and chemicals of our brains.

However, something you read or hear today can change that neural state for tomorrow. The brain it plastic. It changes over time with every new experience or insight.

So – we know we have no free will. We also know that the other person has no free will. They are behaving exactly as they have to, based on their own neural state. They are an actor on a stage, forced to read certain lines, to play a certain part. And it’s hard to stay angry at someone who has no control over their actions. You can’t be angry at the sky for being covered in rain clouds. You can’t be angry at tree for shedding its leaves during winter. And you can’t be angry at a person for obeying their nature. It’s like the old story of the scorpion and the frog (Google it if you don’t know it, and try to find the version told by Orson Welles).

If someone is acting badly towards you, it often means they aren’t happy. Happy people, with healthy self-esteems, usually don’t treat others badly. They try to build the people around them up, make them feel good about themselves. They lift people up, they don’t knock them down. So if the person treating you badly is unhappy and doesn’t have any control over their behaviour, they are probably upsetting more people around them than just you, which, in turn, makes those people dislike them, which makes them feel worse about themselves – and the cycle continues.

So when someone is lashing out at me, I normally feel sorry for them.

On top of that, we also know that the concept of “identity” is problematic. We have realised that there isn’t a “me”, a distinct collection of atoms that is separate from the rest of the universe. So when someone is being mean to me, who, in fact, are they being mean to? They are being mean to the universe, to themselves. Now – do you think the universe cares? Does someone on the other side of the planet care what this person thinks, says or does? Does a tree care? Does a dog? No? Then why should I care?

They can’t be attacking “me”, because there is no “me” to attack. As Bob would say, there is no “reference point”. It’s like water off a duck’s back. Insults and attacks slide right off. The hardest problem I have when being insulted is to fight back a smile, which itself is unkind and can make the other person feel worse. But it’s actually quite amusing when someone exposes their pain and anger so openly by turning it on someone else. Not that the fact that they are hurting is at all funny, but just that their behaviour is so transparent and immature. It’s like when my five year old gets angry about something and tells me that he’s the boss of the house. His defiance is hilarious but if he sees me smiling, he gets even angrier. It’s the same with mean people. They can be unintentionally funny. So try not to smile. Even when it’s blaringly obvious that their anger towards you is an indication of their own issues.

So, once we understand that we shouldn’t take their insults and attacks personally, how should we handle the situation?

Usually I’ll try to think about what they need from me at that moment. My goal is to initially defuse the situation, then try to turn into something positive, where there are no winners or losers. But that’s hard to do, even with the Three Illusions, because our brains are designed with a “fight or flight” response to threatening situations. When we are being attacked, our subconscious defense mechanisms kick into gear – adrenaline courses through our veins, and our conditioning kicks in. Even after 30 years of completely accepting that I don’t exist as a “me”, my F/F system still kicks in from time to time. But it gets nipped in the bud pretty quickly as my post-Three Illusions wiring kicks in. After a few seconds to a few minutes, I’m usually thinking about how to defuse the situation so it doesn’t escalate. And I’m still not great at this part of it. My instinctive response is to think “I don’t exist, they don’t exist, this is all just a story going on in my head, it’s all just atoms” and to disengage. Which honestly probably isn’t the best way of handling these situations. So I’m trying to get better at it.

People’s egos usually want to be assuaged and they want to be heard. So it’s helpful to say something like “I see where you’re coming from, let me think about it some more and come back to you with a more thoughtful response. Can we park this issue for now and talk about it more later?”

Buying some time for both parties to calm down.

The important thing is that I’m not left with any anger, resentment or anxiety over the confrontation, because I know neither of us has any free will and I feel empathy for the person who is attacking me. This helps me think about what the other person needs from me and how to create a positive outcome for everyone.

The Voight-Kampff Test

On average, about one percent of the population rank highly on the psychopath test. But there are certain kinds of organisations that have a higher percentage, they seem to attract psychopaths like poop attracts flies – the military, the police, politics, religion, finance. It makes sense – they are all industries that provide ready access to power over others, one of the things psychopaths crave. Psychopathic cultures occur when a lack of institutional checks and balances allow psychopaths in power to hire other psychopaths.

It looks like this is another sector that might be thick with them.