People since time immemorial have been fascinated by the problem of evil; some consider it a philosophical (why does evil exist?) and religious problem (Why does god allow evil if he is omnipotent and benevolent?) while some others have taken a more scientific approach.
Prominent psychologists from Roy Baumeister to Simon Baron-Cohen have written about evil and I first got drawn into psychology when I read ‘The anatomy of human destructiveness‘ by Erich Fromm in 1992, while still in college. As a matter of fact Fromm first came up with the term ‘malignant narcissism’ which was a sort of predecessor to the modern theory of an evil personality.
The modern theory of evil personality has recognized the existence of a dark triad- Narcissism, Machiavellianissm and Psychopathy, and recent studies and conceptualization have extended this to include a fourth trait called Sadism to make it a dark tetrad.
Research has shown that these four traits are moderately correlated to each other but are separate constructs.
But first lets understand what we mean by these terms.
Sadism: Everyday sadism, includes but is not limited to sadism in a sexual context. Put simply, it is a tendency to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others, either directly or vicariously. Normally, if we hurt someone else we feel guilt and shame and distress etc; sadists instead become addicted to such hurting others events as they feel diminished negative affect in hurting someone and instead feel pleasure.
Narcissism: Narcissists have a grandiose sense of self; they also feel very entitled; they are exploitative and demonstrate attention-seeking behavior.
Machiavellianism: Machiavellianism is basically having no qualms in manipulating people; they are also very good at such manipulations and are calculating and cold in their calculations..
Psychopathy: Psychopaths, apart from demonstrating anti-social behavior, are characteristic by their callous and unemotional attitude towards others people suffering. some people believe they lack empathy, while others believe they can cognitively know what it feels like, but do not affectively feel in the same way as their victims.
There is a rich body of literature linking the dark tetrad to many negative outcomes ranging from over-representation in internet trolling to more juvenile delinquency.
There is also some evidence linking these traits diffferentially to the big HEXACO/big five traits. for eg. Narcissism is associated with Extraversion, while Machiavellianism is associated with less Agreeablness; Sadism with less Emotionality, while Psychopathy with less Conscientiousness. The lowered scores on Humility-Honesty dimension of HEXACO are associated with all the four dark triad traits.
Similarly, the traits react differently when provoked: Narcissists aggression is insecurity driven; sadistic persons pleasure driven while that of a psychopath revenge driven.
Referring to my previous post, one can even conjecture that sadism is the Life schema/ Pain-pleasure axis gone wrong; Narcissism is due to inflated self schema; Machiavellianism a result of dysfunctional Others schema, while Psychopathy tied to deficiencies in the World schema.
It would be a mistake to presume that this dark triad is a categorical difference- its a dimensional difference and of degree rather than kind. All of us demonstrate some Machiavellian behavior or say everyday Sadism and its only a matter of time if these tendencies go unchecked you end up on the other side. As the popular saying goes, there are two wolves inside of us, the one which grows depends on which wolf you feed.
Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow‘ elucidates the two type of thinking processes involved- a system I consisting of fast, intuitive processing, and a system II consisting of slower, more deliberate processing. Lesser known is the fact that a similar dual process theory of personality that precedes his work is by Seymour Epstien.
Epstien is know for his Cognitive-Experiential Self theory of Personalty (CEST), according to which he reintroduced the concept of unconscious in psychology, in the form of the Experiential system, but his unconscious was not maladaptive and instinct driven, but more adaptive in nature.
Essentially, Epstien acknowledges the massive role Experiential system has on the rational system, postulating that most of the behavior is Experiential driven and only pots hoc rationalized by the Rational system.
The Experiential system, though unconscious is not made up of repressed desires or works on the Pleasure principle, but instead is geared towards satisfying four basic needs. He later added two super-ordinate needs – one related to Valence or positive affcet- negative affect polarity and the other related to Arousal. Its pertinent to note that the Experiential system of CEST is very much affect driven and ‘hot’ rather than ‘cold’ in nature.
Essentially, Epstien himself tacitly split the four needs into eight by claiming that each need can be split around the super-ordinate need of positive affect- negative affect polarity. Here are the four basic needs made explicit.
In classical Freudian theory, the one most basic need before his introduction of a death instinct was the pleasure principle, which refers to the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of and pain (Freud, 1924/1960). Some learning theorists such as Thorndike (1927) make a similar assumption in their view of the importance of affective reinforcement. For object-relations theorists, most notably Bowlby (1988), the most fundamental need is the need for relatedness. For Rogers (1951) and other phenomenological psychologists, it is the need to maintain the stability and coherence of a person’s conceptual system. For Allport (1961) and Kohut (1971), it is the need to enhance self-esteem. (For a more thorough discussion of these proposals see Epstein, 1993, 1998b.) From the perspective of CEST, the four proposed basic needs all meet the following criteria for a basic need: the need is universal, the need can dominate the other basic needs, a failure to fulfill the need can destabilize the overall conceptual system.
These four basic needs may be satisfied to various degrees during critical developmental periods and lead to four basic types of beliefs. Even a scale has been created to measure these basic beliefs:
The Basic Beliefs Inventory (BBI). The BBI (Catlin & Epstein, 1992) is a 102-item measure of beliefs associated with the satisfaction of four basic needs that motivate behavior according to CEST (see Epstein, 1991). The four basic beliefs are (1) the belief that the world is benign versus malevolent; (2) the belief that the world is meaningful (i.e., predictable, controllable, and just) versus chaotic (i.e., unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unjust); (3) the belief that relations with others are supportive versus threatening; and (4) the belief that the self is worthy (i.e., competent, good, and lovable) versus unworthy (i.e., incompetent, bad, and unlovable).
To me this aligns very well with the fundamental four model. To recap , as per the fundamental four model there are four polarities of basic motivations or drives: pleasure/ pain; active/passive; self/other and broad/narrow.
I would like to take this opportunity to expand the CEST and merge it with the fundamental four framework.
As per CEST, we all have beliefs or schema or models about self, others, the inanimate world and these are significantly involved in psychopathology.
I would propose that we have four basic models with 2 sub-models each. The four basic models are related to Life (where self and others or environment is not typically distinguished from each other), a Self model, an Other model and a World model.
Life-past-and-present: How do we view life that has already happened? If the experiences were mostly good, we see life as beautiful or benign; if the experiences were mostly bad, we view life as sucking or malevolent.
Life-yet-to-come: How do expect the future to be like? if we expect life to be full of adventure and hope we feel life is promising; if we expect life to be mostly downhill, we feel that life is bleak.
Self’s-impact-on-Env: How much control do we feel we have over our environment? Are we in control, can we chose our niches and are our efforts rewarded and effective? If yes we have feelings of positive self – esteem, otherwise we feel incompetent.
Env-Impact-on-self: Does our environment allow us any autonomy in regulating our behavior? Does it act for our benefit or to our advantage? If the environment provides unconditional positive regard, we develop positive self-worth and feel competent dealing with life’s curve-balls ; else we end up feeling worthless.
Others-same-as-me: Am I part of the In-group? If we are accepted as part of the ingroup, our needs of belonging are satisfied; else we feel lonely.
Others-different-than-me: Can I trust them? Will they trust me? After all they are an outgroup. If we are able to rise above our fears and distrust, our needs for connection are satisfied, else we remain isolated.
Physical-World:Is the physical universe lawful? is it determined and non-miraculous? If our precepts lead us to believe that we live in a lawful universe, we have a stable overarching schema; whenever we witness something not inline with the laws of nature, that schema goes for a toss.
Social-World: Is the social world predictable? do actions of people make sense or is there too much randomness? If the social world seems predictable and lawful in its own sense, then we can maintain a coherent worldview; else if we encounter too many behaviors or events of which we cannot make sense we risk becoming incoherent.
It is my contention that dysfunctional beliefs at each of these eight sub-models lead to different types of psychopathology. For eg. the Life model that say that life is malevolent/ bleak may lead to anxiety ; a Self model claiming that the self is worthless/ incompetent may lead to depression; while a World model were events/percepts don’t make sense and is incoherent/unstable may lead to psychosis.
And of course this may be mediated by early life experiences/ genetic propensities that give rise to differences in brain neurotransmitter systems. But a detailed model about that should be the subject of a new post.
Most readers I presume are familiar with the work of Kahneman and Tversky on how statements framed in either loss or gain lead to different outcomes; however this is not a post about prospect theory. Instead this is about a different type of framing: whether the goals you set for yourself are in terms of approach or avoidance, and is loosely based around the work of AJ Elliot as also that of Higgins around prevention and promotion focus.
One can set an approach goal or a goal with promotion focus (I’m using these interchangeably in this post though there are important theoretical differences) wherein one is very much focused on achieving a positive outcome. Or one could set an avoidance goal or a goal with prevention focus whereby one is overtly focused on not achieving or ending up in a negative state.
To illustrate by way of an example, if I am studying and appearing for an exam in near future, I may phrase my approach goal as ‘I want to pass in this exam’ or I may phrase my avoidance goal as ‘I don’t want to fail in this exam’. From a lay reading both goals may seem equivalent but they are not. They have different repercussions in terms of emotions felt while pursuing the goals etc.
Research has also shown that some people have a more approach oriented temperament and other more avoidance or preventive focused.
Avoidance goals are typically related to your fears and anxieties while approach goals to what you look forward to and are excited about.
Consider a scenario where you don’t currently have any overarching, activated goal. If you frame this lack of goals in avoidance terms that ‘I don’t have anything to be worried about’ you are likely to feel calm; on the other hand phrasing it as ‘I don’t have anything to look forward to’ will lead to you likely feeling bored.
Thus, while presence of an avoidance goal leads to fear, an absence of the same leads to calm; the presence of an approach goal leads to excitement/ Interest/ curiosity while the absence of same leads to boredom.
Another important theory by Carver and Scheier stresses the emergence of emotions as indicators of progress towards goals- with positive emotions arising if you are making progress toward the goal and negative emotions if you are not making sufficient progress.
Applying the same to the two different framing of goals, if you are progressing towards an approach goal say ‘I am likely to pass the exam’ you are likely to feel quite happy about the fact; however if you are far from achieving the approach goal say ‘I am unlikely to pass the exam’, you may become sad. Similarly, if you are progressing well towards an avoidance goal (‘I am likely to not fail’) you may feel relief; while if you are not making progress towards the avoidance goal (‘I am likely to fail’ ) then you will feel much stress.
Next consider the avoidance/ approach goal to be framed in zero-sum or non-zero sum game terms. A zero sum game is where if one person wins then the other loses; a non zero sum game is where there can be multiple winners and nobody’s payoff gets diminished due to others winning.
A zero sum avoidance game sees either winner or loser in a social situation and believes that the only way to not fail is to not let others succeed too and may phrase its goal like ‘I don’t want to be the loser’. This may justifiably lead to feelings of anger and aggression when interacting socially with other con-specifics while trying to pursue this goal; On the other hand a non-zero sum avoidance goal assumes that it is possible that everyone may fail or everyone may win and the attitude is more compassionate towards con-specifics who are all suffering and focused on not failing. The phrasing of goal is slightly different ‘I don’t want to be a loser’.
A zero sum approach game again sees either a winner or a loser in any social interaction but is focused on winning ‘I want to be the winner’ . This leads to justifiable competitiveness; a non zero sum reading of the same situation ‘I want to be a winner’ leads to much more altruistic and kind emotions and behaviors.
I can vouch for this from personal experience too- when I was preparing for JEE I just wanted to be one of the top 100 and did not look at my friends who were also preparing as competitors but as collaborators- because I wanted to be ‘a’ winner, not ‘the’ winner.
The last set of emotions tied to these different framing are when one either satisfactorily completes the avoidance/ approach goal or fails to do so.
Consider satisfactory completion of an avoidance goal- ‘I did not fail’ – because the initial goal if farmed negatively one may be surprised at the results; if however on does fail one may be filled with disgust.
Satisfactory completion of an approach goal – ‘I passed’ may lead to feelings of wonder/ awe/ gratitude while unsatisfactory completion or failure- I did not pass’ may lead to feelings of shock etc.
Thus, I believe there are at least 16 different types of emotional responses eight tied to approach goals and eight to avoidance goals- approach goals related emotions are excitement/ boredom; happiness/sadness; competition/ kindness; and wonder/ shock. Avoidance related emotions are fear/ calm; relief/ stress; aggression/ compassion ; and disgust/ surprise.
This of course is based on theory as well as my reading of some empirical work done on emotions related to approach/ avoidance. However, there is a lot of scope for additional research to validate these predictions- I hope someone out there does do some research around this framework.
In that chapter, Mihaly claims that human brains are unique in lieu of their ability to give rise to self-reflective consciousness (I believe that many primates and some other animals may also have self-reflective consciousness, but that is tangential to our discussion here). This self-reflective consciousness in turn leads to some interesting psychological effects.
To begin with, the self-reflective consciousness gives rise to a sense of individuality– a sense that one is an individual separate from the nature/ environment. This sense of individuality leads to an anxiety about death. In Mihaly’s own words:
Selfishness and cruelty, which formerly existed mainly as tools for biological survival, now have become extended to protect the psychological needs of the self, for the metabrain cannot help but conclude that its own existence is the most precious thing in the world, and all other goals pale in importance compared to its preservation. The terror of nonexistence, the fear of death, has become one of the ruling motives of humans.
This fear and reality of death is one of the first and foremost existential concern. The second concern that one typically encounters in existential texts is the fear and reality of freedom or choices. Again in Mihaly’s words:
Paradoxically, self-reflection also ushers in the possibility of self-doubt. As humans realized that they were independent individuals with a short lifespan, the question of what choices would lead to a meaningful life became increasingly urgent.
The third reality and fear of isolation is also apparent from the dawning of self-reflective consciousness and a sense of individuality.
The realization of individuality brought about a sense of isolation and finitude, but it also gave the impression of autonomy and freedom.
For understanding the last existential reality and fear of meaninglessness, we need to understand how self-reflective consciousness makes us question the implicit meaning of living and makes us seek for external frames of meaning. For an (non self-reflective) animal, the question of whether life is worth living simply does not arise.
After all, if the spark of consciousness only lasts a few heartbeats in the cosmic darkness, is there really any point in hanging on to life, when so much of it involves suffering? To answer this question, our ancestors—freed and unmoored from the implicit meaning provided by biological existence—had to come up with credible reasons that life was indeed worth living. The myths, religions, and philosophies of every culture have been in large part directed toward answering that question.
With science and reductionist thinking eating up on any semblance of meaning we may derive from earlier systems like myth, religion etc its imperative to ground meaning in new secular and non-mystical terms.
I am sure when Mihaly was writing these paragraphs, existential thinking was not on top of his mind, but isn’t it great to see how even in early days existential thinking and concerns were coupled with a positive psychology focus and PP2.0 is not all that new!
Today I will approach the problem of depression, but from a particular vantage point – that steeped in cognitive theory and informed by the work of Martin Seligman.
There have been other views about depression- a psychoanalytical one whereby depression was deemed as rage turning upon inwards and directed towards the self; and a biomedical one whereby depression is considered a disease of the brain/body- imbalances in neurotransmitters etc. . Seligman rejects both models and considers depression (even clinically defined) as just the other extreme of response to loss etc. This is important to note as unipolar depression, clinically defined, is usually considered a type rather than a degree phenomena, i.e. people in depressive phase are qualitatively different from those who are not clinically depressed as per the prevalent model.However, note that even Seligman considers the mild form of depression as distinct from sadness.
The theory of depression that Seligman and colleagues came up with is based on his famous experiments with dogs whereby experimental dogs were subjected to uncontrollable mild shocks while the control dogs either received no shocks or shocks that they could stop and control. When the dogs who were subjected to uncontrollable shocks were placed in anew chamber whereby they could escape shocks by climbing over a low barrier, they sat passively. They had learned or internalized that nothing they do with respect to shocks makes the shocks go away and had even generalized it to new situations when things were actually under their control. Also the feelings of helplessness reflected in many diverse behaviors like less aggressiveness or exploration etc and was sort of generalized across situations too. So not only the experimental dogs made permanent attributions about their lack of control, but also pervasive attributions and thus became depressed.
Seligman and colleagues designed and executed similar experiments with rats and also humans. Using these experiments they were able to create a model of depression. That model of depression requires different things to come together, but typically as its called learned helplessness model of depression, the focus has been on the learned helplessness following a loss of control.
The different components of the model, when explicated, have different implications for treatment/ prevention. To start with before the process can start one has to have loss of control – if our environments provided more opportunity for control over our experiences and in general if people learned to feel more in control of their life, despite losses and all, then the chain stops at its beginning itself. While some losses are inevitable, say loss of loved one, other losses like pink slips can be minimized and then no matter what the loss is , one can choose one’s own attitude towards the loss – the last of human freedom’s as per Frankl.
Once loss/ dejection/rejection/ loss of control has happened, almost all of us will temporarily become helpless. However, becoming helpless is not same as becoming mildly depressed too. For some of us who have a habitual pessimistic explanatory style, in terms of seeing the negative events in our lives as being permanent and pervasive, the learned helplessness turns into momentary , mild depression. We have sad affect, disturbed sleeping, eating etc. However, for those who have optimistic explanatory styles, we re-bounce from the learned helpless and do not become depressed. So changing the habitual explanatory style is another intervention opportunity.
Finally, the mild and momentary depression become full-fledged clinical unipolar depression, when the symptoms continue for 2 weeks or more and as per Seligman this happens when one adds a ruminating thinking style to the mix. Thus a person who has a pessimistic style and also keeps thinking about his own thoughts is more likely to get clinically depressed. Again , if we can prevent or reduce rumination we can prevent the clinical variant.
Cognitive behavioral therapy , which has been found to be quite effective for depression, has been shown to work on some of these aspects increasing optimistic explanatory style and challenging negative automatic thoughts but probably can be augmented by focusing on preventing rumination and story-editing techniques to re-frame issues of loss and control.
In the end, in my view depression has complex roots – some steeped in biology and temperament, while others due to environmental stressors and our reactions to them. A clearer understanding of the learned helplessness model of depression is likely to aid in therapy.