behaviorism

Between the Stimulus and the Response: the four functions of the Mind

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E Frankl

Schematic of an idealized analytical instrument.

Schematic of an idealized analytical instrument. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In today’s post I will be drawing heavily from the spiritual traditions of India (Yoga etc), and interested readers are redirected to these excellent sources for more information about the same.

As per the spiritual tradition of India, Mind (or Antahkaran) is made up of four functions or parts. These are Manas, Chitta, Ahamkar and Buddhi. These are typically translated as sensory-motor mind, memory bank, ego and intellect respectively. As an interesting aside, Buddha derives from the common root of Buddhi (budh- to know) and stands for the enlightened one.

Here is a brief description of the four functions:

Manas is ordinary, indeterminate thinking — just being aware that something is there and automatically registers the facts which the senses perceive.

 

The subconscious action, memory, etc., is caused by chitta. The function of chitta is chinta (contemplation), the faculty whereby the Mind in its widest sense raises for itself the subject of its thought and dwells thereon.

 

Buddhi determines, decides and logically comes to a conclusion that something is such-and-such a thing. That is another aspect of the operation of the psyche — buddhi or intellect. buddhi, on attending to such registration, discriminates, determines, and cognizes the object registered, which is set over and against the subjective self by aha?k?ra.

 

Ahamkara — ego, affirmation, assertion, ‘I know’. “I know that there is some object in front of me, and I also know that I know. I know that I am existing as this so-and-so.” This kind of affirmation attributed to one’s own individuality is the work of ahamkara, known as egoism.

There is also a hierarchical relation between these with Buddhi at the top and Manas at the bottom. Now, lets look at each of these more closely.

Manas, or sensory-motor mind, is not just registering stimulus but also responsible for executing actions and may be equated with the sensory/ motor cortical functions of the brain.  It controls the 10 Indriyas (5 senses and 5 action-oriented faculties). Its important to note that Manas is doing both the functions associated with stimulus as well as the response,  though its the first one when it comes to stimulus processing (registering the stimulus)  and the last one when it comes to executing responses/actions ( it blindly executes the action that has been decided / chosen upstream). Of course one could just have a reflex action where a stimulus leads to response, but in majority of human action, there is a space between the two. That space is provided by the rest of the mind functions.

Chitta, or memory-prospecting mind, may be typically equated with the association cortex part pf the brain. Many refer to chitta as the memory or impressions bank, but forget to mention the future oriented part of it. Here is a quote:

The part of the Mind thinking and visualizing the objects, events and experiences from the past or the future (emphasis mine) is called the Chitta and this act is called Chintan.

Its thus evident that Chitta drives Manas not only based on past memories, but also based on future expectations or predictions. From brain studies , we know that the same part of the brain is used for memory as well as prospection.  Chitta using past memories to drive manas (and thus behavior or motivated cognition) I view as being conditioned by classical conditioning processes. Chitaa using future expectations/ predictions to drive behavior and motivated cognition, I view as being conditioned by operant conditioning processes. In many philosophical and spiritual traditions, one of the aims is to get over (social) conditioning. Chitta hinders spiritual awakening by using habits, which is an integral pat of chitta function. The habits are nothing but the conditioning, but again one in stimulus path and the other in response/action path.

Ahamkara, or experiential-agentic self, may be typically equated with consciousness/ conscious and ego-driven self. It knows and say ‘I am’  Conscious entities typically have two functions- experience and agency. It is something it is to be like that conscious entity (experience) and the entity has volition or ability to do things (agency). The concept of self as a conscious entity that has experience (in the stimulus path) and agency (in the response/ action path) is important for this notion of ahamkara. With self comes concepts like real self and ideal self which drive and are driven by experience and agency respectively. The less the discrepancy between the two the better your spiritual growth. An interesting concept here is that of coloring or external decorations- your coloring or how you see your self do lead to downward impact on chitta and manas by contaminating the stimulus/ action.

Buddhi, or knowing-deciding mind, is the final frontier on your path to spirituality.  The typical functions associated with Buddhi are knowing, discriminating, judging and deciding. I think knowing/ discriminating (between stimuli/ actions etc) is a stimulus path function, while judging/ deciding (between actions/ responses/ attending to a stimuli) is a response path function. However I also believe they converge to a great extent here or else we will have a problem of turtles all the way down. Once you start to see things as they are, you are also able to choose wisely. At least that is what the scriptures say and what Boddhisattvas aspire or achieve.

To me this increasingly fine-grained control of what we perceive and how we act , from the gross actions and perceptions of manas to the discriminating decisions of buddhi are very intuitively appealing and also appear to be grounded in psychological and neural processes.

Mindfulness (Buddhism based) has become all the rage nowadays, yet if we look at the spiritual traditions of India, perhaps while Yoga defined as Chitta vritti nirodaha (or “Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind”) does refer to being in the present (here-and-now) and not to be disturbed by the perturbations of chitta (memories of past or expectations of future), one also needs to go beyond just Chitta vritti, to addressing the Ahamkara coloring and finally to try achieving the Buddha nature where there is little disparity in doing and being. (Mindfulness) Meditation needs to move beyond being curious, non-judgemental  and in the present to where one doe shave a judgement function, but one that is perfectly attuned.

Major conscious and unconcoscious processes in the brain

Today I plan to touch upon the topic of consciousness (from which many bloggers shy) and more broadly try to delineate what I believe are the important different conscious and unconscious processes in the brain. I will be heavily using my evolutionary stages model for this.

To clarify myself at the very start , I do not believe in a purely reactive nature of organisms; I believe that apart from reacting to stimuli/world; they also act , on their own, and are thus agents. To elaborate, I believe that neuronal groups and circuits may fire on their own and thus lead to behavior/ action. I do not claim that this firing is under voluntary/ volitional control- it may be random- the important point to note is that there is spontaneous motion.

  1. Sensory system: So to start with I propose that the first function/process the brain needs to develop is to sense its surroundings. This is to avoid predators/ harm in general. this sensory function of brain/sense organs may be unconscious and need not become conscious- as long as an animal can sense danger, even though it may not be aware of the danger, it can take appropriate action – a simple ‘action’ being changing its color to merge with background. 
  2. Motor system:The second function/ process that the brain needs to develop is to have a system that enables motion/movement. This is primarily to explore its environment for food /nutrients. Preys are not going to walk in to your mouth; you have to move around and locate them. Again , this movement need not be volitional/conscious – as long as the animal moves randomly and sporadically to explore new environments, it can ‘see’ new things and eat a few. Again this ‘seeing’ may be as simple as sensing the chemical gradient in a new environmental.
  3. Learning system: The third function/process that the brain needs to develop is to have a system that enables learning. It is not enough to sense the environmental here-and-now. One needs to learn the contingencies in the world and remember that both in space and time. I am inclined to believe that this is primarily pavlovaion conditioning and associative learning, though I don’t rule out operant learning. Again this learning need not be conscious- one need not explicitly refer to a memory to utilize it- unconscious learning and memory of events can suffice and can drive interactions. I also believe that need for this function is primarily driven by the fact that one interacts with similar environments/con specifics/ predators/ preys and it helps to remember which environmental conditions/operant actions lead to what outcomes. This learning could be as simple as stimuli A predict stimuli B and/or that action C predicts reward D .
  4. Affective/ Action tendencies system .The fourth function I propose that the brain needs to develop is a system to control its motor system/ behavior by making it more in sync with its internal state. This I propose is done by a group of neurons monitoring the activity of other neurons/visceral organs and thus becoming aware (in a non-conscious sense)of the global state of the organism and of the probability that a particular neuronal group will fire in future and by thus becoming aware of the global state of the organism , by their outputs they may be able to enable one group to fire while inhibiting other groups from firing. To clarify by way of example, some neuronal groups may be responsible for movement. Another neuronal group may be receiving inputs from these as well as say input from gut that says that no movement has happened for a time and that the organism has also not eaten for a time and thus is in a ‘hungry’ state. This may prompt these neurons to fire in such a way that they send excitatory outputs to the movement related neurons and thus biasing them towards firing and thus increasing the probability that a motion will take place and perhaps the organism by indulging in exploratory behavior may be able to satisfy hunger. Of course they will inhibit other neuronal groups from firing and will themselves stop firing when appropriate motion takes place/ a prey is eaten. Again nothing of this has to be conscious- the state of the organism (like hunger) can be discerned unconsciously and the action-tendencies biasing foraging behavior also activated unconsciously- as long as the organism prefers certain behaviors over others depending on its internal state , everything works perfectly. I propose that (unconscious) affective (emotional) state and systems have emerged to fulfill exactly this need of being able to differentially activate different action-tendencies suited to the needs of the organism. I also stick my neck out and claim that the activation of a particular emotion/affective system biases our sensing also. If the organism is hungry, the food tastes (is unconsciously more vivid) better and vice versa. thus affects not only are action-tendencies , but are also, to an extent, sensing-tendencies.
  5. Decisional/evaluative system: the last function (for now- remember I adhere to eight stage theories- and we have just seen five brain processes in increasing hierarchy) that the brain needs to have is a system to decide / evaluate. Learning lets us predict our world as well as the consequences of our actions. Affective systems provide us some control over our behavior and over our environment- but are automatically activated by the state we are in. Something needs to make these come together such that the competition between actions triggered due to the state we are in (affective action-tendencies) and the actions that may be beneficial given the learning associated with the current stimuli/ state of the world are resolved satisfactorily. One has to balance the action and reaction ratio and the subjective versus objective interpretation/ sensation of environment. The decisional/evaluative system , I propose, does this by associating values with different external event outcomes and different internal state outcomes and by resolving the trade off between the two. This again need not be conscious- given a stimuli predicting a predator in vicinity, and the internal state of the organism as hungry, the organism may have attached more value to ‘avoid being eaten’ than to ‘finding prey’ and thus may not move, but camouflage. On the other hand , if the organisms value system is such that it prefers a hero’s death on battlefield , rather than starvation, it may move (in search of food) – again this could exist in the simplest of unicellular organisms.

Of course all of these brain processes could (and in humans indeed do) have their conscious counterparts like Perception, Volition,episodic Memory, Feelings and Deliberation/thought. That is a different story for a new blog post!

And of course one can also conceive the above in pure reductionist form as a chain below:

sense–>recognize & learn–>evaluate options and decide–>emote and activate action tendencies->execute and move.

and then one can also say that movement leads to new sensation and the above is not a chain , but a part of cycle; all that is valid, but I would sincerely request my readers to consider the possibility of spontaneous and self-driven behavior as separate from reactive motor behavior. 

A gene implicated in operant learning finally discovered

Till now, most of the research on learning at the molecular level or LTP/TLD has focused on classical conditioning paradigms. To my knowledge for the first time someone has started looking at whether , on the molecular level, classical conditioning , which works by associations between external stimuli, is differently encoded and implemented from operant learning , which depends on learning the reward contingencies of one’s spontaneously generated behavior.

Bjorn Brembs and colleagues have shown that the normal learning pathway implicated in classical conditioning, which involves Rugbata gene in fruit fly and works on adenylyl cyclase (AC) , is not involved in pure operant learning; rather pure operant learning is mediated by Protein Kinase C (PKC) pathways. This is not only a path breaking discovery , as it cleary shows the double dissociation showing genetically mutant flies, it is also a marvelous example fo how a beautiful experimental setup was convened to separate and remove the classical conditioning effects from normal operant learning and generate a pure operant learning procedure. You can read more about the procedure on Bjorn Brembs site and he also maintains a very good blog, so check that out too.

Here is the abstract of the article and the full article is available at the Bjorn Brembs site.

Learning about relationships between stimuli (i.e., classical conditioning ) and learning about consequences of one’s own behavior (i.e., operant conditioning ) constitute the major part of our predictive understanding of the world. Since these forms of learning were recognized as two separate types 80 years ago , a recurrent concern has been the
issue of whether one biological process can account for both of them . Today, we know the anatomical structures required for successful learning in several different paradigms, e.g., operant and classical processes can be localized to different brain regions in rodents [9] and an identified neuron in Aplysia shows opposite biophysical changes after operant and classical training, respectively. We also know to some detail the molecular mechanisms underlying some forms of learning and memory consolidation. However, it is not known whether operant and classical learning can be distinguished at the molecular level. Therefore, we investigated whether genetic manipulations could differentiate between operant and classical learning in dorsophila. We found a double dissociation of protein kinase C and adenylyl cyclase on operant and classical learning. Moreover, the two learning systems interacted hierarchically such that classical predictors were learned preferentially over operant predictors.

Do take a look at the paper and the experimental setup and lets hope that more focus on operant learning would be the focus from now on and would lead to a paradigmatic shift in molecular neuroscience with operant conditioning results more applicable to humans than classical conditioning results, in my opinion.

ResearchBlogging.org
B BREMBS, W PLENDL (2008). Double Dissociation of PKC and AC Manipulations on Operant and Classical Learning in Drosophila Current Biology, 18 (15), 1168-1171 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.07.041

Cloninger’s Temaparements and character traits: room for a behaviorist view?

Today I wish to discuss C. Robert Cloninger’s theory of temperaments and character traits. It is a psycho biological theory based on genetic and neural substrates and mechanisms and in it he proposes for the existence of four temperament traits and three character traits; thus talking about seven personality traits. First the abstract to give you some idea:

In this study, we describe a psychobiological model of the structure and development of personality that accounts for dimensions of both temperament and character. Previous research has confirmed four dimensions of temperament: novelty seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence, which are independently heritable, manifest early in life, and involve preconceptual biases in perceptual memory and habit formation. For the first time, we describe three dimensions of character that mature in adulthood and influence personal and social effectiveness by insight learning about self-concepts. Self-concepts vary according to the extent to which a person identifies the self as (1) an autonomous individual, (2) an integral part of humanity, and (3) an integral part of the universe as a whole. Each aspect of self-concept corresponds to one of three character dimensions called self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence, respectively. We also describe the conceptual background and development of a self-report measure of these dimensions, the Temperament and Character Inventory. Data on 300 individuals from the general population support the reliability and structure of these seven personality dimensions. We discuss the implications for studies of information processing, inheritance, development, diagnosis, and treatment

This article provides an excellent in-depth look at the Temperament and character Inventory (TCI) developed by Cloninger and it gives detailed description of all the traits and their sub-scales or facets.

I’ll list them briefly below (in order )(along with their sub scales/ facets)

I) Novelty seeking (NS)

  1. Exploratory excitability (NS1)
  2. Impulsiveness (NS2)
  3. Extravagance (NS3)
  4. Disorderliness (NS4)

II) Harm avoidance (HA)

  1. Anticipatory worry (HA1)
  2. Fear of uncertainty (HA2)
  3. Shyness (HA3)
  4. Fatigability (HA4)

III) Reward dependence (RD)

  1. Sentimentality (RD1)
  2. Openness to warm communication (RD2)
  3. Attachment (RD3
  4. Dependence (RD4)

IV) Persistence (PS)

  1. Eagerness of effort (PS1)
  2. Work hardened (PS2)
  3. Ambitious (PS3)
  4. Perfectionist (PS4)

V) Self-directedness (SD)

  1. Responsibility (SD1)
  2. Purposeful (SD2)
  3. Resourcefulness (SD3)
  4. Self-acceptance (SD4)
  5. Enlightened second nature (SD5)

VI) Cooperativeness (C)

  1. Social acceptance (C1)
  2. Empathy (C2)
  3. Helpfulness (C3)
  4. Compassion (C4)
  5. Pure-hearted conscience (C5)

VII) Self-transcendence (ST)

  1. Self-forgetful (ST1)
  2. Transpersonal identification (ST2)
  3. Spiritual acceptance (ST3)

To me this lacks one more trait and I’m sure Cloninger will identify and add one more in the future (he added the three character traits relatively late).

Now for the meat of the post. My thesis is that these are similar to the Big Eight temperaments that I have discussed in my earlier post and follow the same eight fold developmental/evolutionary pattern. Further , I would claim that each facet of a trait follows the same structure. Most traits have 4 or 5 facets and these are typically related to 5 major ways of reacting/ relating to world around us. It is also my thesis that juts as cloninger had tied the initial three traits to behavioral inhibition, behavioral approach and behavioral maintenance and to the three neurotransmitter systems of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine respectively; the same line of argument can be extended to other facets and new biogenic amine CNS neurotransmitters pathways correlated with each trait.

Harm Avoidance:

Individuals high in HA tend to be cautious, careful,fearful, tense, apprehensive, nervous, timid, doubtful,discouraged, insecure, passive, negativistic, or pessimistic even in situations that do not normally worry other people. These individuals tend to be inhibited and shy in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be low and they feel chronically tired or easily fatigued. As a consequence they need more reassurance and encouragement than most people and are usually sensitive to criticism and punishment. The advantages of of high Harm Avoidance are the greater care and caution in anticipating possible danger, which leads to careful planning when danger is possible. The disadvantages occur when danger is unlikely but still anticipated, such pessimism or inhibition leads to unnecessary worry.

In contrast, individuals with low scores on this temperament dimension tend to be carefree, relaxed, daring, courageous, composed, and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. These individuals are described as outgoing, bold, and confident in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be high, and they impress others as dynamic, lively, and vigorous persons. The advantages of low Harm Avoidance are confidence in the face of danger and uncertainty,leading to optimistic and energetic efforts with little or no distress. The disadvantages are related to unresponsiveness to danger, which can lead to reckless optimism.

Form the above it is clear that this is related to Neurotcisim and. This would also be related to anxiety witnessed in clinical situations and requiring treatment. It is instructive to note that Cloninger proposes Serotonin CNS system as a substrate for this trait and that many anti-anxiety drugs actually target serotonin receptors (SSRIS are the best anti anxiety drugs).also as per the model this is involved in behavior inhibition. Let me elaborate that and propose that what is meant by behavior inhibition is learning to avoid the predator. In operant conditioning paradigms this would be learning due to Positive punishment. Learning to inhibit a pre-potent behavior because of punishments.

Novelty Seeking:

Individuals high in Novelty Seeking tend to be quick-tempered, excitable, exploratory, curious, enthusiastic, ardent, easily bored, impulsive, and disorderly The advantages of high Novelty Seeking are enthusiastic and quick engagement with whatever is new and unfamiliar, which leads to exploration of potential rewards. The disadvantages are related to excessive anger and quick disengagement whenever their wishes are frustrated, which leads to inconsistencies in relationships and instability in efforts.

In contrast, individuals low in Novelty Seeking are described as slow tempered, indifferent, uninquisitive, unenthusiastic, umemotional, reflective, thrifty, reserved, tolerant of monotony, systematic, and orderly.

These are classical Impulsiveness related symptoms and can be safely associated with the dopamine system. this trait then is related to conscientiousness and is driven by rewards and reward-related behavior learning. Excess is this trait may result in psychosis and many anti-psychotic drugs act on this dopamine system. This is the traditional behavioral activation system. In operant conditioning terms we can call this learning under positive reinforcement. New behaviors are learned or strength of old behaviors is modified (increased) in the presence of primary reinforces like food, sex,(even money) etc).

Reward dependence:

Individuals who score high in Reward Dependence tend to be tender-hearted, loving and warm, sensitive, dedicated, dependent, and sociable. They seek social contact and are open to communication with other people. Typically, they find people they like everywhere they go. A major advantage of high Reward Dependence is the sensitivity to social cues, which facilitates warm social relations and understanding of others’ feelings. A major disadvantage of high Reward Dependence involves the ease with which other people can influence the dependent person’s views and feelings, possibly leading to loss of objectivity.

Individuals low on the Reward Dependence are often described as practical, tough minded, cold, and socially insensitive. They are content to be alone and rarely initiate open communication with others. They prefer to keep their distance and typically have difficulties in finding something in common with other people. An advantage of low Reward Dependence is that independence from sentimental considerations.

From the above it is clear that this is related to trait Extraversion or sociability and influences how adept, and prone, one is at forming alliances and friends. This has been hypothesized to be related to norepinephrine system and related to behavioral maintenance. In operant conditioning terms , I interpret it as maintaining a behavior despite no real (primary) reinforcement, but just because of secondary reinforcement (social approval, praise, status etc). This is not necessary maladaptive and secondary reinforcement are necessary; but too much dependence on that may lead to depression. Initial anti-depressants all worked on the norepinepherine system and the monoamine theory of depression is still around. I believe that depression is multi-factorial, but the social striving/approval/negotiation is a prime facet underlying the illness.

Persistence:

Individuals high in Persistence tend to be industrious, hard-working, persistent, and stable despite frustration and fatigue. They typically intensify their effort in response to anticipated reward. They are ready to volunteer when there is something to be done, and are eager to start work on any assigned duty. Persistent persons tend to perceive frustration and fatigue as a personal challenge. They do not give up easily and, in fact, tend to work extra hard when criticized or confronted with mistakes in their work. Highly persistent persons tend to be ambitious overachievers
who are willing to make major sacrifices to be a success. A highly persistent individual may tend to be a perfectionist and a workaholic who pushes him/herself far beyond what is necessary to get by.High Persistence is an adaptive behavioral strategy when rewards are intermittent but the contingencies remain stable. However, when the contingencies change rapidly, perseveration becomes maladaptive.

When reward contingencies are stable, individuals low in Persistence are viewed as indolent, inactive, unreliable, unstable and erratic on the basis of both self-reports and interviewer ratings. They rarely intensify their effort even in response to anticipated reward. These persons rarely volunteer for anything they do not have to do, and typically go slow in starting work, even if it is easy to do. They tend to give up easily when faced with frustration, criticism, obstacles, and fatigue. These persons are usually satisfied with their current accomplishments, rarely strive for bigger and better things, and are frequently described as underachievers who could probably accomplish for than they actually do, but do not push themselves harder than it is necessary to get by. Low scorers manifest a low level of perseverance and repetitive behaviors even in response to intermittent reward. Low Persistence is an adaptive strategy when reward contingencies change rapidly and may be maladaptive when rewards are infrequent but occur in the long run.

By some stretch of imagination one can relate this to being empathetic or agreeable. (volunteering etc) and thus to agreeableness. One way this could be related to parental investment is that those who do not care for their kids have children that give up easily and are frustrated easily; thus the same mechanism may lie both parental care behavior and persistent behavior in the kid. This behavior/trait I propose may be related to epinepherine CNS system. This is related to behavior persistence; in opernat conditioning terms this is behavior persistence despite no primary or even secondary reinforcement. Of course extinction will eventually happen in absence of reward, but factors like time/ no. of trials taken to archive extinction may be a factor here. Although, behavior is not reinforced at all still it is persisted with and maybe even different related variations tried to get the desired reward. Stimulants as a class of drug may be acting on this pathway, stimulating individuals to engage in behavior despite no reinforcement.

Self-directedness:

Highly self-directed persons are described as mature, strong, self-sufficient, responsible, reliable, goaloriented, constructive, and well-integrated individuals when they have the opportunity for personal leadership. They have good self-esteem and self-reliance. The most distinctive characteristics of self-directed individuals is that they are effective, able to adapt their behavior in accord with individualy chosen, voluntary goals. When a self-directed individual is required to follow the orders of others in authority, they may be viewed as rebellious trouble maker because they challenge the goals and values of those in authority.

In contrast, individuals who are low in Self-Directedness are described as immature, weak, fragile, blaming, destructive, ineffective, irresponsible, unreliable, and poorly integrated when they are not conforming to the direction of a mature leader. They are frequently described by clinicians as immature or having a personality disorder. They seem to be lacking an internal organizational principle, which renders them unable to define, set, and pursue meaningful goals. Instead, they experience numerous minor, short term, frequently mutually exclusive motives, none of which can develop to the point of long lasting personal significance and realization.

To me the above looks very much like the Rebelliousness/ conformity facet of Openness or intellect. The core idea being whether one has archived ego-integrity and good habits. I propose that histamine or melatonin may be the mono amine CNS system involved here, though phenuylethylamine(PEA) also seems a good target, so do tyrosine and other trace amines. Whatever be the neurotransmitter system involved, the operant conditioning phenomenon would be learning to engage in behavior despite +ve punishment. thus, the ability to go against the grain, convention, or social expectations and be true to oneself. This behavior can be called learning under -ve reinforcement i.e engaging in a behavior despite there being troubling things around, in the hope that they would be taken away on successful new behavior. I would also relate this to behavioral reportaire of the individual. People high on this trait would show greater behavioral variability during extinction trials and come up with novel and insightful problem solving behaviors.

That is it for now; I hope to back up these claims, and extend this to the rest of the 3 traits too in the near future. Some things I am toying with is either classical conditioning and avoidance learning on these higher levels; or behavior remembering (as opposed to learning) at these higher levels. Also other neurotransmitter systems like gluatamete, glycine, GABA and aspartate may be active at the higher levels. Also neuro peptides too are broadly classified in five groups so they too may have some role here. Keep guessing and do contribute to the theory if you can!!

The situational factors: compliance, personality and charachter

I’ve recently come across a new blog the Situationist and have just read a three part article by the famed Phillip Zimbardo (who has conducted the Stanford prison experiments) titled Situational sources of evil.

In the part I, he discusses Stanley Milgram’s compliance experiments wherein under the authority of a professor, subjects were forced to apply outrageous electric shocks to the confederates. This experiment was a classical one in social psychology and showed how under the situations of authority, normal individuals can be made to do evil deeds in the laboratory. Milgram also did a number of variations of this experiment to find out what factors facilitated compliance and which factors enabled resistance to authority.

In Part II, Zimbardo discusses how these laboratory results can be extended to the real world phenomenons like the holocaust/ palestentain suicide bombers/ suicide cults and how most of the perpetrators are very common people (banality of evil).

In part III, Zimbardo outlines 10 learnings from Milgram’s experiments and I find then worth summarizing here –

Compliance can be increased by :

  1. A pseudo-legal contract that binds one to the act (which may not be construed as evil, a priori, but becomes evil while actual execution). also the public declarations of commitment force cognitive dissonance and make people stick to their ‘contracts’.
  2. Meaningful social roles like ‘teacher’ etc given to the perpetrators. They may find solace under the fact that their social role demands the unavoidable evil.
  3. Adherence to and sanctity of rules that were initially agreed upon. The rules may be subtly changed, but an emphasis on rule-based behavior would guarantee better compliance.
  4. Right framing of the issues concerned. Insteada of ‘hurting the participant’ framing it as ‘improving the learners learning ability’. Regular readers will note how committed I personally am to the framing effects.
  5. Diffusion/ abdication of responsibility: Either enabling the responsibility for the evil act to be taken upon by a senior authority; or by having many non-rebelling peers diffuse responsibility similar to the bystander effect.
  6. Small evil acts initially to reduce the resistance to recruitment. Once into the fold, one may increase the atrocities demanded from the perpetrator.
  7. Gradual increase in the degree of the evil act. Sudden and large jumps in evilness of the acts are bound to be resisted more.
  8. Morphing the Authority from just and reasonable initially to unjust and unreasonable in the later parts.
  9. High exit costs. You cannot beat the system, so better join it! The system can beat you up, so better remain in it!! also, allow dissent or freedom of voice, but suppress freedom of action!!!
  10. An overarching lie or framework or ‘cover story’ that gives a positive spin to the evil acts (in good terms)..’this experiment would help humanity’ , ‘Jews are bad/inferior and need to be eliminated’ etc.

Zimbardo is hopeful that by recognizing these factors that normally help in compliance to unjust and irrational authority, one can have the courage and acumen to resist such authority. The two traits he picks up are taking responsibility for one’s own acts and asserting one’s own authority.


The word character is normally frowned upon, and rarely used, in psychological discourses nowadays, but like Zimbardo I would like to highlight Eric Fromm’s works like Escape from Freedom in this regard, which posit that one can overcome the natural tendency to escape from one’s freedom and sense of responsibility and make a positive character or habitual behavioral tendencies that takes full responsibility for the self.

There is another related debate to which I would like to draw attention. Normally it is posited that we are composed of temperaments or personality traits ( the most famous being the Big Five or OCEAN traits) and much of our behavior is a result of our inherent tendencies.

A dissenting voice is of Walter Mischel , who claims that the concept of personality is vague and much of behavior is due to situational factors. I’m sure the truth is more towards a middle ground and like genes and environment, both personality and situations affect a behavioral outcome. Not stopping here I also see a role here for acquired propensities or habits or character that can overcome both the underlying propensities and the situational factors. Even after taking character into account our acts may not be totally non-deterministic or free or non-predictable, but could be free in a limited sense that we, ourselves, incorporated those habits/ character traits. We may still behave predictably, but that would not be due to our conditionings or situational factors; but because of an acquired character.

Go to Top