Sociopathy and Rationality

post by InquilineKea · 2011-01-07T07:24:15.679Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 16 comments

So I randomly ran across a very interesting site about sociopaths. The links at the FAQ and informal test are particularly intriguing (especially since many of us score lower on all 5 moral dimensions measured at, although many of us would score higher if a liberty dimension was added). Sociopaths often get a lot of flak, and a lot of this flak is completely understandable, since sociopaths often effectively destroy the perception between malleability and effort (since their personalities are effectively immalleable, and no amount of effort, expressed traditionally, could help them - although I do believe that there are highly creative solutions that could integrate them better in society where they won't feel like they have a need to constantly take from others) - and people who do believe in the correlation between malleability and effort often do end up more able to change themselves. Sociopaths also effectively reduce the trust people have with everyone else - because anyone else could be seen as a potential sociopath (the possibility of sociopaths forces people to use "tit-for-tat" as the default strategy for dealing with others, rather than the "altruistic" strategy - but people often end up becoming even less generous than "tit-for-tat" due to their overreactions to negative experiences). At the same time, I was quite struck by how many of these traits (expressed in both links) also correlate with traits we see in the highly rational (as sociopaths often lack much of the emotional baggage found in neurotypicals). Of course, there are the dysfunctional sociopaths who are truly dangerous for society at large, and the more functional sociopaths, who can appreciate (through some highly creative arguments - I've used some of those arguments on myself to reduce my adolescent anger towards humanity - but it's hard for people to really think of those arguments unless they've gone through a similar phase of anger themselves) that the world does not revolve around their lives.

In particular, I found the linked sociopath test to be intriguing, since I fit all 12 of those traits (except for possibly the trait about embarrassment). The first observation was particularly interesting: "1. Sociopaths typically don't smalltalk about themselves as much as normal people do. They will direct the conversation back to the new acquaintance as much as they can." This seems like the perfectly rational thing to do (in most cases), since people generally love to talk about themselves, even though you probably benefit most by having them do most of the talking (since you learn more about their potentially informative experiences than they learn about your potentially informative experiences). 

I don't consider myself a sociopath, however, since I'm still very capable of feeling shame and remorse when I've actually managed to hurt someone (although it took a lot of time for me to develop that), and I've also become a near-vegan (since I do love animals). 

I think an honest discussion on sociopathy on LessWrong would be interesting. 


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comment by Jack · 2011-01-07T14:52:15.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We need to stop conflating rationality with autism.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-17T20:28:57.734Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We also need to stop conflating both of those with sociopathy. Autism != sociopathy.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-01-07T20:04:35.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can we conflate it with high functioning autism if we consider Star trek's Spock to be the ultimate rationalist?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-07T20:19:25.901Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can we conflate it with high functioning autism if we consider Star trek's Spock to be the ultimate rationalist?

No. Spock is an awful rationalist. He a) doesn't acknowledge his emotions when they exist b) repeatedly makes probability estimates of things being very unlikely that turn out to be wrong c) claims that actors are acting irrationally when they aren't (or when they just disagree with his values). In fact, Spock is the original Straw Vulcan (which incidentally lists many more problems with Spock).

comment by orangecat · 2011-01-07T18:40:50.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first observation was particularly interesting: "1. Sociopaths typically don't smalltalk about themselves as much as normal people do. They will direct the conversation back to the new acquaintance as much as they can." This seems like the perfectly rational thing to do (in most cases)

It's also what all the "winning friends and influencing people" advice tells you to do.

comment by Davorak · 2011-01-07T16:28:02.721Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The list of 12 characteristics seems so vague it is hard to imagine that they are useful.

The tone of the site does not come off as rigorous, just look at "Do sociopaths love?. While it might be fun to read I would rather read it after reading more firmly grounded and rigorous articles.

Discussing sociopathy and rationality or neurotypicality and rationality or autism and rationality would be very interesting, but only with good rigorous resources at our disposal.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-01-07T10:22:05.698Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've heard that it's possible to get sociopaths to change their behavior by appealing to their pride rather than (as with most people) using fear and shame. Is this plausible?

comment by Jack · 2011-01-07T14:50:42.148Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is plausible from what I know- the primary symptom from which others follow is the inability to experience fear. This also keeps them from empathizing with the fear of others. Since pride seems distinct from fear it makes sense that this might work. I'm not sure how far you can get by appealing to pride though.

comment by InquilineKea · 2011-01-07T10:47:17.125Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that's quite interesting. Of course, the danger is that in appealing to their pride, you also make them more prone to arrogance (which often results in their inflating their own abilities).

I think one thing to do is to find creative ways to align their self-interest with the social good (capitalism is one way), or to align their self-interest with situations where they're not in a position of hurting someone else for their own gain (certain punishments, perhaps, but something more creative than that).

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-01-07T16:24:38.346Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The specific example I read about was a sociopath who was proud about being meticulous about safety with his private plane. It might be tricky to harness pride for longer term payoffs, especially since default moralities seem to be a mixture of good long term advice, arbitrary rules, and behavior which is convenient to maintain the status system.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-07T08:05:20.654Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What sort of discussion on/about sociopathy are you imagining? You might find this post on ethical injunctions interesting.

I think a common view here (though this is n=2 based off of myself and Eliezer) is that sociopathy is like leprosy for your social life- it doesn't actually cause parts of you to fall off, but by destroying nerves it makes it dramatically more likely that in the normal course of life you'll do massive damage to yourself by not noticing what you're doing.

I scored 9 of 12 on the test you linked, by the way.

comment by InquilineKea · 2011-01-07T08:22:04.932Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very good point about sociopathy (and I liked the link on ethical injunctions). Many sociopaths are extraordinarily prone to self-deception. I do think that a good awareness of happiness research is important (e.g. diminishing marginal utility of additional money/power/social status - there is a point where giving things to other people increases your own happiness more than keeping the rest of it to yourself), but much of the happiness research doesn't even apply to sociopaths because their sources for happiness are different from that of others (and often in a way that makes their happiness more of a zero-sum with the happiness of others).

As for the sort of discussion on sociopathy that I'm imagining, I'm mostly imagining an open discussion. I think sociopathy is quite interesting for rationality because sociopaths have utility functions that have landscapes quite different from the utility function landscapes of neurotypicals. I've also often regarded sociopathy as a particular case where some sort of intervention may be justifiable (if we found genes predisposing people towards sociopathy), and I've often thought of what people would think of that (even though I'm very much skeptical of any intervention for genes that correlate with many other mental conditions like ADD/depression/Asperger's, which often predispose people towards increased differential susceptibility)

comment by Perplexed · 2011-01-07T20:39:09.699Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted for the interesting link. Which in itself was interesting partly for the unkind things that sociopaths say about aspies. And particularly for this quote:

What it's like to have sex with someone with Asperger's

...[An aspie writes:] I tried having lesbian sex. I answered an ad. Picture her: The professional ballet dancer who had just quit, and to celebrate, she got breast implants. And me, the aspiring professional beach volleyball player.

She spent the whole evening talking about how smart I am and how many books I’ve read and how strong I am.

I spent the whole evening talking about how hot she is.

I did not realize that this exchange meant that I had to be the aggressor in bed.

I said, “Are we going to kiss now? We can’t do this whole date and not kiss.”

She said, “I need you to seduce me.”

I said, “What? Are you kidding? Just take your clothes off. How are we going to have sex if we keep putting it off?”

She said, “It’s not like that. There has to be a game or something.”

I said, “Okay. You do the game. What should we do?”

She pouted. I did not realize it was part of the game.

I told her that we were really ineffective together and I thought we needed some guy there with us to run the show. We never did that. We never did anything.

comment by gwern · 2011-05-17T19:29:01.659Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I once went to a philosophy talk by Andrew Flescher on sociopaths; one of the interesting factoids that stuck with me was the high rate of sociopaths getting imprisoned and the observation that apparently many of them knew they were doing something wrong but simply thought they could get away with it.

To me, these and others indicated that sociopaths suffer from a combination of overconfidence and maybe a very high discount rate. Neither seem very rational.

comment by Document · 2011-01-08T16:18:13.524Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For the record, the site was previously linked in October, but without much discussion.