Classifying Psychoanalysis


[A continuation to Psychology’s Development into a Science.]

A small room, furnished with homely carpets and paintings, is brightly lit and air-conditioned. An elongated leather sofa in the corner of the room faces an open window overlooking the city. An exhausted man lies on the sofa, legs crossed and arms folded, as he stares vaguely through the window. He ponders aloud about his day, indifferent to any listeners. Over time, his words scratch through the veneer of his thoughts and into his more clandestine contemplations. Behind him, a professionally dressed woman jots down notes while interjecting every so often.

The scenario is classic. It is the archetypal Freudian setting to the minutest detail. Anyone who walked in on this appointment would know it. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s ideas have become so widespread that, even a century after their establishment, they are still recycled and debated over.

Many would argue that Freud deserved such fame. He introduced free association therapy, as aforementioned, in which a client jumps freely from thought to thought while the therapist takes notes. Freud’s thoughts on personality—largely, the superego, ego, and id—have influenced how people view the actions of others and themselves. Literary classics have been shaped by Freud’s tenets, including William Golding’s allegory Lord of the Flies, in which the author’s three main characters—Ralph, Piggy, and Jack—coincide with the representations of the ego, superego, and id, respectively.

Some of Freud’s justifications for behavior, despite their controversy, have survived the century. Although people may not be familiar with the names of the theorist’s scientific terms, they often know the intended meanings behind them. For example, Freud’s system of defensemechanisms—including repression, displacement, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, and regression—illustrates an individual’s attempt to transfer anxiety using methods of distorting reality. Projection and reaction formation are ways of viewing situations in the opposite light in order to better their appearance. Displacement and regression summarize the means in which the individual reverts to more-so immature actions in order to vent feelings.

The most well-known of the mechanisms are rationalization—in which an individual justifies his actions to feel better about them—and repression—where one dissolves all anxious thoughts and memories from consciousness. Concurring with repression, Freud’s coinage of parapraxis, the “Freudian slip,” refers to when an individual accidentally voices a repressed idea in writing or speech.

The thinker’s opinions on sexual desires were revolutionary for their time, although most are now disclaimed. He introduced the psychosexual stages of fixations throughout human development along with the Oedipus- and Electra-complex relationships between children and their parents.

Freud altogether delved into basic mental processes and related all human motives to unconscious or hidden desires. His thinking was radical, even though it was basically derived from his opinions and everyday observations. But most importantly, society connected such theoretical thinking to psychology, the “science of mental life,” according to William James. [See the previous article.]

In this sense, psychoanalysis hindered psychology’s development into a science. It would be more reasonable for psychoanalysis to instead be a subcategory of philosophy, which entails the opinions and theories on life that psychoanalysis encompasses. Because of psychoanalysis’s association with psychology, society has enslaved the latter to a humanity study that involves therapy and theorization.

On the contrary, psychology is a broader subject that can incorporate biology, chemistry, physics, or therapy, depending on the direction of focus that one chooses. Psychologists do not have to be therapists; they can specialize in neuropsychology, psychobiology, psychophysics, mathematical psychology, and more.

Many of the notions in psychoanalysis have been deemed faulty, while some people consider the entire subject flawed. The study’s views cannot be derived through scientific experimentation because they developed from mere observation and opinionated interpretations. Thus, it only makes sense that psychoanalysis be classified with the theorizations of philosophy rather than the investigations in psychology.

Freud’s psychoanalysis has caused a segment of psychology to become stale; it cannot be developed further unless it is greatly modified.

Even if Freud may not be competition for timeless philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Locke, he most certainly does not belong with psychologists Wundt, Skinner, and Pavlov.

Toxic Chemcial may be as lethal as it is helpful

January 3, 2012 2 comments


In 2008, Chicago resident Edward Bachner was put on trial for attempting to kill his wife using tetrodotoxin (TTX), the poison ejected by a puffer fish. He placed multiple orders of the toxin to various biochemical companies, totaling about 162 milligrams of the poison. Bachner was caught before he could carry out his scheme. His plan initially seemed ill-thought-out; after all, there is a vast multitude of poisons that could have been easier to obtain.

Nevertheless, TTX is unique because of its currently incurable, quick-working effects on the nervous system. The chemical freezes muscular movement as the individual finally dies from respiration failure. However, an analysis of the drug at the neuronal level shows that small doses of this chemical could be medically advantageous.

Tetraethylammonium (TEA) is a similar chemical that may be analyzed with TTX because of the related routes that both the substances take in their method of destruction. The main difference is that TEA produces the somewhat opposite effects of TTX. Although the two do not counteract each other, both are toxic when consumed in great amounts, and both may be very helpful for the medical community in small doses.

Before considering TTX and TEA, we must look at the basic neuron action potential in order to understand how these specific toxins work.

A neuron begins at the resting potential; its membrane potential is -70 millivolts. (This potential refers to the electrical charge of the cell’s interior compared to its exterior surroundings.) During this resting potential period, a sodium-potassium pump pushes 3 Na+ ions out of the axonal membrane for every 2 K+ ions in, in order to maintain the electrical charge. The extracellular fluid has a preponderance of Cl and Na+ ions and a minority of K+ and organic ions. On the other hand, the intracellular fluid has mostly K+ and organic ions and very little of the other two ions. When a neuron receives a type of neurotransmitter from the end of another neuron, the receiver neuron’s electrical charge increases. The neuron’s Na+ ion channels are manipulated to allow Na+ ions enter the neuron and thus increase the membrane potential. However, the firing rate must first pass a certain threshold in order to make the action potential. Upon reaching this action potential, the membrane potential undergoes depolarization, meaning it becomes more positive.

The neuronal charge either changes due to ionotropic receptors (where the ion channels are directly controlled to open or close according to the received neurotransmitter’s message) or metabotropic receptors (where the accepted neurotransmitter activates G proteins, which activate an enzyme that finally controls the ion channel). The main difference between the two receptors is that the metabotropic type follows more of an indirect process than that of the ionotropic type.

Once the ion channels are under control, the post ceding process is the same for both receptor types. Sodium’s ion channel is activated first. Sodium ions enter the neuron due to diffusion and electrostatic pressure. Because of the neuron’s negative nature, the positive Na+ ions are inclined to flow into the neuron. The electrical charge increases, meaning the neuron undergoes depolarization.

Upon reaching the height of the action potential, the K+ ion channels open. In response to this event, the Na+ channels close. The K+ ions now flow out of the membrane because of diffusion forces and the now extremely positive membrane potential that must be reduced. As these K+ ions flow out, they lower the neuron’s electrical charge. The membrane potential eventually becomes negative again. Hyperpolarization consequently occurs, where the electrical charge overshoots and becomes even lower than the resting potential of -70 mV. The K+ ion channel then closes, and the sodium-potassium pump rebalances the charge by transporting 3 Na+ ions back out for every 2 K+ ions back in again.

This entire process may occur within 3 milliseconds.

TTX is a neurotoxin that blocks the Na+ ion channel, thus preventing Na+ ions from entering the neuron after an action potential has been obtained. In the long run, TTX causes paralysis because movement is not possible. The change in electrical current ignites the neuron to aid in the process of muscular movement. However, this change in electrical current cannot travel through the neuronal axon because the neurotoxin blocks the Na+ ion channels that initiate this change in charge.

In the short run, a small dose of TTX could be given to help certain disorders or physical problems. Someone whose Na+ ion channels always overshoot and overrun longer than usual could benefit from a little TTX, which would shorten the duration of the Na+ ion transfer. Visibly, this person maybe may have extended uncontrollable movements or a disorder with the effects from Tourette’s Syndrome, but instead in which such uncontrollable twitches result from the Na+ ion channels overshooting. A small dose of TTX may reduce the uncontrollability of the movements because the action potential would be maintained to the more normal standard and duration. In a similar context, an individual in intense pain may be relieved as specific neurons’ functions are temporarily shut off. Shutting off the functions may help after chemotherapy or as an anesthetic, in which most to all of the sensory neurons must be “quieted” in order to relieve the total pain.

TEA functions similarly as it blocks the subsequent K+ ion channels in the action potential process. By doing so, the chemical prevents K+ ions from flowing out of the axon after depolarization. This chemical holds the neuron back from returning to its negative resting potential because the blockage prevents the positive K+ ions from leaving the changed positively charged cell. In the long run, if the K+ ion channels are blocked, the Na+ ion channels keep running Na+ ions into the neuron until the neuron becomes overly positive and dysfunctional. But in the short term, TEA could temporarily extend the depolarization period. In some disorder with effects like those in myasthenia gravis (where the individual has periodic sluggish movements), an individual may be sluggish because his neuronal action potentials are always weak. In such a scenario, the K+ ion channels may open early, causing the membrane potential to never reach its peak—around +40 mV. In this case, TEA could delay the K+ ion channel initiation, which would thus extend the flow period of Na+ ions through their channels. Extending the period in which the Na+ ion channels are open means positive ions would continue to come into the neuron. As a result, the membrane potential would reach its peak. This normal membrane potential peak means the neuron would successfully fire and carry the message through; therefore, the individual would not have sluggish movements.

In both the cases of TTX and TEA, the dosage is very important. Especially in the case of TTX, just a little extra dose could be fatal. For that reason, it may be a while before the general public can get a prescription medication of the chemical. (Bachner managed to sneak through the restrictive regulations in obtaining TTX using an alias as a marine researcher.) The chemical would also probably need to be modified so that it could be much weaker and potentially less harmful.)

TTX and TEA are two examples of substances that can be valuable in very small quantities but lethal in anything greater.

As usual, nature has proven that the smallest things are best.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,

Psychology’s Development into a Science

January 3, 2012 1 comment


In a society where psychology is still associated with Rorschach tests and Freud, it seems debatable as to whether the study has really developed into a science or whether it is still stuck in an abyss of philosophy. More likely, the general population is simply still not informed well enough about the aspects of the study.

“Psychology” translates literally to the “study of the soul,” where the Greek word psykhe means “spirit” or “soul.” On the other hand, Merriam-Webster defines psychology as “the science of mind and behavior.” Evidently, much has changed since philosopher Christian Wolff created and first used “psychology” in his 1732 publication Psychologia Empirica.

Common misconceptions in psychology are largely derived from the study’s roots in philosophy. Seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, for example, is famous for proposing the connection between the mind and body. We now know that the mind and body do indeed associate together, but Descartes’s first theorizations of such a link were ironically not inspired by scientific discovery. They were instead procured by his arrival at the Saint-Germain royal gardens in France, where he observed hydraulically operated statues controlled by underground mechanical plates. Greatly interested by the immobile machinery that brought life to the animated sculptures, Descartes formulated his theory that paradoxically established a basis to psychology.

Soon after, British philosopher John Locke suggested the “blank slate,” the idea that humans are born with no knowledge and that their minds are “slates” onto which knowledge and experience are inscribed. Many philosophers posed varying opinions regarding Locke’s “blank slate” theory, but it was only until scientific experimenting and medical procedures that facts could be established.

In this sense, it was a kind of revolution in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt—properly deemed the “father of experimental psychology”—created a device that determined the cumulative processing and reaction time span for a person to hear a ball hit a surface and then press a key. The experiment was conducted in Germany’s University of Leipzig, thus creating the first official psychology laboratory. Soon after, more psychology experiments and labs emerged; as an offspring of this, psychology started stemming out into diverse subcategories. Some branches—such as neuro- and developmental psychology—favored the burgeoning scientific view, while others—like the various forms of therapy—still leaned toward the philosophical roots.

In the years to come, many new scientists staked their fame. Nonetheless, most were seemingly lauded only by fellow psychologists despite the significance of their discoveries and claims. Psychologist William James, for example, made great strides when he called psychology the “science of mental life” in his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology. His new definition alone doubtlessly helped incite the notion that psychology was a science.

Ivan Pavlov contributed equally to the science of psychology as he established the common Pavlovian conditioning method. Also called classical conditioning, his experiments introduced a form of learning where one unconsciously connects a physical automatic response with a random stimulus. In his research, Pavlov played a pitch prior to feeding a dog. Upon encountering the food, the dog started salivating. The pattern was repeated several times: the tone, the food, the dog’s salivating. After continued repetition, the dog unconsciously learned to salivate at the mere sound of the tone. In this sense, the animal acquired a learned response to a stimulus that was previously deemed random and unrelated. The dog now had a conditioned response (salivating) to a conditioned stimulus (the pitch).

In essence, Pavlov’s studies introduced a novel type of learning while simultaneously opening doors to more research in sleep, mental disorders, and other concepts related to the realms of the unconscious mind. A key concept driving his direction of research was behaviorism, the idea that psychology should be objectively studied with no mention of mental processes. In other words, he believed the study should be entirely focused on the unconscious beyond-awareness aspect.

Behaviorism’s unique perspective naturally sparked debate among psychologists, and, like any other young science, psychology experienced internal conflicts and clashes. A few years after Pavlov published his first findings on classical conditioning, three German psychologists—Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler—introduced Gestalt psychology. Though this theory was not direct opposition toward behaviorism, it was established around mental processing (which behaviorism avoided). Their gestaltism altogether emphasized one’s visual identification of an object’s parts in order to mentally create and comprehend the overall picture.

Wilhelm Wundt, William James, Ivan Pavlov, and Wolfgang Kohler are four noteworthy psychologists who contributed immensely to the development of psychology into a science. Yet when most people think of psychologists, Sigmund Freud is doubtlessly—and ironically—one of the first to come to mind. While Freud made his own contributions to psychology and human understanding, it is debatable as to how much forward these contributions drove psychologists and their strides to turn psychology into a science…

[To be continued.]

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , , ,

Facebook and the Dopaminergic Response

January 3, 2012 3 comments


(A continuation to the previous article on Facebook.)

What is causing Facebook’s addictiveness at the neuronal level? In 1997, Dr. Wolfram Schultz of the University of Cambridge offered an answer in terms of the dopaminergic neurons located throughout the brain. These neurons fire in reward-related situations. The person first realizes that a specific reward occurs after an event. He learns to somewhat predict when the reward will come in relation to the event, and in time, his neurons fire based on their forecast of when the reward will be given. (For a simple way to reference to this, call it the learning period.) These neurons are crucial in learning new processes because they fire as they practice their prediction skills and as the learning is acquired. Once such learning is acquired, their firing response subsides.

Take Schultz’s study, for example, as he observed monkeys’ dopamine response in a conditioned stimulus and reward system. In the experiment, a light was flashed, several moments passed, and then drips of apple juice were fed to the monkey. Schultz observed the monkey’s neuronal response during the period of time in between the flash of light and the apple juice treat.

After several trials, Schultz discovered the dopamine response in the monkeys immediately after he flashed the light. In this case, the monkeys’ dopaminergic neurons were predicting when the treat would be received. Over time, this dopamine response decreased. But when the monkeys found apple juice that was not preceded by a flash of light, their dopaminergic neurons were excited again. According to Schultz, the unpredictability and surprise of the reward accounted for a dopamine response that was three to four times greater than the response that occurred during the learning period.

The release of the dopamine neurotransmitter provides a feeling of pleasure. An enormous dopamine response is far more enjoyable than just a few firings. The monkeys thus experienced far more pleasure when the apple juice reward arrived at an unpredicted time than when it arrived on schedule right after the flash of light.

Suppose that there was no flash of light at all—just the occasional random apple juice reward. The dopaminergic neurons would constantly try to decipher a pattern in the reward’s occurrence. They would be trying to fulfill and complete the learning acquisition process. They would never succeed (because there is no pattern), so they would continue firing at the apple juice’s momentary occurrence and probably a few times in between in an effort to predict a pattern.

From a parallel perspective, Facebook’s notification system may be synonymous to the randomly occurring apple juice reward. As Facebook users, we log onto the site to check for notifications. Often times, our guesses are just as inaccurate as the monkey’s random predictions for the apple juice reward.

It is impossible to know when we will receive a notification; we simply rely on a hunch. But every time we log onto Facebook, our dopaminergic neurons are firing as they attempt to discern a pattern in the reward system. It is an exciting feeling to check for Facebook notifications, but the gratification from actually receiving a notification is always greatest. In this situation, the dopaminergic neurons may be deemed useless because they never learn that there is no pattern. And of course, we or our brains cannot tell them that their efforts are useless.

Imagine there was a linkage between the conscious brain and the neuronal firing. We would be able to control how often the dopaminergic neurons fired and thus prevent them from their sporadic firing in the learning acquisition process. We could easily overcome addictions, and we would be more efficient. But would this ability really be a win-win?

With mental control over neuronal firing, Facebook would no longer be so addictive. This is the plus side. But what about other enjoyments? Would they still be as pleasurable if we could personally control how much pleasure we felt?

Unpredictability is evidently an enjoyed feature in life.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Facebook and its Addictive Traits

January 3, 2012 2 comments


Facebook. What makes it so popular and why is it so addictive?

The social networking site continues to grow since it was created in a Harvard dormitory in 2004. With over 500 million users (according to, it has united individuals from dozens of countries into a population exceeded by only China and India. History has never seen such an incident occur; the site is translated in 70 different languages and is used via mobile by 30% of its virtual population. With over half of its users logging in on any day and over 700 minutes spent per month by the average Facebooker, there clearly must be something amiss.

What did Mark Zuckerberg and his co-founders do to make Facebook so powerful and uniting? Certainly many things but one aspect proves exceptionally interesting because of its relation to psychology.

My explanation starts with Edward L. Thorndike, whose 1898 experiment consisted of cats searching their way out of a puzzle-like maze toward a concluding reward of fish. Thorndike noted that the cats improved in performance over time. He attributed their increasing speed in completing the maze to the fish treat. The cats learned that there would be a treat at the end of the puzzle, so they worked quickly to complete it.

Upon obtaining these results, Thorndike generalized that actions followed by positive consequences are more likely to recur in an individual. Likewise, actions post ceded by unfavorable consequences will be less likely to recur. He coined the overall phenomenon the law of effect.

Following in 1961, psychologist B. F. Skinner delved more into the law of effect in terms of partial reinforcement. In this method, reinforcement—the consequence—is present but not in a 1:1 ratio to the committed action. Instead, the reinforcement schedule comes in four different options: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval.

In a fixed ratio plan, the individual receives the consequence periodically after completing the action a specific number of times. In Thorndike’s example, the cat would receive a fish treat every—for example—five times that it completed the puzzle maze. This schedule is effective but the desired action can disappear very easily if the reward stops coming.

In regards to the fixed interval schedule, the individual receives the consequence periodically after a specific amount of time. The cat in Thorndike’s puzzle maze may receive a fish treat every hour, regardless of the number of times it completes the puzzle. The cat will most likely learn to only complete the maze at the end of the hour in order to take the treat that is left at the end of the maze. Naturally, this schedule is very ineffective once the individual learns how long he must wait in order to receive the reward.

The variable ratio schedule has the individual receive the consequence after completing the action a random number of times. For example, Thorndike’s experimental cat may receive its first fish after completing the puzzle five times, the second fish after completing the puzzle eight more times, and the third fish after completing the puzzle four times more. This schedule is effective; in a study with pigeons, Skinner showed that this schedule can increase the number of instances that the action is performed, per unit of time, very early on in the procedure or setting.

In the variable interval schedule, the consequence is presented over random periods of time—regardless of how often the action is performed. In Thorndike’s situation, the cat may receive a fish treat after twenty minutes, a second fish after another ten minutes, and a third fish after another two minutes. This schedule is effective for the cat because the cat has to go through the maze to receive the treat at the end. (If the treat was given directly to the cat, then the schedule would become ineffective because the cat would have no motivation to go through the maze.) The individual altogether never knows when he will receive his treat.

Facebook’s foundation complies with the variable interval schedule through the site’s notification system. This system allows an individual to receive messages every time an event or action occurs in relation to him. If someone writes on the individual’s “wall”, then the latter will receive a notification that will come up when he logs onto Facebook. In this sense, a notification is the consequence—the treat—that occurs when the individual logs in. Notifications are not dependant on how often the individual logs in; they occur according to random intervals of time. The variable interval schedule is thus created.

Facebook’s addictiveness altogether proves discernable as the individual constantly logs onto the networking site (goes through the trial) to see if there are notifications (check for treats at the end of the trial’s puzzle or maze). Of course, this only explains the situation from the psychological level; there surely must be more going on at the molecular level…

A New Look at Power


In a recent study, Dr. Adam Galinsky from Northwestern University conducted an experiment that could potentially start a revolutionary way to how we view power and those in powerful positions.

In the experiment, subjects were divided into two samples. One sample of individuals was asked to describe a “high-power” incident where the individual held a position of power. The other sample described a time when someone else had taken a powerful position over them, thus putting them in the inferior, “low-power” spot. Soon after, each subject was asked to draw the letter e on his or her forehead.

There were two ways of drawing the letter. The subject could draw the e backwards, so that it was forwards to only himself. Or he could draw it forwards so that someone looking at him would be able to read the letter correctly.

The profound results? Individuals who described taking on a position of high power were three times more likely than their counterparts to draw the e backwards (so that only they could read the letter). In other words, those in the “high-power” sample were three times more likely to have backward e’s on their foreheads at the end of the experiment.

Those in the “high-power” sample were less inclined to see things from a different perspective. After talking about themselves in situations of power, they were stuck to viewing things from only one perspective—theirs. What can this say about people in power? Probably not much because of how basic the study was.

However, the study brings a new question into the spotlight. Does power cause people to make more rash decisions? By theory, according to Galinsky’s study, people in power tend to stick to their own perspectives. Could this inclination cause people to act more impulsively and less fairly?

Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford prison experiment answers the affirmative to this question. This rare study used role-playing and the principles of power to demonstrate how one’s morality could go astray while in the seat of command. In a makeshift prison at the university, nine college students—middle class, Caucasian, and male—were assigned to play the inferior role of prisoners, while another nine males, under the same criteria as their counterparts, played the superior, powerful position of the prison guards. Within a day, the latter nine average students molded into vile prison guards who humiliated and abused their prisoners. A couple “prisoners” even became traumatized, estranged individuals who no longer wanted to cooperate. The six-day study had to be terminated eight days earlier than planned because of the detrimental authority that the “prison guards” were taking on and misusing.

It would be very difficult to completely repeat Zimbardo’s experiment. (Recent experiment regulations would additionally prevent many of the events that took place in the 1971 prison.) But in the study, the people in power were shown to act more impulsively and less fairly. The prison guards gradually learned to disregard the prisoners’ sentiments. They enforced punishments, such as extreme exercise, decrease in sanitary conditions, the removal of sleeping mattresses, and other forms of degradation. The prisoners became mere abstractions that needed to be dealt with. It was noted that many of the guards were regretful upon hearing that the study would be concluded early.

The guards learned to act solely from their own perspective. Had Galinsky brought his experiment to Zimbardo’s prison study, the former would probably have discovered that all of the prison guards wrote the letter e backwards on their foreheads. I imagine that the six-day experience with absolute power would temporarily change these college students so much that they would not even consider an opposite view.

Zimbardo’s study altogether portrayed the human race in a very bad light. But other factors must be taken into account. The prison guard college students were assigned to authoritative roles that were meant to be abusive and overbearing. Most positions of power are not meant to be so. Most positions also often have other seats of command that are either just inferior or equal to them. There are normally other individuals present to hold back one’s power. (For example, the US president has a vice-president, secretaries of state, and others to ensure that he does not misuse his power.)

In addition, the prison study only used one race and gender. Could the results have been different if all of the participants were of a different single race? Could a different culture’s values and beliefs have caused the study to end with a different outcome?

What if all of the participants were female? Women have rarely been found to misuse power. After all, it was just a month ago that the world unearthed the first female to be convicted of genocide. (Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Minister of Women’s Development, allegedly partook in the 1994 Rwanda genocide.)

I also wonder how the experiment would have turned out in a setting of multiple ethnic groups and both genders. If every prison guard was of a different ethnicity, would there have been less “teaming up” and more cooperation or vice versa?

At the macroscopic level, it would be impossible to sift through and find all of the powerful people who are influenced into seeing things from namely only their view and those who are more open to others’ perspectives. (You cannot make everyone draw an e on his or her forehead.) Nonetheless, keeping in mind the experiments carried out by Zimbardo and Galinsky can help people evaluate their leaders and decide if the latter is giving fair, moral treatment to all. From a leader’s point of view, both experiments show that power, as great as it can be, must be used with caution and care.

Understanding the Nazis


Contrary to the title, we may never truly understand the Nazis and their destructive perspective on humanity. However, various explanations on personality and environmental factors can help us walk in their shoes and understand their situation better.

James Waller’s book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing focuses on the many aspects that must be accounted for when questioning what it takes for a normal person to become evil. The book may sound like the wrong way to question evil; as Waller suggests, the book is not meant as a how-to manual but more as an explanation in terms of social psychology.

As humans, it should be our job to question the concept of evil and understand it, especially in order to prevent its occurrence in the future. I felt reluctant and guilty while reading the first few chapters of the book. After all, what would I say if someone asked me what I was reading? A book about humanity’s darkest and most evil intentions and the reasons behind them? Giving the book’s real title would be no better start either. But as I continued reading, I realized that Waller gave such detailed accounts, views, and information that I was justified for reading such a book.

Waller describes an authoritarian personality, a term brought up by four U.C. Berkeley researchers around 1950 who were studying anti-Semitism and how it led to the Holocaust. As they studied anti-Semitism, the researchers broadened their study to the search of a possible personality that disposes one to prejudice.

The personality was discovered in individuals who were raised by “domineering fathers and punitive mothers who engaged in unusually harsh child-rearing practices” (Waller 77). The researchers recognized nine factors that created the authoritarian personality. Such factors included strict adherence to orthodox values and views, submission and compliance with hierarchical ranks, and cynicism toward humankind. The researchers created an F scale, Potentiality for Fascism Scale, out of belief that the authoritarian personality could increase support for fascist policies.

However, it seems unlikely that one personality and set of environmental factors would dispose one to becoming a Nazi or something similar. The binding obedience and submission to hierarchical ranks may not be attributed to one’s childhood but instead to the environment in which such an organization is enforced.

Imagine that you have been drafted into an infamous army whose intentions you disrespect. The army commanders order all soldiers to slaughter people of a specified race. After staying in this army, you develop friendships and you learn your position in the hierarchy. You may dislike the army’s intentions still, but you are repeatedly told that you are a part of this entire group. Through this group, you learn beliefs and are told to adhere to them. When your group heads off in a battle, you are part of it. You see your friends in your group slaughtering men and women and children. Surrounding you are commander voices that are shouting for you to get started with your work. They say you will be executed if you do not follow commands.

What do you do? Do you defy authorities and separate yourself from the group? That would be difficult, as you would have nowhere to go. (Either persecute or be persecuted.)

The simplest way is to follow the group. This brings the concept of deindividuation—attributing one’s individual behavior to a collective group and its standards rather than to the individual self. Through deindividuation, one no longer feels entirely responsible for his actions. In this sense, Waller implies that virtually anyone can commit the Nazis’ actions; the sole difference is the environment and human interactions that one is faced with. (In his book, Waller includes more than just the collective mindset to explain general evil actions.)

Even more interesting are the results of intelligence and Rorschach tests that were administered on Nuremberg internees. Allied mental health professionals Gustave Gilbert and Douglas M. Kelley conducted tests on a small group of the Nazi internees and found astonishing reports. Using the Wechsler-Bellevue Intelligence Test, Adult Form I, Gilbert discovered that the average IQ of the internees was 128. The highest IQ was 143. These internees proved to be far more intelligent than expected. (Some argue that the scores were slightly inaccurate because the particular test had not been standardized.)

The Rorschach tests made these Nazi internees appear as sane and meticulous as any other human being. In a 1946 article from the Rorschach Research Exchange, Kelley asserted that these individuals “were essentially sane and although in some instances somewhat deviated from normal, nevertheless knew precisely what they were doing during their years of ruthless domination. From our findings we must conclude not only that [their] personalities are not unique or insane but also that they could be duplicated in any country of the world today.”

As Waller summarizes, “To bluntly suggest that all Nazis had a common, homogenous extraordinary personality that predisposed them to the commission of extraordinary evil is an obvious oversimplification” (86).

Yes, the authoritarian personality that the Berkeley researchers created seems unlikely. However, several of the components within this personality can be developed in order to dispose one to vile, destructive acts. A specific environment that harnesses a collective mindset and expounds specific views could bring any individual to mold into that specified mindset if he is maintained in the environment for a long enough period of time.

Waller emphasizes that “while the evil of genocide is not ordinary, the perpetrators most certainly are” (86-87).

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,