November 12, 2021
When (if ever) can suffering be good? Is there an optimal ratio of pleasure to pain? What is motivational pluralism? Can large, positive incentives be coercive? (For example, is it coercive to offer to pay someone enormous amounts of money to do something relatively benign or even painful or immoral?) How can moving from making judgments about a person's actions to making judgments about their character solve certain moral puzzles? Why do we sometimes make seemingly irrational judgments about the relative badness of certain actions? How does the level of controversy around an action factor into how much we publicly disapprove of it? What are the differences between compassion and empathy? Is antisocial personality disorder (AKA psychopathy or sociopathy) defined only by a lack of empathy? How have humans evolved (or not) to detect and mitigate the effects of others who feel no remorse? Is altruism especially vulnerable to remorseless people? What are the differences between narcissists and sociopaths?
Paul Bloom is Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. Paul Bloom studies how children and adults make sense of the world, with special focus on pleasure, morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. He is past-president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. He has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science, and for popular outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of six books, including his most recent, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. Find more about him at paulbloom.net, or follow him on Twitter at @paulbloomatyale.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Paul Bloom about suffering and motivation, moral psychology, and fear and empathy.
SPENCER: Paul, welcome.
PAUL: Thanks so much for having me here.
SPENCER: Now, I'm sure that quite a lot of our podcast listeners have heard you on different podcasts before. So I'm hoping today we'll be able to break some new ground that they haven't heard you talk about. And I'm sure there'll be a lot of fun discussions about the psychology of suffering, motivational pluralism, world decision-making, empathy, and many other topics. So I'm really excited to deal with you.
PAUL: There's a lot of directions we could take this, I'm looking forward to our conversation.
SPENCER: Alright, so let's start with talking about the upsides of suffering. Because I think a lot of people on this podcast, tend to think that suffering is one of the worst things in the world, perhaps many of them actually think it is the only bad thing in the world. So I'd love for you to kind of tell us about what you think the benefits of suffering are?
PAUL: It's a good question because I kind of agree that suffering can be the worst thing in the world. There's a certain basic human logic or hedonistic logic that says pleasure and happiness is good pain and suffering are bad. You could build your morality around it like a consequentialist or utilitarian, and you can build your life around it, like a hedonist. And I would agree that unchosen suffering, getting assaulted, having a child die, getting horribly ill is typically a bad thing. We might recover from it, we're more resilient than we think, maybe some experience post-traumatic growth, I'm a bit of a skeptic. But I would agree with your listeners who say that just awful, should be avoided. My interest is in chosen suffering isn't suffering we seek out. And I think the right sort of chosen suffering can be wonderful. It can be enhanced pleasure, like seeing being scared when you watch a horror movie or feeling the pain of hot curry or a hot bath. And it could also enhance meaning. So a lot of I think the projects we find most meaningful and most valuable are deeply connected with suffering. So unchosen suffering, bad, but chosen suffering, I think, could be really, really wonderful.
SPENCER: So I think those are great topics to address. One is does suffering itself, like in a hot curry actually have a benefit? And the other is does it lead to more meaning? To get a little spicy in this conversation, you know, a lot of people enjoy suffering or seem to enjoy suffering in like, kind of sexual or BDSM context. And I've wondered about that. I wonder, do they really enjoy suffering? And so I've actually asked a handful of people just sort of in informal interviews of like, what do you like about it? And I've come up with sort of three-way typography of what's actually going on there. The first is a group that says that they don't actually suffer during kind of BDSM experiences, it just seems like they did suffering like if you were watching, you think they were suffering, but they don't experience any suffering. So that kind of makes sense. The second group says that they do actually experience suffering, but it's more than made up for with something else; like they just enjoy the scenario so much, or you know, the kind of intensity of it or the power dynamics that that like, you know, more than compensates for the unpleasantness. And then the last group, they talk about how, okay, yes, it is causing them suffering at first, but it kicks them into some other mental state like there's some kind of chemical releases in the brain that gets them into some altered state. And then it's actually that altered state that they're going for, not the suffering itself. And so that was really interesting to me, because as I dug into it more and more. At first, it seemed like they were actually enjoying the suffering. But actually, it wasn't like I did, you know, tons and tons of these interviews. But in the end, it wasn't clear to me anyone was actually enjoying the suffering itself. It was like some other aspect that they were getting from it.
PAUL: Yeah. So BDSM poses this puzzle. And one way to put the puzzle is why do people enjoy suffering, but I think you're right to sort of be skeptical about that. And we'll just take it another way, which is, there are these experiences that people almost always see as negative – being slapped, being whipped, being restrained against your will. And they're just typically bad. So why in a certain context, do people seek them out? Why do people seek out and being physically struck or humiliated? Where's the upside of that? And you're right to say that there are different answers to that question. But one thing I wanted to say is, well, there's the phenomenon – the phenomenon is fascinating. You know, if you show me a whip, and you start chasing after me with a run like hell, like what is that about? That's getting whipped is terrible. It's a barbaric punishment, actually. So why would somebody spend a lot of time finding somebody who will do that to them or to see or pay for it? So there's the puzzle. And I don't think this puzzle has a single solution. But I think there are different answers and let me try one out on you, that comes from Roy Baumeister. And you could tell me if it fits your experience talking with these people, which is that sometimes this sort of suffering can give rise to an escape from the self. You know, we have our identities, we walk around with, we worry about the future, we obsess about the past, we have this voice in our head, that's constantly for some of us, sometimes for me, awful belittling, and so on, and or something, but the clarity of certain pain and certain mistreatment that just takes you out of it all. And many people involved in BDSM and other practices say this is what it appeals. Does that ring true based on your conversations with people?
SPENCER: So that's super interesting. I have heard people say things like that, but less so in a BDSM context, more in a context of like extreme athleticism. So for example, one person I know really well is an ultra runner. And when she's in the middle of these extremely long races, she will have a slogan, she says to herself, which is suffering is glorious. And first of all, there's like a reframing that like, the more she's suffering, the better job she's doing. And so it becomes like a metric of being really good at what she does. But second, I think there is a sort of clarity of focus where, you know, you're just you're entirely focused on just, you know, moving your feet forward, you know, you've been running for 14 hours, right? And that's the only thing you can think about is just going a little further. And suddenly, there's something to that.
PAUL: You're capturing a lot of things with that example, and I think one of the appeals of suffering is related to mastery. One of the appeals of suffering of that sort is that it is related to accomplishment. You know, you're going to suffer after running for 14 hours. And if you didn't, maybe you're not running hard enough or fast enough. And then there's the escape from self thing and elated shows up maybe more clearly, that sort of activity. The first time I ever roll ever sparred with somebody in Brazilian jujitsu was of course with somebody who was younger than me and stronger than me and more adept than me. And so we do this, I don't know, two minutes or something. And afterward, I realized for those two minutes, I thought of nothing else. It was the only time in my life I wasn't like, going over my book in my head or thinking about some conversation. I know some people say to get this from meditation. I never get this from meditation. I mean, meditation is the opposite. But there's this feeling of immersion and loss of self. That's really powerful.
SPENCER: Yeah, I love that example. I also do very amateur mixed martial arts. And I know the experience you're talking about where you're sparring, and there's really nothing else you can focus on than attack this other person's trying to subdue you. I find that bouldering is also like that, you know, you're on the wall and you get distracted, you literally fall off, you know, it's a very good way to focus the mind. And you hear Alex Honnold talk about this when he's doing free soloing, where it's just this kind of incredible precision of focus because if he slips, he literally dies. And it's hard to imagine a kind of better level of focus than that.
PAUL: That's right. And I gotta say, my younger son is a boulder and quite good at it. And he'd go to competitions and everything. And he even talks about he loves tunnels and the idea of free soloing and all that stuff. And I told him, I wouldn't murder him if he did that. I watched a movie free solo, and I'm old enough to think of myself, give me this guy's father, and it just freaks me out. He's willing to risk his life like this. But yeah, he's so good at climbing that with the ropes and a harness and everything, it wouldn't give him the total focus because if you made a mistake, he wouldn't die.
SPENCER: I think if we go philosophical here for a second when we talk about people benefiting from suffering, I think it's useful to kind of pick apart, is it really the suffering itself that is bringing the benefit, or is the suffering just sort of a practical means to an end that it happens to generate some kind of other benefits down the road. And maybe if it's a second thing, in some cases, we could slot in something else for the suffering. For example, you know, there's a kind of contrast effect, you know, where if you have a cold for like, three days, and you feel just really miserable. And on the fourth day, you wake up feeling much better. You're like, oh, my gosh, it's just so wonderful to be normal, right? And now, that is true, that you are able to appreciate the day where you wake up normal because you suffered, but it doesn't mean that's the only way to get you to appreciate it. Like maybe you could get someone to appreciate it just by doing gratitude intervention or something like this. And just kind of bypass the suffering aspect, right?
PAUL: I don't know. I think yeah, I think for some things, you could substitute something for the suffering. But I think for a lot you can't. I think pleasure, for instance, requires contrast. There's a feeling when you're in a sauna, and then suddenly you jump into a cool lake that you got to go to, you got to be in a sauna. You got to feel the heat in order to get the shock of the cold. Let me give you a better, example. You must have seen John Wick.
SPENCER: I have not.
PAUL: Good. This is no spoiler. It's in a trailer. But Keanu Reeves places this hired killer who's retired and he has a run-in with some Russian mobsters and they end up killing his dog. This is the beginning of the movie, and then the rest of his movies, I'm taking his revenge standard revenge film. And when they kill his dog, you feel very bad. It's very unpleasant. But the rest of the movie where it takes his revenge? Well, that's the fun part. And you might go and somebody might say, well, here's the way to improve that movie. Take away the part where the kill does not. But you can't; you need the contrast. What would substitute for?
SPENCER: I don't know, I might dispute that because it's true that you can make the revenge feel sweet because these people did this bad thing to him. But could it also be done in other ways? Aren't there other mechanisms to make it so that, like, these people are really deserving of having bad things happen to them?
PAUL: I don't know. I mean, I like the idea, at least in principle, you could imagine other ways to get to a pleasurable resolution. But every successful entertainment involves some degree of vicarious suffering and vicarious pain. I think if there was an alternative, people would have figured it out.
SPENCER: Right? In the movie where everything goes well, and then just things keep getting better and better exponentially for the character.
PAUL: Right. And people love that movie. And they say, you know, I saw John Wick, but that was an unpleasant part of the dog, this movie had no unpleasant parts I felt great throughout.
SPENCER: It's interesting to think about the optimal ratio of the negative to the positive. One book that comes to mind is The Count of Monte Cristo, where I bought this book. But I got the abridged version, which is still like five or 600 pages. And a friend of mine who's obsessed with this book saw me with this and he said, “What the hell is this crap?” He grabbed the book for me and threw it in the trash and bought me though like 1000-page unabridged version.
PAUL: There's a true friend. He wanted you to be miserable.
SPENCER: Yeah, exactly. But the funny thing about The Count of Monte Cristo is that the bad stuff happens really early in the story. And then you just have 800 pages of this person carrying out the revenge plot. And I wonder, you know, think about that, you kind of get over the miserable pretty early on, and then you get to milk it for a really long time. It gets me thinking about sort of how much suffering do you actually need to get, you know, the sweet contrast effect?
PAULIt's a good question. I think one reason why people like spicy foods and hot baths, and the like, is really because of the contrast effect. And the intensity of pleasure is increased against a backdrop of non-pleasure of pain. You could really imagine, and this is where you're going that people sometimes mess it up. They spent too much time the hot curry in their mouth before drinking the beer that cools them off. And you know, you'd say, look, overall, you could have got more heat ons, if you lowered the amount of pain. I think that that's right, but I need more examples of how you can get those pleasures without any pain.
SPENCER: So when you do your gratitude intervention, sometimes people just say something like, oh, just think of something you're grateful for. But for myself, I found that I can make it more effective by momentarily imagining having lost the thing. And so for example, I could, and I'll do this sometimes, I'll imagine, okay, well, what if I didn't have any food today, right? And I try to like, just get in that state for five seconds. And then I'm like, holy shit, my cat is full of food. This is amazing, right? Or, oh my gosh, what if I didn't have any arms and legs, and I just try to like, imagine that for a second. I'm like, oh my God, arms and legs. This is so great. Like, I'm so lucky. For me, it's actually more effective because I like had this moment of kind of dropping down of like, really trying to accept the state of not having the thing. I've tried to teach it to other people this way, just kind of explaining how beneficial it is. And it freaks them out. Like it actually makes them worse off. They're like, I hate this. I don't want to imagine these horrible things.
PAUL: You could mess it up. It's an interesting case, where there's some research looking at daydreaming and sort of mind wandering, and finding that we often go to unpleasant places when we do that. And something which I've done before, not entirely voluntarily, is, you know, I'm walking home from you know, I did some shopping, I'm walking back to my house, and I imagine what it'd be like my partner would be dead. And I think about that knife is filled with sadness. And then I see her and I laid up, oh, my God, you're alive. You know, and the contrast is very powerful. But I can't imagine my children dying. I have two older sons, and I've never thought of them dying. It's just too much. That'd be so much so painful that the contrast wouldn't help.
SPENCER: Right. So it's like a little bit of, you know, you want enough suffering that makes the contract salient, but at some level, it becomes unbearable, not worth it anymore.
PAUL: Paul Rosin calls the business we're talking about now benign masochism, which often involves focus on contrast and escape from self and mastery, but heavy emphasis on benign, where it gets to be physical masochism, where you really damage your body and it's plainly an unwise choice. And I think there could be psychological masochism of the same flavor where you go too far. And maybe your twist and a gratitude exercise were just a bit too far for your friends. I think that you're saying sort of a deep truth, which is, when it comes to meaningful activities, we're not exactly looking for suffering. So if I say I'm going to run a marathon in six months. I'm going to shape up a lot of training. I'm not saying oh, I hope I get blisters. And I hope it's really difficult. And I hope I get injured and have to delay it. No, I'm actually kind of hoping for smooth sailing. But at another level, one reason why this is a meaningful pursuit is that I know it involves difficulty. So you don't wish for any specific difficulty. The idea that has to involve some degree of what you call suffering very broadly, is true. Suppose you and I are playing a game. We're going into chess or playing poker or something, you don't come into a saying, oh, I hope I lose. No, you want to win. But if you had no chance of losing, if you never lost the games would be no fun for you.
SPENCER: Yes, it's a really interesting point, you care a lot about the kind of path to victory. Like, for example, let's say I won by cheating, like, that'd be extremely unsatisfying, or I won because you made some really stupid blunder early in the game like that also wouldn't be satisfying, right? It's like, I want you to like put up a really good fight, and then still overcome and beat you.
PAUL: You want to sort of be losing, losing, and suddenly, it is a brilliant move, and then you win suddenly feel so good.
SPENCER: Do you think that that's an identity thing that somehow the victory feels sweet if it feels like it's saying something good about ourselves?
PAUL: It's an interesting question, which I haven't thought of, actually, in the case of games. If you and I’ll play chess. I'm not a good chess player, and suppose you're a good chess player; you just win, because you're better. There's something unsatisfying about it from your point of view. I think we want to win through something having to do with what seems to be something deep within ourselves – a flash of genius, perseverance, some extra effort, if you just outplay me, pretty soon, it's fairly boring for you, and the only person has an opportunity for fun, is me. Because if I could win, even though you're better than me, that's nothing beats that.
SPENCER: Right. And even exceeding the performance that you thought you would put out could be satisfying, right? Like, if you're playing someone much better, and you like to hold your own for a while, even though you lose, that can be really satisfying.
PAUL: That's right. And I feel this way for solitary activities. I do crossword puzzles for fun. Sometimes my partner and I do them together, which is a lot of them are designed doing by myself. And I'm not great at them. So I don't know. But the New York Times has done going from Monday to Saturday, and Saturday is the most difficult one. And I try to do the Friday or Saturday, I often fail, I don't complete it. But if I want a quick victory, I'll do the Monday one. But Monday is boring. So I'll willingly engage in an activity where I'm a little bit of a long shot. And that's what makes it fun. And that also speaks to the interesting question, Why in the world, would somebody do what I'm doing at all. And I think it's because we like this, we like purpose and challenge and struggle. In the right doses.
SPENCER: It used to be that goal achievement, for its own sake is very satisfying to humans. And then this is both a wonderful thing and actually kind of a dangerous thing. And the reason it becomes dangerous as you start to see it, take people in very odd or pointless or ultimately unsatisfying directions, like, for example, some highly addictive video games, they just play on this idea of that you're constantly feeling like you're achieving something right? Every, you know, five minutes, you feel like you see something else, which is really not the way reality works. And then reality, by comparison, the video game feels really dull and boring and unmotivating because, in real life, it takes a long time to achieve what you're really satisfied with.
PAUL: Yeah, there's the whole gamification, which is to take life with doesn't have clear intermediate goals. And everything is sort of less determinant and more complicated and gives it a flavor of a video game with immediate gratifying rewards. And some of that could be ultimately very unsatisfying. And you know, you think of social media in that way, which is I go on Twitter, and I get something like a flow state, except it's a bad flow state. It's not a sort of good productive flow, which is positive and struggling. It's that I've almost fallen into a trance. And it's because I get these little pings all the time. And I just seek out more pings. And then it feels at a local level, you're kind of trapped in that. At a local level, it's wonderful. But if you step out of it, you realize, God, what a waste.
SPENCER: Right. So when it comes to goal achievement it seems like we should be seeking activities that give us a sense of goal achievement, but we're also upon reflection, we're glad that we achieve those goals, right? And I think with things like athleticism, people often do feel very satisfied looking back, they're like, “Oh, I'm so glad to run that marathon,” whereas things like video games people tend to – yeah, there are exceptions – people are like, “Oh, I love that video game, like one of the best experiences,” you know. But a lot of times, we will look back on their video game playing, and they're like, “Oh, my God, I can't believe I spent 20 hours beating that game.”
PAUL: Can you modify what you're saying?
SPENCER: Of course.
PAUL: Would you be equally comfortable if I said it wasn't goal achievement, but rather goal pursuit? I'm not convinced that achieving the goal matters that much.
SPENCER: It's interesting because I guess one of the clear experiences of this for me is bouldering, wherein bouldering, you know, you very often have a set of problems on the wall that you feel like you just can't do and often they just feel impossible. They're like, “Oh, I could never do that.” And then you work on them for a while and maybe watch some other people do the bowling problems and then eventually, you know, it's hard work, you're able to achieve it. And you have this like one minute of elation, like, “Oh my god I did that. That's amazing.” And then, you know, five minutes later on, next problem. But it feels like if you didn't have that I solved it elation feeling, bouldering might eventually lose interest to you, you know, if it was only ever striving and never the achievement part, it would be hard to sustain I think.
PAUL: I think that's right. I wouldn't keep on doing crossword puzzles. If I never completed one. You wouldn't keep on bouldering if the simplest problems eluded you. I think there's probably a balance where I think the balance has to include failure. I forget how you how, but there's like a numbering system of 5758, that sort of thing for bouldering.
SPENCER: Yeah, well, in the US, it's like v zero v one v two. That's how they create them.
PAUL: Right, until an idea is you just you go up levels, but it could take you a very long time to do it. Well, take martial arts, in general. So martial arts typically have some sort of belt system or sash system and everything. And maybe you go in and you are just starting off, and he said, “Boy, I'd love to be a black belt.” But what makes this such a great pursuit is they won't give you one after your third week, you got to get intermediate belts, you got to work, a lot of people drop out and everything, and you have this quest. And as the quest that occupies you getting the goal is wonderful. George Lowenstein has a wonderful discussion of mountain climbing and exploration of why we like mountain climbing. And he talks about people who make it up to the peak, and again, a beacon to say, Okay, fine, okay, let's go down. And it's not this sort of orgasmic experience of achieving a goal. It's like, okay, we did it onto the next.
SPENCER: Maybe there are individual differences here, where maybe some people are driven by that kind of intense flow state, during the activity itself. Maybe other people are more about the kind of achievement aspect – it's that like, you know, one or five minutes of elation when you get to the top of the mountain, or you finish the building problem, or you win the trophy, you know, that drives them, you know, causes them to do all this activity just to get to the next to even state. And maybe for other people, it's more identity thing, like they want to think of themselves that can run a marathon. And, you know, just a mix of all this.
PAUL: Yeah, I think some sort of things we pursue, which review is meaningful, don't really have an end goal states something like raising children, you could say, at some level. Well, my kids, you know, are now happy adults, but you never really say, “Well, I'm done.” Victory. It sounds like a bad parent, saying, you know, “You're 18. Get out of the house, I'm done. I win.” Kaching. Next, children, get more kids and do the cycle again. This time, I'll have more difficulty raising kids, I'll level up.
SPENCER: Right, I'll try to be a single parent this time to make it more challenging.
PAUL: [laughs] That’s right.
SPENCER: You know, so one of the things we've been talking about is what motivates people. And I know you've also written about this about kind of the diversity of motivations people have you want to elaborate on that a bit?
PAUL: Yeah. So I originally was interested in a puzzle of why suffering sometimes gives us pleasure to benign masochism stuff. And then I began to invest in an idea of suffering, giving us meaning. And that kind of got me to elaborate on something I've been thinking about for a long time, and hardly original with me, which is, they do motivational pluralism, which is people have many different appetites, and that we will try to satisfy. Just a quote from an economist Tyler Cowen, I forget how it goes, but he has this list. Well, there’S pleasures, meaning there's morality, there's truth, there's beauty, there's happiness, and that comes in different types. And to expect a one-word answer for what do people want, where one thing gets prioritized, is he argues, and I agree, a mistake, we want all of these things. We've evolved, just multiple appetites. The struggle in life than one of the struggles in trying to find the right balance between them.
SPENCER: Yeah, I mean, I completely agree with this way of looking at it. Maybe to elaborate a little bit on like, how I think about I'm curious if it maps on to what you're saying is that the human brain can do many different things. And one thing that it can do is it can consider a state of the world and evaluate and say, like, “Is that valuable? Or is it not valuable?” Right? And if you view this as just like a psychological operation that can occur in hypothetical states of the world, you can then do this further thing and say, “Okay, I find this state valuable. But do I find a value for its own sake? Or do I find it valuable? Because it gives me something else I value.” Right? So that allows us to distinguish between instrumental values and intrinsic values; intrinsic values being the ones that you value for their own sake, even you value them, even if they got you nothing else. And so that's kind of how I think about this. Is that the same as what you're talking about? Would you say it's a little different?
PAUL: No, that's exactly the same – to be a motivational pluralist would say that there was more than one sort of value that has intrinsic value. So it's a hot day, and you drink a cool drink, and it was wonderful. And I say, but you know, why did you drink it? And he said, “because it felt really good”. And then if I keep pushing you, but say more, that doesn't seem very satisfying. You'd look at me like I'm nuts. But I think there are other things that also fall into the same category. If you say you helped a friend. Your friend and I say, “Well, why did you do that?” And you said, “Well, how could I want to help a friend?” And I said, “Well, That's not good enough.” What was one of your real goals? And of course, some people say that you're wrong. This thing that thinks of morality as an intrinsic goal, they would say, “Well, no, what you really wanted was the buzz of pleasure you get from helping a friend or to avoid the guilt from not helping a friend or to show off to other people. What a good person you are.” But I think that's that cynicism gone mad. I think, basically, for a lot of us and for sort of sound psychological reasons. Morality is seen as an end to itself.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's funny, you bring up that topic of people arguing that, well, it's all really because you want to do it, therefore, everything is selfish. I find it to be one of the most frustrating conversations I've had in my life. And I've had this conversation with probably 10 people, where they're arguing that everything is ultimately selfish, because well, you did it because you want to. And I think it's just this weird semantic game that people are playing. I don't think they're intending to do it. But basically, I think if you define selfishness that way, like okay, sure, everything's, quote, selfish, but it's sort of not what anyone really means by selfishness. Like, you know, imagine someone was, like, the only thing they want to do in the world is to help other people. And then you're like, that person is the most selfish person because all they're ever doing is what they want to do. And you're like, totally out of sync with whatever else means by selfishness, right?
PAUL: That's right. And it's in some way, a dumb argument in multiple ways. Sometimes it's a dumb argument because it's framed in evolutionary terms, which is that, you know, well, we've evolved through an amoral process just wants to survive and reproduce. Therefore, we just have to have moral motivations, which is a ridiculous argument. I mean, you know, I like pizza. Evolution doesn't like pizza. Evolution created something that has desires that evolution doesn't have. Sometimes it's a dumb semantic argument, which simply stops talking about pleasure in any coherent way. And just you talk about motivation. So this is when people say, “Well, you wouldn't have done it if you didn't want to do it.” Of course, that's true. But that doesn't mean you wanted to do it for pleasure. And finally, I sometimes can't believe people do this in good faith. Because it seems so alien to normal experience, like put aside unconscious motivations and there, you know, we could talk about it. But I imagine I have people in my life I love, you have people in your life you love. We want the people in our lives, to be happy to live good lives. If they were tortured, If they had a misfortune, we would be miserable for somebody to come in and say you the only reason you want that is because you want the pleasure that that feeling gives you seems to be bizarre. I want my children to thrive not because it gives me a buzz and I want the buzz. It's because even after I die, I want them to thrive because I love them.
SPENCER: Yeah, those are great points. And, you know, I don't want to be too dismissive of the view that everything we do is kind of selfish. The reason I don't want to be dismissive is because I want people who believe that. Ted, listen carefully and actually engage with these arguments and not feel put off. So to be fair to them. You know, I think a lot of people do have that view. You mentioned evolution. And I think, if anything, evolutionary arguments should push us away from that view. Because if you think about what evolution is optimizing for, it's certainly not your pleasure, or what quote, you want. Like, if anything evolution is optimizing for like you having lots of genetic material that spreads and what why should that be that correlated to kind of what gives you pleasure, right? Sure, pleasure is one motivator. But evolution basically, like its goals is very different than yours. And, you know, one of the clearest examples of this so we can see is, if you were really doing what evolution wanted you to do, you would just go to the sperm bank and donate as much as possible, right?
PAUL: I think that's right, I think any sort of understanding of evolution that counts his understanding of evolution, realizes that idea of people being inherently selfish, is profoundly evolutionary. From an evolutionary point of view, our bodies or ourselves don't really matter, except to the extent that their mechanism through which genes could spread and a less abstract way of putting it as if I have, you know, a dozen children. Evolution cares should make me care more about my children and about myself. And then you ask the question, “Well, how would natural selection wire up brains who help others, particularly genetic kin, survive?” And I think a really good answer is by making us love, by giving a sincere love for them sincere, caring for their welfare, that's totally real. And that's a very good way for us to become, you know, good Darwinian creatures.
SPENCER: Absolutely. I don't know too much about neuroscience. But my understanding is also neuroscience does suggest that the kind of pleasure centers and the kind of wanting centers of the brain can be distinguished. And the idea there being that it's possible to have someone want something really badly, but not get pleasure out of it. And similarly, it's possible to have something be really pleasurable, but not have a strong desire for it. And just under kind of anecdotal level, people often will talk about this when it comes to different drugs. For example, people can take psychedelics and have just an incredibly blissful experience, but for some reason, often people feel like they don't really want to do them again very often. Whereas other drugs, people will do them. And they'll have a blissful experience. And they'll want to just keep doing the drug over and over again and become extremely addicted to it.
PAUL: Yeah, there's neuroscience literature here, which I'm not really comfortable talking about that I don't know much about. But your summary seems to me exactly right, which is, there's a distinction between wanting and liking. That's the language they use. And you might imagine a run together in all sorts of ways that can go apart. And addiction and drugs is a good way of seeing this. So you don't need sort of fancy examples. You just take the example of smokers, a lot of smokers who are just addicted to smoking, you say, well, you really want that cigarette, that must give you tremendous pleasure. And they say, “No, I just take the cigarette and it tastes like garbage.” I don't even notice them smoking it, “I just want it, I don't necessarily like it.” I think we can have a really good discussion of what kind of motivations are sort of primary and intrinsic and what sort of are derived. And I think there's a lot of room for disagreement, I think we have a motivation to find our true things, just for ourselves, but people might push back and then you just want the truth, because the truth is pretty useful. But to insist there's just a single driving motivation, to me just seems implausible.
SPENCER: Yeah, I mean, I suppose it is possible that somewhere in the brain, there's some like currency, it all gets converted into, you know, internally, right, when it's like you're weighing what to do. And you're kind of, you know, weighing how much you want that versus this. But certainly, at the level of psychology, it seems like people really do have lots of different motivations. And I don't know neurobiologically what happens, but –
PAUL: So your common currency point is a good one. And I've often struggled with this, you know, in the years had argument would go. I don't know, I want to hang out at home, and drink beer and watch Netflix, that's so much fun as a show been waiting to see. But I have a sick friend across town, who was in a lot of pain, and I should go visit him in hospital. So I have a hedonic motivation, I have a moral motivation. Ultimately, I choose what to do. And there doesn't seem to be any way to describe what happens when I choose other than I have to give them two values on the same scale. So maybe staying at home is an eight. But helping my friend is an 8.5. So go help my friend. So I think the common currency thing has some force, but to say that you can take different motivations and contrast them, which you have to. I mean, even a hedonist would say you have to because maybe you feel like eating, but same time you feel like sleeping, why do you get to choose? To say that we can put in a common currency doesn't mean they're not separate in the first place.
SPENCER: Right. And it certainly seems like some decisions feel like trying to put things in a common currency, you're trying to wait, these different things that have very different properties. It also seems importantly, like some human behavior is driven by something else like you think about a habit where you, you know, go in the bathroom before you go to bed, and you just like pick up the toothbrush and start brushing your teeth. And then you leave, and then you're like, “Did I brush my teeth?” like you can't literally even remember because it was such automatic behavior. And it feels like that's being driven by a process. It's not even in the realm of comparison between options. You know, and it seems like a lot of human behavior is like that, where we're really not deliberating at all, we're just kind of reacting to things.
PAUL: That's right. Take an example, you're with your partner, and your partner says, “Let's have dinner together, where we don't look at our phones, you know, because we care about each other.” And something happens, and you just pick up your phone and absently look at it, and your partner says, you know, “Oh my god, you care about your phone more you care about me.” But it's not literally true. It was just a habit, which didn't have any value. And you see this actually with addictions a lot, where somebody tries to quit smoking, but if they have cigarettes around, they just find themselves, you know, lighting one up on the porch without even thinking about it.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's a nice example. I once wrote this essay about how I think a lot of problems in relationships come about because of misunderstandings people have about psychology. And the smartphone example at dinner is such a good one. Because it's like, well, if you really cared about me, why would you pick up your phone, you know, it's important to me. And then your point is like, well, they weren't going through a deliberate process. They're just so used to this habit of picking up their phone, that it was sort of circumventing their deliberate process. But I think a lot of things in relationships are like this. You know, for example, people will say, “Oh, well, you didn't remember my birthday,” like, you know that and that, like, makes someone feel bad. And it's understandable why it makes them feel bad. And they might think to themselves, well, you know, I remember the birthday of people I care about, but then you take another person who's kind of more of a forgetful person, and it's like they remembering your birthday actually is not very correlated at all, as I'm caring about you, right? It's just sort of like, Oh, they're their brain – that's not the sort of information their brain tends to retain. And I think there are a lot of other examples like this as well, where it's easy to kind of make a projection about, if you really believed X, you would have behaved like Y but actually, there's just some other psychological process operating.
PAUL: But I'll push it back, which is, I kind of agree with what you're saying. But let me defend the kind of complaining partner, which is often blamed, and anger and moral disapproval have a motivating process. So your partner could say, suppose we were sitting at a table, and there was a man of a machine gun. And you know, if you picked up your phone, he would shoot both of us and kill us. Would you pick up your phone? You say, “Of course not.” So plainly, it's a matter of you could override the habit through constant monitoring of picking up your phone. You forgot about my birthday. But suppose you had to remember to pick up pills that would save my life, would you remember? Of course. So in some way, the problem is motivational. And disapproval could be an expression of art in some way, to be more of behavior about it could induce you in the future to be better motivated to do you know, the right thing. Does that ring true?
SPENCER: Oh, yeah, I think that's a really nice example. And now I'm thinking about, let's say, how to pick up pills to save the life of someone I know, what would I do? It's like, I'd have like 15 different reminders to myself. And, you know, so certainly there is a way to make it happen There's maybe a high energetic cost and high focus cost to doing that. And, you know, furthermore, if someone was sitting there with a machine gun, you may be able to think about nothing else, but the machine gun. So, you know, there's a very high focus cost there.
PAUL: Right. That could be a good response, you could say to your partner, “Do you want me to spend the whole dinner, thinking about not picking up my phone?”
SPENCER: Right, and that would probably work but be very disruptive.
SPENCER: It reminds me of a thought experiment, I sometimes will ask people when they say they can't do something or you know, they think they're gonna fail at something is, “What if you had to do the thing? What if you had no choice like the world was gonna end if you didn't do it now?” Okay, some people might freak out. Maybe that's too much anxiety, okay, maybe we need to lower the stakes a little bit so people don't freak out. But you know, imagine something really, really awful is gonna happen if you didn't achieve this thing. And the next, let's say, two months. It's fascinating how when you flip it to that frame, suddenly people are like, “Oh, well, if I had to do it, then I would do X, Y, and Z.” Right? Whereas in normal life, even though you feel like it might be important to you, you don't have that frame that you have to do it. And so your brain doesn't immediately jump to taking actions that would actually make it happen.
PAUL: It's a wonderful experiment. And it speaks to some really subtle intuitions about coercion, which I've been trying to wrap my head around in my partner and my colleague, Christina Starnes, and I talk a lot about this, and we plan to run experiments on it. So here's the sort of tinder, there's kind of unpleasant examples. Here's this sort of perfectly fine one, which is I do research at Yale, University of Toronto, and you get to pay subjects. But the university typically has a rule, you can't pay them too much. And you know, why not? Because paying them too much would be coercive. She said this is crazy. If somebody wants to do my experiment, I give him $1,000, then we seem to both benefit his standard libertarian argument, I'm not forcing them, they're not forcing me we both benefit. But the idea is that if it's so much money, they may do something against your better interest. And in some way, they could say, and it'd be some meaning to this, as we kind of forced me to that, you didn't leave me of any choice. And there's sort of political arguments back and forth and moral arguments back and forth. But I'm interested in the psychological arguments that some opportunities seem coercive. Do you get this intuition at all?
SPENCER: Yeah, I think it's, for me, only comes into play when you're getting somebody to do something immoral, right? Like if you were to pay someone a large amount of money to violate their own principles, or to turn on the people they love or this kind of thing, right? That feels very wrong to me. But to pay someone a large amount of money to do something, it's not immoral. It feels totally fine to me. In fact, it feels better to me than paying them a small amount of money. It just feels like oh, they're just getting more out of it. Why would that not be a good thing?
PAUL: What about this example, you're sitting across from somebody, you're very rich, podcasting, of course, and they say, “This statue I got from my grandmother's most precious thing in the world to me, don't you find it beautiful?” and caught up by an impulse, you say to them, “I know you really need money, you also gonna lose your house and your kids need money and everything. I'll give you $10,000 to smash the statue.” And then they think about it. And they say, “Okay.” There's something awful about that, even though their action wasn't immoral? Because in one sense, you certainly didn't force them. But in another sense, you did. What do you think of that case?
SPENCER: Well, it feels to me that it comes back to the morality thing because let's say it wasn't a statue of your, you know, your grandmother, it was a statue of a chicken or something. They'd be like, sure, whatever, no big deal. It feels like it only when it begins to touch on like the sacred or the ethical, that it becomes a problem. Like, you know, paying someone to urinate on the grave or something like that.
PAUL: But what if you paid somebody to do something which wouldn't be disgusting or taboo, but is very much against what they want to do? Suppose I'm a weird billionaire. And I go up to people, and I offer them money to do things which are just weird. Like I say, “Okay, here's money, you can't leave a 10-mile radius from your house for next year.” And it's so much money. Everybody says yes. There's something about it, which is weird. I mean, of course, it's weird. But there's anybody who thinks this seems wrong.
SPENCER: This is actually happening in real life. So that there is a YouTuber named Mr. Beast who's incredibly popular. And he'll do things like the last person to take their hand off this Lamborghini gets to keep it, and people will be. I mean, I don't know about that particular example. But in some of them, people would just be like, really unpleasant stay. It's like, they haven't urinated in seven hours, and then they're trying to decide, do I urinate, like in a cup right here? Or do I just hold it in? Or do I give up and it starts to feel really icky? Like, okay, so I want to amend what I said, because before I said, “Okay, I think it's all about morality,” but I'm changing my mind a little bit here. It feels like, in addition to the morality thing, which I think is true, there's something about causing suffering to others. Let's say, offer someone a million dollars to be electrocuted. And let's say that even on net if they were to do it, it would be worth it to them, right? Like, it truly would be worth it to them, it still feels unethical to do, to cause it, to make them go through the suffering for like no reason, basically, just to get this money. So basically, I'm gonna amend it and say, my current view, which is open to change is that like, if you can avoid the moral and you're not causing needless suffering for no good reason, maybe it's okay. What do you think?
PAUL: Yeah, I think that gets closer to it. I also think there's something to do with intent. So if you ask people, well, here's what cities do. They say there's some unpleasant or dangerous work to be done. Maybe disgusting work, and we'll pay you to do it. And in fact, they don't even give you millions of dollars, they just give you some amount of money. And of course, people take these jobs and do it. And we don't think that there's anything immoral here intrinsically, you might say, “Oh, capitalism is a bad idea.” But they did it. People getting paid to do unpleasant things is kind of reasonably accepted. But now imagine somebody comes in and asks people to do the same things. But for no purpose. It is simply to move all the garbage in its garbage dump across town, then move it back. Maybe one reason why we find these things repugnant, is that it indicates the bad character, the person making an offer.
SPENCER: Right, right. Because people, there are all kinds of things people can do that don't cause harm, per se, but they seem like the sort of thing that a bad person would do and make you dislike the person. An example of this is like imagine someone takes a dead animal carcass, right? And just like, enjoys, like hacking into pieces, right? You're like, okay, I guess you're not really harming anything like the animals already dead, right? But still, that seems really repugnant. Like it seems like the sort of thing like a really messed up person would do.
PAUL: There's a big movement in moral psychology that moves away from the judgment of the action, and to the judgment of the person. And this could explain certain puzzles of moral psychology. But what I'm thinking now is a finding done. A friend of mine, David Pizarro is one of the authors on a paper and I, unfortunately, forget about other authors, but it's on false-positive emotions. And it supports a famous philosophical example, which is, suppose you're a truck driver, and you're driving, and then a child jumps in front of your truck and gets killed. And it's immediately clear that there's nothing you could have done to stop it. Nobody thinks you could have stopped it. But still, if you left the truck, and then said, “Well, this is awful. The kid died. I had nothing to do with it,” and went home and had a good time and everything. People would feel weird about you, which is they expect you to feel some irrational guilt. What they would want is for you to say, “I feel terrible. Oh my god. Oh my god.” Well, it wasn't your fault. You shouldn't feel bad. But if you come out of it whistling a happy tune, there's something about that. And so in their research, they find that when people do infractions like, you know, I don't know, I spilled coffee all over your laptop, and it was no fault of mine. You know, suddenly a wind came in, and nothing I could have done to avoid it. But still, I should feel bad. And this speaks to the idea that you're getting out of a sort of hacking of animal that we look to the sort of character of the person when making moral judgments.
SPENCER: What did you say you use an example because if you imagine someone who's really high on the kind of sociopathy spectrum, what you're describing is exactly what they're going to experience. They're not going to feel bad about it at all. They're going to be like, oh, yeah, okay, the person died. But, you know, it wasn't my fault. I'm not gonna get in trouble. And, you know, go on with their day as if nothing happened. I've been in conversations with sociopaths, where they've told me things like, “Oh, yeah, I spent two hours watching videos of animals being tortured to better understand animal rights. And yeah, it doesn't bother me at all.” Why? So I think most people have it, you know, that gives them an extreme sense of distrust, right?
PAUL: That's right. In general, we're looking at character. And this leads to certain surprising asymmetries. So, you know, it's been pointed out that Michael Vick a while ago, ran a dogfighting ring, and was, you know, people hate it. And he ended up you know, in it being in prison and hated him. And it's been observed that if he beat up people, or beat up his girlfriend, or something like that even killed somebody, they wouldn't have hated him as much. And you think that's really weird because you know, running dogfighting is terrible but not as bad as assault and murder. But one way to look at this is that mistreatment of animals reveals something really awful in your character. And for whatever reason, mistreatment of people is something we are all capable of. And we tend to, you know, look for context. If you say you hit somebody, I can zoom in, okay, well, tell me why? Because I can imagine hitting somebody. A decent person could hit somebody at times. Well, if you say you tortured a cat, I say, “Man, there's something wrong with you.” Because I can't imagine torturing a cat.
SPENCER: It reminds me of that documentary. I think it's called Don't Fuck with Cats. Yeah, this person basically kills cats on the internet, as they videotape it. And this squad of people basically devote themselves to tracking this person down. And it's such a good example. Because I mean, it's obviously an awful thing to do to kill cats. But there are so many worse things happening in the world. And yet, you know, people really devoted themselves to finding this person, because it just was so atrocious, it is so unjustifiable.
PAUL: It's a great example. I mean, in other cases people get extremely upset, often on social media, but in the real world, too, for racial and sexual transgressions, using racist language or sexist language, and they sometimes seemingly get more upset than they get for other things people do, like embezzle or, you know, even assault or kill people. And I think one thing going on here is that the racial and sexist do one thing, I think, is a bit of signaling, where when we disapprove, we're saying we ourselves would not do such a thing. And that's important for some domains. I don't need to, I'll just suggest you focus on this, which is, I don't need to criticize Jeffrey Dahmer for killing people and you know, eating their corpses because nobody thinks I would do it. But if there's somebody I know who is caught faking his data, I may feel compelled to do a public criticism so as to announce that no, I would not fake my data. And I know this is obvious I'm going to make a big point at us.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. We're that we're more competitive. We carry things over worried people might accuse us of or suspect us of.
PAUL: It leads to the odd prediction for things that are uncontroversially wrong. People won't get that upset about it. But people will get upset or at least signal to get upset for the sorts of things that are not uncontroversially wrong, but a sort of things that they feel a need to signal that they themselves wouldn't do. And I think that may be one thing going on again, Jeffrey Epstein, a wonderful example for everything. Somebody visited him in prison. Somebody he knew, and really got pilloried for doing that. How dare you associate with a man who is guilty of sexual crimes. But it occurs to me if somebody visits a murderer in prison, I think we're okay with that. We just say, well, that doesn't play into this. I mean, a person's pro-murder, nobody's pro-murder, how we rank the badness of certain acts, and how we rank the badness of certain people seems to be interestingly pulled apart in these examples.
SPENCER: Hmm. What about someone who's actually secretly guilty of the thing? So you brought up the thinking data, right? Like, let's say someone's secretly guilty of faking data. You could see one way they could go with it is like publicly announcing how horrible it is when people fake data, right? It's kind of throws people off the trail, right? Make them think they're really anti, but you could see another way of them going, which is like, “Oh, well, you know, this person. This wasn't really faking data. This is actually a fine, you know, research practice.” Okay, maybe taking data is not the best example may be saying more gray area like kind of p-hacking or things like that you could see them going and say, well, p x is actually just part of doing science, it's not really a bad thing. It's actually important for exploratory research, right? And you get that kind of polarized reaction.
PAUL: It's a great case I, there's, there's some, there's some work in, in collaboration with Gillian Jordan and the team of other people at Yale. And we looked at what are people's impressions when people say certain things. So here's one cool finding Gillian and all of us got, which is, you have two people, and one person says, “I do not fake my data period, I do not fake my date, I want to insist on that.” And a second person doesn't say anything about themselves. But what they say is, you know, this person who faked their data, they should go to prison, they should lose their job, they should be publicly shunned. And then you ask subjects, which of these two people you think is most scrupulous least likely to fake their data, not the person who says that they didn't, because people lie all the time, but rather the person who attacks because in some way, the way we put it is attacking is a costly signal that you didn't do it. And this is why we hate hypocrites. We hate hypocrites, in essence, because they're liars. If I say you shouldn't drink and drive, but I drink and drive, I've lied. Even though I didn't literally lie, they're fully logically consistent, you know, as for saying, Well, what that person did isn't so bad. I think that that just has really a negative effect. If I say, you know, oh, well, sexual abuse is terrible what Jeffrey Epstein did most of the time wasn't so bad. People look at me, and they think you do it to.
SPENCER: But I realized there's a third response, which I've seen, which is people attack the people who are accusing, right, instead of defending the Jeffrey Epstein, they attack the journalists for you know, whatever.
PAUL: That's right. But I think if your goal is to demonstrate to the world, that you yourself are innocent of these crimes, it probably would be a terrible strategy to either defend people who are accused of them or attack their attackers. If I go and say, you know, I know it's really disgusting, that people who are singling out Jeffrey Epstein for such you know, condemnation. I have a feeling that my social media feed would go very odd after saying that.
SPENCER: But I think there's a more savvy way to do it, where you just attack the journalist without making it clear that you're trying to defend Jeffrey Epstein, right?
PAUL: Yes, there's an instrumental way of doing it. That's right, you can try to defend your interests without being seen as defending those particular interests.
SPENCER: This comes up in the replication crisis stuff because you know, you have these people that basically say, oh, you know, the replication crisis is terrible. And it's really prevalent and social sciences in really desperate times, and other people come out and say, no, no, so science is totally fine. And these replicators are methodological terrorists. And you know, and they really go and attack against people who are pushing for, you know, more open science and so on. So would you make sense sociologically of what's going on there?
PAUL: Yeah, that's a good example. I'm now conscious of the meta thing that now if what I say will be taken as reflecting on my own opinions,
SPENCER: Yes. Well, I'll be judging you based on which side you defend. No, I'm just kidding.
PAUL: I'll make it I'll make an observation, which is that this has happened many times, where somebody says, “Look, I may largely agree with a lot of open science, but you guys have gone too far.” There's not enough trust, you're accusing around people. There's a general nastiness about how you go about things. And then what happens is that people who look very closely at data and experiments, turn their focus on that person. There's somebody I won't name because I want the focus turned on me, who, whenever somebody criticizes them, a week later they’re, “Let me give an analysis of the flaws and misinterpretations and sloppy research of my critic.” So you get this back and forth, which I think makes a lot of criticism go underground. For a lot of things, there are mechanisms inside a movement designed to silence critics. And, you know, one of them is to, in a replication crisis to investigate critics. Nobody really wants to be investigated. And the second one is to accuse people who defend somebody who does acts of themselves doing acts. If I defend the rights of somebody accused of racism, I must myself be racist.
SPENCER: Yeah, this reminds me of this idea that sometimes when you're kind of speaking up against something, a bunch of the people in the audience are actually guilty of doing the thing itself. And, you know, a good example of this might be maybe sexual harassment, right? Like this percentage of men that engage in sexual harassment is you know, it's not zero. It's you know, I don't know what the percentage actually is, but it's a non-negligible percent that at some point, have done something kind of iffy sexually, right? And then you're talking about this, let's say in social media, or in like a large group of people, and you have to be thinking to yourself, “Okay, some people who are listening to me right now have actually engaged in this.” And it's sort of like, you know, everyone's pretending to be a sheep, but some people are actually wolves. And you start to wonder, well, what does that actually do to the conversation if there's a bunch of wolves involved in the conversation itself?
PAUL: That's a great point. And, you know, sexual harassment is one thing and a lot of things maybe, just not just about everything, but a lot of things used to be worse, certain racism, sexual harassment, what we now view, I think, correctly as terrible behavior used to be the common behavior. The replication crisis is actually a great example of that, which is, most people who did research 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, which basically means any scholar, any researcher above a certain age, is guilty of things. That is because back then, most people thought they were okay. And that makes these discussions uncomfortable. I try my best not to p-hack now. I preregister studies, I do all of the things, I suppose because I think they're the right things to do. My research 20 years ago, IP hack like crazy, everybody did. And that fact makes the discussions uncomfortable.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think it's really great that you say that because I think some people will want to get defensive in that scenario. I think it's much better rather than the kind of trying to blame people in the past to say, okay, let's move forward. Let's all agree now on who would have good practices, rather than like trying to blame people for what they did 20 years ago. Do you ever play the game Mafia, also known as Werewolf?
PAUL: Yeah, I have played that just a couple of times.
SPENCER: So you know, in this game, basically, it's a bunch of people sitting around, and you're all trying to figure out who the werewolf is, or, you know who the bad guy is. Sometimes there are multiple bad guys. And the tricky bit is that the bad guy, you don't know who they are, and they're kind of trying to throw you off, right? So like, among the people trying to figure out who the bad guy is, is the bad guy, right? And I feel like that is what happens in these scenarios. It's like, you know, for every reasonable size committee that's investigating, you know, sexual harassment or investigating bad research practices, there's a decent chance there are one or more people on that committee who know that they have a lot to lose because they have done the thing themselves, right? And then like, think about how that distorts the process when you have such a committee?
PAUL: Oh, that's interesting. In some ways, I like the example because I could see cases that really fit into it. In other ways. I don't because it assumes, in his analogy that people are sort of reflectively bad. I'm not doubting that a committee designed to investigate sexual harassers will have possibly a sexual harasser on the committee themselves. What I'm less sure of is this person, let's say he sees himself as a sexual harasser. Like they see himself sort of as a villain saying, you know, look at my fortune has brought me to this place where I am investigating a crime which I myself am perpetrating. I think, for the most part, people who do bad things, everything from sexual harassment to murder to p-hacking, don't see themselves as bad people.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's a student. I think that's by and large correct. But people don't view themselves as bad except maybe like depressed people who often think that they're worthless, even though they're really not worthless.
PAUL: Yeah, the people think they're bad or are actually not the bad ones.
SPENCER: Yeah, but the people who like do really bad things, I think they usually don't see themselves as bad, as you say. That being said, they still may recognize that others would view them as bad.
PAUL: Yes, this is true.
SPENCER: Right? They still might recognize if people found out the thing I did, maybe they would think I'm bad, you know?
PAUL: Yes, I think there is that worry. I like your point before I remember reading Jon Ronson, who writes very well about psychopaths. And he became known as kind of a psychopath expert. And then he gets a lot of people approaching him saying, do you think I'm a psychopath? And his line has always been if you worry that you're a psychopath, you're not a psychopath? No, the very act of worrying about it takes you out of your running.
SPENCER: Yeah, well, that's been my experience, too, that sociopaths and psychopaths tend to have less anxiety or less fear than other people. Yeah, just have had the interesting experience of having met multiple people that were sociopaths. And like we're willing to admit it, which was quite a startling experience. One of them I was talking to, and I was asking them about, do they ever feel fear in their body? We just had a kind of random conversation topic, like, you know, some people feel emotion strong in their body. Other people don't really feel them in their bodies. And they're like, “Oh, yeah, I do feel it in my body.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” And they're like, “Yeah, yeah. So this one time, I was driving down the highway, and there's a truck in front of me and a refrigerator fell at the back, and it hit my car and nearly killed me. And I felt some tension in my body.” And I was like, “You felt some tension? That's an area. I don't think you're talking about the thing I'm talking about.”
PAUL: That's a great story. It's not like you know, Atlanta movies that are just the people who are psychopaths and separate monsters and the rest of us. It's a continuum. And we have certain cut-offs. But there are people who are pretty far down that continuum, and they do seem to have problems with fear, both not experiencing fear to themselves and not recognizing it in others. I think it's she who tells a story of interviewing a criminal psychopath in England, this woman who had done terrible things. And they showed her a series of faces, pictures of faces, well, there's an angry face, and there's a happy face that person sad. And they show her a fearful face. And she says, “I always have problems with that.” And she said, “You know, that's the death expression people make right before I stab them.” And so the relationship between why people with a putative lack of fear tend to be bad people is a really interesting question.
SPENCER: Well, it also gets coupled in practice with low empathy, right, like so, you know, if I had to describe sort of the emotional characteristics of a sociopath, it's that they tend to have very low empathy if any, and then they tend to have very low fear compared other people. And this kind of being, I would say, the two dominant kinds of emotional differences – do you think that's right?
PAUL: I think it is, right. And it gets to a critique I've had in my own work. So I wrote a book a few years ago called Against Empathy, where I was critical of empathy, his role as a moral guide that they were better off with reason and with compassion. And one objection I've often got, which perfectly good objection is, well, psychopaths have low empathy, and they're terrible people. So plainly that suggests that empathy is an important ingredient to being a good person. And I think it's a good point as far as it goes, but there are two responses. One is psychopaths seem to have a general blunting of emotions. It's not just empathy is also compassion. It's also it's very superficial.
SPENCER: So how are you distinguishing between compassion, empathy, just, you know, what kind of definitions are you using?
PPAUL: Empathy itself splits into two. I mean, these are just terminological choices, you can use other words, but there's cognitive empathy, which means understanding the mental states of others, you know, so you know, I understand you're happy or you're angry, or you believe that you know, just a gun in a drawer. And often psychopaths are pretty good at cognitive empathy.
SPENCER: I was talking to a sociopath about why they enjoy movies, because it might seem like, oh, well, why wouldn't they enjoy movies? But if you really think about movies, a lot of what's going on is that you’re kind of identifying with the character or rooting for a character or, you know, there's some kind of identification. So I was just curious, like, “Do you enjoy movies the same way?” And she's like, “Oh, yeah, movies are incredible training. I learned about how to react in different situations, like how to pretend to be more neurotypical.”
PAUL: It's funny, we're both using examples of women, even though this population is predominantly male.
SPENCER: Oh, yeah, Bill, we have that vast majority of them are male. But for some of the two that I've talked to, in great depth, one of them has to be a woman.
PAUL: And then there's emotional empathy, which is feeling what other people feel putting yourself in their shoes. And actually, if so, if you're very anxious, and I register that you're anxious, that's could be cognitive empathy. If I start to feel your anxiety and feel it along with you, that's emotional empathy. And to some extent, emotional empathy, people argue is sort of core to morality. You know, if I feel your pain, I probably won't want to hurt you as much.
SPENCER: I want to ask about that, though. Because sometimes, if I notice a friend is anxious, it doesn't necessarily make me anxious, it makes me concerned or like, I do feel bad, I do suffer at their anxiety. But I don't know if it's that I feel anxious that their anxiety,
PAUL: Well, that means that you are not experiencing empathy and in that sense. You're experiencing cognitive empathy, and you're experiencing compassion, which is simply you want to make you care about them, but it's very different. Your example is actually great. You have a friend who's extremely anxious. Empathy would make you anxious along with them. Compassion says, you know, “Man, you're anxious. You know, we're here to help. I'm worried about you. Let's try to calm you down.” And it's an example of the limitations of empathy. When I'm anxious. I don't want my friends to get anxious with me. I want them to be calming, supportive influences. When I'm miserable. I approach somebody for help and support, I don't want them to get suddenly miserable. I want them to be concerned about me and to try to help me. So you see, in that way, at least theoretically, people have pushed an argue there's sort of empirical links. And there's a lot of debate about that compassion and empathy pull apart in that way.
SPENCER: I see you're pro-compassion, but not as pro-empathy. Using that technical definition.
PAUL: Yes, I'm very, very pro-compassion. I think it is for sort of standard David Hume reasons that rationality isn't enough. You don't only have to be smart about what makes the world a better place. And what helps people though that's essential, it's not sufficient. You also have to care. You have to value others. It goes back to what we're saying, from an evolutionary perspective, which is, you know, if you just value yourself, that'd be really weird, but also it makes you horribly immoral. So you have to value other people.
SPENCER: You know, when I had these conversations with sociopaths, it got me really interested in what is the mental state of being a sociopath. And so then I started watching a bunch of YouTube videos of sociopaths talking about what it's like to be them. And I ended up coming to a conclusion, I'm curious to hear your reaction to it, which is that it's not that sociopaths can't be highly ethical like I actually think some of them are. But I think what drives them to be ethical tends to be different than what drives most people's ethical behavior. So for example, let's say a sociopath became like a really strong believer in Christianity, right? And they believe that God was watching them in every moment. And if they behaved good by being kind to everyone, and giving and giving to charity, and doing all these good deeds, they'd be rewarded in heaven, and if they hurt people, then they would be punished and go to hell forever. Like, under those circumstances, I could actually imagine a sociopath acting like a very, very good person, right? behaving very, very well. Similarly, imagine a sociopath adopting a kind of Effective Altruism mindset where they believe that the most important thing in the world is maximizing total utility. And suffering is the worst thing in the world. They're convinced of this, like on a cognitive level, right? They believe this, I can actually imagine them being quite effective at making the world better. On the other hand, let's say you have a sociopath that just being guided by sort of everyday feelings. I think most people are, most people are guided by their sort of everyday feelings or reactions to what's good and bad. In that case, I think it becomes a lot scarier because of the everyday guidance that most people have that says, like, Oh, don't hurt people, and you know, don't take things from people just because you want them and so on, is not guiding them.
PAUL: I think that's exactly right. I think that people tend to have a sort of a suite of moral emotions, where we, you know if I was walking, I saw his child suddenly fall, and bloody his nose, you know, I'd run over me and feel concerned. If I saw somebody suddenly slap another person for no reason I feel a blast of anger, and the desire to retaliate is normal moral emotion. And although they have their limitations, they tend to often in everyday life guide. But everything's on a continuum, and the people we call psychopaths and sociopaths, I think, A, tend to lack this normal suite of feelings, at least not or not having the same extent. And B, they may have some other problems, too, they may tend to be as thrill-seekers, and stimulation seekers, which gets them which doesn't mean they just stay at home and do nothing but it gets them into trouble or causing other people trouble. And then we get to your cases of the good sociopath the good psychopath. Sociopaths, psychopaths, it just seems like this. I think they thought of the word sociopath at some point, just as a more politically correct term, and then it never caught on. But anyway, the same thing.
SPENCER: I've heard some people draw a distinction that psychopath is like when you're born with it, and sociopaths are when you develop it. But I don't know if that's actually accepted in you know, kind of scientific terminology, or just that's just what some people use.
PAUL: Neither term is used in a sort of Bible, the clinical Bible, the diagnostic, and the standard manual.
SPENCER: So they would say, antisocial personality disorder.
PAUL: Yes. Antisocial Personality Deficit. That's right. They want to steer clear of the terms, maybe for good reason, my understanding could be corrected is that psychopath was the original term. And then people felt it had too much of a sort of innate predetermined connotation. And then they move to a sociopath. And it's kind of what you're saying, which is to sort of, it's not to depict a different kind of person, but rather to get people to think that it's more of a social problem. It's like when you, I don't know, get rid of the term ghetto, and you describe it as something else. Or historically, we've just changed terms for maligned groups all the time. It's designed to sort of clean up the term a bit, but it doesn't seem to have actual weight.
SPENCER: I think it just confuses everyone, then no one knows what word to use. Yeah.
PAUL: I’m just going to emphasize this. There's a sort of reification like this sort of Hannibal Lecter idea, there are the monsters who walk among us. But as best we know, all of this is on a continuum. There's no such thing as a depressive, as opposed to a normal person. They're just people more and more prone to depression and a certain point, sometimes for insurance reasons or diagnosis reasons, you got to draw a line, but it's just an arbitrary line on a continuum. And it's the same with psychopaths, sociopaths, what have you, which is some people are just more awful than others. They have less self-control, they don't care as much. And you know, on the whole on this continuum, I think men are worse than women, just on average. And then if you get worse and worse and worse and worse, you start giving it a label. But I want to go back to your point, which I think is good, which is doesn't mean psychopaths and sociopaths and like, can't do good things, they can do good things for two general classes of reasons. One is self-interest. You might say it's more complicated, but you might say, the reason why we have prisons is that some people don't have, you know, good hearts and need and need some sort of threat, or some sort of punishment. And then you can imagine them caught up in an ideology, so that they're good, not because they have to gut feelings, but because they've read a hell of a lot of Peter Singer.
SPENCER: Right. I think that's important to remember that if you meet someone who's a sociopath, or at least on that spectrum if they don't have an ideology, they might pose a very elegant risk. If they do have an ideology, it's possible for them to be a really good person, obviously, you should still be cautious, and you know, protect yourself and make sure it's, you know, not a farce because they are sort of people that are probably not gonna feel very bad about lying to you.
PAUL: That's right. And alongside their ideology is their self-interest, which we all have, but they don't have the sort of limits on it, that we naturally have, I have all sorts of things I want. But I'm constrained by the fact they also want not to hurt people, and to be thought of nicely and so on, they might lack that or not have the same extent,
SPENCER: And, you know, in the best cases, capitalism can be a system where people can benefit society by being selfish, right? Like, that's sort of the ideal case where someone starts a company, not because they care about the customer, because they just want to make money, but they end up benefiting the customer, and they end up end to their employees. Now, of course, that doesn't always go well, we know there is plenty of market failures and stuff. Clearly, it sometimes happens that the world is benefited a lot due to selfishness.
PAUL: I think that's right. And I think there is sort of institutions or structures where the proper sort of selfishness could really be to the benefit of all, Adam Smith is really nice at this, because on the one hand, he talked all about this, how sort of individuals who care only for their own good can at a rating system lead to benefits for all. But at the same time, he's not deeper about empathy, and sympathy and morality, and just of anybody else, any other philosophy you'd ever encounter. And what he would say is, I think, or I'll say it is that pure selfishness could work out in certain systems. It doesn't work out for anybody's benefit in normal human relationships, there has to be some degree of confidence that other people will behave these decently. And the sad truth is, in a population of mostly good people, a bad person could really prosper.
SPENCER: I've done this kind of thought experiment, like imagine you have a group of, let's say, 10 people, and they're all pure altruists. In this case, I mean, like that they really care about each other's benefit as much as their own. You can imagine that group just thriving to an incredible degree because they can all collaborate so well and work together in the interests of the whole group. But now imagine one totally selfish person joins the group, right, who just wants to exploit the others, if the altruists can't tell that a person selfish, if that person successfully deceives them, then that group was probably way worse off than if they weren't out dressed. If they were just, you know, normal people who do something about altruism can have this incredible gains in this kind of like positive-sum effect, but it also is exploitable?
PAUL: That's right. And it shows up in several ways. So you said often you can detect selfish people. And one claim which I find plausible is that our punitive impulses, our desire to make bad people pay even at a cost to ourselves, is part of the evolution of niceness. It's why we could evolve cooperative, interesting societies because we are to some extent, inoculated against cheaters and psychopaths. We really do have natural impulses to make them pay. And that really helps, but some slip through, it's not perfect than some slip through. And they could be truly corrosive. Some economic games are called public good games, a very simple game, you get a bunch of people in there, and everybody puts money into a pot, and then the money in the pockets tripled and distributed to everybody back. So it's great. We're all just making money, throwing money, and getting it back. But the way the game works is, if you don't put any money in at all yourself, you still part of the dividend windfall and you get it back, and you get more, the math works out that if you just freeride, you get more. And the cool finding is you get a bunch of people who are all happily throwing money in, and then one jerk decides to just screw up all of us and not put money in. And one by one everyone else defects, it spreads. And so yeah, there are cases, at least, I think in real life, we managed to not make it so that a single psychopath could destroy a community though. I don't know, I've heard of university departments where one or two bad people mess it up for everybody else. I mean, what do you do? They say, I'm getting this just so deep into being in academia, but what do you do when there are meetings that are unpleasant meetings, but people do it because it helps the department run? And one person says, “I'm not going to do it. You can't make me.” And I think people suddenly look at this and say, “Well, I don't want to be a sucker.” And then they drop out as well. And then the more people drop out, and finally, it could collapse.
SPENCER: Hmm, yeah, it reminds me of this idea that society is really in many ways not built for people who are willing to just completely break rules with like, no remorse. For example, you think about a lot of things in a society where someone like checks your credentials, or they check your resume, or they check your references. Those are very effective against kind of normal behaviors, but they're terribly ineffective against someone who just has no remorse, right, someone who's willing to just give you a fake reference to a phone number of someone that will just pretend to be that person on the other line, right? Or, like, when you kind of like, you know, give someone a printout of a document proving that you're, you know, your bill or something like someone who's willing to go on Photoshop and just change it, right. It actually doesn't really provide any protection at all. You know, it's like, these are protections against people who still have a conscience, but not necessarily people who don't have a conscience.
PAUL: In order to travel from Canada to the United States smoothly, you need to show proof of a COVID test. And the timing is kind of complicated because you have to get the test, say three days before you travel. But if you go to a pharmacy, sometimes they won't get it back to 10 results back to you in time. And then it's their PDFs. So it's an interesting question. I was once in a predicament where I thought I wouldn't have a test to get over the border, and I needed to get over the border. And I had a PDF from an old test and, you know, changing the date, I'm not sure you got to be James Bond to do it. It's not this extraordinary thing. But I just couldn't. The idea of that level, and it wasn't so much fear, getting conscious, he was so, so wrong.
SPENCER: Most people will be willing to exaggerate like a little bit for something so important, but not willing to like forge, you know, just go in Photoshop and change date. You know, I mean, it's like, it's like sales just too far to go, right?
PAUL: I think that's right. And there's another part of the story, which is once but this is a third party, but somebody I know, got a test for COVID, but the test did not include the address of the laboratory. And it turns out that that's a requirement to get over the board to include address, so this person added address on a PDF, the person would have never made up a fake test but would cheat a little bit.
SPENCER: Right, because why not? Why not add the address like it should have had the address or something, you know.
PAUL: It should have had the address. The address that was added was the right address. And your point is right, which is I think we expect a bit of fudging? You know, I deal with undergraduates all the time, and you expect the exaggeration and fudging and maybe you know, maybe they say, I don't know, I meant to send it to you, but it was stuck in my drafts folder, ah, whatever. But true psychopathic line, totally fake CV, the person didn't go to university at all anyway, that we don't expect them we didn't. And we make the choice as a society. It's too costly to look for that. You know, coming up to graduate student admission is going to get a lot of people of CVs and everything. There's no way I did a resource to check all these references and check the CVS. I'm just assuming nobody cheats that much. And somebody who did cheat that much would prosper.
SPENCER: You hear about all these examples of people who were just complete, blatant liars. And it's just it's remarkable how long it took for them to get caught. You know, like they just completely make up their backstory, they pretend to be a doctor when they're not. And they go for just a shocking amount of time before it catches up. Because I think it just boggles people's minds that someone could lie so boldly and so you know, remorselessly. That being said, I think it's a terrible life decision. Like I don't think things go well, for these people. I don't think they're actually better off. Some of the videos I've watched of sociopaths talking about their experience. It's fascinating to see how some of them actually seem to make a really big effort not to lie, not because they have remorse. But because they basically have come to realize that it's actually a terrible life decision to just lie to everyone all the time. Like, it doesn't actually lead to your life going back great.
PAUL: You know, that speaks to a debate I've seen psychologists engage in. I'm curious what you think of this because there's sort of two extreme sides. One side says at the highest levels of the world, presidents, Prime Ministers, CEOs are riddled with psychopaths, because they just do better. Another side is almost the opposite, which is psychopaths tend to be losers. And in fact, they do detainer away or represent in prison. They often show comorbidity for other problems. They don't tend to be that smart, but they're losers for a certain reason, which is niceness for nice people comes easily. A successful psychopath has to fake it because otherwise, nobody wants to hang out with them or employ them or something. And faking it is hard and they inevitably slip. And pretty soon, it's pretty clear who they are. So those make a sort of opposite predictions. Do you have a sense of which one do you think is right?
SPENCER: Yeah, well, I would distinguish between narcissists and sociopaths. And I think people very often confuse the two. And it's understandable that they confuse them because they have some commonalities, right. Like, I believe that people really high narcissism tend to also have lower empathy. You know, because sociopaths have lower empathy like that can make them similar. And I think both groups tend to manipulate people, but I think that they have very different motivational structures. So here's an interesting fact, I have tried to find videos of narcissists describing what it's like to be them, for the same reason I've tried to find videos of sociopaths. It's almost impossible to find videos of narcissists talking about their experiences. It's extremely easy to find videos associated with sociopaths. Why is that? Well, my theory is, is because sociopaths tend to be low on fear. So they're not as afraid as they should be about going on YouTube and describing that they're sociopaths. Narcissists tend to experience fear, I think. And furthermore, narcissists care an incredible amount about people thinking they're great. So they're especially afraid of people not thinking they're great, or, you know, hitting them. And so I think that's kind of like, you know, just sort of illustrates an important section. So, I think that a lot of politicians, not all of them clearly, but a lot of them are narcissists. I think a much smaller number are sociopaths.
PAUL: I would agree with that. You know, the example everybody gets is Donald Trump. If Donald Trump is not a narcissist, that term has no meaning at all. And that could show you can be extremely successful and be a narcissist. And I think politicians that maybe you and I might like a lot more a large amount are themselves, narcissists, to some extent, thinking that you could lead a country requires an enormous amount of high self-esteem, high self-focus, and maybe not entirely healthy psychology.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think for a lot of people who said, Hey, would you want to be in charge of a country? Like, they'd be like, Oh, my God, that sounds – yes, okay. There's an appealing aspect of that, like, it could be deeply meaningful, and you could do important things, but like, Oh, my God, the stress, you're constantly making incredibly difficult decisions, and there's not enough information. And no matter what you do, like a substantial chunk of people are gonna hate your guts, and people are gonna try to assassinate you. And it's like, oh, my gosh.
PAUL: It's interesting. There are so many, you know, if you watch children's TV or comic books, or something that inevitably, some evil villain wants to rule the world. And my thought is, “Oh, my God, I don't really want to run a department.” I mean, it seems so stressful and so unpleasant. But it is the sort of thing that would appeal to a narcissist.
SPENCER: Right, because, you know, when you're a politician, people pay attention to you, and people look up to you, and they praise you all the time. And, you know, people suck up to you. And these are things that, you know, narcissists tend to really, really enjoy. So it makes sense that it attracts that personality. But I think on the flip side, it's useful to think about these from an evolutionary standpoint, right? Like, I don't think it's a coincidence that narcissists exist or that sociopaths exist. I think that there are these different ecological niches in society, not from the point of view of the sort of contributing to society so much as like survival, right? Like you imagine that there are certain social advantages to being a sociopath. It doesn't mean that half of the people being a sociopath would actually be effective. But it means that like, if you're the one wolf among sheep, like, you know, that actually can have an advantage in terms of survival. Or if you're the narcissist that gets everyone to follow you and make them they're the leader make you the leader, you know, maybe you can have you know, 50 offspring or something like that.
PAUL: I think that's right. I think that for a lot of these traits, it's not as simple as saying they're bad for you. Because if it was really bad for you, you'd imagine they would be eventually selected out. But rather, they're good for you in certain situations in certain contexts. And then there's also a sort of a titration problem, which is a trait of callousness that could vary across individuals. If you were totally callous, you'd be a monster, caring, nothing about other people. But if you had none of this trait, you would be a doormat. Anybody comes to you and says, “Well, my interests differ from yours.” She said, “Well, let's do it your way. I care more about you; don't care about me.” Such a person would never assert themselves, would never compete, would never say, “I want it” and so that you won't have it. And such a person would be at a serious disadvantage. It isn't one thing in between. It's like all of these things. It's like anxiety. I was reading Messi, who's an evolutionary psychiatrist, he says, “We talk to people, it's too much anxiety because they end up going to psychiatrist and clinics and everything. We never have time to build too little anxiety, because they end up in morgues, prisons, and there's an optimal level. And what the level is, depends on the situation depends on the context or worlds where high anxiety is very good for you.”
SPENCER: Yeah, absolutely. It's all about having a level that's appropriate for your situation, and also what you're trying to achieve, right? If you're an extreme climber, very low anxiety might help you achieve the highest levels, it also might mean that you're more likely to end up in the morgue, as many extreme climbers have.
PAUL: Yes, that's definitely right.
SPENCER: This is so great. Thank you so much for coming on.
PAUL: I really appreciate it. Tons of fun talking to you about these things.
Click here to return to the list of all episodes.
Sign up to receive one helpful idea and one brand-new podcast episode each week!
Subscribe via RSS or through one of the major podcast platforms:
Host / Director