Skip to content

automaticity

Are mental disorders physical or ethical?

One of the things that has happened in our culture over the last 300 years is the shift from theology to morality to psychiatry. Conditions that were once deemed vices are now considered diseases. Gluttony has become obesity. Despair has become depression. Lust has become sex addiction.

A few ornery voices on the right, like Theodore Dalrymple, Peter Hitchens and Frank Furedi (he’s on the right, isn’t he?), complain about the rise of the discourse of disease and therapy, and the gradual disappearance of the idea of moral responsibility. Recently, Dalrymple and Hitchens fulminated against Russell Brand’s contention that drug addiction is a disease, insisting instead that it’s a vice, and a crime.

Most of us probably sympathised more with Brand, just as most of us probably agreed with that cartoon doing the rounds a few weeks ago, ‘what if physical illnesses were treated like mental illnesses’. Labeling things like depression or alcoholism ‘vices’ seems medievaly cruel and heartless. Many people are now genuinely offended by the idea of the individual as an autonomous free agent, which they see as an invention of neo-liberalism.

This fundamental cultural shift comes from the rise of materialism since the Scientific Revolution, and the growing popularity of the idea that, as Julian Offray de La Mettrie put it, man is a machine. If the machine starts doing strange things like gorging on chocolate or killing people, that is a mechanical malfunction rather than a moral choice, and should be treated accordingly, with drugs or behavioural modification.

So which view is right? Are mental disorders physical, or ethical?

I think that, paradoxically, both views are right. Humans are machines, determined by our genes, our neural chemistry and our environment. But we also have the capacity to make moral choices, and should be held accountable for our moral mistakes. Ignore either side of this polarity, and you fall into error – either the error of thinking man is entirely a machine without any free will, or thinking man is a completely free agent without any limits on his rationality and choice.

The paradox of humanity is that we are both caused physical objects, and also moral subjects with a limited capacity for transcendence. That small capacity for transcendence means that, unlike every other animal, we can re-programme ourselves. Our personalities are not set in stone. We can use our rational consciousness to choose a direction in life. And that rational consciousness means we can also be held accountable for our actions, rather than treated like helpless children or dogs.

With regard to mental disorders, this means they are best understood as both causally determined, but also involving ethical errors about the best way to flourish. The gambler, the drug addict, the food-gorger, the social phobic, even the depressive, are not simply the victims of physical malfunctions. They are the makers of ethical errors. They may have inherited these ethical errors from their parents, their genes or their culture, but they have the sovereign human capacity to change these errors.

The Greek philosophers understood that bio-psychology and ethics are not two separate departments. They understood that mental disorders like anxiety are both diseases and vices or moral errors. They are diseases of our reason, diseases of our moral capacity to choose a wise course in life. And the cure for this disease is philosophy,  by which they meant psychology + ethics + economics + politics + theology.

Today, at the apex of the materialist worldview, we are beginning to return to the ancients’ wisdom that humans do have self-control and the capacity for moral reasoning, and that these things are important for helping us escape problems like obesity or addiction.

The most scientifically credible treatments for depression, anxiety and many other mental disorders is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which was inspired by Greek philosophy, and 12 Step programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous, which grew out of Protestant Christianity. Neither CBT nor AA use the old language of sin or vice or moral blame, but they both insist our ability to recover from mental disorders depends on our reasoning and moral choice (as well as help from a Higher Power, in the case of AA).

Neither CBT or AA are glibly optimistic about our ability to change ourselves. Both recognise the terrifying power of mental disorders  to wrap themselves around us like a parasite, to lie to us and utterly transform our personality. They also recognise that, in some cases like dementia or schizophrenia, our biology may destroy our capacity to reason. But they also recognise our stubborn human capacity for transcendence and re-birth.

Our capacity for transcendence is just a capacity, and Aristotle insisted it can be ruined by our environment, by a particularly poor or abusive childhood for example (although the Stoics would have argued that even abused slaves like Epictetus can show extraordinary moral courage). And our moral capacity is also bounded by the power of habits. Decisions harden into habits, habits harden into personality traits, personality traits harden into biographies. Character, as Heraclitus put it, is destiny.

I know from personal experience how poor life-decisions gather momentum until they become overpowering and chronic mental disorders. When I was a teenager, I did lots of drugs, and ended up traumatizing myself. Poor life-choice. The trauma hit me at university, and led to me becoming increasingly socially phobic. Bit by bit, what started as a free choice not to go to a party hardened into an involuntary compulsion – I would be terrified at the thought of going to a party.

At that time, I was addicted to the I-Ching, the ancient Taoist book of divination. I constantly asked it questions to try and work out what was happening to me. I often got hexagram number 29 – K’An, The Abysmal – as a reply. The second line of it tells us:

Repetition of the Abysmal.
In the abyss one falls into a pit.
Misfortune.

Which the commentary explains as:

By growing used to what is dangerous, a man can easily allow it to become part of him. He is familiar with it and grows used to evil. With this he has lost the right way, and misfortune is the natural result.

Things get away from us. The state of vice or sin can be compared to the episode of The Simpsons, when Homer is standing on a skateboard at the top of a hill, overlooking a canyon. All it takes is a small push at the beginning – one bad life-choice or unlucky life-event – and things quickly gather momentum, until you are hurtling towards the abyss and it’s very difficult to get off the skateboard.

We always have the choice to get off the skateboard, but it gets harder and harder, partly because it takes humility to admit we are heading in the wrong direction and we need help to change. Our egos love to delude ourselves that everything is alright, like the optimist who jumps off a building and says, as he passes each floor, ‘so far so good’.

The unfortunate consequence of our nature as moral subjects is that people have to choose to get off the skateboard. Loved ones can’t make them do it. As the joke puts it, ‘how many psychotherapists does it take to change a light-bulb? One, but the light-bulb must want to change.’

Often, when I do philosophy talks, I meet mothers whose teenage or young adult children are deeply depressed, but who won’t do anything to get better. They are heading for the abyss. The poor mothers often wear brave smiles, but you can see how destroyed they are inside. And they don’t know what they should do, they say that their boy (it’s usually a boy) just won’t try anything to get better and gets furious with them if they try to make them.

It makes me think that fundamental to recovery from mental illness is some survival mechanism kicking in. People need a moment of epiphany, when they wake up from the automatic cycle of self-destruction, and think ‘my God, I’m killing myself’. They need to stop blaming their mother or father or genes or God for their shitty life, and think, ‘I’ve got to do something’. And when that self-preservation kicks in and they take responsibility for their beliefs and habits, they might have a chance of getting better. But they need that moment of insight and that sudden urge to survive.

Drugs may well be a part of that recovery. But a lot of the therapeutic power of pharmaceuticals may well be placebo (just as an addict praying to a Higher Power may be placebo). What is really helping us recover is the realisation ‘shit, here comes the abyss, it’s time to change direction’. It may not be your fault you’re heading for the abyss, it might have been your shitty childhood that gave you the first push down the hill, but ultimately it’s your choice whether to get off the skateboard or not.

Russell Brand realizes, I think, this paradox. He says addiction is a disease, but a spiritual disease. We make bad life-choices or suffer traumatic life-events, and then things get their own momentum. The treatment for such diseases involves lots of love, sympathy, and perhaps pharmacology. But Peter Hitchens is right too – it also involves individuals making better and wiser moral choices.

SPSP conference: the cheat-sheet

So, you didn’t make it to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual conference in San Antonio? Have no fear, I forked out loads of money to go…Why, I don’t know. I was the only journalist there. Anyway, as a result, you can use my SPSP cheat-sheet to pretend you were there. Easy!


The main reason I went, besides the fact that I’m a spendthrift idiot, was to see a pre-conference symposium on consciousness, organized by Roy Baumeister (pictured below left) and Kathleen Vohs. What interested me about the event was that John Bargh was speaking there.
Bargh and Baumeister have had an interesting argument going on for a few years about the roles of the conscious and the unconscious in the human mind. Bargh is the most famous proponent of the idea that most human activity is carried out by the unconscious, that a lot of the time our minds are unconsciously reacting to stimuli according to subliminal priming cues – something he and others have shown with a lot of priming experiments, where subjects are ‘primed’ with subliminal images or words, which then unconsciously affects their behaviour and motivation. Two years ago, Bargh told me in an
interview that he thought 99% of human behaviour was accounted for by the unconscious.

Baumeister and Vohs, meanwhile, have insisted that consciousness has an important role to play, that we do in some sense ‘choose’ how to act, we can choose to control our automatic impulses, and therefore we can be held responsible for what we do.
This is obviously a fairly important debate, not just for my own work, on the relevance of ancient philosophy to modern life, but also for our culture, and our whole sense of ourselves as free agents capable of moral choice.

Well, I was expecting fireworks but alas it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Sadly (or maybe happily), Baumeister and Bargh seem to have arrived at something like a common ground, in which the important roles of both the conscious and the unconscious is acknowledged. The conscious, they now seem to agree, can do some things which the unconscious can’t. It can do sequential reasoning – logic, maths, sentences. “The unconscious can’t do maths”, as Baumeister put it.

It can also take other people’s perspectives, so it’s important for negotiations. It’s important for story-telling, narratives, and some forms of causal reasoning. It’s important as a time-traveller – going back in the past, projecting into the future, and thereby making plans. And our consciousness is the controller, at least sometimes. It can over-ride automatic responses, it can manage self-presentation, it can modify our impulses to fit in with our evolving culture and get on with other people and other tribes.

So there are all sorts of things the conscious mind does, which we become much worse at when we’re under ‘cognitive load’. Baumeister, Vohs and Masicampo presented
a new paper they have forthcoming, which reviews several studies and ‘proves’ what exactly conscious thoughts do for us.
There are other things the conscious mind does less well. It’s not good for rapid information processing or threat response. It’s not good for bodily responses – in fact, thinking too consciously about a shot can make a sportsman ‘choke’ under pressure. And, as Bargh pointed out, the unconscious plays an important supporting role. For example, you know those moments when you’re driving, for example, and day-dreaming about the past or the future, then you realize you have just been on auto-pilot, as it were – steering your way around the city unconsciously. Well, that’s part of the role of the unconscious. It can be your auto-pilot, freeing up your conscious mind to roam through time and space.
So Bargh and Baumeister had a big love-in, much to my disappointment. But I guess it’s good news for humanity if they are getting on. It suggests an optimistic vision of the human psyche, in which the unconscious and the conscious aren’t at war with each other – as they were in Freud’s theory, for example. Instead, they support each other and complement each other. Bargh gave the metaphor of a dolphin, swimming beneath the surface, and occasionally jumping out of the water into our view.

Having proven to most people’s satisfaction that consciousness does, actually, play a role in human behaviour, Baumeister went on to consider the purpose of consciousness. He concluded that its role was
‘for facilitating social and cultural interactions’. It gave us the biological advantage of enabling us to plan, time travel, regulate our behaviour to fit with evolving cultural norms, record our cultural insights to share them across generations, and negotiate with other people and tribes. So it gave us an advantage over other animals, enabling us to become the dominant species on Earth.

That all makes sense – but I wonder if consciousness doesn’t do more than this, as well. Is the purpose of consciousness really just to help us reproduce and survive better? It seems a very complicated tool for such a basic job. And is our consciousness only for communication? Aren’t there, perhaps, moments of peak consciousness that we can’t communicate to others? I suppose what I’m suggesting is that consciousness seems a bit more mysterious than simply helping us fight, fuck and negotiate better. Its powers seem excess to those challenges. It enables us to contemplate the universe, to contemplate God himself. What’s the evolutionary point of that? But perhaps I am being a ‘mysterion’. I suppose one could explain consciousness purely in terms of evolutionary adaptation.

Another speaker at the pre-conference on consciousness, the psychologist Jonathan Schooler, did go further in his explanation of consciousness, suggesting it might actually play a role in the nature of the universe. This didn’t go down well with the philosopher Patricia Churchland, who was in the audience, and who accused Schooler of ‘Hegelian idealism’. Ouch! Churchland herself seemed a bit up in the clouds, however. She gave a rather rambling talk, which started off by rejecting the idea that consciousness had no role to play – when in fact, she suggested, we can modify our behaviour by conscious training. But then she seemed to come full circle, suggesting that actually our behaviour is determined by neuro-chemical activity, so we can’t be held responsible for what we do, and the legal system is really a convenient fiction for the benefit of society.

It seems to me that we still haven’t really got over the problem of dualism. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to suggest there is something called ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ which can hover in a cloud of free will above the determined rules of the material realm. On the other hand, it does seem that there is this thing called consciousness, which can make free moral choices. How the hell does that happen? Not an easy one to answer. Philosophers and psychologists hate to even suggest there is a ‘homonculus’ sitting inside us making choices and steering us. And yet there is this thing, called the self, which coordinates various mechanisms and information channels in the brain. Isn’t there?

The Stoics thought that conscious awareness was a form of divine matter, which they called the Logos. The more you trained yourself, the more brightly the fire of your inner Logos burned. In the modern era, Baumeister has suggested that agency is some sort of natural resource, which you can use up, but which you can also make more of. The more you exercise self-control, he has suggested, the more you develop your
‘moral muscle’, and your ability to control your impulses and make more free decisions. This is a very hip field in psychology, if the SPSP conference is anything to go by. There were several talks and panels on self-control, self-regulation, and ego depletion – a term associated with Baumeister, regarding how our resources of self-control can get used up and depleted. It’s a very ‘hot’ term – I walked past one young delegate complaining to her friend ‘oh my God, I was out so late last night. I’m totally depleted!’
Another hot topic at the conference was mindfulness. There were many, many talks about mindfuless training, loving kindness meditation, breath meditations, the effects of meditation on the brain, the fact that meditation increases the production of an enzyme called telomarese which is important in cell repair, the role of loving kindness meditation on vagal tone (vagal, not vaginal) and so on, and so on. Wow, western psychologists are so into Buddhism at the moment. No one mentioned Stoicism, sadly – although there were several panels on self-control and cognitive re-appraisal which did draw on Stoic ideas…but apparently the psychologists weren’t aware of the Stoic connection, or didn’t see fit to mention it. Instead one was struck by a great tsunami of Indian and Tibetan buddhism. We must bow to our Asian conquerors! Oh well. Still – mindfulness. A good idea, right? Another example of training our conscious mind and using it to change our thinking and behaviour. We saw some results from the impressive Shamatha Project, which has studied the effects of taking a multi-weak meditation retreat. Looks very interesting – would love to go on a retreat myself this year.

Another theme which interested me was the emphasis on field experiments, and taking social psychology beyond the lab and beyond undergraduate experiment subjects. Apparently, 80% of social psychology experiments involve undergrads being tested out in laboratories. That’s going to skew the results. I saw an interesting talk by
Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago, that studied people’s self-control in real life situations, using in vivo technology like iphone apps and bleepers to see what people were doing, what desires they were feeling, and how successfully they were controlling those desires. But, as I said in a question, we can’t tell to what extent the act of observing the experiment subjects and asking them to record their desires is actually changing their behaviour, making them more conscious, mindful and self-controlled. I would think it is.

Finally, there were still a fair amount of happiness / wellbeing / positive psychology studies, though not as many as I would have imagined. There was no mention, for example, of Martin Seligman’s $125 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme for the US Pentagon, even though that seems to me to be one of the major events in contemporary psychology. There were some interesting panels and talks on measuring wellbeing, on regional differences in wellbeing and life satisfaction (two interesting facts: Utah is the happiest state, and New York is one of the most neurotic states, despite or because of the fact it has the highest density of psychologists and psychiatrists). There were quite a few talks and panels on mind training techniques (mindfulness, keeping a journal, doing acts of kindness, changing your perspective and so on). But there were also signs of a backlash – one of
the most interesting talks, for me, was by Iris Mauss, on how people who put a higher premium on happiness tend actually to be less happy, and more prone to depression. I’ll hopefully write more on that study in the coming days.

All in all, it was a fascinating conference, I was impressed with the quality of work on offer, and by the general standard and vibrancy of American experimental psychology. Attending my first ever psychology conference made me realize how much philosophy could learn from experimental psychology – but it also made me think that experimental psychology still needs the help of philosophy, to protect it from over-hasty generalizations and poor semantic definitions. Nowhere is that clearer than in the psychology of happiness and eudaimonia.

Attack therapy and the Landmark Forum

This weekend, I was thinking of going on a Landmark Education weekend course in London, in order to do some research for a piece I’m writing on resisting social pressure. I was intending to go along to see if, with the help of ancient philosophy’s resilience techniques, I could survive three days of the Landmark’s highly emotional encounter sessions without getting affected by the group hysteria. My brother pointed out it wouldn’t really prove anything, and I might actually get conditioned. Plus it cost £330. So I didn’t sign up.

I’m glad I didn’t, after hearing from a fellow psychology and philosophy blogger, Adam, who I met yesterday evening for a beer in Kings Cross. Adam told me a remarkable story about how one of Landmark’s encounter sessions triggered a psychotic episode in him, leaving him completely disorientated and having to be institutionalized for six weeks.
He says he went to Landmark after he left university, when he was at a low ebb – he was depressed, had low self-esteem, was in a job he didn’t like. He signed up for Landmark, hoping it would turn his life around. He gathered with the other recruits into a large hall, and as soon as the group leader spoke, Adam felt something wasn’t right.
‘The first thing the group leader said was ‘I need your total commitment. If you have any doubts at all, or are only going to give half measures, I want you to leave now.’ It sounded culty to me. He was basically saying you’re either 100% with me or you should get out. He didn’t leave any room for people’s doubts or criticisms. I thought about walking out there, but I stayed. I think I was embarrassed at the thought of being the only one in a room full of people to get up and leave.’

Adam goes on: ‘Landmark practices something called Attack Therapy. It involves attacking someone verbally, ridiculing and belittling them, calling them names, to try and break down their defences and help them breakthrough to the leader or therapist’s way of seeing things. The leader insisted that ‘you can do whatever you want to do’. And, throughout the three days, various people stood up, shaking with rage, and revealed all the terrible things that had happened to them that meant they couldn’t do whatever they wanted to do – people had been raped, or abused, or one person had killed their father by mistake. And the leader would shout back at them, and ridicule them for their self-pity or their hypocrisy or whatever, until eventually they accepted the leader’s point of view, had a ‘breakthrough’, and converted to a new way of seeing reality.’
‘I was the first person to stand up. I remember, I was absolutely terrified. My hands were shaking. I was standing up in front of all these people, challenging the leader’s authority, but I felt I had to do it. I said: ‘what if the one thing you want is that everyone in the world admits that not everything is possible?’ And the leader just sneered at me: ‘The thing about you is you like to play clever little games’. And I felt crushed. I suddenly wondered if it was true, if I was really a worthless person clinging on to my intellect. I sat back down. It wasn’t that I’d had a breakthrough…I just didn’t have the guts to leave. I wanted to prove I could stay the course. But for the whole three days, I became more and more stressed. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.’
After the course, Adam found himself unable to make sense of the world. He suffered an extreme stress reaction, which meant his brain was pumped full of adrenalin and cortisol, as if he was in extreme danger (after all, he felt his ego was in extreme danger). Too much of these stress chemicals damages our ability to make sense of the world, leading us to make unusual or deluded interpretations of reality in an effort to re-find some control (one study found that the more unhappy and stressed people are, the more they’re likely to hold on to superstitious beliefs).
Adam started to suffer from advanced paranoia, and to think everyone was speaking in code about him – even the TV News – and that some sort of global cataclysm was about to happen. He says: ‘Landmark had basically broken my ego defences, but it hadn’t put anything in its place. They’re nihilists – they think there’s no meaning to life, other than doing what you want to do.’
He ended up being put in a mental home for six weeks, as he tried to figure out where he was and what was happening to him. ‘For a while, I thought that we were all patients with mad cow disease, except some of us didn’t have it, and the game was to figure out who had it and who didn’t’. He gradually came back to reality, but then had to embark on the slow work of reintegrating with life. He says: ‘I realised that I needed to get some friends, and get a job’.
He managed to counteract his paranoia through the method of evidence checking. He held the strong belief – ‘everyone is looking at me, thinking about me and talking about me’ – which he decided to check by simply looking up and looking around to see if other people were in fact looking at him. And he found they weren’t. That was a key step in challenging his distorting beliefs and coming back to reality.
This morning I did some research into Attack Therapy. It seems to have grown up out of the encounter session technique pioneered by evangelist religious organizations, and first used in therapy by quasi-religious groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
At AA, members’ attachment to the group and its ethos was cemented with ‘sharing sessions’, where members would share their deepest, darkest stories and receive sympathy and acceptance in return.Attack Therapy took this group dynamic and gave it a twist. Instead of receiving sympathy and approval, patients are ridiculed, humiliated and shamed. Their individual ego defences are broken down by the experience of intense public ridicule, and to overcome the stress of ostracism, they let go of their individual beliefs and embrace the beliefs and view-points of the group.
The Attack Therapy technique was made famous by a California drug rehabilitation centre called Synanon, set up by a former AA patient, Chuck Dederich, in the 1960s. The Synanon members, including drug offenders sent there by California courts, went through a weekly ritual called ‘The Game’, in which recalcitrant or rebellious members were humiliated and their inner foibles exposed to the Group. Synanon was eventually disbanded because of tax fraud, the violent beatings of people who’d left the group, death threats of anyone who criticized the group, and the suspected murder of members.
The teachnique was also used by other California encounter session-based therapies, such as Erhard Seminars Training (est), which is the progenitor of Landmark, and also Byron Katie’s The Work. These groups followed the same formula: you take a group of vulnerable individuals, put them in a large hall for three or four days, during which time you restrict their movements and their freedoms and then subject them to ‘marathon sessions’ of very emotional and confrontational therapy, in which patients are encouraged to stand up and ‘share’ their deepest hang-ups with the group – to be ridiculed by the leader, before ultimately being accepted by the group.
The est trainer Peter McWilliams calls this technique ‘pressure / release’ – you subject the initiates to the pressure of intense ridicule and ostracism, before the release of group acceptance and re-integration. A similar sort of method is used in the Army, I suppose, through hazing rituals.
Byron Katie’s encounter sessions apparently use a similar method – not exactly ‘attack therapy’, but certainly the method of getting people to share their darkest secrets with the Group. Here’s one account of a Byron session:
In the Shame unit, we were instructed to write down the thing we’d done in our lives that we were most ashamed of, then take the mike and tell the whole group, then do The Work on it with a partner. Shaming is a subtle but powerful component of psychological abuse used in every torture and mind control process. People stood up and, sobbing or preening, revealed everything from bestiality and zoophilia to embarrassing physical features, infidelity to poor parenting that bordered on abuse. Many people told of having been abused and shamed by that. The reward for producing a novel or particularly painful shame experience was Katie’s cooing, warm approval and attention. This was such a powerful exercise that, for the next few days, Katie would interrupt whatever exercise was in process to say that so-and-so desired to tell about their shame. Folks who had kept quiet during the Shame module apparently could not resist being part of it all, taking that microphone, and joining Katie’s ‘family.’

This sort of pressure cooker group therapy sessions works for some people, but many have an adverse reaction: one study of 200 college students who went through encounter sessions found that 9% suffered psychological damage that lasted at least six months. That’s quite a cost. And yet groups like Landmark and The Work are still able to perform this sort of gung-ho extreme therapy, without even checking if any of their participants are borderline or vulnerable to psychosis. One account I read of Byron Katie’s The Work says that participants were actually encouraged to hand in their medication at the beginning of the weekend, and that some participants suffered psychotic reactions during the course of the weekend.
The Attack Therapy technique reminds me very much of the ‘struggle sessions’ used by the Red Army during the during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1970s, in which Red Army propagandists would fire up crowds and then get them to denounce and publicly shame any supposed rebels or dissidents.
For all the talk of Communist ‘brainwashing techniques’, it’s really quite a simple mechanism. You brainwash people through group dynamics. We’re such social animals, and so biologically programmed to be conformist and to seek the approval of the people around us (however strange or abhorrent their ethics), that it only takes a few days before most of us instil the ethics of whatever group we’re in and seek the group’s acceptance – even when the group abuses and ridicules us, or perhaps particularly when the group abuses and ridicules us. We like to think we’re rational, autonomous individuals who can think for ourselves, but maybe we’re all just a few days away from Nuremberg.

On Film Noir

(I got the great pic from Kitsune Noir, whose website is now www.thefoxisblack.com)
I’ve always loved Film Noir – whether it’s the old classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, or Sixties variations like Chinatown, or more recent takes on the genre like Blade Runner and Fight Club.

There are various important ingredients for a Film Noir. Firstly, bad weather. You can’t make a Film Noir set on a bright spring morning. It needs to be mainly set at night, preferably in the rain or in fog. Poor visibility, in other words. Secondly, you need a hero whose surface cynicism hides a Romantic moral idealism. Though he pretends not to care about things, though he pretends just to be a cynical cop or private detective, the Film Noir hero is really a knight in shining armour.

Indeed, Raymond Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, was originally going to be called Philip Mallory, after the author of the Medieval romance, the Morte D’Arthur. Thirdly, there needs to be a dame. A belle dame sans merci. She should be beautiful, but potentially threatening to the male hero’s moral order – like Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct, for example, or Isabella Rosselini’s character in Blue Velvet. The hero is not sure whether to rescue her or arrest her.

Finally, and most importantly, you need an atmosphere of moral ambiguity. The hero, the shining knight, rides in to try and put the world to rights, but the more he investigates, the more he realizes that the crime he is investigating is not a one-off, but part of a wider environment of evil which he is, unfortunately, powerless to change.

And the really great Film Noir shows that the hero himself is part of this general milieu of evil. He realizes he is not such a shining knight after all. He is just as corrupted as the ‘bad guys’. He may try to do good, but end up doing as much harm as the bad guys, because he is fallible, self-ignorant, and not fully in control of his actions or their consequences.

In a few of the more daring examples of Film Noir, the detective goes deep into the murky details of a crime, only to realize, finally, that he did it – but he was too morally blind to see what he was doing.

Poor visibility, in other words.

This is what happens in the first Film Noir – Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Tyrannus. At the beginning of the play, the king Oedipus is like an idealistic private detective, energetically investigating the crime of the murder of his predecessor on the throne. But as he investigates the crime and delves into the terrible secrets of the past, in true Film Noir fashion, he discovers the awful truth: he killed the previous king, who was actually his father, and, to make matters worse, he then married his mother. But he did it all unknowingly, by accident.

He realizes, to his horror, that he is the murderer he has been seeking, he is the monster he’s been tracking down. It’s a device that happens in a few other Film Noir, though never so effectively. It happens, for example, in Fight Club, where the hero tracks down the crimes and misdemeanors of Tyler Durden, only to realize that he is Tyler Durden – whenever he falls asleep, he becomes his alter ego and goes on the rampage.

It also happens in Christopher Nolan’s great film, Memento, where the hero loses his memory every few hours, and has to piece together the details of a crime, only to realize finally (and then forget) that he himself committed it. It also happens, in a way, in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where the hero is a cop who tracks down and assassinates runaway androids. At the end of the film, it is revealed that he himself is an android.

The idea behind these works of art is that we are not who we think we are, and our ignorance of ourselves means we cause great harm. We ‘know not what we do’, and until we wake up to ourselves, we are like a private detective who ‘does good’ during the day, then falls asleep at night and goes on the criminal rampage.

The psychologist Carl Jung had a suitably Film Noir-ish name for this part of ourselves that does evil without us knowing or intending it. He called it ‘the shadow':

It is a frightening thought [Jung wrote] that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature.

To begin to ‘know ourselves’, we need to track this shadow side of ourselves down, to be the private detective of ourselves: collect the evidence, piece together the patterns, and build up a picture of the person we really are, rather than the person we think we are.

This is one of the challenges that philosophy sets us. Epictetus said:

Even a man, who has trained himself to the exercise of his rational faculties and has for a long time passed a blameless life, may in a moment when his vigilance is relaxed, when he is off his guard, be defeated by the enemy whom he always carries about with him.

So, like a good private detective, we have to be ever vigilant of the enemy within us, our doppleganger, our shadow, who goes around committing crimes in our name.

If you like this, you might enjoy my essay about animism and animation, called Everything is Full of Gods.

Interview with John Bargh


Further to my post below on John Bargh and automaticity, I got in contact with John through Yale University to ask for a quick interview with him about his ideas, and in the great tradition of brilliant yet accessible academics, he accepted.

Bargh is a professor of psychology at Yale, and one of the leading social psychologists of his generation. He is the leading thinker of a school known as the ‘social intuitionists’, who have challenged the idea that we are ‘masters of ourselves’ through our reason and free will, and suggested instead that a great deal of our judgements about and responses to the world are automatic and unconscious, and that our reason often acts as a sort of butler, or even a lawyer defending the decisions we have already automatically made.

This view obviously has great implications for philosophy and psychology, particularly Stoicism, which very much emphasizes our ability to become ‘captains of our soul’. Now read on…

Thanks for your time, John. Could you give my readers a brief summary of what ‘automaticity’ means?

Well, the word itself has a long history. It comes from an engineering context of automatic guiding systems, things like thermostats, and from the idea of the obligatory nature of things: when x, then y, and so on.

In the 1980s, it was extended into social psychology, to the idea of humans’ immediate, unintentional reactions to things. For example, our automatic racial stereotypes.

Tell us about your experiments in this area.

We did an experiment back in the early 1990s, where we flashed photos of African-Americans to Caucasian-Americans on a computer screen, for 13 milliseconds, so quickly they weren’t consciously aware of them. We then put them into a mildly provocative situation, in a room with another Caucasian-American, where there was a chance of reacting hostilely, to test how they perceived that person and reacted to the provocation. And we discovered those that had been primed with the subliminal photo of the African-American were more likely to react with hostility in the following situation, though they didn’t know why.

So it seems we have an automatic primer towards negative racial stereotyping?

Yes. Now, that primer could have come from different sources. It could be cultural, of course. It could also be evolutionary: there’s new evidence, for example, that women are at their most racist when they’re at their most fertile.

And automaticity is the idea that our minds are full of these sort of automatic primers?

Yes, they’re ubiquitous. You expose someone to a subliminal stimulus, for example a picture of a clown, and they’re primed to make more positive evaluations, it puts in an approach motivation, it even relaxes the muscles you use to approach something. And the person won’t be conscious of why or how this evaluation has happened.

So if we agree that the mind does make all sorts of automatic evaluations and judgements based on primers, what’s the theory to explain how and why this happens?

What we think is it’s the default back-up system which existed in the days before consciousness. Alot of animals today still use this operating system. We also have a conscious, reflective system, but it’s the automatic system that keeps us grounded in the present.

And is this older operating system the limbic system?

It’s all over. I know very little about neuro-anatomy, so I’m not going to try and localize it.

So how much of our mind is the older system, and how much is the more recent conscious system?

The estimates are that 99% of all the things going on in body and brain are automatic. Gregory Bateson uses the example of a TV screen: consciousness is what’s happening on the screen, but behind that you have all the machinery of the TV, and behind that you have the wires and cables connecting it to the TV station, and so on.

So we might have preferences – eating some potato chips, going for a run, calling a friend – but these preferences came from somewhere, it’s not magic.

So what does this mean for free will?

Well, I’m in the middle of a big discussion about that with the psychologist Roy Baumeister, who does alot of work on self-control, on models of the self and so on. We debated each other at the annual Society for Personality and Social Psychology convention in Tamba Bay, and we’re now continuing that discussion on our blogs on Psychology Today.

Sounds like you have a good rivalry!

He and I have always done that for each other. It’s sort of a dialectic. It makes both of our arguments better. He’s a very worthy opponent.

So anyway, to get back to your question, what this means for free will. Personally, I don’t believe it exists. But that’s a personal belief. We can at least say that the scope, range and domain of it is much less than people thought 20 or 30 years ago, when people like [sorry, I didn’t get the names of the people he mentioned] asserted that we’re always aware of the reasons why we do things.

That’s obviously not true. Clearly, through these primers, we’re being played by the world.

And in some ways, the problem is this idea that we have free will, that we’re the masters of our soul.

Tim Wilson has shown that people’s theories of why they do what they do are pretty far off. People are worried about subliminal adverts playing them, for example, which have been shown to have a minimal effect, but they are not worried about the effect of regular TV on them, or of negative campaign adverts, for example, which do have a real effect on people.

OK. But the idea of being ‘master of the soul’ comes from ancient philosophy, from Plato and the Stoics in particular. And they never said that all humans were masters of their soul – on the contrary, they said the vast majority of humans sleep-walked their way through life. They said that we could become masters of our soul, but only through years of training, Socratic self-enquiry and struggle. The same idea is found in, for example, the idea of Buddhist or Christian monks, training themselves over years to become more aware of what they’re thinking and whether their automatic responses make sense. So this idea that we can develop free will is at the heart of the spiritual aspirations that have guided humanity for millennia. What do you think of this idea?

I’m a social psychologist. I’m interested in the normal, the mundane. And the normal is for people not to challenge their automatic thinking. It doesn’t mean people can’t change it, but whether they will make the effort is debatable.

If you do change your automatic behaviour, it will take alot of training. Will most people do it? Probably not. Why? Because they’re busy surviving, and it requires the realisation ‘I’m not in full control’. Most people don’t learn that theory.

So you accept we can consciously change our automatic responses?

It’s not as simple as conscious versus automatic. We’re often motivated by goals that can be unconscious. A lot of good things can come automatically, for example, pursuing goals or projects. We can do this outside of our own awareness.

But I’m interested in whether we can consciously change our automatic responses. Let’s say you suffer from depression or anxiety, and your automatic responses to the world are obviously serving you badly. In that instance, do you accept you can consciously change your automatic responses?

Well, it could be your conscious thinking that is serving you badly in that instance – it could be your conscious thoughts and ruminations that ‘I can’t do it’ which are making you depressed.

So let’s say you have a belief – conscious or unconscious – along the lines of ‘I can’t do it': can we consciously change that belief?

Yes. This is the nice thing about the way we keep approaching the true nature of the will and agency. Thirty years ago, consciousness was seen as a bottleneck for everything. It was clearly too much for the system to do. By taking some things off the table, it helps us to know what it is for. There are only a few things left on the table. We’re beginning to understand the ability of the mind to change, the plasticity, the ability to adapt to new circumstances.

So the mind can re-programme itself to some extent?

Well, often it comes from outside the mind. In earlier stages of our history, for example, we took our orders from the elders. We weren’t free agents. Change came from top down. When we came out with our research on racist stereotyping, one psychologist tried to show how you can change people’s negative stereotypes through cognitive training. But you can’t cognitively change each individual. Change has to come from the top down. An African-American is elected president and then things change. [To which one might reply, yes, but the people elected him, so that was still the free choice of individuals.]

But at the individual level, do you agree that people suffering from emotional problems can learn to change their automatic responses?

Yes, I think that’s definitely true. Beck and Ellis [the two inventors of CBT] gave us one of the original models of automatic thought. CBT really influenced me in the 1970s. Aaron Beck, for
example, talked about the chain of human thinking, how it moves too fast for us to follow it. It’s like a rubber band snapping. But Beck insisted that, if you listen carefully, you can hear it. I actually tried this, in the 70s, and he’s right, you can hear it, you can follow it, if you slow it down.

It’s the speed that’s the problem. You have to listen right after an external stimulus, and you can still hear it, and try to follow the chain.

Mindfulness, in a word.

Yes. Ellen Langer talks about this in her book, Counter-Clockwise – the idea of taking control over automatic things. It’s even being made into a film, where she’s played by Jennifer Anniston!

So this top down system of ours allows us to do this, to chart a course. We’re still not sure where this ability comes from, or why. But we know how we can use it to adapt to circumstances.

It’s been fascinating, John. Thanks very much for your time.

Thank you. It’s useful for me too.