Friday, December 19, 2008

How do categories evolve

I saw the HBO show on Saddam Hussein, which is very good. The portrait is of a man who is profoundly immoral but one who appears much like other men most of the time, who effectively used the mass media to create a cult of personality in Iraq, and who could show human emotions under conditions such as the death of his sons.

The show got me to wondering about the people with antisocial, psychopathic, dissocial, or sociopathic personality disorders. I spent some time on the Internet looking up these disorders, which was interesting. It lead me however to think about the way in which scientists develop taxonomies. That last topic seemed appropriate for this blog.

There is no universally agreed taxonomy for these disorders, although it is agreed that a small portion of the population, mostly men, share an inability to empathize with others and a tendency to immoral behavior, and yet are sufficiently adept to dissemble their oddity and to "make friends and influence people".

It appears that such people show up in the literature for a very long time, but professional psychiatrists have been studying them for only a few decades. It is the psychiatric literature that has developed the taxonomies of these disorders, based on behavioral manifestations.

If you think about a simple category, such as "chairs", it is clear that there are lots of different things that qualify. Some are large, some are small, some are wood, some plastic, etc. It is not always clear whether the category applies to a specific object. Is a three legged stool a chair? I have seen a 20 foot tall object in a chair shape which is placed as a scupture; is it a chair?

Three Loopita chairs (designer Victor Aleman) put together.

For psychologists it is important that the diagnostic category be such that there is clarity as to whether a person is or is not a psychopath, yet people differ greatly in their behavior. There is little wonder that it has been difficult to infer a set of categories for people with these characteristics based on observations of hundreds of patients, prisoners, and interviewees.

More recently there has been an effort to utilize brain and cognitive research in an effort to identify neurological correlates of the condition. These have included studies of brain chemistry, brain imaging, and latency of stimulus responses. It is assumed that there may be both a genetic predisposition and bases in childhood experiences that result in such a personality. I would suggest that differences in general intelligence and socio-economic status might lead to differences in the way the personality traits are manifested.

Socio-biology has led to the idea that sociopathic behavior may be a strategy for reproductive success, leading to genetic predisposition for such behavior in a small percentage of the population.

It interested me to find that the clinical classification is limited to adults. If you think about it, children tend to be more selfish, less able to make moral judgments, and less aware of the feelings of others than are normal adults. Sociopathology thus seems to me to be a kind of unsuccessful maturation.

All science begins in taxonomy, and it looks to me as if we are approaching a satisfactory set of classes to distinguish people who think and feel in the ways I have been describing. There is already an ability to distinguish between those who wind up committing serious crimes and those who can fit in normal society. Perhaps surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be any effort to treat such people.

As an aside, thinking of Saddam, he lived through a time and in a place in which his behavior resulted in his obtaining dictatorial power over a reasonably large nation, having started as a would-be assassin. I suspect that Idi Amin found similar conducive circumstances to success in Uganda, and Hitler in Germany. It would seem wise to try to assure that social and economic circumstances don't favor the success of such people. The ones we know about rose to prominence in disordered societies with lots of internal conflict, poverty and confusion.

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