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The banality-of-evil thesis was a flashpoint for controversy.
What makes some psychopaths better able to control their antisocial tendencies?
- Researchers have long struggled to explain the stark differences in life outcomes of psychopaths.
- A new study suggests that the personality trait conscientiousness helps psychopaths develop impulse-control skills over time.
- However, this process seems to apply only to individuals who score high in certain psychopathic traits.
'Successful' versus 'unsuccessful' psychopaths<p>The study notes that psychopathy exists on a spectrum in society, and it can manifest through a variety of personality traits, such as interpersonal manipulation, impulsivity, callousness, grandiosity, and boldness. Some traits may help psychopaths become "successful," defined as those who adapt to social norms and avoid incarceration.</p><p>For example, the psychopathic trait fearlessness may help a psychopath become a good first-responder, while interpersonal manipulation might help a psychopath become an effective lawyer. In contrast, the psychopathic trait impulsivity may make a psychopath more likely to commit crime.</p><p>The researchers hypothesized that psychopaths who are able develop impulse-control skills are more likely to be successful. The team suggested that successful psychopaths develop a mechanism that gives them greater control over their behavior, helping them thwart their heightened antisocial impulses.</p><p>Conscientiousness is the trait that predicts whether a psychopath will develop this mechanism, according to the study.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The compensatory model posits that people higher in certain psychopathic traits (such as grandiosity and manipulation) are able to compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their antisocial impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control," Lasko said.</p>
Lasko et al.<p>To test the hypothesis, the researchers examined data from a seven-year longitudinal study on adolescent criminals in Arizona and Pennsylvania.<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Although these participants are not objectively 'successful,' this was an ideal sample to test our hypotheses for two main reasons," the researchers wrote. "First, adolescents are in a prime developmental phase for the improvement of impulse control. Allowing us the longitudinal variability we would need to test our compensatory model. Second, offenders are prone to antisocial acts, by definition, and their rates of recidivism provided a real-world index of 'successful' versus 'unsuccessful' psychopathy phenotypes."</p><p>The study found that adolescents who scored high in grandiose-manipulative psychopathic traits early in the study were more likely to develop better impulse control and less aggression over time. Psychopaths who scored higher in impulsivity didn't see as much of an increase.</p>
Philosophy professor James Sterba revives a very old argument.
- In his book, Is a Good God Logically Possible?, James Sterba investigates the role of evil.
- Sterba contends that if God is all-powerful then he'd be able to stop evil from occurring in the world.
- God's inability (or unwillingness) to stop evil should make us question his role, or even his existence.
A young boy carrying a placard in London's Trafalgar Square which says, 'Prepare to Meet Thy God'.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images<p>If God is unable or unwilling to stop the external consequences of evil—while good and evil can be culturally relative terms, murder is universally recognized as being in the red—then the implications, to the religious at least, would equate to blasphemy. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If there's all this evil in the world, maybe God can't prevent it. Then he's still all powerful, he just logically can't prevent it. The problem there is it turns out that God would be less powerful than we are because we can prevent lots of evil. Now if God is stuck in a logical possibility while we're only stuck in a causal one, then he's so much less powerful than us. The traditional God can't be less powerful than we are." </p><p>While this discussion is often relegated to religious philosophy, we regularly witness the effects. Sterba mentions the Pauline principle, that "one should never do evil so that good may come." Murdering a doctor that provides abortions, a platform accepted by extreme religious conservatives, falls into this category. We can place the <a href="https://apnews.com/015702afdb4d4fbf85cf5070cd2c6824" target="_blank">record number of migrant children</a> held in detention centers in 2019, nearly 70,000, because their imprisonment supposedly saves American jobs, or keeps brown people out, or this week's excuse du jour in that category as well. </p><p>Sterba says that a religion that purports to champion charity and poverty should not be making a utilitarian argument when at root its adherents should be thinking about not doing evil. Doing evil for a supposed later good is not, by its very nature, a charitable act. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"In traditional religious views, utilitarianism is a horrible thing. Trying to maximize utilitarianism is a bad way of thinking about things. You should be thinking about not doing evil and you should be worrying about intention."</p>
We live in contradiction. How we confront that fact matters.
- Absurdism is the philosophical school that recognizes the tension between meaning and a meaningless universe.
- Camus and Kierkegaard wrote extensively on the topic, though modern thinkers continue to contribute to the literature of the Absurd.
- In a politically divided time, the Absurd has come to the forefront of national discussion.
Why life is meaningless, according to absurdists | BBC Ideas<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="23ba2a9ed0847dc6acb0135620980d8b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QoePDl14Eyc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The ultimate modern absurdist, English author Douglas Adams, kicked off his classic Hitchhiker's series as a BBC radio show in 1978. While Adams left us too early at age 49 in 2001, the atheist and satirist knew how to drive into the heart of contradiction, as when he wrote in <em>The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,</em></p><blockquote>"If there's any real truth, it's that the entire multidimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs."</blockquote><p>Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has gotten into her share of trouble for pointing out the contradictions in religious belief systems — namely, Islam, which she was raised in. She beautifully expresses the absurdity of existence in this passage from <em>Infidel</em>: </p><blockquote>"The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more."<em></em></blockquote><p>In <em>Einstein's Monsters</em>, British novelist and screenwriter Martin Amis takes our love of war to task by noting the absurdity of our nuclear predicament. </p><blockquote>"What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening to use nuclear weapons. And we can't get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons."</blockquote><p>The medieval scholar, Caroline Walker Bynum, knows well the contradictions of past ages. In <em>Fragmentation and Redemption</em> she takes note of the emotional utility of a belief in resurrection. </p><blockquote>"If there is meaning to the history we tell and the corruption (both moral and physical) we suffer, surely it is in (as well as in spite of) fragmentation. Bodily resurrection at the end of time is, in a technical sense, a comic — that is, a contrived and brave — happy ending."</blockquote><p>The bible of Absurdist literature goes to the French philosopher, Albert Camus, who wrote one of the great philosophical texts of the 20th century with <em>T</em><em>he Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. </em></p><blockquote>"If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance the gap will never be filled."<em></em></blockquote>
Albert Camus, seated, his books spread out before him on a table, with the banner 'Nobel Prize.'
Photo credit: Manuel Litran/Paris Match via Getty Images<p>American professor and essayist Roxane Gay is one of today's most lauded feminists, for good reason: her criticism shines light where darkness has too long pervaded. In <em>Bad Feminist</em>, she notes that judgment in the face of contradiction is itself absurd and should not distract from the bigger message. </p><blockquote>"No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I'm full of contradictions, but I also don't want to be treated like shit for being a woman."<em></em></blockquote><p>Italian anti-fascist poet and anarchist Renzo Novatore had quite a way with words. The early 20th-century writer reminds us in <em>I Am Also a Nihilist</em> that the playing field will always be tilted and that finding your place on that field is essential. </p><blockquote>"Life — for me — is neither good nor bad, neither a theory nor an idea. Life is a reality, and the reality of life is war. For one who is a born warrior, life is a fountain of joy, for others it is only a fountain of humiliation and sorrow."<em></em></blockquote><p>How can any list of contradictions and absurdity be complete without Belgian psychotherapist, Esther Perel? <em>Mating in Captivity</em> is necessary reading for anyone that wishes to be in any sort of relationship in the modern era. (Make sure to check out my <a href="https://bigthink.com/sex-relationships/10-esther-perel-quotes-that-set-the-record-straight-on-love-and-sex" target="_blank">11 quotes from her</a> as well.) </p><blockquote>"Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?"</blockquote><p>Few can put such a large sentiment in as few words as Jon Stewart. </p><blockquote>"I have complete faith in the continued absurdity of whatever's going on."</blockquote><p>I listed the quotes in alphabetical order by author name, yet it seems fitting to give the last word to the man that deserves it. Kurt Vonnegut is the king cynic and a brilliant writer that forces you to confront everything in existence. In <em>Breakfast of Champions</em> he sums up the Absurdity of our situation. </p><blockquote>"As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide."</blockquote><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>.</em></p>
Why were the Nazis so enamored with the occult, pseudoscience, and magic?
- The idea of the Nazi's obsession with the occult has been a popular one amongst the public, but there's a lot of misinformation out there about how involved the Nazis actually were in the occult.
- There are some truly bizarre theories out there about the Nazis, such as the idea that Hitler was possessed by a demon or that the Nazi conquest of Europe was powered by the magical Spear of Destiny.
- While these more fantastical theories may not have any basis in reality, there are many real ties between occult societies, racist thinking, and the Nazis during the 20th and 19th century.
Compared to other crimes horrific in their scope, the Holocaust and its Nazi perpetrators stood out primarily for the detached, technical, and scientific nature of the genocide. But while the actual mechanics of the Holocaust were planned with a cruel and meticulous rationality, the Nazis were fundamentally unscientific, picking and choosing beliefs founded on pseudoscience in order to support their worldview. It's no wonder, then, that they would have had an enduring obsession with the occult. However, there is a lot of unfounded speculation out there about the Nazis and esoteric societies, rituals, and so on. Exactly how involved were the Nazis with the occult?
Descended from Atlanteans
As it turns out, the Nazi party incorporated occultism from its very start. The political group that would eventually become the Nazi party (the German Worker's Party, or DAP) was founded in part by individuals from the Thule Society, an esoteric group dedicated to studying the mythological origins of the Aryan race. Several prominent Nazis were either members or active within the society, including Rudolph Hess, who would become the deputy further to Hitler; Alfred Rosenburg, head of the ministry that oversaw Nazi Germany's occupied territories in Eastern Europe; and Dietrich Eckhart, who founded the DAP.
The Thule society's primary focus was on the study of Ariosophy, referring to wisdom regarding the Aryans founded by occultists Guido von List and Lanz von Liebenfels. These individual's beliefs would come to inform significant aspects of the Nazi state, such as von List's belief in the power of magical runes. The most glaring example of this would be the twin "sig" runes that formed the SS insignia.
Von Liebenfels argued that that the Aryan people were intentionally bred via electricity by interstellar deities called Theozoa, while the other races were the result of interbreeding between humanity and ape-men. According to Liebenfels, gradual interbreeding had robbed the Aryans of their magical powers. Liebenfels would also circulate a magazine called Ostara based on these beliefs, whose readership included a young Adolf Hitler.
In addition to embracing these occult ideas, the Thule Society also believed that a proto-Aryan race lived on the island of Thule, a mythological northern island that is probably more familiar by its alternate names: Hyperborea or Atlantis.
A death's head ring, or totenkopfring, with the "sig" rune visible. Karl Maria Wiligut played a role in the design of such rings.
Yet despite all of its connections to the origins of Nazism, the Thule Society eventually dissolved prior to Hitler's rise to power. In fact, a great number of German occult societies were shut down, though not because of a sudden surge of skepticism or rational belief. Instead, occult-related activities and organizations were often suppressed in Nazi Germany at the behest of Heinrich Himmler's Rasputin-like personal occultist, Karl Maria Wiligut. The point of this was to ensure that Wiligut's own brand of occultism would be the eminent philosophy of the Nazis.
Wiligut had developed a religion centered on worshipping the Germanic god Irmin. According to Wiligut, German culture dated back to 228,000 BC, a period of time when the Earth had three suns and was populated by giants, dwarfs, and other mythical creatures. He also claimed to be descended from a line of kings from this period of time. It should also be noted that Wiligut was a diagnosed schizophrenic.
Himmler, who was an avid follower of the occult, consulted Wiligut on a wide variety of issues. Using Wiligut's prophecies, Himmler chose the castle Wewelsburg to serve as a base of operations for his SS troops and established a room in the castle with a crystal representing the Holy Grail. Wiligut also helped in the design of the rune-covered death's head rings that the SS troops wore, personal awards that Himmler issued himself.
Himmler was particularly attracted to Wiligut's brand of paganism, as he disliked the Judaic origins of Christianity. After the end of the WWII, Himmler believed that the "old Germanic gods will be restored." Leveraging his influence and his boss's desire to see a Germanic paganism, Wiligut attempted to stamp out competing philosophies to his Irminism.
Stranger and stranger
There are some wackier theories out there about the role that the occult played in Nazism, most of which have little evidence to support them. Perhaps the most extreme and, in a way, comforting example would be the idea that Hitler was possessed by a demon, a theory based mainly off of a passage Hitler underlined in a copy of a book titled Magic: History, Theory and Practice, reading, "He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world."
There have also been rumors of an occult society based on Vril, a magical substance described in the book The Coming Race. This 19th century work of fiction describes a traveler exploring a cave who becomes lost and discovers subterranean civilization peopled by supernatural beings called the Vril-Ya. In the novel, these beings made use of a fluid called Vril, which they could telepathically manipulate to heal, destroy, or change their surroundings. Although the existence of an occult society focused on a supposedly real version of Vril are unverified, it's not difficult to imagine that such a society could have found purchase in the occult-obsessed Nazi society.
Further speculation abounds. Some contend that Hitler and the Thule Society worked together to secretly found a secret, totalitarian global government referred to as the New World Order. Others claim that (in)famous occultist Aleister Crowley had made contact with Hitler, or that Hitler had been trained in mind control techniques to control the crowds of Germans he addressed during his speeches. Still others claim that Hitler possessed the Spear of Destiny, the spear that pierced Christ when he was crucified and is claimed to magically guarantee its wielder victory in all their exploits, with the caveat that if they lose the lance they will die.
There are a number of successively stranger and stranger theories about the Nazis and their connection with the occult, a great deal of which have no basis in reality. But developing fantastical, magical theories about how the Nazis came about and how they succeeded in sowing so much horror and destruction is comforting. If they possessed occult power, then we wouldn't have to confront the horrible truth — that regular, flesh-and-blood humans are capable of terrible things all on their own.