Sunday, June 28, 2015

What personality features do heroes and psychopaths have in common?
A recent research paper attempts to answer the question: “Are psychopaths and heroes twigs off the same branch?” Psychopathy is usually thought of as one of the most malevolent manifestations of a disturbed personality structure as it is associated with selfishness, callousness, and lack of concern for others. In spite of this, in recent times people have begun to look for a positive face to psychopathy, or at the very least, to some of its component traits.  The evidence for this is rather mixed, but there does seem to be a connection of sorts between at least some traits and behavior loosely associated with psychopathy and heroic actions that help others. Bold, fearless traits are associated with heroic behavior, but callous traits such as meanness and coldness are not. More puzzling is that people with a history of antisocial behavior are more likely to engage in heroic acts to help others.

Some heroes have a distinctly dark side

Psychopathy is composed of a cluster of several different component traits that interact with each other to produce a disturbing whole. According to the triarchic model, psychopathy comprises a combination of three main traits: boldness, meanness, and disinhibition (Patrick, Fowles, & Krueger, 2009). Boldness involves the capacity to remain calm in threatening situations, and is associated with being socially self-assured and assertive. Disinhibition refers to problems with impulse control and a tendency to act without thinking about the consequences. Meanness involves aggressively seeking to have one’s own way, and is associated with callousness, and lack of remorse or empathy. Individuals can express each of these traits to varying degrees, and so there may be different subtypes of psychopathy emphasising particular combinations of these traits. For example, some people described as psychopathic might show extreme meanness but not be especially disinhibited, and vice versa.

Although psychopathy is generally considered maladaptive, there has been some speculation that there might be subtypes of psychopathy that might allow a person to be successful in society. It has even been suggested that some psychopathic traits might even have socially desirable consequences in some circumstances. For example, according to one theory, one of the developmental precursors of psychopathy is a fearless temperament. Children with a fearless temperament are difficult to socialise effectively because they do not respond well to punishment, hence they may have little concern with the negative consequences of disregarding society’s rules. However, people with a fearless temperament may also be very brave in the face of danger, and given the right circumstances, might be more ready than others to perform heroic acts involving personal risk for the benefit of others. Hence, some have speculated that “psychopaths and heroes are twigs from the same branch” (Smith, Lilienfeld, Coffey, & Dabbs, 2013). Fearlessness is thought to underlie both boldness and meanness, and it has been argued that boldness is a relatively pure form of fearlessness, whereas meanness may result from a failure of proper socialization in fearless children (Patrick, et al., 2009).

Fictional hero James Bond serves his country loyally, yet has the markings of a classic psychopath

A 2013 study examined whether psychopathic traits were related to a propensity to perform heroic acts, defined as altruistic behavior that involves some degree of risk to the actor (Smith, et al., 2013). In particular, the researchers wanted to test whether a trait referred to as ‘fearless dominance’, which they argue represents a form of ‘successful psychopathy’ and which is closely related to boldness, would be more closely related to heroic behavior than other psychopathic traits related to disinhibition and meanness. In a series of three surveys,[1] the authors correlated a number of measures of psychopathic and antisocial traits with measures assessing the extent to which a person had performed actions involving risk (either physical or social) to help another person, and how often they had helped strangers (which the authors argued usually involves risk). The results were somewhat inconsistent, but overall they found that traits related to fearless dominance and boldness, such as social potency (self-assurance in dealing with other people) and fearlessness had modest positive correlations with heroic actions. Disinhibition-related traits showed mixed results, with some traits such as ‘impulsive non-conformity’ showing modest positive correlations, and other traits such as ‘carefree nonplanfulness’ showing modest negative correlations with heroic actions. Traits related to meanness, such as ‘coldheartedness’, showed small to moderate negative correlations with heroism. Perhaps surprisingly, measures of antisocial behavior and delinquency generally showed moderate positive correlations with heroism measures, and some of these correlations were among the largest in all three surveys.

The authors concluded that their study provided some preliminary support for a connection between psychopathic-related traits, particularly those related to boldness, and heroism. These findings seem rather puzzling, especially the relationship between antisocial behavior and heroism. One possible explanation is that people with bold fearless traits are prone to involve themselves in potentially dangerous situations, which might involve antisocial behavior on some occasions, and altruistic behavior on others. However, other research (Miller & Lynam, 2012) has found that the trait of fearless dominance measured by Smith et al. is only weakly related to antisocial behavior. Hence, it seems unlikely that fearless dominance is the underlying shared factor explaining the correlations between antisocial behavior and heroism. Disinhibition traits are more strongly related to antisocial behavior, but in the Smith et al. study these had very inconsistent and rather weak correlations with heroism. Some disinhibition traits, such as a tendency to act impulsively in emergency situations, might be particularly relevant to heroism. However, other disinhibition traits, such as having an erratic lifestyle in which one does not plan for the future may be decidedly unheroic. Note that Smith et al. found that ‘impulsive non-conformity’ had a positive correlation, while ‘carefree nonplanfulness’ had a negative correlation with heroism. However, even the correlations between impulsive non-conformity tended to be noticeably smaller than the correlations between antisocial behavior and heroism.

What sort of antisocial behavior exactly is most correlated with heroic behavior is not specified by the Smith et al. study and this might be important. Aggressive antisocial behavior in general can be either proactive (e.g. premeditated actions that harm others for personal gain) or reactive (e.g. retaliation in response to provocation). Prior research has found that proactive aggression is more strongly related to meanness (e.g. callous unemotional traits) than is reactive aggression. People who engage in heroic behavior to help others might be more likely to have a history of reactive rather than proactive aggression, since they do not seem to be particularly mean.

Another possible issue is that measures used in the Smith et al. study assessed lifetime occurrences of both antisocial and heroic behavior. It is possible that people who perform heroic actions might go through a developmental phase involving some antisocial behavior which they later mature out of. Hence, they might be of a different type than people who persist in antisocial activities throughout much of their adult lives. The latter pattern of chronic antisocial behavior seems more characteristic of the prototypical psychopath who does not seem to learn from his or her mistakes. The reason I suggest this is because of a recent study which seems to suggest that people who had received an award for exceptional bravery, risking their own lives to save others, seemed to have achieved a more mature level of personal development compared to ordinary community members (Dunlop & Walker, 2013). In this study, participants were assessed on interpersonal traits and personal strivings. Additionally, they were interviewed about their life story and were asked to describe critical incidents occurring at particular phases of their lives. Their responses were then analysed for the presence of key themes. Compared to a community control group, bravery award recipients were higher in interpersonal dominance, showed greater strivings for personal growth and identity development, and had a more sophisticated level of social awareness and understanding. Additionally, their life story interviews were characterised by more frequent themes of agency, redemption, and early advantage. Agency refers to a sense of personal effectiveness. Redemption themes involve life stories in which an initially bad event or circumstance leads to something demonstrably good or emotionally positive. Early advantage refers to quality of attachments, childhood sensitivity to the needs of others, and the frequency of helpers relative to enemies.

What this personality profile suggests to me is that brave heroes in this study were interpersonally bold, felt effective in their lives, and probably felt emotionally secure during their upbringing. Additionally, they appear to have experienced instances of personal adversity which later led to positive changes in their lives. They seem to have a capacity to reflect on and learn from their life experiences, even adverse ones. Unfortunately, the study did not assess to what extent they had ever engaged in antisocial behavior. I am inclined to speculate that linkages between antisocial behavior and heroic actions might particularly be found in these types of mature individuals who are interpersonally bold and who have developed a positive life story characterised by themes of agency and redemption. Hence, they might have been involved in antisocial behavior at an early stage in their life, learned from their mistakes, and then moved on to more mature socially responsible forms of bravery. Future research studies could investigate how accurate these speculations are through more detailed assessments of the life history of people who have engaged in heroic behavior compared to less brave individuals.

In summary, there may well be a loose connection between heroes and psychopaths in that they may share some tendencies but not others. In order to be a hero, it probably helps to be fearless and perhaps even a little reckless and impulsive. Perhaps a history of getting into trouble contributes in some way to the development of heroism in the right people. However, unlike hard-core psychopaths, people who become heroes are not as mean, callous or cold. Additionally, it is possible that people who become heroes may have a more mature level of personality development that allows them to contribute positively to society, something that hard-core psychopaths appear to be lacking.

[1] Their paper also includes an analysis of personality traits of American Presidents but to keep things simpler I will not consider that here.  

Related blog posts 
The following pair of articles challenge Zimbardo's contention that heroism and evil are equally "banal".
Are Heroes and Villains just Victims of Circumstance? 
Heroes and Villains: the Contradictions within Situationism

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image credits 
Batman photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Sean Connery as James Bond from Wikia 

Dunlop, W. L., & Walker, L. J. (2013). The personality profile of brave exemplars: A person-centered analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 47(4), 380-384. doi:
Miller, J. D., & Lynam, D. R. (2012). An examination of the Psychopathic Personality Inventory's nomological network: A meta-analytic review. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 3(3), 305-326. doi: 10.1037/a0024567
Patrick, C. J., Fowles, D. C., & Krueger, R. F. (2009). Triarchic conceptualization of psychopathy: Developmental origins of disinhibition, boldness, and meanness. Development and Psychopathology, 21(Special Issue 03), 913-938. doi: doi:10.1017/S0954579409000492
            Smith, S., Lilienfeld, S., Coffey, K., & Dabbs, J. (2013). Are psychopaths and heroes twigs off the same branch? Evidence from college, community, and presidential samples Journal of Research in Personality, 47 (5), 634-646 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2013.05.006

Monday, January 19, 2015

Magic Mushroom Users who get High without Drugs
Psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin have been of interest to psychologists due to their ability to induce altered states of intense well-being and profound personal significance. A recent study asked people, some who were psilocybin users and others who were not, about the best, most wonderful experiences of their lives. Some users said that the most wonderful experience occurred under the influence of psilocybin. Other users, who had their most wonderful experience while not under the drug’s influence, nevertheless reported a profound alteration of consciousness that was similar in some ways to the effects of psilocybin. For example, they described unusual visual hallucinations in addition to transcendental mystical states. Both groups of users said their most wonderful experience involved a more profoundly altered state of consciousness compared to the experiences of non-users. One possible implication of this study is that psilocybin could have lasting effects on a person’s ability to enter altered states of consciousness without drugs. However, further research is needed to confirm if this is actually the case.

The intense visual phenomena induced by psychedelic drugs have inspired some remarkable art
Image Credit: 
Psy - "Pink" - Peace(link is external) by sorrowdiess(link is external) via DeviantArt

Psychologists have long been interested in understanding the human capacity for intense well-being. Abraham Maslow, a pioneer of humanistic psychology, in particular coined the term “peak experiences” to refer to states in which a person feels intensely positive emotions such as great ecstasy, wonder and awe (Klavetter & Mogar, 1967). He considered peak experiences to be a sign of psychological health and thought that such experiences were particularly common in people who were fulfilling their deepest human potentials. Maslow conceptualised peak experiences as a perception of “Being” or “ultimate reality” in a mystical sense, although other researchers have used the term more broadly to refer to the most wonderful or best experiences in a person’s life.

Pioneering studies in the 1960’s investigated the potential of psychedelic drugs such as LSD to induce peak experiences. For example, one study on LSD-assisted psychotherapy found that under the influence of LSD some people had experiences involving feelings of intense beauty, a sense of deeper perception of reality, and of self-transcendence (Klavetter & Mogar, 1967). Furthermore, those who had such experiences believed that they had gained lasting benefits, including greater insight into themselves and their relationships, and that they had become clearer about their values in life. On the other hand, some of the participants in the study did not have a peak experience and reported that they found the experience disappointing and confusing, or felt that they had temporarily gone mad. Hence, some people seem more likely to benefit from psychedelic drugs than others. For example, people who are highly open to new experiences seem to benefit most, while people who are emotionally unstable or rigidly conventional in their views are prone to greater anxiety and negative, disturbing experiences (Studerus, Kometer, Hasler, & Vollenweider, 2011).

Research on psychedelic drugs was unfortunately suppressed in the 1970’s and has been resumed only in more recent years, and today uses somewhat more rigorous scientific methods. One well-known study, which I have discussed elsewhere, also found that psilocybin, the active component of magic mushrooms, can induce profoundly positive experiences in certain people (Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse, 2006). In this study mentally stable adults volunteered to take psilocybin under supportive conditions. About two-thirds of participants had a “complete mystical experience” involving feelings of intense joy, timelessness, a sense of oneness with the universe and ego-transcendence, and feelings of profound insight into reality. In a fourteen month follow-up, nearly all of the participants who had a mystical experience said they regarded it as one of the most personally significant moments of their lives.

The effects of psychedelic drugs are sensitive to features of the setting they are taken in. In the Griffiths et al. study psilocybin was administered in a safe comfortable setting with an assistant present to provide emotional support as needed to the volunteers. This helped to maximise the chance that they had a positive outcome. However, recreational users of psilocybin may be more casual about the kind of setting they create so the outcomes could be more variable. A recent study attempted to understand the outcomes of psilocybin use in more naturalistic recreational settings (Cummins & Lyke, 2013). In particular, the authors wanted to know how common peak experiences are among users and how they might compare to peak experiences reported by non-users. They gave a survey to 34 psilocybin users and 67 non-users, asking them to recall a peak experience, defined as the best experience or group of experiences in their lives. They then completed a questionnaire assessing the degree to which their peak experience involved alterations in their state of consciousness. Altered states of consciousness were assessed along three dimensions: oceanic boundlessness, which involves subjectively positive, mystical or transcendental experiences; visionary restructuralization, involving visual hallucinations and synaesthesia (crossover of sensory experiences, e.g. seeing music); and dread of ego dissolution, which includes negative experiences such as anxiety about one’s mental processes. Additionally, participants were asked if the peak experience had been induced by psilocybin and if they were under the influence of any other drugs at the time.

Among psilocybin users, 47% reported that their peak experience had occurred under the influence of psilocybin, while the other users said that it had not. Consistent with previous research, those who reported that their peak experience occurred under psilocybin said that it involved very high levels of oceanic boundlessness and visionary restructuralization, as well as relatively high levels of dread of ego dissolution. This is comparable to the findings of the study by Griffiths et al. in which about a third of participants experienced a high level of anxiety at some stage even though they rated their overall experience as being highly positive. Perhaps more interesting was that psilocybin users whose peak experience had not been induced by psilocybin also reported that their peak experience involved high levels of oceanic boundlessness (their questionnaire scores being nearly as high as those who had their peak experience under psilocybin), as well as moderately high levels of visionary restructuralization (although somewhat lower than the other psilocybin users) but very low levels of dread of ego dissolution. For both groups of psilocybin users, their peak experiences involved considerably higher levels of oceanic boundlessness and visionary restructuralization compared to the peak experiences of those who had never used psilocybin. This indicates that lifetime peak experiences of psilocybin users involved more profound alterations of consciousness, whether they had or had not been induced by psilocybin, compared to the lifetime peak experiences of people who had never used.

These results raise some fascinating questions that the study design was not able to answer. For example, it is unknown why some psilocybin users had the most wonderful experience of their lives under psilocybin while other users did not. Situational factors, such as the setting in which the drug was taken might have played a role, plus characteristic of the users themselves might also be a factor. For example, differences in the personality trait of absorption, one’s propensity to experience episode of “total attention”, are strongly linked to how profoundly a person responds to psilocybin (Studerus, Gamma, Kometer, & Vollenweider, 2012), so it is possible that the two groups of users might have differed on this trait. However, what I find even more intriguing is the fact that psilocybin users who had peak experiences without drugs nevertheless reported that these peak experiences involved intense alterations of consciousness that included visual hallucinations as well as mystical states. It would be interesting to know whether these peak experiences were spontaneous or deliberately sought. For example, there are specific practices designed to produce altered states without drugs, such as shamanic rituals, which can induce visionary experiences.

It is also possible that people who have non-drug peak experiences involving visual phenomena might have distinctive personality traits compared to those who are not prone to such experiences. One study found that people who reported having peak experiences tend to have particular traits such as being more imaginative, less authoritarian and dogmatic, more tender-minded and more experimenting than people who had not reported such experiences (Mathes, 1982). People high in fantasy proneness have a natural tendency to have very vivid imaginative experiences, and it is possible that such people are more inclined to use psilocybin. Hence, the unusual results found by Cummins and Lyke might reflect the pre-existing characteristics of people who use psilocybin.

However, another intriguing possibility is that psilocybin use itself might result in long-term changes in a person’s propensity to experience unusual visual phenomena. In a web-based survey, over 60% of people who had used psychedelic drugs reported that they had had unusual visual experiences while not under the influence of any drug (Baggott, Coyle, Erowid, Erowid, & Robertson, 2011). Furthermore, 23.9% said that such experiences occurred constantly or nearly constantly. Most people said that they were not bothered by them, although 4.2% said such experiences were sufficiently troublesome to warrant seeking treatment. These experiences came in a wide variety of types, including seeing halos or auras around things, things appearing to move or breathe, moving objects leaving after-images, seeing things with eyes open that are not really there, and more. The number of different visual phenomena a person experienced was proportional to the number of times they had taken psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD and psilocybin, although ketamine and salvia were also indicated. The reasons for these findings are not really known, although it could well be the case that taking psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin might increase a person’s propensity to experience hallucinatory visual phenomena in the long-term. If this is true, then it might explain why psilocybin users who had a peak experience that was not induced by drugs reported unusual visual experiences.

In a previous article I speculated about the possibility that psilocybin use could alter the sensitivity of neuroreceptors that underlie individual differences in the trait of absorption, a trait associated with having altered states of consciousness. A related possibility is that psilocybin and similar drugs might also alter the long-term sensitivity of neuroreceptors that underlie the experience of hallucinatory visual phenomena, which might explain why some users experience persistent unusual visual experiences. There is an additional and related possibility that psilocybin use increases a person’s tendency to have mystical peak experiences even when not using drugs. These are very speculative ideas and longitudinal research studies in which people are tracked for some time before and after initiating usage would be needed to determine if psilocybin does have long-term effects on a person’s consciousness. Further research on psychedelic drugs could help provide a deeper understanding of the nature of experiences associated with profound levels of well-being. 

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image Credit
Psy - "Pink" - Peace by sorrowdiess via DeviantArt

Other posts about psychedelic drugs
Can Cannabis Cause Psychosis? A Hard Question to Answer (Admittedly cannabis is not a classic psychedelic, but still.)

Baggott, M. J., Coyle, J. R., Erowid, E., Erowid, F., & Robertson, L. C. (2011). Abnormal visual experiences in individuals with histories of hallucinogen use: A web-based questionnaire. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 114(1), 61-67. doi:
            Cummins C, & Lyke J (2013). Peak experiences of psilocybin users and non-users. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 45 (2), 189-94 PMID: 23909006
Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187(3), 268-283. doi: 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5
Klavetter, R. E., & Mogar, R. E. (1967). Peak Experiences: Investigation of Their Relationship to Psychedelic Therapy and Self-Actualization. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 7(2), 171-177. doi: 10.1177/002216786700700206
Mathes, E. W. (1982). Peak Experience Tendencies: Scale Development and Theory Testing. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 22(3), 92-108. doi: 10.1177/0022167882223011
Studerus, E., Gamma, A., Kometer, M., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2012). Prediction of Psilocybin Response in Healthy Volunteers. PLoS ONE, 7(2), e30800. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030800
Studerus, E., Kometer, M., Hasler, F., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2011). Acute, subacute and long-term subjective effects of psilocybin in healthy humans: a pooled analysis of experimental studies. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(11), 1434-1452. doi: 10.1177/0269881110382466