Monday, 28 November 2011

Horizon: Are you good or evil?

I love the Horizon series and while this one is certainly thought and discussion provoking it doesn't sit so well with me. My first problem with the programme is the initial, outright use of the word evil. Are we really heading back to Biblical times with this one? Is there a psychological trait called evil? No, of course not. Throwing around words like evil in the 21st century is just ridiculous and we need to park evil at the door and let it be until the next time we want to have a witch hunt.

Secondly the word psychopath is bandied about with ease as the programmers know that the word is a very emotive one that will conjure up images of serial killers and chainsaw massacres. While psychopaths are disproportionately responsible for violent crime, most psychopaths are rarely psychotic. In fact most psychopaths are what the contributors to the show referred to as 'Successful Psychopaths', often business people, thrill seekers, political leaders. Successful psychopaths make good leaders, have a natural tendancy to be charming – and can intellectually understand emotion without the baggage of actually feeling someone’s pain.

Consider the Virtual Reality experiment with adult human guinea pigs who had control of an elevator to an art gallery. Five (stick) people were on the top floor; One person on the ground floor. A red person with something in its hand is let up to the top by the guinea pig and then, all hell breaks loose! The red person starts shooting everyone on the top floor. The guinea pig's reaction is to freeze or thumble around with the control, trying to put the serial killer red man on the ground floor where only one would die instead of five. However the delay usually ends in tragedy with many stick people dead. Now,what would happen if a security guard was the guinea pig? I presume they'd react quicker and save lives because of their training. What if a psychopath were tested? Well, they would should no emotion and will not freeze under pressure with result that fewer lives would be taken. Who is more dangerous to society in this situation? The average person who freezes or a psychopath? I'd choose the average person. We need some psychopaths in society I'm afraid...

A similar experiment was done with toddlers on the Horizon episode. It involved watching a puppet show and then picking out either the good cuddly toy who gave the ball back or the bad cuddly toy who ran away with the ball. Seventy per cent of the babies went with the good guy, suggesting that we're born with some kind of moral instinct. That's nice. Now this leaves thirty percent who didn't go with the good guy. Does this mean these babies are psychopaths? Not necessarily. Some of the babies fell asleep and some of them got distracted, some of them probably liked the colour of the bad puppet. No doubt there was possibly one little Kevin that we may or may not need to talk about. But on the whole it was inconclusive and I felt not really necessary to the show.

What was much more interesting was the work of Professor Jim Fallon – a neuroscientist who discovered he could identify psychopaths from brain scans – and that all had a variant of a gene which predisposed them to violent behaviour, the warrior gene. On testing his family he discovered that one person had both the brain pattern and the genetic make up of a psychopath and could be categorise as “high risk”. And yes – it was him. However, what Fallon established from the fact that he was not a killer, was that nurture – a good upbringing – could override the “natural” predisposition to violence. And that many psychopathic killers had suffered horrendous abuse as children.

This could have been an excellent episode but instead it was mediocre at best due in particular to dumbing down complicated issues and hamming up the narrative with questions such as “Are babies born evil?”. Your common sense will probably have given you the answer before you’re informed of the scenic route our friends in white lab coats took to get there: you can have the wrong genes, the wrong chemicals and bits of your brain scan the wrong colour, but unless you also had the wrong childhood, the wrong marriage or fought in the wrong war, things will probably turn out okay for you. Nature, nurture, free will, what side of the bed you got out of this morning - there’s just too much fuzzy greyness for black-and-white science to deal with in matters related to the mind..

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