Attack as response to failure

Instantly notorious

Jared Loughner may not be “crazy” or irrational at all. He might instead be utterly typical of people who attack politicians: For most of them, the notoriety that comes with such an attack, whether it ends in assassination or not, is a perceived solution to a specific psychological problem.

And that problem is the feeling of invisibility or anonymity that often follows failure.

This, at least, is the upshot of this story on NPR, which in turn refers to this study from 1999 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. (Lainey, in a comment under the previous post, linked to a Wired article quoting the same report.)

That study examined the 83 people who had attacked public officials between 1949 and 1999, and found that the attackers

  • almost never had political reasons
  • had often experienced a big failure or reversal in the year before the attack,
  • often felt invisible as a result,
  • didn’t want to be “non-entities” or “nobodies”,
  • and saw the notoriety of being an assassin as the solution.

As one would expect from such a profile, the attackers often did not target one particular politician (as an attacker with political motives would), but first decided to attack, then searched for a target. To quote from the report,

assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause

Failure is, of course, one of the twin topics of my forthcoming book, the other twin being success. This, I must say, is a response to failure that had never occurred to me before. The more one learns about the human psyche, the more mysterious it becomes in its nether depths.

How humans are (not) unique

Robert Sapolsky

Beat me, said the masochist.

No, said the sadist.

We, Homo sapiens sapiens, are the only species that can understand the humor (ie, the meaning) of this conversation. It involves advanced versions of simpler concepts such as Theory of Mind and tit-for-tat. But the simple versions of those and other concepts are not unique to humans. So the definition of human really rests on marginal complexity.

Take 37 minutes of your time to watch Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant and hilarious neuroscientist at Stanford, as he analyzes what makes humans “uniquiest”. It is a prime example of making science accessible through storytelling.

The short of it: Almost all of the things that we used to think made us humans unique in the wild kingdom can in fact be observed in other species. Such as:

  • Intra-species aggression (including genocide)
  • Theory of Mind
  • The Golden Rule
  • Empathy
  • Pleasure in anticipation & gratification-postponement
  • Culture

However, we humans exhibit these facilities with a twist — with an added layer of complexity.

(By the way, he refers to the same baboon study that I mentioned in this post, but could not locate. Does anybody have a lead?)

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