Who are the people around us?

Recently, with the astonishing victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election, various Hillary supporters have been trying to figure out what happened.  Meghan O’Rourke speculates that Hillary’s “defeat was a visceral reminder that misogyny and unconscious bias remain powerful forces.”  David Remnick says that  his election was “a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.”
So these two people, and many others, usually on the left side of the political spectrum, now believe there is this huge racist, sexist hinterland that they had ignored up to now.  If they are more charitable, they say that people in the heartland “gave into their fears”.
A conservative commentator, Daniel Greenfield, saw it differently:
It’s midnight in America. The day before fifty million Americans got up and stood in front of the great iron wheel that had been grinding them down. They stood there even though the media told them it was useless. They took their stand even while all the chattering classes laughed and taunted them.
They were fathers who couldn’t feed their families anymore. They were mothers who couldn’t afford health care. They were workers whose jobs had been sold off to foreign countries. They were sons who didn’t see a future for themselves. They were daughters afraid of being murdered by the “unaccompanied minors” flooding into their towns. They took a deep breath and they stood.
They held up their hands and the great iron wheel stopped.
Meghan O’Rourke and David Remnick on the left side of the political spectrum, and Daniel Greenfield on the right are all quite literate, intelligent, educated writers – and yet – look at the vast divide of how they see reality.
So who are all those Trump voters out there?   Some certainly are racist and are proud of it.  But many are not.
Liberal movie maker Michael Moore described some of them:
Donald Trump came to the Detroit Economic Club, and stood there in front of the Ford Motor executives, and said, ‘If you close these factories as you’re planning to do in Detroit and build them in Mexico, I’m going to put a 35 percent tariff on those cars when you send them back, and nobody is going to buy them.’ It was an amazing thing to see. No politician, Republican or Democrat, had ever said anything like that to these executives. And it was music to the ears of people in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Brexit states. … Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting. And it’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff, who used to be part of what was called the middle class, loves Trump. He is the human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for. The human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them. And on Nov. 8, Election Day, although they’ve lost their jobs, although they’ve been foreclosed on by the bank, next came the divorce and now the wife and kids are gone, the car’s been repo’d, they haven’t had a real vacation in years, they’re stuck with the sh–ty Obamacare bronze plan, where you can’t even get a f—ing Percocet. They’ve essentially lost everything they had, except one thing. The one thing that doesn’t cost them a cent and is guaranteed to them by the American Constitution: the right to vote. They might be penniless, they might be homeless, they might be f—ed over and f—ed up, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s equalized on that day: a millionaire has the same number of votes as the person without a job,…
Michael Moore
And some of the Trump voters are just conservatives who don’t like the Democratic party’s agenda.  This is quite hard for liberals to understand.  Liberals see President Obama as a man of integrity and honor, and Hillary as a mildly flawed but well intentioned stateswoman, and they just don’t comprehend how any well-meaning person could oppose them.
And that brings us to another contingent of people out there.
A former Marxist progressive says this:
Ever since I abandoned the utopian illusions of the progressive cause, I have been struck by how little the world outside the left seems to actually understand it…the ruthless cynicism behind its idealistic mask.. the fervent malice that drives its hypocritical passion for “social justice”….No matter what slogans we chanted, or ideals we proclaimed, our agendas always extended beyond the immediate issues we championed to the destruction of the constitutional order of the society in which we lived.
The writer of the above lines was David Horowitz, who now often has to have bodyguards when he speaks at American Universities.  And how does this former Marxist revolutionary view Hillary Clinton, who was the alternative candidate to Trump?  He sees her as a liar in the way she presents herself, hiding the fact that she is a progressive missionary, like many of the people both she and Horowitz associated with in the sixties and seventies.
My point here is not to say who is right or wrong here.  The point is that there are sizable contingents of people out there in society who don’t understand other sizable contingents.
I remember one conservative woman saying about the Obama administration – “we are ruled by sociopaths”.  And a day ago, I read one liberal citing some Trump acquaintance who described Trump as a sociopath.   Again, I’m not saying either person is right or wrong.  I’m trying to illustrate a problem in knowing who people are.
Leaving politics, lets look at another type of person in our environment, namely criminals.
Criminals are not always people just like us, who just happened to have less inhibitions about getting what they want.  There is a subset that are very different than us.
For instance it has been shown that children from Mauritius who show slower heart rates and reduced skin responses when annoyed by loud tones or challenging questions tend to have criminal records when they get older…

There is a theory behind this, and it’s about being insensitive to fear. Normally, a startling noise races the heart and sends the body into a high state of alert, which is what the skin electrodes pick up. But research indicates that children who are not alarmed don’t react to the threat of punishment when they misbehave. Nor do they react to the distress shown by other people. They don’t learn that their bad actions, like causing others pain, have bad consequences for those people.

Neuro-criminologist Adrian Raine had the idea to look for a defect that begins before birth and can still be detected in adults. He knew that in a fetus,

a thin wall of brain tissue develops to separate a cavity into two cavities, and that this becomes the amygdala and other brain areas as development proceeds.
When the wall doesn’t form completely, a condition known by the jawbreaking name of cavum septum pellucidum, it’s usually a sign of abnormal development in the amygdala and other structures. Years later, in adults, the failed wall can be spotted in a brain scan.
Raine found that the condition is also associated with dangerous minds. In a 2010 paper, he and his colleagues compared people with and without the feature on several fronts. The groups were tested for antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and aggression. Their records were searched for criminal arrests and convictions. In every single one of those areas, there were a lot more men and women with the wall defect….

Raine himself is a big believer in protective factors. “You can’t make a lesion to the prefrontal cortex and, hey presto, you get a criminal. It’s not like that,” he says. “Of course social factors are critically important.”

Adrian Raine

Nonetheless, this indicates that there are people around you who look normal on the outside, but are not normal on the inside, in a way that means they don’t feel the way you expect normal people to feel.
People may not understand their own children.

As the families of autistics or schizophrenics wonder what happened to the apparently healthy people they knew, other families grapple with children who have turned to horrifying acts and wonder what happened to the innocent children they thought they understood.
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., … held the whole school hostage, killing 12 students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves. Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, said this to an interviewer afterwards: “I used to think I could understand people, relate, and read them pretty well,” Sue said. “After this, I realized I don’t have a clue what another human being is thinking…”
People are very diverse. I knew a man who was upset whenever he saw “roadkill”. But there are people who hurt animals for fun.  Some get sexually aroused by hurting animals.
Some men hurt animals in front of their wives and children, to intimidate them, so they won’t speak about domestic abuse within the home.

Why do some people and not others pull the wings off butterflies, toss firecrackers at cats, and shoot the neighbors’ dogs with BB guns?
The trait that is responsible is sadism.

The research was dreamed up by Dan Jones at the University of British Columbia (now at the University of Texas at El Paso). The experiment was, as my former psychology teacher Howard Polio used to say, “so good it makes your teeth hurt.”
The researchers constructed a bug crunching machine designed to give cheap thrill to latent sadists. The bug-cruncher was a modified coffee grinder with a tube attached to the top where you could drop live bugs. When a bug was dumped into the machine, the device would make a gruesome crunching sound. The animals used in the study were three pill bugs named Muffin, Tootsie, and Ike. About the size of coffee beans, pill bugs are actually crustaceans and more related to lobsters than true insects (here). Sometimes called roly-polis, pill bugs are cute (sort of), and are sometimes even kept as children’s pets. To enhance their likability, each bug was placed in a individual cup labeled with its name.
After being told the researchers were studying “personality and tolerance for challenging jobs,” the participants completed a battery of questionnaires. These included a measure of the three Dark Triad variables (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.) and a scale designed to measure individual differences in sadistic tendencies (ex., “I have fantasies which involve hurting people.”). They were then told they had to conduct one of four noxious tasks. They could either kill live bugs by dropping them into the crunching machine, help the experimenter kill bugs, clean a dirty toilet, or place their hand in ice cold water (very painful). If a subject chose to kill bugs, they had to actually drop at least one of the bugs into the cruncher. At the end of the experiment, the participants were asked to rate how much pleasure they got from participating in the study.
(Note that subjects who opted to clean the toilet or to put their hand in ice water were stopped before they started the task. And my animal activist pals will be happy to learn that none of the pillbugs were injured in the study—a hidden barrier prevented them from coming into contact with the crusher blades.)Did any of the subjects choose to kill Muffin, Tootsie, or Ike? Yes. Twenty-seven percent of them personally dropped bugs into the crusher, and another 27% choose to help the experimenter kill the bugs. Were the personalities of the bug killers different from the other subjects? Yes. The bug killers had the higher sadism scores than the other groups. Further, the bug killers could either stop at Muffin, or they could also, for kicks, toss Ike and/or Tootsie into the machine. The researchers found that bug killers with high levels of sadism reported they got more pleasure from their dastardly deeds than non-killers. And, as you might expect, the more pleasure the subjects got out of crunching animals, the more bugs they killed.
The most interesting aspect of the study (other than the creativity of the design and the fact that a quarter of college students opted to kill Muffin, Ike or Tootsie), was that a statistical analysis revealed that sadism was a bigger factor in predicting animal cruelty than the Dark Triad variables. …

So to sum up this very disorganized blog post,
1. a quarter of your fellow college students enjoy killing cute bugs.
2. a percentage of people who demonstrate noisily for a cause may not really be all that interested in the cause – it can be a means to an end
3. if you are suddenly shocked by the political choice of large numbers of people, it might be worthwhile to actually investigate why they made that choice, rather than dismiss them as ignorant or worse.
4. Some of your townsfolk may superficially look like everyone else, but may be sadistic, and of them, a smaller subset may have no moral brakes. The evil they do is only limited by their fear of consequences, and that fear may be very muted.

3 thoughts on “Who are the people around us?

  1. Excellent post and clearly and lucidly presented. The bug killing experiment sounds like a modern variant of the Milgram study, with the addition of the sadism variable. Brilliant idea — I’m just surprised the experiment was allowed by the powers that be on the grounds of unethical manipulation of subjects. It is hard to grasp that there are so many sadists around and I wonder if similar results would be obtained in other countries that don’t have such a history of violent crime. The lack of brain response to what most would regard as significant environmental stimuli certainly explains why some people don’t react to the threat of punishment. On the other hand, most people would be able to anticipate bad outcomes intellectually, so I think intelligence is another factor. A majority of sadists obviously have the sense to hide their evil side in dealings with others.

    1. I saw your comment after I cut out the second half of my post (on the advice of a reader who said mixing politics and crime makes for a very scattered blog post), but given that you commented on it, I put it back. I looked again at the bug crunching experiment, and it was devised by a prof from British Columbia, which I don’t think has a history of much violence. But is an interesting question as to what percentage of the population is a little too sadistic. To find out, you can think of situations that might give people a choice – for example, how many people would gloat over the downfall of a disliked person, and how many people would simply avoid that person. That is one way to find out what people are like. Anyone can sound noble and dedicated to great causes. That was one of the lessons I got from reading David Horowitz about the radicals he knew. But in practice, how they behave in certain situations tells you a lot more.
      Another issue is how we should look at crime. If criminals don’t have the emotional profile that we do, then this probably affects their very notion of right and wrong. In other words, if the criminal is not thinking “I really should not steal this car, but I really want it”, he may be thinking, “Anyone who leaves a key in the ignition deserves to lose a car”, or “this guy’s rich, I’m poor, and so I deserve his car” or whatever.
      So if I were a psychologist who had volunteers, I might try to correlate moral attitudes with these biological differences, and I might also try to find how they correlate with traits such as sadism. In fact, I might extend that to political attitudes on social justice, or regular justice.

      1. It sounds like the kind of research that people should be doing almost as a matter of urgency. Just one point to add: a majority of criminals act on impulse, they wouldn’t think about it at all — they would just jump in the car and drive off. In fact I suspect they don’t think about it even after they’re caught and imprisoned,except maybe to wonder how they could have done things differently to avoid capture. There is no logic or reason to it as far as they’re concerned. I recall a case where they were getting the victims of crime to meet those responsible and maybe form some deep relationship with them (sounds absurd to me, but that was the idea). The lady whose house was broken into was really puzzled over a strange thing: the burglar had carefully cut away a sheet of glass from the back door, and taken it some distance and placed it next to a garden shed. She kept thinking about this and couldn’t figure out why he had done it. When they met she came right out and asked him directly, why did you put the glass there? He replied, “I dunno…” And look at all the career criminals who cover themselves with distinctive tattoes to make it easy for witnesses to identify them, and then boast about their evil activities afterwards in front of bars full of complete strangers, amongst whom are usually some police informants? A woman who murdered someone was said to have told no less than 18 people about it! Yet when these people are caught and put in prison they say how terrible it is there, as though there is no connection at all between their actions and the punishment. In short their thinking ability is virtually zero. I think that would be another fruitful field of enquiry.

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