This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 5th, 2008.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to Barbara Oakley hears a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
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Evil jeans covered a lot of ground, I think, because it’s so interdisciplinary and so there was only so much we could discuss in my last conversation with Barbara Oakley. We have Barbara Oakley back on point of inquiry today to continue exploring her book, Evil Genes Why Rome Fell, Hitler rose, Enron failed, and my sister stole my mother’s boyfriend. The books just recently out in paperback. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Barbara Oakley.
Oh, it’s wonderful to be here, A.J. Thank you again for having me.
Let’s start off by getting right into the controversial stuff. Philip Zimbardo, the former president of the American Psychological Association, he’s the guy who conducted the famous Stanford prison experiments. Well, his research seems to suggest that ordinary everyday people can become a really rotten people, and that’s determined really solely by their environments. Doesn’t his work kind of jut up against your own thesis that genetics primarily shapes our personalities?
Well, actually, T.J., there are so many problems with the Bardos experiment that it’s tough to even know where to begin. It’s a wonder, frankly, that his work was even published. Wow. There’s just so much here that it actually would take a few minutes to explain. The first thing is just that. Well, what Zimbardo did was he he placed them advertisements in the newspaper and asked for people who were interested in participating in a prison prison experiment. And then he took these people and put them in a simulated sort of prison environment. And they became really nasty folks. And his results were what he concluded was that environment can shape people to act in really nasty ways. But there’s here’s some of the problems. First off, he asserted that the people he recruited from his newspaper advertisements were completely normal. But the tests he used to prove this were interpreted by him in a completely nonstandard way. So you couldn’t you couldn’t tell whether those other people were really normal or whether those subjects were really normal or not. Researchers can verify it. And of course, Zimbardo, the experiment itself is so deeply unethical, it can’t be replicated. So he’s got it made. Nobody can ever say he’s wrong because they can’t repeat the work to check it. But actually, some researchers did repeat the very beginning of his experiments. They placed two different sets of advertisements in newspapers. One ad stated that they were looking for people to participate in a study on prisons like Zimbardo Original. And the other one was identically worded, but it didn’t mention the word prison. It turns out that a completely different type of person answered the advertisement. That said the word prison, a much more Machiavellian. That is a kind of a duplicitous, nasty, deceitful sort of person answered those ads. And that was based on the standard tests that they gave these people for Machiavellianism. And when Zimbardo was asked to refute this study, which had many other methodological problems that it discussed with Zimbardo, his work, his only response was that you can’t repeat a study done in the 1970s today. I mean, that’s just ridiculous.
So he was kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel from the get go.
Yes, he was. His very foundation of what he was trying to do was deeply flawed. I mean, it as Carl Popper, as one said, a theory that is unfalsifiable is to that extent a weak one. Mm hmm. And he he even started his experiments by inviting a local news crew to film his work. I mean, that’s that’s not science. That’s self aggrandizing publicity. And he didn’t even have a hypothesis that he was that he was testing the way that science is normally done. He was just staging a play with a morality play. It was very clear what is. Expectations were for his pseudo prisoners and is his prison experiment himself. He himself was the warden and he could have stopped any of the activities he deemed inappropriate in any time. It’s no wonder things turned into a zoo of nasty behavior. And what’s what’s really what really gets me, T.J., is that Zimbardo had the audacity to use his experiments to complain about treatment in prisons when he went out of his way to personally create precisely the alarming situation that he was complaining about. I mean, it’s hard to take his apologies afterwards seriously when he also complains about the university research. Review boards that were instituted to prevent precisely the same kinds of deeply unethical experiments that he did.
So not only did he seem to have a social agenda with his experiment, but that you think there were unethical things going on with the experiment?
Oh, absolutely. He would have these people strip and do deeply embarrassing, mortifying things. And that was how he conducted the experiment. And and I have to add that his work makes no mention of the fact that prisons are known to be loaded with sociopath and recidivist individuals who are completely different than normal individuals who themselves may be genetically different than normal everyday folk.
Right. Either genetically or perhaps you might for roughly say miswired because of environment, perhaps lead poisoning when they were young or all sorts of things that can cause the brain to develop in a in a way that’s not conducive for prosocial behavior. In fact, Zimbardo makes no mention whatsoever of neurotransmitters, the amygdala, the limbic sic system, all the things we now know to be crucially important in peoples who have innate behavioral problems.
Well, some of that has to do with his original study was in the 60s, but also kind of in his defense. Not that I’m out to defend Zimbardo. He’s not the only social scientist who argues that environment really determines human evil. There’s Milgrom, his experiments about obedience and authority, where ordinary people were willing to actually electrically shock other people to the point of death or what they thought could be the point of death. So, for instance, don’t those studies also show the overwhelming influence of environment over genetics, the influence of authority in pushing people into making these decisions that ordinary people wouldn’t ordinarily make?
Well, I hate to say it, but Milgrim work is yet another of the many, many examples from social psychology of a morality play instead of an experiment.
The reality is the Milgrim experiments were as far from a Real-Life situation as you could ever hope to find, as many of his critics have pointed out more than this. His subjects suffered deep psychological trauma as a result of the experiment. You can actually see them trembling and shaking on the film. I mean, if you were a subject in a similar experiment today, wouldn’t you be assuming, just like no Grimm’s subjects did, that you were at a university and nobody could really get hurt because a university simply wouldn’t allow it? I mean, the conditions of Milgrom study were no way like soldiers in real life.
Right. Let’s backtrack. It’s kind of give me an overview of that study for our listeners who are unfamiliar with the Milgram experience.
Oh, what he he did was he had people come in and ostensibly they were helping a person to learn better. And often that person was not visible, but they would help shock a person in in order to help them learn better. And at first, they had the person in the other room and they just had a dial. And so they would turn the dial all the way to Max. Even though they kind of knew that it was supposed to be painful and there was no problem with it. And so that wasn’t really a very remarkable result in that it didn’t look like it was anything special. I mean, they just turn the dial. So they had they brought in a ostensible authority figure to tell the person to keep to turning the dial. And then they had the person start screaming and acting as if they were being caught in a lot of pain.
But she also, the volunteer is hearing the person they think they’re electrocuting, screaming in agony.
Right. And oftentimes what people would do is they’d startle sometimes they would start laughing because they’re thinking this has got to be a joke. It can’t really be a real session. And what he was trying to do was show that nice guys can be protic killed by simply following orders. And this was a reflection of the light geist, the concerns about how something like War Two’s Holocaust could have happened. But German soldiers didn’t kill Jews because of simple obedience and following orders that that wasn’t it at all.
Well, that has been an argument, but that’s not what you’re saying.
There has been an argument, although many studies have shown that research has shown that in most cases nobody had to follow in order to go kill Jews. They could simply not volunteer for those missions or easily asked for a transfer. They were uncomfortable with it.
So the sort of person who would like to murder were the kind of people who volunteered to go kill the Jews.
Yes. And they actually didn’t kill just because they were told to, as no groom was implying by his experiment. They killed because they’d been raised with them, virulent, hate filled anti-Semitism. And Malcolm’s work doesn’t bring that out in any way, shape or form. Research like Milgrim is often found as well that there are real innate differences in the characteristics of different, different people. Some people had a natural difference in character that allowed them to avoid any attempts and coercion. But that type of finding was downplayed in the results often. Sometimes it was a waste altogether to make it look like it was only the situation that played a role. There’s a great book about this kind of thing called The Rise and Fall of Social Psychology by Gus Branigin. He’s just a great guy and his findings haven’t gotten nearly acclaim. They should have because he’s saying things that people just don’t want to hear.
And you do the same in your book. You’re kind of coming down against social psychology from a guy who would you say, a harder sciences perspective. You’re bringing cognitive neuroscience, genetics, all of that to bear on the social psychology, which a lot of people might consider was a little too what, a little too soft science?
Well, a lot of social psychologists don’t want you to hear about problems with their experiments, and they don’t want you to think about the actual physical mechanisms and scientifically based research results that show that there are innate differences in individuals. Did you know? I probably don’t. But Gus, when he tried to write about some of the severe problems with social psychology research in one of the big social psychology journals, he was rejected. And it wasn’t because there was anything wrong with his work. It was that they told him that if they published his work about the extraordinarily problematic state of research in social psychology, that social psychologists would have more trouble getting funding.
I mean, it’s it’s just hard to believe.
Our tax dollars in research related to social psychology are going to fund few good fairy tales masquerading as science, fringe science, not necessarily pseudo science, but junk science.
That’s not supported by strong research methods. Precisely. Let’s go back a bit here. One thing I love about your book, Barb, is that it’s really this emperor has no clothes sort of book. It argues with these big flaws in scientific research that everyone else has taken for granted. So we’ve touched on Zimbardo and Milgrom. I was really interested in what you say about malignant narcissism. Could you tell me a little about that?
Well, one thing, when I first started trying to find out about nasty people. There’s no way that you can go into a medical database like Medline and look up research papers on nasty people. I mean, how do you do that? You take a nasty as a keyword. No, you can’t. And and so what I did was I Googled around and looked around and read a lot of psychology literature. And I found that this concept, called malignant narcissism, seemed to describe the kind of nasty, self-centered people that I was interested in. And if I go into midlife, you will find literally thousands of psychological studies on people with or good hard science studies on people with anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorders, schizophrenia or whatever. So I found this concept called malignant narcissism that the psychologists all seem to write about. And I went and researched it as a keyword in Medline for hard science results. And what I found was even though there’s thousands of hard science results like medical imaging results and genetic studies and so forth related to other personality disorders, there was not a single scientific study on the concept of malignant narcissism.
So not a lot of hard science, kind of. You know, people from neurology or genetics studied human evil, at least in terms of malignant narcissism.
Precisely. I mean, it’s it’s like there’s no science there. And yet psychologists bandy this term around as if it was a legitimate diagnosis. And in no way is it that. So I think that was what first opened my eyes to wait. There’s something really wrong going on in the research here of ofttimes. There seems to be. Oldy stated results. Have papers about different concepts that had absolutely no research, scientific research, foundation upon which they were based at all. Mm hmm. And it was really it was quite an eye opener for me.
When you were last on the show, we touched on whether people might use your work kind of as an excuse. People say I have to be rotten, I have to be evil because it’s in my genes. Not the devil made me do it. That’s the old excuse. But maybe Darwin made me do it or I was born this way. It’s it’s in my genetic code. Have you considered that you might be giving a lot of people some pretty catchall excuses with your work and evil genes?
Well, I think that pretty much any scientific advance will always cause problems with some people because it upsets the apple cart and it can be used for bad purposes. I mean, even when people first started to write, they there was a movement against writing and putting things down on paper. And people complained about it because it meant that memories would not be so good. And that’s true. But the tradeoffs were were really beneficial. I think the thing is there are two different situations here. One is with psychopaths and those are people who have absolutely no empathy whatsoever. And they can do anything to anybody and sometimes enjoy it.
And that’s that’s probably a function of a person’s brain.
It really is. It really is. There’s quite a few differences that they’re finding in the brains of a psychopath, which. And what’s funny is they look completely normal. So you think that they’re just consciously making these choices because they want to.
Sorry. You mean outwardly? They look completely normal, but their brains look completely different?
Yes. Then because their brains are completely different. We think that’s why they make it. And I’m I’m putting my my fingers in quotation marks here. The choices they make, they are making choices. But if our brains were wired in that way, we would probably be making very similar choices. And the thing about psychopaths, though, is they’ll use anything and everything under the sun as an excuse for their behavior. If you have they have this, I’ll use that as an excuse to. But the fact is that psychopaths are really pretty seriously deranged people and their wiring really is different. So maybe it is an excuse for their behavior, but it is also an excuse for locking them up forever because we don’t presently know how to fix that mis wiring.
You can open a can of worms. Maybe we’ll get to the next time you’re on the show about punishment and blame in a socially just society where we think the person, the culprit of an evil act was hardwired to do so. So there’s not a little agent inside him or her that says, I have freedom here and I want to choose to do the evil thing. So maybe I am. In other words, you raise really tough questions for the whole criminal justice system, et cetera. That’s not the topic of our discussion.
Just briefly on that, it’s it’s just that we have traditions in our society and those traditions have served a purpose that that does work not perfectly. And it’s going to be hard to change those traditions and for good reason. But that is the topic of a whole nother discussion. But I do want to add that people who have borderline personality disorder. They have a different situation than psychopaths. These are really, really nasty folks who can blame everything on other people and who lead you walking on eggshells around them. But these people can change their behavior if they are brought to the point where they have to. So firm boundaries and an avoidance of their attempts to drag you into an emotional conflict can actually bring about a change in behavior in these folks among borderline personalities, not psychopaths. Right. Right. And it isn’t like you can make dramatic shifts in their personalities, but you can make some changes and they themselves can make some changes. But they won’t if you don’t give them any impetus for making those changes. There’s there’s an upcoming book called An Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder by Randy Krieger coming out in October and chapters eight and nine. Give concrete guidelines on how to deal with the crazy behavior, a person with borderline personality disorder.
So I do recommend that you define borderline personality disorder.
Just for me, quickly, it’s a disorder of emotional control so that these individuals don’t have the tool kit to to be able to control their emotions and and act in a reasonable fashion. But what that shows itself as is someone who they could take offense at anything, they can be really nice sometimes and then sometimes at the drop of a hat, they’ll be really nasty. They can go to work and be fantastically, wonderfully nice people, maybe even a doctor or someone highly recognized and esteemed in the community. They can come home and be a completely different person. Nasty, aggressive, mean. And nobody would ever believe it. Right. And so it’s these people have a chameleon like a set of behaviors. They’ll blame everything on other people splitting. They’ll have someone who they adore and someone who they hate. And then sometimes that will just randomly change and all of a sudden the person they adored because they hated one. And if you’re married to a borderline who adored you originally, it’s really tough to take. It’s like, oh, my God, my my husband or my wife has just turned into an alien, you know, and become very nasty to me. So borderline personality disorder is is it can wreak havoc on family life. It’s a very, very difficult disorder to handle. And what’s what’s most interesting, perhaps, is that people who it’s possible to be a very highly functioning member of society and these individuals are often not studied by psychologists because they can go in and they can act perfectly normal.
They can slip under the radar.
Right. And so so the family may be very well aware of what’s going on, but they can’t demonstrate it to a doctor because this person can be so good at hiding the disorder. There’s plenty of business CEOs, religious leaders of all you name the social hierarchy, and you can find people who are highly functioning of borderlines within that.
Right. There are two ways to rise to the top. One is by being the cream and one is by being the scum. Right.
Exactly. And the person who everybody loves at work.
But she goes home and kicks the dog or kicks her kids. Right.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Evil Genes through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg. This is the book that Steven Pinker said is a fascinating and personal exploration of the roots of evil filled with human insight and telling detail. You can get it through our Web site. Barbe, you tell an interesting story in the book about your sister, Carolyn, and she’s kind of the touchstone about your explorations, kind of your personal explorations about human evil. The story about attention. So let’s get into that. How does that relate to the kinds of people you call successfully sinister?
Well, I’ll give you an example of the kinds of things my sister did when she was 22. She ran away from home and she was gone for 10 years. And my parents were beside themselves. Obviously, they didn’t know where she was, what she was doing. And it’s pretty tough to find an adult person who doesn’t want to be found. But after 10 years, my sister called my falta one day and said, oh, yes. I want to rejoin the family. I’m really, really sorry. I’ve done what I’ve done. And I caught a lot of remorse and I like to come back. And my father, of course, was Quilp. So he sent her the money to do this, to come in and visit us. And of course, she spent the money on something else. So we sent her some more money and she spent it on something else. And so he finally got smart and sent her a plane ticket. And and I remember her coming up and hugging me and just all his she’s so glad to be back. And the family were so wonderful and so forth. And you’re kind of one half of you is going. Yeah, right. And the other half is going, oh, maybe she really needs it. I mean, this is kind of a thrill of hope.
But it sounds like this wasn’t the first time you were suspicious of your sister. It sounds like there’s a there’s a history here of suspecting her motives and now.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And here’s why I was right to be suspicious. We talked for about an hour, and after we got done, she excused herself to go down to the store. And while she was at the store, she met a man and moved in with him. And I didn’t see her again for another five years. Wow. So you go, oh, my goodness. How could anyone do something like that? You know, here she is going from all bar beauties. So wonderful. I’m so glad to be here. This means everything to me, too. OK, we’re dropping you and we’re moving in with this guy.
And so you think she had something like evil genes that just. Kept her from having social interest for showing empathy, for caring about her family.
Well, yes and no if if you want to call. I mean, any personality trait as they found as is affected by our partings and many cases, it’s very strongly affected by Argentina and its thousands of different genes. So a gene that could be you could call it an evil gene in one situation would be a good gene in another. And in fact, some of the genes that make for our worst personality traits also seem to be able to combine to make some of our best personality traits. It’s kind of a luck of the draw shakeout of a lot of different genes. But here’s how environment can come into play. She had polio when she was a little girl. You can’t get polio unless you have the genes that allow you to make the proteins that are with the receptors such that the polio virus can get into yourself. What they found is that polio always, always goes into place in the very deepest part of your brain, called the reticular formation. And it always destroys neurons there. As it turns out, that area is the area that’s responsible for our ability to focus and pay attention. Some people who have had polio. It was said during the 40s when they really wrote about this and had experienced a lot of it. They noticed often that kids who had polio were really out of it, sometimes for months, sometimes for years, and their behavior changed. Often it would gradually come back and return to normalcy. But I think for my sister, perhaps the damage was so severe that it wasn’t the case. And indeed, what they’re finding now is ability to focus and pay attention to things, even things perhaps that you don’t want to hear. That seems to be tied hand-in-hand with certain types of psychopathy. So the ability to pay attention and focus is crucial and crucial in people who act badly. They often simply can’t focus on something they they don’t want to hear.
That raises interesting questions about how our society is made up in this kind of socially determined attention deficit disorder that we’re forcing on our children with the overconsumption of media, all that stuff. Again, not the topic of the show, but you’re really raising some interesting questions. Barbara, I’d like to kind of finish up by swinging the conversation to something we talk about, oh, every now and then on point of inquiry. And that is religion. In the past few years, some big name scientists. Others have argued for Athie ism and a kind of against the dangers of religion. Your thesis seems to contradict what they’re arguing. You seem to think that genetics, at least in part, lies at the heart of society’s poison, as it were, that religion doesn’t poison everything like Hitchens says, but that genes do the poisoning. So you don’t really seem to have anything against religion per say, right?
Well, I I’d like to start by relating something I saw when I was watching Christopher Hitchens speak at a panel discussion on AC ism. I was sitting in the back of the room not far from a young woman who praised the question. She she told the audience she’d been working in a hospice with doctors who’d been helping patients who were dying of AIDS. She said that the patients themselves often asked the doctors about religion. These dying patients felt that religion could be a solace to them in their dying days, and they wanted to know more about spiritual matters, matters from the doctors. And she wanted this young woman wanted to know what did Christopher Hitchens think? So think about that. Dying patients who themselves wanted to learn more about religion and spirituality to ease them in their final days. And in answer, Hitchens reared back on the podium and he launched into the young lady saying that it was an absolute disgrace, a totally disgusting, that the doctors would use their positions of authority to indoctrinate type patients with lies. I mean, Hitchens was really vehement about this. And if you know Hitchens, which I know you do, you know, he’s totally imposing to argue with. He seems to delight in making his opponent look like a complete imbecile.
Yeah, he’s he’s a brilliant performance artist when it comes to the arts.
He’s the best. I mean, I love watching him. Whether I agree or not with what he’s saying, because he’s just the best. But this young lady, to her credit, objected to Hitchens response.
She told him he misunderstood what she had said. And she very politely continued that the doctors weren’t indoctrinating the patients, but rather the patients themselves wanted to learn more about religion. And Hitchens response was to, again, completely misunderstand her question. He launched into another. Tirade about how despicable it was the doctors wouldn’t misuse their power, they indoctrinate these poor, innocent people. By this time, the people all around me in the back of the audience are getting fed up. The mood changed from potful and questioning to frustrated and angry. One man not far away from me. He said, What an asshole. And the panel broke up a few minutes later and I could hear people all around the back of the room making disgusted sounds. I mean, it was very clear that Hitchens had a vested way of looking at things. And if you said something he didn’t want to hear. He simply couldn’t hear you. And that illustrates my my main point. And that is that I don’t think that religion necessarily makes people bad no more than nationalism, fascism, communism or any other kind of social structure. It’s a malevolent, nasty to fit his people who can make religions or any other type of social structure bad. If a social structure has little by way of checks and balances to stop people who are naturally malevolent, it’s easy for those kind of nasty characters to creep into power. I have to say that I’m sort of surprised at Hitchens because he was a Marxist. He knows that simply prophetic professing a.T.M ism is no guarantee of logical and rational thinking. Atheists like Hitchens seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. And I say that in all of the well-meaning. If an atheist movement by communism turns out to eventually kill millions of people, as it actually did all over the world. Hitchens will say, well, then it must actually be a religion. And in fact, it seems that anything that irrational and logical gets the label religion slapped on it.
Right? Well, there are a couple debatable points just then. And we I don’t want to veer off track, but I.
I’m not sure Athie ism is. It resulted in the killing of millions. But you were just saying that communistic ideology is atheistic in that it has no supernatural component.
Yes, it was ideological, though. And, you know, some functionalist when it comes to religion, say, you know, it it looked like a religion. It quacks like a religion. Stalin ism was more of a religion than it was an epistemological position on God’s existence.
Well, it could be debated and debated. In good conscience, I think, from either side. And I’m not saying that religion doesn’t have its bad points. Obviously it can. But I do notice that time after time in Hitchens work, for example, he focuses only on what he wants to see, and that’s the bad side of religion.
And you’re saying more than religion being a bad thing, it’s the bad people and religion that make it better.
Right. And if you have religions that have social structures that don’t have checks and balances, like the Catholic Church, where there were few checks and balances on the on the pedophilic priests or like Scientology, where if you say something, they will come after you and they will keep you, then people who are not very nice can rise to the top and write the rules for how the religion is structured. And the results can be very unpleasant. But I think on the other hand, though, I think it’s really important to have that’s why it’s important to have an organization like the Center for Inquiry, because it’s the home for people who attend reasoned discourse and discussion, whatever their background is, to counterbalance some of the extremes that religion can find itself led into. So that’s that’s what I really love your show and I love coming on it.
Right. And also, it should be said, you’ve spoken at a number of centers for inquiry out there. Yea, you are a college professor, but you’ve spoken to our audiences on these kinds of issues. And it should also be said you’re not speaking to an atheist organization, you’re not going out there and speaking to atheist clips everywhere. Center for Inquiry is not an atheist organization. It just so happens that most of us are atheists or non-religious or something like that. But I appreciate what you said about the attempt at reasoned discourse, even when people disagree. I think there’s a lot of room for back and forth. And in Hitchens defense, the media here, you hear my bias. You’re if you’re on a book tour, of course, you’re going to be kind of polemical in your answers. But I think you’re offering an important corrective to the, in quotes, atheist movement as a whole.
Yes, it’s an important movement and it does a lot of good. But again, if atheists movements were structure without checks and balances, they could find themselves in the same sort of nasty situation that. Religions point themselves that it pretty much any social organization without checks and balances is going to you can get some nasty people in there and it becomes very unpleasant.
Barb, I hate to finish up just right when we’re getting into another very interesting topic, but I really appreciate our conversation. Thank you again for joining me on Point of Inquiry.
Thank you, DJ Grothe.
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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for Spight Emmy Award winning Michael.
Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe.