Category Archives: psychology

Thoughts on the Terrorist Attacks in Norway

Is it possible to prevent terrorist attacks such as the ones that happened in Norway on Friday?

I’m not going to explore the answer to that question in well-researched detail; rather, I’ll list some thoughts.  Preventing such an attack would require intervening at some point or another.  There are a few possibilities:

  1. In the perpetrator’s youth, to ensure that whatever experiences that caused him to become a sociopath and to lose respect for human life don’t happen
  2. Preventing the perpetrator from obtaining the weapons to be used in the attack
  3. Being there on the scene to stop him just before committing the crime

I don’t think any of these three will work.  #1 seems impractical.  Psychology isn’t an exact science and it isn’t known exactly what turns Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik.  I don’t think #2 will work either.  First off, it’s hard to identify these people (if it weren’t, wouldn’t people have tried to help them before?) so you’d need to take the weapons away from everyone, which isn’t always practical.  Second, I suspect that, if they didn’t have one weapon, they’d use another.  As technology advances, it becomes easier for people to obtain or create things that could be used as destructive weapons, and banning every single possibility would be a major infringement on civil rights.  As for #3, how would anyone know where to be (unless you were in a police state where the police were everywhere anyway)? One possibility is that a lot of these folks that commit these sort of acts leave some sort of message on the Internet explaining themselves; possibly there might be the ability to look for this sort of material, but I suspect that, if this were in place, these folks’ MO would change so that this wouldn’t work anyway.

So, I think the answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph is “No”.  The risk of these sort of terrorist attacks is unfortunately inevitable in a world that contains 7 billion people.  This huge population makes it more likely that the right (or, more accurately, wrong) combination of circumstances will cause people like Anders Behring Breivik to go down the path that they do, and it makes it more likely that there will be a lot of innocent bystanders in the way when they do unleash their anger.

How significant a problem is this, though? Before I investigate this question further I want to apologise for the tone of the following paragraph.  I’m going to be taking a “big picture” look at these events, and that unfortunately excludes examining the individual suffering of the dead or wounded and their friends and family.  Having said that, it seems that 200 deaths is around an upper limit on the number of people that one person can kill before getting caught.  Timothy McVeigh managed to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City.  The terrorists in the September 11, 2011 attacks managed to kill nearly 3,000 people, but there were 19 of them.  I can’t think of any incident in which a single person managed to kill more than 200 people.  This is because there are so many things that could go wrong that it takes a rare combination of circumstances to ensure that they all go right.

Those with lurid imaginations could probably imagine how these people could have killed more people, but I think it’s likelier that other events would happen that result in more people being saved.  The events that we do hear about on the news were the ones that were (from the terrorist’s perspective, not the world at large) wildly successful.

Not to minimize the individual suffering of the victims and their relatives and friends, but even 200 deaths are not highly significant from a global perspective. Worldwide, around 267 people are born every minute, so the number of people killed in a hypothetical terrorist attack that takes 200 lives are equal to the number of people born worldwide every 45 seconds.  One attack doesn’t have a significant effect on the Earth’s population, and attacks of this magnitude are rare.

Unfortunately this is the way it is because there are so many people on this planet and we currently can’t choose to go somewhere else.  “Animals can be driven crazy by placing too many in too small a pen.  Homo sapiens is the only animal that voluntarily does this to himself” (Robert A. Heinlein).   I hope that, one day, technology will make it possible to go somewhere else and that we don’t have to continue to crowd each other out in the same tiny pen that is the Earth.

Book review: In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos, part 2

So last week (actually, it’s getting closer to two weeks ago now) I wrote the first half of a book review of the book In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. I concluded by asking whether punishing criminals for the sake of punishment was the best that we could do as a society. I’ll look into answering this question now.

As a society, we don’t really spend a lot of time actually thinking about free will. Do we have free will? Are we completely responsible for our choices, or are our decisions caused by other factors, or is it a combination of the two? The concept of free will has never been scientifically explained. If you accept that scientific assumption that everything is caused, it would follow that your thoughts are caused by something, possibly something external, possibly other thoughts, possibly the way your brain is put together, possibly some combination of all those. If you were able to follow all of the causal chains back far enough, you would end up with a set of causes all of which are external to you. Therefore, your thoughts are caused by external factors and there is no such thing as free will. (I have seen arguments that suggest that suggest that quantum effects in the brain produce stuff like consciousness and free will. I feel that these are based on a poor understanding of quantum mechanics. Quantum fluctuations produce random behaviour, not rational, conscious behaviour). So, if rational thought would suggest that we don’t have free will, why do we continue to implicitly assume that we do?

In the essay “Free Will, Determinism, and Self-Control” in The Philosophical Legacy of Behaviorism, Bruce Waller suggests that one reason is so that we can hold others morally responsible for their actions; they deserve the punishment that they get. I’ll look at a non-criminal example from the essay, that of a woman who doesn’t leave her abusive husband. A psychologist might see her refusal to leave as being a learned behaviour (“learned helplessness”), which she learned in childhood as a result of inescapable suffering. We can’t blame someone for having a traumatic childhood, so how can we blame them in this scenario? Yet we often do blame the victim, seeing the woman as being “weak” and so deserving to continue living a miserable existence. This also serves as an handy excuse to avoid trying to understand the victim and the causes of her behaviour better, which in turn makes it easier to avoid helping her and to ignore any role we, either individually or as a member of society, might have in her predicament.

One can look at criminal behaviour in the same way. The antisocial tendencies that cause criminal behaviour can often be traced to a defective upbringing (in some cases, defective genes may also play a role), which is something that the criminal couldn’t control. So why do we insist that we should lock the criminal up and throw away the key?

This belief probably comes from our caveman heritage. We are hard-wired to be outraged when someone does something wrong and satisfied when that wrong is punished. Back when humans were “cavemen”, this was probably a trait that helped us to survive. A readable summary of this can be found in the book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner.

In the days of hunting and gathering, when someone did something that hurt the tribe or its members, there wasn’t any good way of trying to rehabilitate him, nor was there any good way of segregating him from the rest of the tribe if he didn’t want to be segregated. The only way of hoping to achieve these aims was to punish the person. Perhaps for serious infractions the perpetrator would be killed, thus ensuring that he wouldn’t commit any more crimes. Other punishments for less serious infractions might in some cases discourage future antisocial behaviour (they might not in other cases, but there isn’t any better alternative). One could also hope that the punishment would serve as a deterrent for the other members of the tribe. Nowadays, one would hope that we could put systems in place that would allow us to do better than cavemen.

Furthermore, claiming that people are “responsible” for their criminal behaviour allows us to ignore any role that we might have in creating this behaviour, so that we don’t have to think about how we, either individually or collectively, might be responsible for creating criminals, perhaps through our toleration of poverty and other social ills, unwillingness to help those in need, lack of moral standards, lack of support for incompetent parents, indifference or even cruelty toward those that we meet each day, lack of respect for the law in our own day-to-day behaviour, etc.

I think that, if we want to advance as a species, we need to leave these caveman notions behind. Hard as it will be, we need to suppress our instinct calling for wrongdoers to be punished. Instead of dragging criminals down, we need to make people’s lives better. This can be done by working to prevent crime in the first place, to rehabilitate the criminal, and to replace punishment by restitution—having the criminal try to fix what he broke as far as possible. “Don’t get mad, get even”.

So, I feel that Moskos’ premise in In Defence of Flogging, while not without merit, is flawed. Instead of finding different ways to punish criminals, we should look at removing punishment from the criminal justice system, without neglecting deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution. Corporal punishment doesn’t accomplish any of the last four aims, so it doesn’t have a part in my view of the corrections system of the future.

In order to serve the purposes of incapacitation and/or deterrence, prison sentences may still be required in some cases. However, there still is the problem of 2.3 million people currently in prison in the United States. Reducing sentences only to what is required to deter or incapacitate, while substituting activities aimed at rehabilitation and restitution for the rest of the sentence may help. Perhaps a technological solution could help as well. We already have various monitoring devices often worn by those under house arrest and/or probation. We might want to look into smarter devices that play a more active role in restricting the actions of the wearer. Perhaps a device could be created that causes physical pain when the wearer is doing something they shouldn’t. Perhaps a device could be created that physically restricts the wearer in various ways in various situations in order to force compliance with terms of sentencing. Perhaps even some sort of chip could be implanted in someone’s brain (kind of like Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that would prevent them from doing various off-limits activities. The big question is: Will people think of these devices as immoral, either because they torture wearers or invade their brains, or would it be seen as a humane alternative to prison sentences? I don’t know. This is something that’s worthwhile to start talking about, though.

Hopefully these measures will save money. Some of the savings should be earmarked for crime prevention, but in a smart way. Too often we try to prevent crimes in ways that don’t really prevent crime. Much the “war on drugs” involves arresting drug dealers, but as soon as the authorities do that, someone else sets up shop and we’re back to square one again. It would be much more effective to put money toward treatment programmes for addicts and make it very easy for addicts to get treatment. This would likely prevent a lot of thefts, prostitution, and other crimes that addicts commit to get money. We could undertake similar “smart” approaches with other crimes.

With luck, a combination of all these approaches would both significantly reduce crime and increase national productivity.

Superior Autobiographical Memory and Technology

Sorry for not writing for nearly a month, but I’ve been busy with another project.  Anyway, last night I was flipping through channels on the TV.  I briefly watched “60 Minutes” (sort of a rerun, I believe), specifically the article about “Superior Autobiographical Memory”.  Now, if psychologists describe a phenomenon using a name like that, that would suggest to me that they know nothing about it, but I digress.  At any rate, the article discussed a very small number of people who seem to be able to remember every last little detail of their lives.  That’s a very interesting talent.  It’s not one I’m sure I’d like to have (I already have a hard enough time forgetting all of the mistakes that I make) but I certainly can see some advantages in it.

While I still remember what was going on in, for example, high school, the details of everything have faded and I no longer remember them clearly.  I certainly would like to be able to remember, for example, the music that was playing in the 10th grade art class I took when I was in my final year of high school, or any of the details of the presidential elections dance of that year, or what the date of various events were, or zillions of other things.

What would be even better would be to be able to remember these things in detail, without having to be pestered by unwanted memories.  I think that technology could be used to solve this problem, although it may take a few decades (say, maybe 20 years) for technology to advance to the point where it can be applied.  The technology that I think would be useful here would be some sort of 3-D video recorder that is somehow permanently attached to a person, coupled with an incredibly large storage space that would allow a video and audio feed for a person’s entire life to be captured (it would be useful if it could record thoughts too, although I wouldn’t think that would be possible in the 20-year timeframe that I suggested above).  Combined with a really intuitive playback mechanism, I think it would be really cool to be able to look back on such video and bring any day from any time in your life back to life.

Claude Choules

Claude Choules, the last WWI combat veteran.

I think that this technology could be used for things other than amusing ourselves about our high school exploits, though.  Something else that happened last month is the death of the last remaining combat veteran of World War I, Claude Choules.  With his death is the death of all the memories of the war that he had, all of his thoughts about the war, and all of the other personal experiences that would be useful for the historian to bring the war to life.  I think that a recorder as described above would be incredibly useful as a historic record for people who have played a part, even a minor one, in significant world events.  Being able to see, as through their own eyes, what they saw in, for example, the Great War, would be invaluable.  Of course, we never really know who is going to be playing the interesting roles, so it’s important that this technology be widespread enough that we have a good enough sample of people using it.

Like any other new technology, there would be issues with it.  One big one would be privacy.  What if someone got their hands on the recording?  What if the police used it as evidence against you?  Since this technology won’t be ready for 20 years, I don’t think it’s necessary to explain how to solve these problems in detail.  To gloss over a possible solution, I would suggest that these recorders would need to be integrated sufficiently with the wearer such that the video would be unplayable by anyone else, although there would then need to be some sort of release in case of death that would allow others to play it then.  It would require a fair bit of thought to figure out how to do that, but like I said, there’s no rush.

So, will the class of 2035 be the first people in the world to have their entire past accessible to them?  Only time will tell.

another project