Watching New Love as It Sears the Brain

New love can look for all the world like mental illness, a blend of mania, dementia and obsession that cuts people off from friends and family and prompts out-of-character behavior – compulsive phone calling, serenades, yelling from rooftops – that could almost be mistaken for psychosis.

Now for the first time, neuroscientists have produced brain scan images of this fevered activity, before it settles into the wine and roses phase of romance or the joint holiday card routines of long-term commitment.

In an analysis of the images appearing  (recently) in The Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers in New York and New Jersey argue that romantic love is a biological urge distinct from sexual arousal.

It is closer in its neural profile to drives like hunger, thirst or drug craving, the researchers assert, than to emotional states like excitement or affection. As a relationship deepens, the brain scans suggest, the neural activity associated with romantic love alters slightly, and in some cases primes areas deep in the primitive brain that are involved in long-term attachment.

The research helps explain why love produces such disparate emotions, from euphoria to anger to anxiety, and why it seems to become even more intense when it is withdrawn. In a separate, continuing experiment, the researchers are analyzing brain images from people who have been rejected by their lovers.

“When you’re in the throes of this romantic love it’s overwhelming, you’re out of control, you’re irrational, you’re going to the gym at 6 a.m. every day – why? Because she’s there,” said Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and the co-author of the analysis. “And when rejected, some people contemplate stalking, homicide, suicide. This drive for romantic love can be stronger than the will to live.”

Brain imaging technology cannot read people’s minds, experts caution, and a phenomenon as many sided and socially influenced as love transcends simple computer graphics, like those produced by the technique used in the study, called functional M.R.I.

Still, said Dr. Hans Breiter, director of the Motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Collaboration at Massachusetts General Hospital, “I distrust about 95 percent of the M.R.I. literature and I would give this study an ‘A’; it really moves the ball in terms of understanding infatuation love.”

He added: “The findings fit nicely with a large, growing body of literature describing a generalized reward and aversion system in the brain, and put this intellectual construct of love directly onto the same axis as homeostatic rewards such as food, warmth, craving for drugs.”

In the study, Dr. Fisher, Dr. Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, led a team that analyzed about 2,500 brain images from 17 college students who were in the first weeks or months of new love. The students looked at a picture of their beloved while an M.R.I. machine scanned their brains. The researchers then compared the images with others taken while the students looked at picture of an acquaintance.

Functional M.R.I. technology detects increases or decreases of blood flow in the brain, which reflect changes in neural activity.

In the study, a computer-generated map of particularly active areas showed hot spots deep in the brain, below conscious awareness, in areas called the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area, which communicate with each other as part of a circuit.

These areas are dense with cells that produce or receive a brain chemical called dopamine, which circulates actively when people desire or anticipate a reward. In studies of gamblers, cocaine users and even people playing computer games for small amounts of money, these dopamine sites become extremely active as people score or win, neuroscientists say.

Yet falling in love is among the most irrational of human behaviors, not merely a matter of satisfying a simple pleasure, or winning a reward. And the researchers found that one particular spot in the M.R.I. images, in the caudate nucleus, was especially active in people who scored highly on a questionnaire measuring passionate love.

This passion-related region was on the opposite side of the brain from another area that registers physical attractiveness, the researchers found, and appeared to be involved in longing, desire and the unexplainable tug that people feel toward one person, among many attractive alternative partners.

This distinction, between finding someone attractive and desiring him or her, between liking and wanting, “is all happening in an area of the mammalian brain that takes care of most basic functions, like eating, drinking, eye movements, all at an unconscious level, and I don’t think anyone expected this part of the brain to be so specialized,” Dr. Brown said.

The intoxication of new love mellows with time, of course, and the brain scan findings reflect some evidence of this change, Dr. Fisher said.

In an earlier functional M.R.I. study of romance, published in 2000, researchers at University College London monitored brain activity in young men and women who had been in relationships for about two years. The brain images, also taken while participants looked at photos of their beloved, showed activation in many of the same areas found in the new study – but significantly less so, in the region correlated with passionate love, she said.

In the new study, the researchers also saw individual differences in their group of smitten lovers, based on how long the participants had been in the relationships. Compared with the students who were in the first weeks of a new love, those who had been paired off for a year or more showed significantly more activity in an area of the brain linked to long-term commitment.

Last summer, scientists at Emory University in Atlanta reported that injecting a ratlike animal called a vole with a single gene turned promiscuous males into stay-at-home dads – by activating precisely the same area of the brain where researchers in the new study found increased activity over time.

“This is very suggestive of attachment processes taking place,” Dr. Brown said. “You can almost imagine a time where instead of going to you could have a test to find out whether you’re an attachment type or not.”

One reason new love is so heart-stopping is the possibility, the ever-present fear, that the feeling may not be entirely requited, that the dream could suddenly end.

In a follow-up experiment, Dr. Fisher, Dr. Aron and Dr. Brown have carried out brain scans on 17 other young men and women who recently were dumped by their lovers. As in the new love study, the researchers compared two sets of images, one taken when the participants were looking at a photo of a friend, the other when looking at a picture of their ex.

Although they are still sorting through the images, the investigators have noticed one preliminary finding: increased activation in an area of the brain related to the region associated with passionate love. “It seems to suggest what the psychological literature, poetry and people have long noticed: that being dumped actually does heighten romantic love, a phenomenon I call frustration-attraction,” Dr. Fisher said in an e-mail message.

One volunteer in the study was Suzanna Katz, 22, of New York, who suffered through a breakup with her boyfriend three years ago. Ms. Katz said she became hyperactive to distract herself after the split, but said she also had moments of almost physical withdrawal, as if weaning herself from a drug.

“It had little to do with him, but more with the fact that there was something there, inside myself, a hope, a knowledge that there’s someone out there for you, and that you’re capable of feeling this way, and suddenly I felt like that was being lost,” she said in an interview.

And no wonder. In a series of studies, researchers have found that, among other processes, new love involves psychologically internalizing a lover, absorbing elements of the other person’s opinions, hobbies, expressions, character, as well as sharing one’s own. “The expansion of the self happens very rapidly, it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences there is, and short of threatening our survival it is one thing that most motivates us,” said Dr. Aron, of SUNY, a co-author of the study.

To lose all that, all at once, while still in love, plays havoc with the emotional, cognitive and deeper reward-driven areas of the brain. But the heightened activity in these areas inevitably settles down. And the circuits in the brain related to passion remain intact, the researchers say – intact and capable in time of flaring to life with someone new.

Evolution of Love

continued from yesterday

Our closest primate cousins, the chimpanzees, lack exclusive sexual bonds. Most mating takes place within the narrow window of female estrus. When a female chimpanzee is in heat, a variety of physiological changes take place. Her genitals become swollen and pink for four to six days. The swellings peak just before ovulation when she is most likely to conceive. She emits pheromonal signals, hormone-saturated substances that males find especially attractive, sometimes driving them into a sexual frenzy. Sarah Hrdy of the University of California at Davis notes that males sometimes touch the vagina of the estrous female, gathering her secretions on their fingers to smell or taste. Males use these signals to monitor the female’s reproductive state.

A male chimpanzee’s position in the social hierarchy strongly determines his sexual access to estrous females. Among the chimpanzees at a large zoo colony in Arnham, the Netherlands, for example, the dominant male achieves as many as 75 percent of the matings with estrous females. The relationships between male and female chimps are complex and can extend over time, but chimps do not form the long-term committed relationships that most humans desire.

Men and women have always depended on each other for survival and reproduction. Love was not invented a few hundred years ago by European poets, contrary to conventional wisdom in this century. Love is a human universal, occurring in societies ranging from the !Kung San of Botswana to the Ache of Paraguay. In my study of 10,041 individuals from 37 different cultures, men and women rated love as the single most important quality in selecting a spouse. Across the globe, people sing love songs and pine for lost lovers. They elope with loved ones against the wishes of parents. They recount personal tales of anguish, longing, and unrequited love. And they narrate great love stories of romantic entanglements down through the generations. The German writer Herman Hesse summed it up best: Life is “the struggle for position and the search for love.” Love is the universal human emotion that bonds the sexes, the evolutionary meeting ground where men and women lay down their arms.

The universal existence of love, however, poses a puzzle. From an evolutionary perspective, no single decision is more important than the choice of a mate. That single fork in the road determines one’s ultimate reproductive fate. More than in any other domain, therefore, we expect evolution to produce supremely rational mechanisms of mate choice, rational in the sense that they lead to wise decisions rather than impetuous mistakes. How could a blind passion like love — a form of dementia that consumes the mind, crowds out all other thoughts, creates emotional dependency, and produces a delusional idealization of a partner — possibly evolve to solve a problem that might be better solved by cool rationality?

To penetrate this mystery, we must start with the scientific evidence for mate preferences. Worldwide, from the coastal dwelling Australians to the South African Zulu, women desire qualities such as ambition, industriousness, intelligence, dependability, creativity, exciting personality, and sense of humor — characteristics that augur well for a man’s success in acquiring resources and achieving status. Given the tremendous investment women undertake to produce a single child, the nine months of costly internal fertilization and gestation, it is perfectly reasonable for women to want men who can invest in return. A woman’s children will survive and thrive better if she selects a resourceful man. Children suffer when their mothers choose “slackers.” Men, in contrast, place a greater premium on qualities linked with fertility, such as a woman’s youth, health, and physical appearance — clear skin, smooth skin, bright eyes, full lips, symmetrical features, and a slim waist. These preferences are also perfectly sensible. We descended from ancestral mothers and fathers who chose fertile and resourceful partners. Those who failed to choose on these bases risked reproductive oblivion.

Although these rational desires set minimum thresholds on who qualifies as an acceptable mate, rationality profoundly fails to predict the final choice of a mate. As the psychologist Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology observes, “Murmuring that your lover’s looks, earning power, and IQ meet your minimal standards would probably kill the romantic mood, even if statistically true. The way to a person’s heart is to declare the opposite — that you’re in love because you can’t help it.”

One key to the mystery of love is found in the psychology of commitment. If a partner chooses you for rational reasons, he or she might leave you for the same rational reasons: finding someone slightly more desirable on all of the “rational” criteria. But if the person is blinded by an uncontrollable love that cannot be helped and cannot be chosen, a love for only you and no other, then commitment will not waver when you are in sickness rather than in health, when you are poorer rather than richer. Love overrides rationality. It’s the emotion that ensures that you won’t leave when someone slightly more desirable comes along or when a perfect “10” moves in next door. It ensures that a partner will stick by you through the struggles of survival and the hazards of childbirth.

Love, however, has a tragic side. The stories of great lovers of the past, in fiction and in history, are often marked by disaster. Juliet died of poison. Romeo chose to kill himself rather than live without her. Love suicides have pervaded Japanese culture for centuries, a final vindication of the intensity of a person’s commitment. When parents and society conspire to keep lovers apart, lovers sometimes tie themselves together and jump off a cliff or hurl themselves into a well. The most perilous side of love, however, comes not from a folie à deux, but from a folie à un — the demonic possession that consumes a person when love is not reciprocated. Unrequited love is the foundation for fatal attraction.

Consider the case of John W. Hinckley, Jr., who scrawled a final letter to the actress Jodie Foster on March 30, 1981, shortly before attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan:



Dear Jodie:      

There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan. It is for this very reason I am writing you this letter now.

As you well know by now I love you very much. Over the past seven months I’ve left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me…I know the many messages left at your door and in your mailbox were a nuisance, but I felt that it was the most painless way for me to express my love for you…

Jodie, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you…I will admit to you that the reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you. I’ve got to do something now to make you understand, in no uncertain terms, that I am doing this for your sake! By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. This letter is being written only an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel. Jodie, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historic deed, to gain your respect and love.

I love you forever.

John Hinckley


Cases as extreme as John Hinckley are rare, but the experience of unrequited love is quite common. In one recent survey, 95 percent of men and women indicated that, by the age of 25, they had experienced unrequited love at least once, either as a would-be lover whose passions were rejected or as the object of someone’s unwanted desires. Only one person in 20 has never experienced unrequited love of any kind.      

Although unrequited love is a perilous passion, producing fatal attractions and unwanted stalking, the dogged persistence it produces sometimes pays off. One of the great love stories in history is that of Nicholas and Alexandra. Nicholas inherited the Russian throne at the end of the 19th century. During his adolescence his parents started looking for a suitable mate for him. At age 16, contrary to his parent’s wishes, he became obsessed with Alexandra, a beautiful princess then living in England with her grandmother, Queen Victoria. Despite parental objections, cultural chasms, and a separation spanning thousands of miles, Nicholas was determined to capture Alexandra’s love. Alexandra, however, found him a bit dull and did not relish the thought of moving to the harsh climate of Moscow. She spurned his advances. In 1892, Nicholas turned 24 and, having loved Alexandra for nearly eight years, resolved to make one final effort to win her heart. Given this state of mind, he was devastated when she wrote saying that she had definitely decided not to wed him. She asked him not to contact her again. All seemed lost.

Nicholas left his beloved Moscow immediately. He traveled across Europe, suffering rough terrain and treacherous weather in the journey to London. Although exhausted from travel, Nicholas immediately began to persue Alexandra with great passion. After two months, she finally relented and agreed to marry him. The young couple thus became man and wife, rulers of the Russian empire.

Although Nicholas’s love was initially unrequited, their marriage proved a joyful one. Diary entries from each revealed sublime happiness, the great joy of their union, and the depth of their love for each other. They produced five children. Nicholas so enjoyed spending time with Alexandra and their children that the Russian empire apparently suffered from his neglect. When forced to be apart, they pined for each other, wrote often, and endured great psychological pain until their reunions. Their mutual love lasted throughout their lives, until the Russian Revolution brought down the czarist rule and they were executed. They died on the same day, their lifelong love never having diminished. Had Nicholas given up when initially spurned, their great love would have been lost forever.

The same passion that led John Hinckley to pursue Jodie Foster with desperate measures led Nicholas to succeed in turning an unrequited obsession into lifelong love. In retrospect, one seems irrational and unbalanced, the other logical and normal. One we call pathological, the other a love story. But what if Hinckley had succeeded in winning Jodie Foster’s love and Nicholas had failed in his quest for Alexandra? Love is a dangerous passion that cuts both ways. There’s a rationality to the irrationality.

Once humans evolved love, the bonds they created required protection. It would be extraordinarily unlikely that evolution would fail to defend these fragile and fruitful unions against interlopers. In the insect world, there is a species known as the “lovebug.” Male lovebugs venture out in a swarm of other males each morning in search of a chance to mate with a female. When one succeeds, the couple departs from the swarm and glides to the ground to copulate. Because other males sometimes attempt to copulate with her, even after the pair has begun mating, the couple maintains a continuous copulatory embrace for as long as three days, hence the nickname “the lovebug.” This strategy guards the union against outside intruders.

In humans, guarding a bond must last more than days, months, or even years because love can last a lifetime. The dangerous emotion of jealousy evolved to fill this void. Love and jealousy are intertwined passions. They depend on each other and feed on each other. But just as the prolonged embrace of the lovebug tells us that their bonds can be threatened, the power of jealousy reveals the ever-present possibility that our love bonds can be broken. The centrality of jealousy in human love reveals a hidden side of our desires, one that we typically go to great lengths to conceal — a passion for other partners.

Hidden Desires



One Sunday morning William burst into the living room and said, “Dad! Mom! I have some great news for you! I’m getting married to the most beautiful girl in town. She lives a block away and her name is Susan.” After dinner, William’s dad took him aside. “Son, I have to talk with you. Your mother and I have been married 30 years. She’s a wonderful wife, but has never offered much excitement in the bedroom, so I used to fool around with women a lot. Susan is actually your half-sister, and I’m afraid you can’t marry her.”      

William was heartbroken. After eight months he eventually started dating again. A year later he came home and proudly announced, “Dianne said yes! We’re getting married in June.” Again, his father insisted on a private conversation and broke the sad news. “Dianne is your half-sister too, William. I’m awfully sorry about this.”

William was furious. He finally decided to go to his mother with the news. “Dad has done so much harm. I guess I’m never going to get married,” he complained. “Every time I fall in love, Dad tells me the girl is my half-sister.”

His mother just shook her head. “Don’t pay any attention to what he says, dear. He’s not really your father.”



We find this story funny not simply because the ending carries a surprise. It’s amusing because the mother ultimately gets payback for the “father’s” philandering. Cuckolds are universal objects of laughter and derision, and a constant source of engaging tales from the tragedy of William Shakespeare’s Othello to the middle-class marital dramas portrayed in the novels of John Updike.      

To understand the origins of sexual passion we must introduce a disturbing difference between the sexes. Everyday observation tells us that men are more promiscuously inclined than women. “Men found to desire more sex partners than women desire” would be no more likely to make the headlines than “Dog bites man.” But scientific verification is always useful, since common sense, which tells us that the earth is flat, sometimes turns out to be wrong. Science, in this case, has verified the everyday knowledge that men do display a greater passion for playing around. In one of our recent studies of more than 1,000 men and women, men reported desiring eight sex partners over the next three years, whereas women reported desiring only one or two. In another study, men were four times more likely than women to say that they have imagined having sex with 1,000 or more partners.

Observing that men and women differ, however, is not the same as explaining why they differ. There are compelling evolutionary reasons for the fact that this difference in desire for sexual variety is universal, found not just in cultures saturated with media images of seductive models, not just among Hugh Hefner’s generation of Playboy readers, and not just in studies conducted by male scientists. To explain this desire, we must introduce another key fact about human reproductive biology.

To produce a single child, women bear the burdens and pleasures of nine months of pregnancy — an obligatory form of parental investment that men cannot share. Men, to produce the same child, need only devote a few hours, a few minutes, or even a few seconds. Wide is the gulf between men and women in the effort needed to bring forth new life. Over time, therefore, a strategy of casual mating proved to be more reproductively successful for men than for women. Men who succeeded in the arms of many women out-reproduced men who succeeded with fewer. An ancestral woman, in contrast, could have had sex with hundreds of partners in the course of a single year and still have produced only a single child. Unless a woman’s regular partner proved to be infertile, additional sex partners did not translate into additional children. As a consequence, men evolved a more powerful craving for sex with a variety of women.

This sex difference in desire creates an intriguing puzzle. Sexual encounters require two people. Mathematically, the number of heterosexual encounters must be identical for the sexes. Men cannot satisfy their lust for sex partners without willing women. Indeed, men’s passion for multiple partners could never have evolved unless there were some women who shared that desire. Is casual sex a recent phenomenon, perhaps created by the widespread prevalence of birth control devices that liberated women from the previous risks of pregnancy? Or did ancestral women do it too?

Three scientific clues, when taken together, provide a compelling answer. Men’s sexual jealousy provides the first clue, the ominous passion that led us to this mystery. If ancestral women were naturally inclined to be flawlessly faithful, men would have had no evolutionary catalyst for jealousy. Men’s jealousy is an evolutionary response to something alarming: the threat of a loved one’s infidelity. The intensity of men’s jealousy provides a psychological clue that betrays women’s desire for men other than their regular partners.

Second, affairs are known in all cultures, including tribal societies, pointing to the universal prevalence of infidelity. Prevalence rates vary from culture to culture (high in Sweden and low in China), but affairs occur everywhere. Sexual infidelity causes divorce worldwide more than any other marital violation, being closely rivaled only by the infertility of the union. The fact that women have affairs in cultures from the Tiwi of northern Australia to the suburbs of Los Angeles reveals that some women refuse to limit themselves to a single partner despite men’s attempts to control them and despite the risk of divorce if discovered.

A third line of evidence comes from new research on human sperm competition. Sperm competition occurs when the sperm from two different men inhabit a woman’s reproductive tract at the same time. Human sperm remain viable within the woman’s tract for up to seven days, not merely one or two days as scientists previously believed. Indeed, my colleagues have discovered hundreds of “crypts” recessed within the vaginal walls of women in which they store a man’s sperm and then release it several days later to enter a marathon race to her egg. If a woman has sex with two men within the course of a week, sperm competition can ensue, as the sperm from different men scramble and battle for the prize of fertilizing the egg. Research on sperm competition reveals that men’s sperm volume, relative to their body weight, is twice that which occurs in primate species known to be monogamous, a clue that hints at a long evolutionary history of human sperm competition.

Human sperm, moreover, come in different “morphs,” or shapes, designed for different functions. Most common are the “egg getters,” the standard government-issue sperm with conical heads and sinewy tails designed for swimming speed — the Mark Spitzes of the sperm world. But a substantial minority of sperm have coiled tails. These so-called kamikaze sperm are poorly designed for swimming speed. But that’s not their function. When the sperm from two different men are mixed in the laboratory, kamikaze sperm wrap themselves around the egg getters and destroy them, committing suicide in the process. These physiological clues reveal a long evolutionary history in which men battled with other men, literally within the woman’s reproductive tract, for access to the vital egg needed for transporting their genes into the next generation. Without a long history of sperm competition, evolution would have favored neither the magnitude of human sperm volume nor the specialized sperm shapes designed for battle.

All these clues — the universality of infidelity, men’s sexual jealousy, and the hallmarks of sperm competition — point to a disturbing answer to the question of ancestral women’s sexual strategies. They reveal the persistent expression of women’s passion for men other than their husbands, a phenomenon that must have occurred repeatedly over the long course of human evolution. Modern women have inherited this passion from their ancestral mothers.

Why Women Have Affairs

Because scientists have focused primarily on the obvious reproductive benefits of men’s desire for sexual variety, the potential benefits to women of short-term sexual passion languished for years unstudied. The puzzle is compounded by the fact that a woman’s infatuation with another man comes laden with danger. An unfaithful woman, if discovered, risks damage to her social reputation, the loss of her partner’s commitment, physical injury, and occasionally death at the hands of a jealous man. Undoubtedly, many women weigh these risks, and choose not to act on their sexual desires. The benefits to women who do act on their passion for other men, given the possibility of catastrophic costs, must be perceived as sufficiently great to make it worth the risk.

For the past seven years, Heidi Greiling and I have been studying why women have affairs. Our lab has focused on the benefits that are so alluring that women from all walks of life are willing to take great risks to pursue sex and love outside of marriage. Our research centered on three questions: What benefits do women reap from affairs? What circumstances are most likely to drive a woman into another man’s arms? And which women are most prone to affairs?

Historically, women may have benefited from an affair in countless ways. The first and most obvious benefit comes from the direct resources that an affair partner may provide. A few expensive dinners may not seem like much today, but an extra supply of meat from the hunt would have made the difference between starving and surviving during ancestral winters when the land lay bare, or between merely surviving and robustly thriving during more plentiful times.

Women also can benefit from affairs in the currency of quality genes. The puzzle of the peacock’s tail provided the telltale clue to this benefit. A peahen’s preference for peacocks with brilliant plumage may signal selection for genes for good health. When peacocks carry a high load of parasites, their diminished health is revealed in duller displays. By selecting for luminescence, peahens secure good genes for health that benefit their offspring. Research by Steve Gangestad and Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico reveals that women may be choosing affair partners with especially healthy genes. Women who have sex with different men can also produce more genetically diverse children, providing a sort of “hedge” against environmental change.

Although genetic and resource benefits may flow to women who express their hidden sexual side, our studies uncovered one benefit that overshadowed the others in importance, a benefit we call “mate insurance.” During ancestral times, disease, warfare, and food shortages made survival a precarious proposition. The odds were not trivial that a husband would succumb to a disease, become debilitated by a parasite, or incur injury during a risky hunt or a tribal battle. The paleontological and cross-cultural records reveal this clue — the skulls and skeletons show injuries mostly on males. A woman’s husband, in short, stood a significant chance of suffering a debilitating or lethal wound.

Ancestral women who failed to have mate insurance, a backup replacement in the event that something happened to her regular partner, would have suffered greatly compared to women who cultivated potential replacements. Modern women have inherited the desires of their ancestral mothers for replacement mates. In the words of one woman in our study, “Men are like soup — you always want to have one on the back burner.” Mate insurance provides a safeguard against reasonable risks of losing a partner.

And mate insurance remains relevant today, even though we’ve conquered many of the hazards that felled our forebears. American divorce rates now approach 67 percent for those currently getting married, up from the mere 50 percent figure that alarmed many over the past two decades. Remarriage is rapidly becoming the norm. The Dangerous Passion explores how women’s desire for additional partners is ancestral wisdom that, however alarming to husbands, continues to serve a critical insurance function for women today.

Urges of Ovulation

Women’s attraction to lovers has another mysterious ingredient: the puzzle of concealed ovulation. Unlike chimpanzees, women’s genitals do not become engorged when they ovulate. Women have “lost estrus” and engage in sex throughout their ovulatory cycle. Conventional scientific wisdom has declared that a woman’s ovulation is cryptic, concealed even from the woman herself. But have the urges associated with ovulation totally vanished?

In the most extensive study of ovulation and women’s sexuality, several thousand married women were asked to record their sexual desires every day for a period of twenty-four months. The methods were crude but straightforward: women simply placed an X on the recording sheet on each day that they experienced sexual desire. Basal body temperature was recorded to determine the phase of the menstrual cycle. These thousands of data points yielded a startling pattern. On the first day of a woman’s period, practically no women reported experiencing sexual desire. The numbers rose dramatically across the ovarian cycle, peaking precisely at the point of maximum fertility, and then declining rapidly during the luteal phase after ovulation. Women, of course, can experience sexual desire at any phase of their cycle. Nonetheless, they are five times more likely to experience sexual desire when they are ovulating than when they are not.

Women sometimes act on their passions. A recent survey of 1,152 women, many of whom were having affairs, revealed a startling finding. Women who stray tend to time their sexual liaisons with their affair partners to coincide with the peak of their sexual desire, when they are most likely to conceive. Sex with husbands, in sharp contrast, is more likely to occur when women are not ovulating, a strategy that may be aimed at keeping a man rather than conceiving with him. None of this is conscious, of course. Women do not think “I’ll try to time sex with my affair partner when I’m ovulating so that I’ll bear his child and not my husband’s.” Psychologically, women simply experience sexual desire more when they are ovulating, and if they have an affair partner, have urges to have sex with him during this phase. Ovulation may seem concealed to outside observers, but women appear to act on the impulses that spring from it. And when that desire for men other than their husbands occurs, it’s difficult for most men to tell when their mates are straying or may be likely to stray. I call this the signal detection problem.

The Signal Detection Problem

Across cultures, people have affairs that are specifically designed to avoid detection. In Arizona, one motel marquee boasts that it is the “No-Tell Motel.” In states across America, you can rent some hotel rooms at an hourly rate. The woman returning from a business trip does not make her brief fling on the road the first topic of conversation. The husband who conceals his finances from his wife may be funneling resources to support a mistress on the side.

Spouses experience a signal detection problem. Consider camping in the woods at night and hearing a sound somewhere in the dark. Was that the sound of a twig snapping, merely the wind blowing, or the unfamiliar night sounds playing tricks on your ears? Assuming that you have correctly detected the signal as a twig snap, the possible causes of this event are many, but they are not infinite. It could be a rock that somehow got dislodged. But it could also be a dangerous animal or a hostile human. The signal detection problem is not merely about picking up accurate signals in the face of an uncertain and ambiguous welter of information. It is also about making correct inferences about the cause of the signal.

Since sexual infidelities are almost invariably secret, the signals they might emit are intentionally muted. An unfamiliar scent, the purchase of a sharp new jacket, the running of a yellow light, a new interest in Beethoven or the Beastie Boys, an unexplained absence — all of these can be signals, but they can originate from many causes other than infidelity. The jealous person experiences an elevated sensitivity to signals of infidelity: “He may see a red flush on his wife’s cheek, she may appear to be standing awkwardly, or sitting sideways on a chair, she has put on a clean dress, there is a cigarette-end in the fireplace…the jealous man sees a handkerchief on the floor, a wet cloth in the bathroom, newspapers in a ditch, and attaches to all the same import.”

Consider the case of a European psychiatrist who counseled many couples referred to him in which one of the spouses experienced “morbid jealousy.” Most cases were husbands who had delusions that their wives were sexually unfaithful, and these delusions destroyed the fabric of trust required for harmonious marriage. Because he believed that extreme jealousy was a psychiatric illness that could not be cured, his most common recommendation was that the couples separate or divorce. Many couples followed his recommendations. Because he was keenly interested in the subsequent fate of his patients, he routinely contacted them after a number of months had passed. To his astonishment, he discovered that many of the wives of his patients had subsequently become sexually involved with the very men about whom their husbands had been jealous! Some of these women actually married the men who were the objects of their husbands’ suspicions. In many cases, the husbands must have been sensing signs of infidelity. But because the wives proclaimed innocence and declared that their husbands’ jealousy was irrational, the husbands ended up believing that the problem was in their heads. The problem of signal detection is how to identify and correctly interpret a partner’s betrayal in an uncertain social world containing a chaos of conflicting clues.

Jealousy is often triggered by circumstances that signal a real threat to a relationship, such as differences in the desirability of the partners, as illustrated by the following case. The man was 35 years old, working as a foreman, when he was referred to a psychiatrist and diagnosed with “morbid jealousy.” He had married at age 20 to a woman of 16 whom he deeply loved. During their first two years of marriage, he was stationed in military service in England. During this two-year separation, he received several anonymous letters saying that his wife was carrying on an affair. When he returned to America to rejoin her, he questioned her intensely about the allegations, but she denied them. Their own sexual relations proved disappointing. He became obsessed with the earlier time in their marriage, repeatedly accused his wife of infidelity, and hit her from time to time, especially after a bout of drinking. He tried to strangle her twice, and several times he threatened to kill himself.

He openly admitted his problems to the psychiatrist: “I’m so jealous that when I see anyone near her I want to hurt her. I have always loved her but do not think she has returned my affection. This jealousy is something I feel in my stomach and when it comes out of me there is nothing I can do about it. That is why I behave so madly….My wife is always telling me that other men are stronger and can beat me….I’m not a big chap or a handsome chap but my wife is so pretty and I don’t think I come up to her high standards.” In other words, he perceived a difference in their level of desirability; she was attractive and alluring, and he saw himself as beneath her. When the psychiatrist questioned the wife in private, she admitted to meeting and having an affair with a married man. The affair was carried on in secret, and throughout the duration of her affair she insisted that her husband’s jealousy was delusional. The affair began roughly one year before the husband was referred to the psychiatrist to treat “his problem.”

Differences in desirability — when an “8” is married to a “10” — can heighten sensitivity to signals of infidelity in the partner who has fewer outside mating options. Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues at the University of Hawaii discovered that the more desirable partner in the couple in fact is more likely to stray. Those who have been in relationships with both more attractive and less attractive partners have an acute awareness of how jealousy is attuned to these differences. These differences represent one among many signs of actual or impending infidelity explored in depth later in the book.

Emotional Wisdom

Jealousy is necessary because of the real threat of sexual treachery. In a hazardous world where rivals lurk, partners harbor passions for other people, and infidelity threatens to destroy what could have been a lifelong love, it would be surprising if evolution had not forged elaborate defenses to detect and fend off these threats. Exposing these threats, and the psycho-logical arms we have to combat them, is a first step toward comprehending the wisdom of passions that sometimes seem so destructive.

The Dangerous Passion takes us on a journey through the rationality of these seemingly irrational emotions, examining the fundamental desires of what men and women want, and why these longings so often produce conflict.

Chapter 2 introduces the jealousy paradox — why an emotion that evolved to protect love can rip a relationship apart. It explores the evolution of conflict between men and women, why painful emotions are necessary in resolving conflicts, and why men and women are locked in a never-ending spiral of love and strife.

Chapter 3 focuses on why men and women differ in their underlying psychology of jealousy. It reveals that men and women are neither unisex equivalents nor aliens from different planets. When it comes to adaptive problems that differ for men and women, passions diverge; for adaptive problems that are the same, their emotions joyfully commingle.

Chapter 4, “The Othello Syndrome,” investigates seemingly bizarre clinical cases in which a jealous person becomes untethered, resulting in delusional suspicions about a partner’s infidelity. We explore why our minds are designed not merely to pick up on infidelities that have already occurred, but also to detect circumstances that signal an increased likelihood that a partner will stray in the future.

Chapter 5 delves into the frightening abuses produced by the dangerous passion — battering, stalking, and killing — and identifies when women are most vulnerable to these violations.Although I call jealousy the dangerous passion, it cannot be disentangled from the risky cravings that men and women harbor for other lovers.

Chapter 6 examines the qualities of relationships that make a person susceptible to infidelity, the personality characteristics that predict who’s likely to cheat, and why some people unwittingly drive their partners into the arms of a paramour.

Chapter 7 explores why women have affairs, and why modern women have inherited from their ancestral mothers a roving eye.

Chapter 8 identifies the strategies we use to cope with jealousy and infidelity and why some therapeutic efforts to eradicate jealousy are often misguided.

The final chapter reveals the positive uses of jealousy for enhancing sexual passion and life-long love, and examines how we can harness emotional wisdom to enrich our relationships.

(C) David M. Buss All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-684-85081-8


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Jealousy in Love and Sex

Why do men and women cheat on each other? How do men really feel when their partners have sex with other men? What worries women more — men who turn to other women for love or men who simply want sexual variety in their lives? Can the jealousy husbands and wives or couples experience over real or imagined infidelities be cured? Should it be?

In this surprising and engaging exploration of men’s and women’s darker passions, David Buss, acclaimed author of The Evolution of Desire, reveals that both men and women are actually designed for jealousy. Drawing on experiments, surveys, and interviews conducted in thirty-seven countries on six continents, as well as insights from recent discoveries in biology, anthropology, and psychology, Buss discovers that the evolutionary origins of our sexual desires still shape our passions today.

According to Buss, more men than women want to have sex with multiple partners. Furthermore, women who cheat on their husbands do so when they are most likely to conceive, but have sex with their spouses when they are least likely to conceive. These findings show that evolutionary tendencies to acquire better genes through different partners still lurk beneath modern sexual behavior. To counteract these desires to stray — and to strengthen the bonds between partners — jealousy evolved as an early detection system of infidelity in the ancient and mysterious ritual of mating.

Buss takes us on a fascinating journey through many cultures, from pre-historic to the present, to show the profound evolutionary effect jealousy has had on all of us. Only with a healthy balance of jealousy and trust can we be certain of a mate’s commitment, devotion, and true love.


Jealousy is not only inbred in human nature, but it is the most basic, all-pervasive emotion which touches man in all aspects of every human relationship. 

— Boris Sokoloff, 1947, Jealousy: A Psychological Study

Every human alive is an evolutionary success story. If any of our ancestors had failed to survive an ice age, a drought, a predator, or a plague, they would not be our ancestors. If any had failed to cooperate with at least some others in the group or dropped below a minimal position in the social hierarchy, they would have met certain death by being cast out from the group. If even one had failed to succeed in choosing, courting, and keeping a mate, the previously inviolate chain of descent would have irreparably broken, and we would not be alive to tell the tale. Each of us owes our existence to thousands of generations of successful ancestors. As their descendants, we have inherited the passions that led to their success — passions that drive us, often blindly, through a lifelong journey in the struggle for survival, the pursuit of position, and the search for relationships. 

We usually think of passion as restricted to sex or love, the burning embrace or constant craving. But it has a broader meaning, referring to the drives and emotional fires that propel us in our quests through life. They sometimes glow quietly, but at other times they burst into full flame. They range from tranquil devotion to violent eruption. Their expression yields life’s deepest joys, but also the cruelest suffering. And although we commonly think of passion as a force opposed to reason and rationality, something to be tamed or overcome, passions when properly understood have a crystalline logic, precise purpose, and supreme sensibility.

The drives that stir us out of bed at dawn and hurl us headlong into our daily struggles have two sides. On the positive side, passions inspire us to achieve life’s goals. They impel us to satisfy our desire for sex, our yearning for prestige, and our quest for love. The dazzling plays of Shakespeare, the mezmerizing art of Georgia O’Keeffe, and the brilliant inventions of Thomas Edison would not exist if passion had not stirred them from repose and impelled creation. Without passion, we would lie listless in bed, for there would be no motivation to do anything at all.

But passions carry a darker, more sinister side. The same passions that inspire us with love can lead to the disastrous choice of a mate, the desperation of unrequited obsession, or the terror of stalking. Jealousy can keep a couple committed or drive a man to savagely beat his wife. An attraction to a neighbor’s spouse can generate intoxicating sexual euphoria while destroying two marriages. The yearning for prestige can produce exhilarating peaks of power while evoking the corrosive envy of a rival and a fall from a greater height. The Dangerous Passion explores both the destructive and triumphant sides of human desires.

Together with many colleagues, my research over the past decade has centered on exploring the nature, origins, and consequences of the passions of men and women, with a special focus on jealousy, infidelity, love, sex, and status. Our goal has been to seek a deeper understanding of what makes men and women tick, the desires that drive people to heights of success or depths of despair, and the evolved mechanisms of mind that define who we are. This book illuminates the dark side of sexual treachery, the mysterious puzzle of romantic love, and the central role of jealousy in our intimate relationships.

Some argue that these mysteries should be left alone, pristine and untrammeled, shielded from the harsh glare of scientific scrutiny. But is the woman who has her freedom and sense of safety crushed by a jealous husband better off unequipped with the knowledge of how to prevent her torment? Is the man obsessed by unrequited love better off failing to understand the underlying reasons for his rejection? Ignorance may sometimes be bliss, but it can also cause needless anguish. My hope is that revealing the underlying logic of dangerous passions will be intellectually illuminating, provide one path for understanding the distress we experience at the hands of our lovers and rivals, and just possibly improve in some small measure the tools for coping with the untamed demons in our lives.

At the center of The Dangerous Passion is an exploration of a hazardous region of human sexuality — the desires people experience for those who are not their regular partners and the jealous shield designed to combat its treacherous consequences.

The Green-Eyed Monster

Think of a committed romantic relationship that you have now, or that you had in the past. Now imagine that your romantic partner becomes interested in someone else. What would upset or distress you more: (a) discovering that your partner is forming a deep emotional attachment, confiding and sharing confidences with another? or (b) discovering that your partner is enjoying passionate sex with the other person, trying out different sexual positions you had only dreamed about? Both scenarios are distressing, of course, but which one is more distressing? If you are like the majority of women we surveyed recently in the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Korea, and Zimbabwe, you will find the emotional infidelity more upsetting. The answer seems obvious, at least to women. The majority of men, however, find the prospect of a partner’s sexual infidelity more agonizing. The gulf between the sexes in emotional reactions to infidelity reveals something profound about human mating strategies.

The explanation for sex differences in jealousy lies deep in the evolutionary past of the human species. Consider first a fundamental sex difference in our reproductive biology: fertilization takes place inside women’s bodies, not men’s. Now, internal female fertilization is not universal in the biological world. In some species, such as the Mormon crickets, fertilization occurs internally within the male. The female takes her egg and literally implants it within the male, who then incubates it until birth. In other species, fertilization occurs externally to both sexes. The female salmon, for example, drops her collection of eggs after swimming upstream. The male follows and deposits his sperm on top, and then they die, having fulfilled the only mission in life that evolution gave them. But humans are not like salmon. Nor are we like Mormon crickets. In all 4,000 species of mammals, of which we are one, and in all 257 species of primates, of which we are also one, fertilization occurs internally within the female, not the male. This posed a grave problem for ancestral men — the problem of uncertainty in paternity.

From an ancestral man’s perspective, the single most damaging form of infidelity his partner could commit, in the currency of reproduction, would have been a sexual infidelity. A woman’s sexual infidelity jeopardizes a man’s confidence that he is the genetic father of her children. A cuckolded man risks investing years, or even decades, in another man’s children. Lost would be all the effort he expended in selecting and attracting his partner. Moreover, he would lose his partner’s labors, now channeled to a rival’s children rather than his own.

Women, on the other hand, have always been 100 percent sure that they are the mothers of their children (internal fertilization guarantees that their children are genetically their own). No woman ever gave birth and, watching the child emerge from her womb, wondered whether the child was really hers. One African culture captures this sex difference with a phrase more telling than any technical summary: “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe.” Biology has granted women a confidence in genetic parenthood that no man can share with absolute certainty.

Our ancestral mothers confronted a different problem, the loss of a partner’s commitment to a rival woman and her children. Because emotional involvement is the most reliable signal of this disastrous loss, women key in on cues to a partner’s feelings for other women. A husband’s one-night sexual stand is agonizing, of course, but most women want to know: “Do you love her?” Most women find a singular lapse in fidelity without emotional involvement easier to forgive than the nightmare of another woman capturing her partner’s tenderness, time, and affection. We evolved from ancestral mothers whose jealousy erupted at signals of the loss of love, mothers who acted to ensure the man’s commitment.

But who cares who fathers a child or where a man’s commitments get channeled? Shouldn’t we love all children equally? Perhaps in some utopian future, we might, but that is not how the human mind is designed. Husbands in our evolutionary past who failed to care whether a wife succumbed to sex with other men and wives who remained stoic when confronted with their husband’s emotional infidelity may be admirable in a certain light. Perhaps these self-possessed men and women were more mature. Some theories, in fact, propose that jealousy is an immature emotion, a sign of insecurity, neurosis, or flawed character. Nonjealous men and women, however, are not our ancestors, having been left in the evolutionary dust by rivals with different passionate sensibilities. We all come from a long lineage of ancestors who possessed the dangerous passion.

Jealousy, according to this theory, is an adaptation. An adaptation, in the parlance of evolutionary psychology, is an evolved solution to a recurrent problem of survival or reproduction. Humans, for example, have evolved food preferences for sugar, fat, and protein that are adaptive solutions to the survival problem of food selection. We have evolved specialized fears of snakes, spiders, and strangers that are adaptive solutions to ancestral problems inflicted by dangerous species, including ourselves. We have evolved specialized preferences for certain qualities in potential mates, which helped to solve the problems posed by reproduction. Adaptations, in short, exist in modern humans today because they helped our ancestors to combat all of the many “hostile forces of nature,” enabling them to successfully survive and reproduce. Adaptations are coping devices passed down over millennia because they worked — not perfectly, of course, but they helped ancestral humans to struggle through the evolutionary bottlenecks of survival and reproduction.

Jealousy, according to this perspective, is not a sign of immaturity, but rather a supremely important passion that helped our ancestors, and most likely continues to help us today, to cope with a host of real reproductive threats. Jealousy, for example, motivates us to ward off rivals with verbal threats and cold primate stares. It drives us to keep partners from straying with tactics such as escalating vigilance or showering a partner with affection. And it communicates commitment to a partner who may be wavering, serving an important purpose in the maintenance of love. Sexual jealousy is often a successful, although sometimes explosive, solution to persistent predicaments that each one of our ancestors was forced to confront.

We are typically not conscious of these reproductive quandaries. Nor are we usually aware of the evolutionary logic that led to this dangerous passion. A man does not think, “Oh, if my wife has sex with someone else, then my certainty that I’m the genetic father will be jeopardized, and this will endanger the replication of my genes; I’m really mad.” Or if his partner takes birth-control pills, “Well, because Joan is taking the pill, it doesn’t really matter whether she has sex with other men; after all, my certainty in paternity is secure.” Nor does a woman think, “It’s really upsetting that Dennis is in love with that other woman; this jeopardizes my hold on his emotional commitments to me and my children, and hence hurts my reproductive success.” Instead, jealousy is a blind passion, just as our hunger for sweets and craving for companionship are blind. Jealousy is emotional wisdom, not consciously articulated, passed down to us over millions of years by our successful forebears. One goal of The Dangerous Passion is to bring to the surface the deep roots of the inherited emotional wisdom we possess.

The Othello Syndrome

Despite its value for people past and present, jealousy is an emotion that exposes partners to extreme danger. The dark side of jealousy causes men to explode violently to reduce the odds that their partners will stray. Women seeking refuge at shelters for battered women almost invariably report that their husbands seethe with jealousy. In one study of battered women, many of whom required medical attention, the typical woman reported that her husband “tries to limit my contact with friends and family” (the tactic of concealment), “insists on knowing where I am at all times” (the tactic of vigilance), and “calls me names to put me down and make me feel bad about myself” (the tactic of undermining self-esteem). Jealousy is the leading cause of spousal battering, but it’s even worse than that. Men’s jealousy puts women at risk of being killed.

Consider the following remarks made to police by a 31-year-old man who stabbed his 20-year-old wife to death, after they had been reunited following a six-month separation.


Then she said that since she came back in April she had fucked this other man about ten times. I told her how can you talk about love and marriage and you been fucking this other man. I was really mad. I went to the kitchen and got the knife. I went back to our room and asked: Were you serious when you told me that? She said yes. We fought on the bed, I was stabbing her. Her grand-father came up and tried to take the knife out of my hand. I told him to go and call the cops for me. I don’t know why I killed the woman, I loved her. 


Jealousy can be emotional acid that corrodes marriages, undermines self-esteem, triggers battering, and leads to the ultimate crime of murder. Despite its dangerous manifestations, jealousy helped to solve a critical reproductive quandary for ancestral men. Jealous men were more likely to preserve their valuable commitments for their own children rather than squandering them on the children of their rivals. As descendants of a long line of men who acted to ensure their paternity, modern men carry with them the dangerous passion that led to their forebears’ reproductive success. 

A professional couple therapist I know related to me the following story. A young couple, Joan and Richard, came to her with a complaint of irrational jealousy. Without provocation, Richard would burst into jealous tirades and accuse Joan of sleeping with another man. His uncontrollable jealousy was destroying their marriage. Richard and Joan both agreed on this point. Could the therapist help cure Richard of irrational jealousy? A common practice in couple therapy is to have at least one session with each member of the couple individually. The first question the therapist posed to Joan during this individual interview was: Are you having an affair? She burst into tears and confessed that, indeed, she had been carrying on an affair for the past six months. Richard’s jealousy, it turned out, had not been irrational after all. He had been picking up on subtle cues of his wife’s infidelity that triggered his jealousy. Since he trusted Joan and she had assured him of her fidelity, however, he believed that his jealousy had been irrational. In a sense, Richard had failed to listen to his internal emotional whisperings. He came to the wrong conclusion because he overrode his feelings with “rationality.”

This episode gave me the first hint that jealousy represented a form of ancestral wisdom that can have useful as well as destructive consequences. Despite the possible hazards of conducting research on jealousy, its potency convinced me that it could not be ignored by science. In surveys we discovered that nearly all men and women have experienced at least one episode of intense jealousy. Thirty-one percent say that their personal jealousy has sometimes been difficult to control. And among those who admit to being jealous, 38 percent say that their jealousy has led them to want to hurt someone.

Extreme jealousy has been given many names — the Othello syndrome, morbid jealousy, psychotic jealousy, pathological jealousy, conjugal paranoia, and erotic jealousy syndrome. Jealousy, of course, can be pathological. It can destroy previously harmonious relationships, rendering them hellish nightmares of daily existence. Trust slowly built from years of mutual reliance can be torn asunder in a crashing moment. As we will explore in a later chapter, jealousy leads more women to flee in terror to shelters than any other cause. A full 13 percent of all homicides are spousal murders, and jealousy is overwhelmingly the leading cause.

But destruction does not necessarily equal pathology. The pathological aspect of extreme jealousy, according to the mainstream wisdom, is not the jealousy itself. It is the delusion that a loved one has committed an infidelity when none has occurred. The rage itself upon the actual discovery of an infidelity is something people everywhere intuitively understand. In Texas until 1974, a husband who killed a wife and her lover when he caught them in flagrante delicto was not judged a criminal. In fact, the law held that a “reasonable man” would respond to such extreme provocation with acts of violence. Similar laws have been on the books worldwide. Extreme rage upon discovering a wife naked in the arms of another man is something that people everywhere find intuitively comprehensible. Criminal acts that would normally receive harsh prison sentences routinely get reduced when the victim’s infidelity is the extenuating circumstance.

The view of jealousy as pathological ignores a profound fact about an important defense designed to combat a real threat. Jealousy is not always a reaction to an infidelity that has already been discovered. It can be an anticipatory response, a preemptive strike to prevent an infidelity that might occur. Labeling jealousy as pathological simply because a spouse has not yet strayed ignores the fact that jealousy can head off an infidelity that might be lurking on the horizon of a relationship.

Excessive jealousy can be extraordinarily destructive. But moderate jealousy, not an excess or an absence, signals commitment. This book explores both sides of this double-edged defense mechanism.

To understand the power of this extraordinary emotion, we must trace it to its origin, long before capitalism, long before agriculture and cash economies, long before writing and recorded history, and long before humans fanned out and colonized every habitable continent. We must trace its roots to the evolution of one of the most unusual adaptations in primate history, yet one that we take so much for granted that its existence is hardly questioned: the emergence of long-term love.

continued tomorrow….

(C) David M. Buss All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-684-85081-8

Recommended Reading: Pinker’s ‘How the Mind Works’

Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works is an ambitious attempt to bring recent developments in cognitive science to a non-specialist audience. Philosophers’ quibbles be damned, Pinker reaches right for the brass ring: his title refers to the mind, not just to gray matters like the brain. Pinker means to do for mentality what Stephen Jay Gould does for life or Carl Sagan did for the universe.

He’s got a lot of company. There’s been a stampede lately of would-be “re-discoverers” and “rethinkers” and “explainers” of the mind and consciousness, including John Searle, the Churchlands, John Eccles, Alwyn Scott, David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett, et al. Indeed, this field is becoming so crowded it may well take Pinkeresque cheek to, as the advertisers dream, “cut through the clutter.”

How the Mind Works reads like a more broadly-focused sequel to Pinker’s fast-selling The Language Instinct (1994). That book attempted a synthesis of Chomskian generative linguistics and Darwinian natural selection-a shotgun marriage if there ever was one, since Noam Chomsky is renowned for his evolutionary agnosticism. The new book seems to have been written in a spirit of “mopping up” remaining pockets of resistance to Pinker’s view of the mind as a bunch of specialized processing “organs,” like Chomsky’s language module (add a vision module, a physics module, a sex-getting module etc.) Two other leading proponents of this model, evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, have famously advanced the simile of the mind being like a swiss Army knife: an all-in-one collection of purpose-built, content-rich devices, albeit in the mind’s case designed not by the Swiss, but by natural selection. Writes Pinker:

The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people…The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules’ basic logic is specified by our genetic program.

He develops these ideas into a smooth but selective confection of experimental results, reasonable-sounding argument, and trenchant criticism, leavened frequently with humor and counter-intuitive but demonstrable observations of how the mind “really” works:

When Hamlet says, “What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!” we should direct our awe not at Shakespeare or Mozart or Einstein or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but a four-year old carrying out a request to put a toy on a shelf…I want to convince you that our minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder principle. The mind, like the Apollo spacecraft, is designed to solve many engineering problems, and thus is packed with high-tech systems each contrived to overcome its own obstacles.

The dish goes down surprisingly easily-Pinker makes hundreds of pages of technospeak go by about as quickly as Tom Clancy. Perhaps this is because, like any airport thriller, Pinker’s book has clear villains. These are perpetrators of what Cosmides and Tooby call the “Standard Social Science Model”: those folks (once based in philosophical behaviorism and psychology, with certain elements inherited by current cultural anthropology and literary studies) who insist on believing that the mind is primarily a social construction, entering the world as a blank slate that gets written upon by the environment and by culture.

As Pinker everywhere argues, “learning” as commonly conceived is simply too underpowered a process to explain the complex abilities the mind acquires and performs, all largely beneath our conscious awareness. Hence those “high tech” features our minds possess as “standard equipment;” hence the special scorn Pinker pours on those who continue to press the “folklore” that language, perception, etc. are the fruits of general learning mechanisms. “…the contents of the world are not just there for the knowing,” he asserts, “but have to be grasped with suitable mental machinery.”
High-tech and mechanistic imagery aside, a clear intellectual pedigree can be traced from Pinker to Chomsky to Descartes and the decidedly unmechanistic Plato. Chomsky himself has been more forthcoming in his debt to these earlier thinkers, on occasion allowing himself to be called “neo-Cartesian.”

Indeed, so enamored is Chomsky of his “law and order” view of mental life, he has denied the legitimacy of studying real-life utterances in a “properly” scientific linguistics. Instead, the Chomskian view of language study verges on medieval scholasticism, with colleges of closeted linguists hunched over their manuscripts, musing over rules like how many prepositions can dance on the head of a noun phrase. Actual language, meanwhile, rages on unstudied outside the monastery walls.

Pinker can never quite bring himself to go this far. Sometimes, he comes close:

Systems of [mental] rules are idealizations that abstract away from complicating aspects of reality. They are never visible in pure form, but are no less real for all that…[the idealizations] are masked by the complexity and finiteness of the world and by many layers of noise…Just as friction does not refute Newton, exotic disruptions of the idealized alignment of genetics, physiology, and law do not make “mother” any fuzzier within each of these systems.

That is, in Pinker’s mind the rules are just as real as the reality, though they are abstractions. Of course, what counts as a natural “law” and what counts as distracting “noise” is never so easily resolvable: while it is true that friction doesn’t refute Newtonian notions of gravitation, the “laws” of friction are also handy for keeping airplanes in the air and braking your car. What counts as law and what counts as “noise” therefore depends on context. Unfortunately, in the Chomskian case- Pinker included- these are suspiciously often matters of authority and/or selective attention.

The Dawn of the Chuck

As in The Language Instinct, Pinker has an unfortunate habit of making issues seem resolved that aren’t. As Cosmides and Tooby themselves note, there’s a problem with using “learning” as an explanation:

Advocates of the Standard Social Science Model have believed for nearly a century that they have a solid explanation for how the social world inserts organization into the psychology of the developing individual. They maintain that structure enters from the social (and physical) world by a process of “learning”- individuals “learn” their language, they “learn” their culture, they “learn” to walk, and so on…Of course, as most cognitive scientists know (and all should), “learning”…is not an explanation for anything, but is rather a phenomenon that itself requires explanation.

Cosmides and Tooby use their critique of learning to support their innativist views. However, it also suggests that it is not learning itself that is lacking, but our conception of learning. More to the point, there’s some evidence that Skinnerian stimulus-response, rats-pressing-levers-and-running-mazes-type learning is not the only kind of learning there is, especially in infants and children. This has led some fans of general intelligence to tell the evolutionary psychologists to put away their Swiss Army knives.

From outside academe, the differences between camps of cognitive scientists look positively trifling. Most within the field agree that the mind/brain does not come “out of the box”totally unstructured, a blank slate mostly “filled” by culture. Most agree that this innate structure is mediated to some degree by natural selection. There’s even some broad agreement that cultural factors (language, for instance), if they operate long enough and consistently enough (a few thousand generations, give or take), can also act as selective pressures, helping to reshape both the mind and body of what Jared Diamond has called “the third chimpanzee.”

From within the field, the remaining arguments look bitter. People like Pinker, Cosmides and Tooby, Dan Sperber, Nicholas Humphrey, and Elizabeth Spelke see modules, modules everywhere, each as innate and superbly adapted for their functions as the pancreas or an elephant’s trunk. Meanwhile, “domain-generalists” like Jeffrey Elman, Elizabeth Bates and Anna Karmiloff-Smith turn this reasoning on its head . That is, they don’t deny modularity per se (modules are, after all, a good way to package complex neural structures in the limited volume inside the skull) but maintain that our specialized abilities emerge from our predisposition to attend to certain regularities in the world. What’s innate is not the knowledge, but the capacity to observe the regularities and learn them quickly.

For example, Pinker invites us to marvel at the “software driver” that controls the human hand:

A still more remarkable feat is controlling the hand. . . It is a single tool that manipulates objects of an astonishing range of sizes, shapes, and weights, from a log to a millet seed. . . “A common man marvels at uncommon things; a wise man marvels at the commonplace . ” Keeping Confucius’ dictum in mind, let’s continue to look at commonplace human acts with the fresh eye of a robot designer seeking to duplicate them . . .

Typically, Pinker notes a complex adult capacity and wonders how to “reverse engineer” what natural selection hath wrought. He hardly considers the alternative, however: that the mind/brain is disposed to learn quickly and efficiently how to operate whatever appendage it happens to find at the end of its arm, whether it be a hand, a paw, or a flipper.

Neuroscientists have long known that when neurons fire, they not only can make muscles move and glands secrete, they also reinforce their own tendency to fire the same way in the future. (The principle is called Hebbian learning; its dictum is “Fire together, wire together.”) Conceivably, the act of using the hand reinforces the pattern of synaptic connections that control the thumb, the fingers, etc. The end result in the adult looks so well-designed and appropriate it might seem like an innate “program” for moving the hand was genetically “wired in”-but it wasn’t. We began only with a proper neural connection between hand and motor cortex, and a need to manipulate.

The point is not whether a Hebbian model fully explains motor learning. The point is that “gee whiz” explanations of complex adult abilities don’t necessarily prove full-blown innateness. (Most obviously because nobody starts off as an adult!) Furthermore, in evolutionary terms, the weaker model of predisposition, the “disposed to learn” model, is a more parsimonious explanation than inborn mental modules. This is because, in the case of the hand, it doesn’t require genes to somehow code the “hook grip,” “the five-jaw chuck”, “the two-jaw pad-to-side chuck,” “the scissors grip” etc. etc.. It only obliges our genes to motivate us to learn.

Indeed, exactly how genes might code things like language or “social intelligence” or “natural history intelligence” has never been too clear. DNA, after all, actually regulates nothing more than protein production and other DNA. In this sense, Cosmides and Tooby’s critique of learning might also be leveled at the catch-all notion of innateness. Like learning, innateness “…is not an explanation for anything, but is rather a phenomenon that itself requires explanation.”

Toy Neurons

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of How the Mind Works is watching Pinker wrestle with the problem of connectionism. On the one hand, the fact that experimenters have succeeded in teaching artificial neural nets to do some pretty human-like things, like recognize written letters and put English verbs into the past tense, is a vindication of one of the pillars of his model: the computational theory of mind. On the other hand, the uncanny way neural nets have of learning the regularities of input data without set rules being programmed in is a challenge to Chomsky’s “poverty of the stimulus” arguments for innate knowledge. Some connectionist nets have shown modularity of function, and even human-like cognitive deficits when experimenters simulate “injuries” by removing parts of the system. Importantly, these mind-ish qualities have emerged with learning, and were not introduced pre-formed.

Pinker navigates this quandary by pure elan. After devoting 14 pages to the nature and advantages of “toy neurons” for understanding the mind, and thereby establishing his connectionist credentials, he suddenly takes to calling nets “connectoplasm” (a term clearly meant to evoke that other discredited substance, protoplasm), and asserts “neural networks alone cannot do the job” of accounting for human intelligence:

I do think that connectionism is oversold. Because networks are advertised as soft, parallel, analogical, biological and continuous, they have acquired a cuddly connotation and a diverse fan club. But neural networks don’t perform miracles, only some logical and statistical operations.

Of course, nobody thinks networks or neurons “perform miracles.” As a supporter of the computational theory of mind, Pinker must also believe that the mind/brain itself, at a certain basic level, performs “only some logical and statistical operations.” So what is he talking about?
The real sin of the “strong” version of connectionism- the argument that language, creativity, consciousness itself are all ultimately explicable along connectionist lines- is that it resurrects the associative model of learning. Connectionist nets, after all, learn by doing, and by crudely “associating” certain patterns of inputs and outputs. Following Chomsky, Pinker prefers to imagine a structure of cognitive rules and regulations is doing the real work of mindedness. These rules are not epiphenomenal artifacts of the learning process, or post hoc abstractions from regularities of behavior. Rather, they are ontologically “real.”

To debunk associationism, Pinker makes a list of human-like things that nets can’t do (yet). At least one of these is downright silly: Pinker claims that nets can’t distinguish individual examples of a class of things from each other. Within the connectionist paradigm, “there is no longer a way to tell apart individuals with identical properties. They are represented in one and the same way, and the system is blind to the fact that they are not the same hunk of matter.” People make such distinctions all the time; for instance, identical twins are different people, regardless of how much they look and seem alike: “The spouse of one identical twin feels no romantic attraction toward the other twin. Love locks our feelings in to another person as that person, not as a kind of person, no matter how narrow the kind.”

The fallacy here resides in the assumption that any two examples of any real-world class are really identical with each other. Distinguishing individuals has to do with noticing subtler and subtler kinds of variation. It often takes some time, for instance, for field ethologists to begin to see their subject animals as individuals- at first, they all look the same. To take a more commonplace example, my wife and I own two Himalayan cats that happen to be siblings. Despite the fact that the female is a tortoise-shell point, has a smaller head, and a completely different carriage and personality, houseguests invariably can’t distinguish her from her blue-point, big-headed, lay-about brother. My wife and I have had a longer amount of time to make the appropriate, fine associations.

Despite their genetic identity, not even monozygotic twins are phenotypically or behaviorally identical. Indeed, the one place where such identities do exist is the abstract mathematical world that inspired Chomskian linguistics- it’s a rule, for instance, that a line segment of length X is identical to any other of length X. This is an area where Pinker’s intellectual roots are exposed, and they mislead him. (In the non-mathematical world, incidentally, people do have an uncanny knack for associating certain romantic feelings with the same “types”- the same hair, same build, same foibles. It’s no secret. Maybe Pinker just doesn’t get out much.)

Some of his other objections are more persuasive. It is indeed hard to visualize how nets can handle complex combinatorics, or alter the quantification of elements in a problem when they’re the same-but-different, or process recursively unless specifically constructed to do so. (In such cases the connection weights have a tendency to interfere with each other.) On the other hand, all of these problems have the definite air of claims once made by reputable Victorian physicists who asserted the physical impossibility of heavier than-air flight. Above all, we should know by now that it’s not too smart to bet the farm on something(s) being technically impossible.

Pinker’s treatment of the other key concept in the book-evolution- is equally provocative. He’s clearly very much aware of the principles and objections to the reigning synthesis of Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics. Steering clear of the pan-adaptationism decried by Gould and Richard Lewontin, he rightly observes that not everything about an organism is necessarily adaptive: “A sane person can believe that a complex organ is an adaptation, that is, a product of natural selection, while also believing that features of an organism that are not complex organs are a product of drift or a by-product of some other adaptation”

Gould and Lewontin once wrote of the “Panglossian paradigm”: the tendency among some evolutionary scientists to mistake how things actually happened for the optimal way things could  have happened. Though Pinker disavows it, his work fits the paradigm anyway. For instance, in a discussion of whether the development of intelligent life is inevitable on any life-supporting planet, he compiles a list of the unlikely factors that “made it especially easy and worth their while [for organisms] to evolve better powers of causal reasoning.” First on the list is the primates’ fortunate dependence on the visual sense. Why? Because “Depth perception defines a three-dimensional space filled with movable solid objects…Our capacity for abstract thought has coopted the coordinate system and inventory of objects made available by a well-developed visual system.”
Compare this to other mammals, such a dogs, who rely more on olfactory information:

Rather than living in a three-dimensional coordinate space hung with movable objects, standard mammals [sic] live in a two-dimensional flatland [the ground] which they explore through a zero-dimensional peephole [the nose]…If most mammals think in a cognitive flatland, they would lack the mental models of movable solid objects in 3-D spatial and mechanical relationships that became so essential to our mental life.

Anyone who has seen an earthworm bury itself or a dog sniff his way up the trunk of a tree knows olfactory dependence is not synonymous with living in a “two-dimensional flatland.” Nor does Pinker take note of other 3-D modalities, such as echolocation in bats and cetaceans, which likewise represent a world of “solid objects in 3-D spatial and mechanical relationships.” Faced with such a poverty of imagination with respect to terrestrial creatures, it’s hard to take Pinker’s musings over the unlikelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence very seriously. What about an alien creature living in liquid methane that uses short-wave radar? Or one that lives underground and finds petrocarbon “food” by using seismic “thumps”? What’s wrong with 2-D intelligence anyway? Would a creature able to reason in 4-, 8-, or 1,000- dimensions be justified in denying the significance of our 3-D intelligence? Perhaps we shouldn’t give up on SETI just yet.

Pinker’s discussion falls prey to the Panglossian paradigm because he thinks a sufficient condition for human intelligence is a necessary one for all intelligence-the particular way we evolved, in other words, is established as “optimal” for invading the cognitive niche. He plays Pangloss again elsewhere, in his criticism of idea of “meme evolution.” This is the notion, notably suggested by Richard Dawkins, that ideas, like organisms, might reproduce and evolve in the “habitat” of human brains. Sensing an opening for the cultural constructivists, Pinker tries to slam the door by asserting “When ideas are passed around, they aren’t merely copied with occasional typographical errors; they are evaluated, discussed, improved on, or rejected. Indeed, a mind that passively accepted ambient memes would be a sitting duck for exploitation by others and would have quickly been selected against.”

Try telling that to a Scientologist. Unlike in Pinker’s cognitive symposium, real people are actually very good at “passively accepting ambient memes.” It might even be adaptive to do so: Pinker himself suggests the survival benefit of not standing out, of hanging with the herd. In fact, Pinker is telling a variation on a “just so” story here, using an argument for adaptation to justify a point he asserts to be true. This is precisely what Gould and Lewontin warned against when they observed how, wrongly applied, tales of adaptation could be concocted to justify virtually any position. They note “…Since the range of adaptive stories is as wide as our minds are fertile, new stories can always be postulated.” Though Pinker professes an understanding of non-adaptationist factors in evolution, his work clearly falls into that category where, as Gould and Lewontin lament, “Constraints upon the pervasive power of natural selection are recognized…But…are usually dismissed as unimportant or else, more frustratingly, simply acknowledged and then not taken to heart and invoked.”

All of these problems might be traced to the consequences of Pinker’s primary methodology. This is the idea that we can figure out the mind/brain by “reverse engineering” it:

…psychology is engineering in reverse. Reverse engineering is what the boffins at Sony do when a new product is announced by Panasonic, or vice versa. They buy one, bring it back to the lab, take a screwdriver to it, and try to figure out what all the parts are for and how they combine to make the device work.

Up to a point, this seems like a reasonable analogy. Bodies and brains are, after all, kinds of organo-chemical mechanisms, and as Dawkins has notably observed, natural selection is “the blind watchmaker.” Why not pry the back off the timepiece of the mind and take a look?
Trouble is, human engineers and natural selection work in quite different ways. Following C.G. Langton, Daniel Dennett explains in Consciousness Explained:

…human engineers, being farsighted but blinkered, tend to find their designs thwarted by unforeseen side effects and interactions, so they try to guard against them by giving each element in the system a single function, and insulating it from all the other elements. In contrast, Mother Nature…is famously myopic and lacking in goals. Since she doesn’t foresee at all, she has no way of worrying about unforeseen side effects. Not “trying” to avoid them, she tries out designs in which many side effects occur…[and] every now and then there is a serendipitous side effect: two or more unrelated functional systems interact to produce a bonus: multiple functions for single elements.

The difference in how human engineers and the natural one build mechanisms entails more than the obvious fact that organisms self-organize (they grow) and machines get built. It affects every stage of the “design” process. When some capacity evolves in nature (say, flight), Darwinian selection doesn’t start out with a dream and a blank piece of paper- it starts out with an existing, functional organism. If the Wright Brothers had worked this way, they wouldn’t have designed a new machine from scratch. Instead, they would have gradually “retrofitted” some existing vehicle, like a horseless carriage. The resulting “flying flivver” might have taken much longer to realize than a purpose-built flyer; it might have suffered many more failed test flights until it achieved a sustained glide, then powered flight; it might have taken longer to get the heavy weight of the car down and the wingspan just right. In any case, aeronautical history would have been quite different.

All of which goes to show the problem with “reverse engineering” natural mechanisms: you can never be sure a widget was designed for some function, only that it presently serves that function. In the case of the “flying flivver,” it would be useless to wonder how the fenders and the bumper help the car fly better. Those features have to do with the history of structure, not its present function.

Of course, Pinker and every informed adaptationist knows all this. Furthermore, they would argue that certain essential features (like the wings) are so directly necessary in the evolved function that we must invoke adaptation. All true enough. But this is not the same as saying the human mind is “like the Apollo spacecraft…packed with high tech systems, each contrived to overcome its own obstacles.” As Langton argues, each system may well overcome several obstacles, and it pays not to be too categorical in assigning roles to each widget. If I were asked whether the brain is more like the Apollo spacecraft or a more like a petunia, I’d have to confess I’m not sure.

The Nature of Nature

Pinker is a master rhetorician. When he is on firm ground, he’s a superbly articulate popularizer. When he isn’t, he spins beautifully, exploits what he can, and knows when to beat a tactical retreat. His wit can disarm criticism.

All of which makes it surprising when his sense of humor deserts him and he reverts to dull partisanship. The ceaseless drumbeat of distortion and belittlement of social scientists is one such puzzling element of his book. These people, we learn, are too dense to understand the problem with Lamarckianism; they’re wrong, wrong, wrong about associationism; they insist on believing in “folklore” about the mind because they’re either bent on “feel good” politics or distracted by moral straw-men like genetic determinism.

If cultural anthropologists agree on any human universal, it is the tendency of all cultures to justify their own cultural constructions by “naturalizing” them. As Cosmides and Tooby argue and Pinker agrees, this has led many anthropologists either to deny any “human nature” exists, or to declare the search for universals as unavoidably an exercise in Western ethnocentrism.

Yet human beings did have an origin, and do have some sort of nature. Dread or misunderstanding of these facts have too often resulted in an incurious particularism that prefers to celebrate, not to explain, difference. If anthropology is traditionally a boat powered by two oars-the study of difference and the study of commonality amongst peoples-then the modern discipline has an empty oarlock and is rowing in circles.

But none of this is to say that “naturalization” doesn’t happen, especially among thinkers who profess totalizing theories. When Pinker is spinning his synthesis with respect to stereoscopic vision and incest avoidance, he talks a good game. But when we are expected to believe that, for instance, most peoples’ taste in landscapes is a feature of Cosmides and Tooby’s Swiss Army Knife, he strays into the full-blown ridiculous. He argues, for instance, that we exhibit a “default habitat preference” for savannas-according to certain cross-cultural surveys, everybody likes “semi-open space…even ground cover, views to the horizon, large trees, changes in elevation, and multiple paths leading out…” Though the very idea that we evolved in savannas is fiercely debated, Pinker conclusively declares “No one likes the deserts and the rainforests.” (Color me weird, then.) Nor does Pinker shy from drawing the logical aesthetic conclusions from this bit of human standard equipment-“…we are designed to be dissatisfied by bleak, featureless scenes and attracted to colorful, patterned ones.” There, I knew there was a reason I prefer Henri Rousseau to Georgia O’Keefe.
This is naturalizing. Based on such arguments, and observations of the range of human variation, anthropologists et al. may still have quite defensible reservations about importing whole disciplinary paradigms like that of cognitive science into anthropology, history, linguistics, etc. As Pinker himself suggests, it is quite reasonable for people- and that does include social scientists- not to “passively accept ambient memes.”


How the Mind Works,  Stephen Pinker, W.W. Norton, 565 pages
This review by Nick Nicastro

Morality & Neuroscience

An Ravelingien reports on the conference ‘Double standards. Towards an integration of evolutionary and neurological perspectives on human morality.’ (Ghent University, 21-22 Oct. 2006)

In Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy tells the story of Tom More, the inventor of the extraordinary ‘ontological lapsometer’1. The lapsometer is a diagnostic tool, a ‘stethoscope of the human soul’.  Just as a stethoscope or an EEG can trace certain physical dysfunctions, the lapsometer can measure the frailties of the human mind. The device can measure ‘how deep the soul has fallen’ and allows for early diagnoses of potential suicides, paranoia, depression, or other mood disorders. Bioethicist Carl Elliott refers to this novel to illustrate a well-known debate within psychiatry2. According to Elliott, the image of the physician that uses the lapsometer to unravel the mysteries of the soul is a comically desperate attempt to objectify experiences that cannot accommodate such scientific analysis. His objection carries back to the conflict between a sociological perspective – that would stress the subjective experiences related to the cultural and social context of human psychology – and a biological perspective – that would rather determine the physiological causes of mental and mood dysfunction. It is very likely that debate about the subjective and indefinite nature of some experiences will climax when empirical science is applied to trace and explain the biology of our moral sentiments and convictions. For most of us, I presume, nothing would appear to be more inextricably a part of our personal experience and merit than our moral competence. The conference ‘Double Standards’ questioned this intuition and demonstrated that the concept of ‘morality’ is becoming more and more tangible.

Jan Verplaetse and Johan Braeckman, the organizers of the conference, gathered 13 reputable experts and more than 150 participants to ponder one of the oldest and most fundamental philosophical questions: how did morality come into existence? For this, they drew upon two different scientific approaches: evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. In theory, these disciplines are complementary.  Neuroscientists assume that morality is generated by specific neural mechanisms and structures, which they hope to find by way of sophisticated brain imaging techniques. Evolutionary scientists, by contrast, want to figure out what the adaptive value of morality is for it to have evolved. According tot hem, morality is – just as all aspects of our human nature – a product of evolution through selection. Moral and social behavior must have had a selective advantage, from which the relevant cognitive and emotional functions developed. Through an interdisciplinary approach, the alleged functions can direct the neuroscientist in searching for the neurological structures that underlie them. Or, the other way around, the imaging of certain neural circuits should help to discover whether and to what extent our moral intuitions are indeed embedded in our ‘nature.’ During the conference, this double perspective gave rise to several interesting hypotheses.

It appears that neuroscientists have already achieved remarkably uniform results regarding the crucial brain areas that are involved in fulfilling moral tasks. Jorge Moll was the first to use functional MRI-studies to show that three major areas are engaged in moral decision making: the frontal lobes, temporal lobe and limbic-paralimbic areas. Other speakers at the conference confirmed this overlapping pattern of neural activity, regardless of differences in the ways in which moral stimuli were presented, and regardless of the specific content of the moral tasks (whether the tasks consisted of complex dilemma’s, simple scenario’s with an emotional undertone, or references to violence and bodily harm). Since these findings, several researchers have started looking for the biological basis of more specific moral intuitions. Jean Decety, for instance, has found the neural correlates that play a role in the cognitive modulation of empathy. fMRI-studies are also being used to compare ‘normal’ individuals with people who show deviant (and in particular criminal/immoral) behavior and to thereby derive new explanations of such a-typical behavior. As such, James Blair suggested that individuals with psychopathy have problems with learned emotional responses to negative stimuli.  According to him, the common neural circuit activated in moral decision making is in a more general sense involved in a rudimentary form of stimulus reinforcement learning. At least one form of morality is developed by such reinforcement learning: what Blair calls care-based morality. Contrary to psychopathic individuals, even very young children realize that there is an important difference between for instance the care-based norm ‘do not hit another child’ and the convention-based norm ‘do not talk during class’. In absence of a clear rule, ‘normal’ individuals will be more easily inclined to transgress social conventions than care-based norms. The reason for this, he proposed, is that transgression of care-based norms confronts us with the suffering of our victim(s). The observation of others in pain, sadness, anger, … immediately evokes a negative response, an aversion, in the self, from which we learn to avoid situations with similar stimuli. Blair offered brain images of psychopathic individuals that showed evidence of reduced brain activity in those parts of the brain that are involved in stimulus reinforcement (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala). Adrian Raine gave an entirely different perspective on ‘immoral behavior,’ in suggesting that certain deviances in the prefrontal cortex point to a predisposition towards antisocial behavior. According to Raine, immoral behavior need not be a dysfunction of normal neural circuits; evolution may just as well have shaped the brain to have a predisposition for immoral rather than moral behavior. Antisocial behavior may have a selective advantage: it can be a very effective means of taking others’ resources. As such, the expression of sham emotions (such as faked shame or remorse) can be interpreted as a strategy to mislead others in thinking that they have corrected their behavior. Raine finds support for his hypothesis in indications of a strong genetic basis for antisocial behavior. He also offered brain imaging results that show an 11% reduction in prefrontal grey matter in antisocial individuals and reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex of affective murderers.

Will we one day be able to evaluate ‘how deep someone’s morality has fallen’? Will there be a ‘stethoscope of morality,’ that can measure the weaknesses of our moral judgments and behaviors? If so, will we able to cure immoral behavior? Or, conversely, will we be able to augment the brain processes that are involved in our moral competence? Perhaps most importantly, what do we do with the notion of moral responsibility when there is evidence of predispositions towards antisocial behavior?  Although there is still a long way to go in understanding the neurobiology of human morality, this conference was an important step in introducing some moral dilemma’s that may confront us as the field of research progresses. More information on

1. Percy W (1971), Love in the Ruins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

2. Elliott C (1999), Bioethics, Culture and Identity. A Philosophical Disease, Routledge, London.


An Ravelingien Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and an assistant researcher in bioethics at the Department of Philosophy, Ghent University.

Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion

Book Review: Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion, edited by Richard D.  Lane, M.D., Ph.D., and Lynn Nadel, Ph.D. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000, 431 pp., $60.00; $35.00 (paper).

Evidence linking specific psychological faculties to localized brain areas has been available for only 150 years, yet distinctions among the features of mental life have been made for thousands of years. Aristotle, for example, divided brain function into cognitive, emotive, and willful processes. This ancient distinction between cognition and emotion is reflected in the structure of the various DSMs of APA, which begin with a section on the disorders of cognition and distinguish them from disorders of mood, and in most training programs, where psychiatrists receive little training in the disorders of cognition and neurologists receive little or no training in the disorders of emotion.

The utility of the distinction between cognition and emotion and questions about its grounding in the brain’s neural substrate are explored in Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion.  This volume is the product of a meeting held at the University of Arizona and is to be commended for presenting a variety of viewpoints on this fascinating question.

Is an alternative view viable? Does research support the view that the distinction between emotion and cognition is artificial? The book addresses these questions by beginning with overviews by Damasio and by Clore and Ortony. They review studies in which techniques used by cognitive scientists have been applied to the study of emotion. Damasio concludes that emotions and feelings should be distinguished and that the failure to make this distinction lies behind the paucity of studies in the brain basis of emotion. The evidence that he offers to support his view is weak, but he does demonstrate the value of studying both emotion and cognition with the same neuropsychological and imaging methods.  The distinction between emotion as an externally observable state and feelings as an internal experiential state could be validated if distinct physiological substrates were found for the two. Even if the distinction cannot be supported, it may serve a utilitarian purpose because physiological responses are easier to study. At this point in history, claims that the internal experience of feelings (or emotions) will yield to the methods of neuroscience are similar to the claim that the neural basis of consciousness will be discovered—promises rather than results.  Nevertheless, data-based approaches to these issues are the only way to move beyond the realm of rhetoric. 

The second section of this book reviews the potential role of the amygdala in the genesis, persistence, and interpretation of emotion. The demonstration that emotional expression is associated with a locus or loci does not prove that the distinction between cognition and emotion is artificial, but these chapters review a wide range of experiments whose results suggest that processes traditionally called “cognitive” are operative in animal behaviors that appear to reflect human emotion.  The third section reviews human research more directly.  Lesion studies and skin conductance studies support the contention that the amygdala is involved in human emotion, but they also demonstrate the involvement of other brain regions.  The hypothesis that the complex mental phenomena we refer to as emotion involve multiple structures, pathways, and molecular mechanisms is supported by much more data than the hypothesis that there is a single “emotion center.” The last section of the book examines the effects of brain lesions on emotional function. Again, there is abundant evidence linking emotional activation to multiple neural pathways.  This line of work does not directly address whether cognition and emotion are distinct or entwined brain capacities, but it does provide a set of methods by which neural mechanisms can be dissected.
Although the central question of the book is yet to be answered, this volume demonstrates clearly that the emotion/ cognition interface is an important area of study and that progress is being made along many fronts. The ultimate answer may well be that both views of the emotion/cognition dichotomy are true: these states share some circuitry and molecular mechanisms but also involve distinct loci and mechanisms. A much better understanding of the neural substrates of both emotion and cognition will undoubtedly develop, but new conceptual models of CNS organization and function may be needed before a comprehensive understanding emerges.  Readers interested in the even more radical view that our current conception of the term “emotion” needs to be rethought and perhaps even discarded will enjoy Paul Griffiths book, What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories (1).

1. Griffiths PE: What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997

Baltimore, Md.

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Charisma, Crowds, Psychology

I came across the following article related to some anthropological work that Charles Lindholm has been involved in, and reading it I found it quite useful (with some reservations) in understanding some eastern cultures – especially those of the Indian Subcontinent.  It is a long article that will require a a number of sittings to read and comprehend. If you don’t have the time, atleast try to understand the conclusions.

What does it mean to be ‘in one’s right mind’? Ordinary discourse and the technical languages of the social sciences assume that being in one’s right mind essentially means that one has the ability to calculate how to attain valued ends while avoiding injury and opprobrium (See Note 1). The calculating rationality which utilizes appropriate means to achieve desired ends is thought to be known and recognized both by rational subjects themselves and by equally rational observers; irrationality, then, is an incapacity to calculate, and is revealed in a lack of congruence between acts and goals.

Anthropologists, as professional iconoclasts, have often attempted to demonstrate that assumptions about ‘normal’ consciousness vary according to cultural context; what is madness here is sanity there, and vice versa. This approach is especially characteristic of interpretive anthropologists who wish to avoid imposing preconceived Western notions of rationality on what Clifford Geertz calls ‘local knowledge’.

However, although the range of goals and methods for achieving them has been greatly expanded by an awareness of cultural context, the interpretive approach does not really offer any significant challenge to the model of rationality outlined above, but rather remains grounded in standard utilitarian assumptions of rational individual actors calculating means to achieve valued ends. In this paper, I argue that a truly radical challenge to the notion of rationality already exists within the canon of Western social thought in the works of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, as well as in the now forgotten writings of crowd psychologists Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde.

In the next few pages, I will outline these oppositional and radically non-calculative aspects of social theory, contrast them with the work of some influential modern scholars, and, by means of a discussion of typical recruitment mechanisms found in some ‘New Age’ movements, suggest a few ways these classic perspectives might help us to rethink our notions of person, agent, and sanity.

Max Weber and the Irrational

It is appropriate to begin with Max Weber, who is the predominant figure in the pantheon of modern American sociology and anthropology. For Weber and his orthodox followers sociology and anthropology were defined as the effort to reveal sympathetically yet systematically the significance of social action through exposing the cultural values and norms that motivate persons. This is the famous method of verstehen, or, in Geertzian terms, ‘taking the native’s point of view’, and is the foundation of interpretive anthropology. From this perspective, the interpreter reaches ‘understanding’ by realizing the meanings the local actor attaches to his or her actions in pursuit of culturally valued goals. In other words, Weberian and Geertzian actors are reasonable, although their reasons may not be immediately transparent to an uninitiated observer due to cultural and historical differences in value-systems and in the modes of rationality developed as a consequence of these differences.

We can see then that Weberian sociology and its modern interpretive descendants are approaches to social science that fit in well with the model of ‘standard’ consciousness I outlined above: human beings are assumed to be rational agents acting consciously and intelligently to maximize their valued goals; their thought is recognizable as reasonable by the thinker as well as by the culturally knowledgeable observer; furthermore, rationality is highly valued within its particular cultural setting, since only rational action can lead to attainment of culturally desirable ends. The contribution of interpretive social science, in the Weberian and Geertzian sense, is thus to reveal the rationality of apparent irrationality through supplying “the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby… a causal explanation of its course and consequences” (Weber 1978: 4).

For Weber, this approach, in which the point of view of the other is taken in order to display the underlying intent and purpose of social action for that other is the sole mode of inquiry proper to the social sciences. According to Weber, such a limitation of the possibilities of sociology is necessary because sociologists (and, by extension, anthropologists) are products and purveyors of rational analytic thought and can only practise their craft in this mode. Even more crucial, however, is Weber’s fundamental contention that any action orientation in which the actors’ motives and goals are not self-consciously determined is outside the realm of meaning, therefore unintelligible, and as such must be excluded from the central interpretive task of social theory.

But although Weber specifically excludes all irrational, unconscious, and purely reactive activity from the realm of theory and accordingly devotes himself to explicating the types of rationality that ‘make sense’ of other cultures and historical epochs, he himself was well aware that a great deal of human life – indeed, most of human life – is not experienced by self-conscious agents acting for achieving valued goals within coherent ‘webs of meaning’. Weber therefore breaks action orientations down into four ideal types. Two of these types – value rationality and instrumental rationality – are different forms of calculating consciousness based upon the rationality of the actor (See Note 3), and in most of his major writing Weber elaborates their distinctions and evolution. The other two types of action orientation, however, are deemed by Weber to be without any purpose or meaning whatsoever, and thereby to stand outside the range of social theory. These types are tradition and charisma (See Note 4).

Tradition is defined by Weber as “on the other side” of the borderline between meaningful and irrational action (Weber 1978: 25), since for him tradition ideally implies an automatic and unthinking repetition by the actor enmeshed within the confines of a mindless swarm; it is a state of torpor, lethargy and inertia, predictable and mechanical, reproducing itself in utter indifference and submerging the creative individualities of all persons caught within its coils (See Note 5). Here, Weber gives us a picture of mundane life governed by routine; a world of the passive crowd in which rational self-consciousness and goal-orientation has no part to play.

Yet, although tradition is sociologically unanalyzable in principle, Weber nonetheless notes that action motivated by habit and thoughtless conformity is hardly unusual. Instead, he writes that “in the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning” (Weber 1978: 21) and that the “bulk of all everyday action” is motivated by “an almost automatic reaction to habitual stimuli” (Weber 1978: 25). Weber freely acknowledges such “merely reactive imitation may well have a degree of sociological importance at least equal to that of the type which can be called social action in the strict sense” (Weber 1978: 24).

Of even greater importance is charisma, which stands in absolute contrast to tradition. In its simplest form, charisma is defined by Weber as “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” (Weber 1978: 242). Individuals possessing charisma are portrayed by Weber as above all else emotional and vitalizing, in complete opposition both to the ennervating authority of the patriarch and the rational efficiency of the technician-bureaucrat. Instead, whatever the charismatic leader says is right not because it makes sense, or because it coincides with what has always been done, but because the leader says it. Orders can therefore be completely whimsical, self-contradictory and even lead to death or destruction for the follower, demonstrating the disciple’s inner emotional compulsion to obey without regard for coherence or consequence.

The extraordinary figures who inspire such unreasoning devotion are imagined by Weber to be, in their typical form, berserk warriors, pirates and demagogues. They reveal their capacities through a highly intensified and emotionally labile state of consciousness that excites and awes the onlookers, and jolts them from the everyday (See Note 6). The primary type, from which the others spring, is the epileptoid magician-shaman who can incorporate the Gods and display divine powers primarily through convulsions, trembling and intense effusions of excitement (Weber 1972: 327, 1978: 401) (See Note 7). Through his capacity for epileptoid states, the shaman served both as an exemplar of ecstasy and as the leader in the rituals of communal intoxication and orgy Weber took as the original sacred experience (Weber 1978: 401, 539).

Why should such manifestations of apparent abnormality appeal to an audience? It is not intuitively obvious that a display of epileptoid behavior would be attractive to anyone; in our society quite the contrary is the case. But Weber postulated that extreme emotional states, such as those generated in seizures and other forms of emotionally heightened altered states of consciousness, had a contagious effect, spreading through the audience and infecting its members with corresponding sensations of enhanced emotionality and vitality; these expansive sensation are felt to be emanating from the stimulating individual, who is then attributed with superhuman powers. The charismatic appeal therefore lies precisely in the capacity of a person to display heightened emotionality and in the reciprocal capacity of the audience to imitation and corresponding sensations of altered awareness.

Thus for Weber, what is essential and compulsive in the charismatic relation is not its meaning, though explanatory meaning systems will certainly be generated after the fact (See Note 9). Rather, it is the participatory communion engendered by the epileptoid performance of the charismatic which experientially and immediately releases the onlookers from their mundane sufferings. “For the devout the sacred value, first and above all, has been a psychological state in the here and now. Primarily this state consists in the emotional attitude per se;” an attitude in which the following could momentarily escape from themselves by dissolving in “the objectless acosmism of love” (Weber 1972: 278, 330 emphasis in original). For Weber, such prophets provided the creative force in history; only through their inspiration could enough energy and commitment be generated to overturn an old social order. They are the heroes and saints who, he feared, could no longer be born in the rationalized world of modern society (See Note 11).

To recapitulate, we have then in Weber two forms of altered or dissociated states of consciousness that, from his point of view, are not amenable to sociological analysis since they stand outside rational goal-orientation, yet are nonetheless of crucial importance in history and culture. In fact, the question of what these states are altered or dissociated from becomes a difficult question to answer, since Weber sees the predominance of the rational ‘standard’ consciousness to be a relatively recent development. Perhaps, instead, it is more appropriate to say that rationality itself, especially in its modern instrumental version, is an altered state, vis-a-vis its powerful predecessors of tradition and charisma.

The Rationalization of Irrationality

But these opposites also continually transform one into the other in a continuous dialectic, and they move as well through history toward their own supercession by more rational modes of thought. Charisma occurs, Weber says, when tradition has lost its hold and people no longer feel compelled to repeat the old patterns, obey the old orders. Charismatic revolutions themselves are destined to be short-lived, and necessarily have a new tradition nascent within them; ritualization and bureacratization inevitably appear as the prophet’s original vitalizing revelation is repeated and institutionalized by his self-interested followers, who wish to cloak themselves with the sacred transformative quality originally imputed to the personal aura of the leader himself. This type of charisma supports the new traditions born of the original prophesy; but now the crown, the throne, the robe, instead of being the accoutrements of the ecstatic prophet, may legitimize a moribund time server. Charisma in this instance becomes co-terminus with tradition, justifying and validating the habitual obedience of the masses (See Note 12). From this perspective, tradition too changes in character, losing its irrational somnambulistic component to become a coherent framework within which free agents actively and rationally pursue the given values and goals elaborated by the prophet and his minions. In other words, both charisma and tradition become rationalized as they transform from their ideal-typical state.

Weber’s conceptualization of this process has had great influence upon his American followers. But where Weber placed the primary forms of charisma and tradition outside the boundaries of social thought, while still giving them credit as the precursors of rationality, his successors have tried to make them disappear completely by incorporating them within their systematic meaning-centered theories. Thus the influential sociologist Edward Shils claims that an innate human quest for a coherent and meaningful way of understanding the world is the sacred heart of every viable social formation. Therefore, it follows that “the charismatic propensity is a function of the need for order” (Shils 1965:203) and that charisma is felt automatically whenever one draws near the entities and institutions thought to embody and emanate that order. Tradition can then be understood as located precisely within the same order-giving central structures in which charisma inheres; structures that, far from being irrational, provide a sacred and coherent model for living a meaningful life. Shil’s paradigm is explicitly followed by Clifford Geertz, who argues for “the inherent sacredness of sovereign power” (1983: 123), and proceeds to analyze the manner in which this supposed sovereign, meaning-giving central power is manifested in various cultural frameworks.

These neo-Weberian perspectives have erased the image of charisma as an irrational emotional convulsion. Instead, all persons in all societies at all times are attempting, with greater or lesser success, to promote and to attain a culturally given sacred central symbolic system of accepted significance, as revealed in concrete institutional forms. The only human problem is not being able to achieve proximity to this holy order. From within this framework, the frenzy of the shaman is transformed into a reasonable search for coherence and significance, and tradition and charisma become equivalent to rationality (See Note 13).

Obviously, this version of society is far from the social and historical concept of irrational action that Weber knew, revealed, and set aside as ineffable and thus outside of sociological discourse. Weber certainly could not have accepted the reduction of charisma and tradition to ‘sacred order’. For him, the primary form of tradition remained imitative and senseless, and the primary form of charisma remained convulsive, revolutionary, and outside of ‘meaning’ entirely. The best that sociology could do, from his perspective, was to recognize the capacity of these irrational impulses to influence a rational course of action, and thereby to “assess the causal significance of irrational factors in accounting for the deviations from this type” (Weber 1978: 6) (See Note 14).

Durkheim and Group Consciousness

Let me turn now to Emile Durkheim, the other great ancestor of contemporary social thought, whose work offers what I believe to be a more theoretically compelling understanding of the irrational than does Weber. However, Durkheim’s concern with grasping irrational states of being is now more or less forgotten or else the object of misunderstanding and derision (See Note 15). Instead, he is known today primarily as he was interpreted by Talcott Parsons, ie., as a systematic thinker strongly associated with functionalism and with his pioneering use of statistical data to isolate variables for the purposes of demonstrating causal chains in social organizations. Here his great contributions are his dissection of the division of labor and its consequences, and his correlation of suicide rates with alienating social conditions. His other great project, one which strongly influenced later structuralism, was his effort to demonstrate that categories of thought are themselves social products, and thereby to ground Kantian metaphysical imperatives in a structured social reality.

But these are only a part of Durkheim’s sociology. In contrast to the Weberian concern with conscious agents struggling to achieve culturally mediated goals and values, Durkheim founded his sociology on the notion that ordinary consciousness is characterized more by rationalization than by rationality. For him, the reasons people claim to have for what they are doing and the meanings they attribute to their actions are post facto attempts to explain socially generated compulsions which they actually neither understand nor control.

Thus Durkheim, unlike Weber, draws a radical distinction between the goals and character of the group and the goals and characters of the individuals within the group, arguing that “social psychology has its own laws that are not those of individual psychology” (1966: 312). Furthermore, “the interests of the whole are not necessarily the interests of the part” (Durkheim 1973: 163); indeed, they may be, and often are, completely at odds. But the group imposes its own will upon the hearts and minds of its members and compels them to act in ways that run against their own subjective interests; these actions are later rationalized to ‘make sense’, and the rationalizations then become the value systems of a particular human society.

Durkheim therefore presents us with the extraordinary proposal that sociology cannot take as its subject the individual person who is manipulating within culture to maximize his or her own ends. Rather, he proposes a continuous conflictual ebb and flow between singularity and community, self and group (See Note 16). As he writes, “our inner life has something like a double center of gravity. On the one hand is our individuality – and, more particularly, our body in which it is based; on the other it is everything in us that expresses something other than ourselves…. (These) mutually contradict and deny each other” (1973: 152) (See Note 17).

Durkheim, like Weber, envisions the individual to be rationally calculating and maximizing. But far from assuming this form of consciousness to be the nexus of society or of sociology, Durkheim repudiates egoistic calculation as immoral, solipsistic, depraved, animalistic, and of no sociological interest. Instead, he argues that human beings rise above animality and pure appetite precisely at the point where the ‘normal’ mind of the self-aggrandizing egoistic actor is immersed and subdued within the transformative grip of the social (See Note 18).

Durkheim’s vision of the selfish actor dissolved within the crucible of society appears to parallel to Weber’s image of tradition as a state of deindividuated trance. But there is a very significant difference between the two, which derives from Durkheim’s understanding of the experience of group consciousness. Where for Weber the state of unthinking immersion in the group is associated with torpor and lethargy, Durkheim argues instead that people submerge themselves in the collective precisely because participation offers an immediate felt sense of transcendence to its members. It is a sensation of ecstasy, not boredom, that experientially validates self-loss in the community.

Influenced by studies of Mesmerism (See Note 19) and the same notions of emotional excitability that Weber also utilized, Durkheim thought that an extraordinary altered state of consciousness among individuals in a group, which he called ‘collective effervescence’ would occur spontaneously “whenever people are put into closer and more active relations with one another” (Durkheim 1965: 240-1). This experience is one of depersonalization, and of a transcendent sense of participation in something larger and more powerful than themselves (See Note 20). Durkheim, ordinarily a placid writer, paints a potent picture of this state, as the personal ego momentarily disintegrates under the influence of the fevered crowd. “The passions released are of such an impetuosity that they can be restrained by nothing…. Everything is just as though he really were transported into a special world, entirely different from the old one where he ordinarily lives, and into an environment filled with exceptionally intense forces that take hold of him and metamorphose him” (Durkheim 1965: 246, 249).

Durkheim imagines that within the excited mass, sensations of emotional intensification are released in impulsive outbursts that contagiously spread to those around. From this point of view, charisma exists only in the group; the charismatic leader who is Weber’s hero is here a passive symbol serving, in Elias Canetti’s words, as a ‘crowd crystal’ around whom the collective can solidify and resonate (Canetti 1978) (See Note 21). The result of this solidification is immediate imitation, magnified through the lens of the leader and synchronized within the group as a whole. In a feedback loop, this echoing and magnifying serves to further heighten emotion, leading to greater challenges to the ego and more potent feelings of exaltation. After this ecstatic experience “men really are more confident because they feel themselves stronger: and they really are stronger, because forces which were languishing are now reawakened in the consciousness”(Durkheim 1965: 387).

The physical experience of self-loss and intoxication in the crowd’s collective effervescence is, for Durkheim, the “very type of sacred thing” (Durkheim 1965: 140) and is the ultimate and permanent source of social cohesion; all else is secondary. Thus he writes that what is necessary for social life “is that men are assembled, that sentiments are felt in common and expressed in common acts; but the particular nature of these sentiments and acts is something relatively secondary and contingent” (1965: 431-2).

Tradition, from this perspective, is not seen as a torpid counter to the excitement of charisma, as in the Weberian model. Instead, a viable tradition is understood as suffused with the ecstatic experience of regular collective participation. Thus Durkheim conflates charisma and tradition in a manner completely the reverse of Shils and Geertz. For Durkheim, any attribution of meaning to the felt reality of collective effervescence is strictly a posteriori; an attempt by individuals try to explain and rationalize what is actually a primal, prelogical, experiential state of transcendent self-loss that provides the felt moral basis for all social configurations, and combats the solipsistic self-interest that would tear society apart.

Crowd Psychology

Durkheim’s positive moral view of group consciousness and Weber’s favorable portrait of charismatic relations were completely overturned in the early 20th century by the crowd psychologists Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde. These two French theorists, though now largely forgotten by academics, were tremendously influential in their time, and were the founders of the present-day practices of political polling and media consultation as well as the esoteric study of group psychology. For them the collective experience no longer had any redemptive features, and became instead a frightful combination of chaos, credulity and passion as persons within the crowd automatically regress to more primitive, child-like states of being while under the influence of their irrational, emotionally-compelling leader (See Note 22).

In this formulation, the ‘standard’ state of rational consciousness, which Le Bon and Tarde both quite explicitly took to be the consciousness of a masculine, calculating, utilitarian free agent, was fragile indeed. Indeed, though lauding rationality as the highest form of thought, the crowd psychologists, like Weber, were suspicious of the extent to which rational consciousness actually prevailed. Tarde, for example, believed that people, though imagining themselves to be free agents acting for understood goals, are in truth “unconscious puppets whose strings were pulled by their ancestors or political leaders or prophets” (1903:77). From this perspective, men and women, insofar as they are members of a group, are “in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotiser”(Le Bon 1952: 31).

In this vision, even the most rational individual ran great risk of being quickly and irresistibly reduced to the lowest common denominator when immersed in a crowd, and consequently of acting in a savage, childish, ‘feminine’ and, in short, irrational manner that would never be condoned by ordinary standards of behavior. Rational consciousness, then, is portrayed and appreciated by these thinkers as a feeble refuge from the torrents of passion and destruction that seethe within the collective; a torrent that drowns all who are drawn into its vortex (See Note 23). The Durkheimian view of the power of the collective is here completely accepted, but this power is allowed only a negative moral content, while the good is found solely in the flimsy boat of rationality.

For the crowd psychologists, as for Durkheim, the mechanisms that stimulate the crowd are simple. Once a mass is gathered, any strong action excites immediate imitation and magnification in a cycle of intensification that eventually dies down, much like the ripples that appear after a stone is thrown into a pool. Only through such stimulation can human beings attain “the illusion of will” (Tarde 1903:77) (See Note 24). So, where Durkheim believed the primal group would coalesce spontaneously without the necessity of any external excitement, crowd psychology argued that someone had to throw the stone and provide the “dream of command” that stimulates the crowd to unite in pursuit of “a dream of action”(Tarde 1903: 77).

In postulating the need for a leader to galvanize the group, Le Bon and Tarde brought together Durkheimian and Weberian imagery. But where Weber had given the charismatic a positive value as the founder of new religions and the healer of the dispirited, Le Bon and Tarde see him in negative guise as a powerful and willful figure; a mesmerist who is capable of expressing in his person the electrifying excitement and volition that awakens the sleeping crowd, providing the masses with an irresistible command that solidifies and motivates them under his thrall (See Note 25). The inner character of this leader remained an enigma; far from a rational calculator, he is “recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness” (Le Bon 1952: 132). In particular, he had to be “obsessed” by an idea that “has taken possession of him”, in a way exactly parallel to the possession of the shaman by a god or gods (Le Bon 1952: 118). The crowd psychologists argue that it is precisely the leader’s obsessive self-absorption that appeals to the crowd, since only through feeling himself pulled and formed by forces beyond his control does the leader gain the power to act and thereby break the cycle of imitation and passivity that has held the collective in a somnambulistic stupor (See Note 26).

In the paradigm offered by crowd psychology, such persons elicit not only obedience, but also the love and adulation of the followers. By standing apart, completely focused on an inner vision which compels and energizes them, they embody and exemplify the “dream of command” that electrifies the following. So we have the paradox of a leader who, far from wishing to further the ends of his followers, instead “in perfect egotism offered himself to (their) adoration” (Tarde 1903: 203). The crowd psychologists thus come to the pessimistic conclusion that the group’s devotion has “never been bestowed on easy-going masters, but on the tyrants who vigorously oppressed them” in order to serve their own driven obsessions (Le Bon 1952: 54).

Crowd psychology therefore unites Durkheim and Weber by placing an ecstatic and convulsive charismatic at the center of a receptive group. The state of torpor that Weber saw in tradition is here understood as the somnambulistic trance that precedes charismatic involvement in a state of collective effervescence. The moral quality of crowd participation and charismatic excitement is now also reversed. Where Durkheim portrayed the vitality of society arising from communal experiences of unity, and where Weber hoped for the arrival of a transformative new prophet who could break open the iron cage of instrumental rationality, crowd psychology gives us frightening imagery of both groups and leaders; imagery that points not toward the church and the prophet, but toward Nazism and Hitler. As Le Bon prophetically writes, as a consequence of the erosion of traditional bonds of kinship, ethnicity and religion that kept the regression to mass consciousness at bay, “the age we are about to enter will in truth be the ERA OF CROWDS” (1952:14).

The Denial of Charisma

In so demonizing the altered states of charisma and group participation, crowd psychology prefigures the modern attitude, though unlike modern writers, the crowd psychologists retained a fearful appreciation of the potency of group consciousness. But this appreciation has been repressed by the efforts by Shils, Geertz and others of the interpretive school who aim to transform the charismatic appeal of the leader and the convulsive reaction of the group into a rational quest for meaning, order and coherence. In a parallel manner, ‘resource mobilization’ theorists of mass movements have argued that activist groups are made up of purposive and reasonable individual free agents voluntarily gathered together for the sake of commonly held goals of social justice. And, similarly, social constructivist theories of emotion portray emotion as ‘cognitive,’ and therefore consider emotions primarily as ’embodied appraisals’.

I want to be clear here that I do not dispute the salience of a search for meaning, coherence, and justice as causes for commitment to any movement; and certainly emotions are cognized (to be afraid of a cut electrical wire one must know that it is dangerous). But the feeling person, overwhelmed by nameless anxiety, immersed in the vortex of a mob, or irresistibly drawn to a charismatic figure like a moth to a flame, is hardly a rational calculator. The image of free agents making reasonable appraisals of risks, enacting values, construing meaningful systems and pursuing desired outcomes within a coherent cultural context is a vision of humanity that may be appropriate for understanding a great proportion of action and thought; but clearly the apotheosis of rationalization and voluntarism found in these contemporary theories ignores precisely the aspects of social behavior that Weber, Durkheim and the crowd psychologists sought to bring to the fore; i.e., the power of irrational group experience to stimulate men and women into actions that can only be called meaningful, orderly, and goal-oriented if these terms are emptied of all content.

Why has this denial of the irrational psychology of groups and leaders occurred? In part, the assertion of human reasonableness under even the most extraordinary circumstances can be considered an intellectual reaction to the implications of the horrible spectre of Nazism that the crowd psychologists so uncannily prophesied (See Note 27). But it is also clear that the denial of collective deindividuating altered states of consciousness corresponds with our present social formation, which mirrors and ratifies the rationalization processes of the society at large and finds its most powerful philosophical expression in the romantic existentialist apotheosis of the self (See Note 28). Because this model holds sway, a positive moral evaluation of collective charismatic states will be very difficult to achieve, as will the experience of charisma itself.

Charisma Today: est and Scientology

I can illustrate my point (See Note 29) by sketching the trajectory of two apparently pragmatic and “world affirming” (See Note 30) charismatic groups: est, founded and led by Werner Erhard and Scientology, founded and led by the late L. Ron Hubbard (See Note 31). In their stated purposes, these two groups appear highly instrumental, charging a substantial fee to help people to achieve better adjustment at work, new friends, greater happiness, a more satisfying love life. They have a strong continuity with the ‘healthy-minded’ ‘once-born’ religions that William James (1982) found so characteristic of American culture; religions which typically affirm the goodness of all creation and preach accommodation with the world as it is, attracting middle-class, white collar adherents anxious to better themselves. The est Forum, for instance, stresses that its program is suited to “the already successful… the already healthy…the already committed…the already accomplished…the already knowledgeable” (Forum pamphlet 1986). The purpose of joining is to learn a practice allowing one to manipulate “the levers and controls of personal effectiveness, creativity, vitality and satisfaction” (Forum pamphlet 1986); and testimonials from converts make claims not to higher wisdom, but rather that the discipline “has helped me to handle life better…. I get on better with people…. I can apply myself to work and study more easily than before” (Foster 1971: 119). Successful graduates are “people who know how to make life work” (Erhard quoted in Brewer 1975: 36).

In the pragmatic, cheerful ‘once born’ ethos, the desire for personal enlightenment is reconciled with practical action, doing well in the office becomes a pathway to self-fulfillment, and accepting hierarchy is understood not only as a useful strategy in business, but also as a spiritual exercise, since “you get power by giving power to a source of power” (Erhard quoted in Tipton 1982: 215). Armed with new perceptions, the trainees can acquiesce to whatever situation they find themselves in, confident that “being with it makes it disappear” (an est trainer, quoted in Tipton 1982: 209); that whatever one is doing is what one wants to do, and that the world is good and just.

“Everyone of us is a god in his own universe, and the creator of the very reality around ourselves” (an est trainer, quoted in Singh 1987: 10). As Ellwood remarks, from this perspective “an individual only gets into traps and circumstances he intends to get into…. the limitations he has must have been invented by himself” (1973: 175).
In keeping with the practical, work-oriented manifest content of this ideology, most participants have little involvement in any particular spiritual technology, judging efficacy, like any good consumer, solely by perceived results. They are, in Bird’s (1979) terminology, apprentices rather than devotees or disciples; persons merely looking for helpful knowledge in a complicated mystic marketplace.

Yet, despite their overtly instrumental character, utilitarian orientation, and constantly shifting peripheral membership, these groups paradoxically appear to have a strong tendency to develop highly committed charismatized inner cores of intensely loyal devotees gathered around a leader taken to be a demigod. As Roy Wallis puts it, “social reality outside the movement may come to seem a pale and worthless reflection of the social reality of the movement…. (as) the self and personal identity… become subordinated to the will and personality of the leader” (Wallis 1984: 122-24).

In Scientology, for instance, there was a “transformation from a loose, almost anarchic group of enthusiasts of a lay psychotherapy, Dianetics, to a tightly controlled and rigorously disciplined following for a quasi-religious movement, Scientology” (Wallis 1977:5). L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of this group, began as a science fiction writer and entrepreneur, but ended by claiming to be a Messiah “wearing the boots of responsibility for this universe” (Hubbard quoted in Ellwood 1973: 172). His disciples concurred, seeing him as a charismatic superman who could escape space and time, and whose insight into the world would lead to universal salvation.

For the inner cadre of Scientologists the ‘meaning’ of membership did not hinge on a coherent doctrine, since Hubbard “modified the doctrine frequently without precipitating significant opposition” (Wallis 1977: 153). As a result, “even the most doctrinally learned Scientologists may be unsure what palpable qualities a clear (an enlightened person) is supposed to manifest, other than confidence and loyalty to the cult” (Bainbridge and Stark 1980: 133). Participation rested instead on absolute faith in Hubbard himself and on one’s total unreserved commitment to the organization. As a former convert writes, “the extent of one’s faith was the measure of one’s future gains…. Everything depended on one’s own certainty at the moment” (Kaufman 1972: 25, 179). Any questioning showed one was not moving toward ‘clear’, whereas meditation on Hubbard’s often self-contradictory words was considered to be transformative in itself.

In the fully formed Scientology corporation a multi-million dollar enterprise was headed by a small, secretive, highly disciplined and fully committed central cadre, the Sea Org, marked by their esoteric practices, special language, and distinctive uniforms of white, with black boots and belt. Totally dedicated to Hubbard, they formed an inner circle of virtuosi living in seclusion aboard Hubbard’s yacht, proclaiming their devotion by signing ‘billion year contracts’ of spiritual service to their eternal leader.

As the group made claims to have the key, not simply to enhanced awareness, but to all the world’s problems, it also became more rigid and totalitarian; fear of ‘suppressives’ (Scientology language for opponents) heightened, leading to expensive lawsuits and countersuits; meanwhile Hubbard himself withdrew deeper into paranoia, eventually isolating himself so that only three people were actually permitted to see him, and it became a matter of controversy whether he was alive or dead (See Note 32).

Est has followed a similar trajectory. Beginning as the revelation of a former encyclopedia salesman and ex-Scientology convert, est brought together the techniques of Scientology, Buddhist meditation, existential philosophy and group therapy to form a potent self-help organization which soon began to exhibit a charismatic character. Werner Erhard, the founder, was idolized by his committed followers as a “fully realized human being” who “lives in risk and possibility… we catch up with him, then he moves ten steps ahead” (a convert quoted in Singh 1987: 89). An inner circle of devotees controlling the vast est empire were absolutely loyal to Erhard, whom they conceived to be a savior. This inner circle was tightly knit, strictly regulated, and required to have only “those purposes, desires, objectives, and intentions that Werner agreed for you to have” (the president of est, quoted in Martin 1980: 112). Not coincidentally, they began to resemble Erhard closely, down to mannerisms and dress.

The accommodative est message of “perfection as a state in which things are the way the are, and not the way they are not” (Erhard quoted in Martin 1980: 114) was taken by the inner circle to be a message that would transform the world through transforming consciousness, and est began to reorient itself into a more overtly religious salvationist direction, with Erhard as the prophet of the coming millennium. But the pressure of being a charismatic figure began to tell on Erhard, who showed signs of psychological disintegration, brutalizing members of his family and the inner core while simultaneously demanding greater and more violent tests of loyalty from those closest to him. The ensuing tension led, in recent years, to defections and litigation within the core, and to public attacks on Erhard by some of his closest relatives and associates (See Note 33).

The parallel descents of these groups into paranoia and authoritarianism are instructive, and illustrate the difficulties even the most accommodative charismatic movements and leaders have in adapting to modern social conditions. They also illustrate recurrent patterns of group processes that are not reducible to a quest for meaning or coherence or any other rational end, but that can better be conceptualized within a framework of charisma, collective effervescence, and the psychology of crowds. The same framework can help us to understand the methods of recruitment that drew people deeply into these organizations (See Note 34).

Essentially, recruitment to est and Scientology, in common with recruitment to many other modern cults, relies on techniques that reveal to the prospective clients the degree to which their personal identities are contingent and socially constructed. The stated end is to permit the convert to escape from obligations of should and ought (referred to as ‘garbage’) in order to find the authentic, eternal and vital selves that lie beneath social and familial conditioning.
The notion of a primal unsocialized vital center is taken absolutely literally by Scientology. In its doctrine, human beings are actually concrete emanations of timeless energy forces called Thetans, who manifested themselves in the material world for amusement, but who have been so absorbed in their games that they have forgotten their true transcendent identities. To remedy this unhappy condition, one must ‘clear’ material residues and memories away from Thetan consciousness and allow the Thetan to “relinquish his self-imposed limitations” (Hubbard quoted in Wallis 1977: 104).

The fantastic science fiction ideology would hardly be convincing to many potential converts without its experiential ratification through a long process of training in which the new member’s sense of identity and social context is consistently undermined via a bewildering, repetitious and emotionally charged sequence of ‘deprogramming’ exercises (‘auditing’) which utilize a fallacious instrument (the ‘e-meter’) that students believe registers fluctuations in their emotional responses (see Whitehead 1987 for a detailed account).

In the training, the student, under the eye of an experienced ‘auditor’, may be asked repeatedly to relive and repeat painful or intense experiences of the past. The auditor asks questions such as “tell me something you would be willing to have that person (indicated by the trainer) not know about you”, over and over again. No explanations are given, and the trainee is also constantly obliged to redefine the most common words and phrases he or she uses in response, and is required as well to master the complex Scientology jargon. The ‘runs’ of repeated questions and answers can go for many hours, confusing and exhausting the trainee. The ostensible aim of this ritual is to distance the trainee from emotional reactions to ‘garbage’ so he or she can become ‘at cause’ by getting a ‘clear’ reading on the e-meter. In consequence of this process, the trainee will hypothetically become free to experience unencumbered ecstatic Thetan awareness.

The training process occurs in an atmosphere of high anxiety, as the trainee struggles to control the random fluctuations of the e-meter while simultaneously feelings of disorientation, remorse, hatred, love, jealousy and so on are elicited by the repetitious, probing, highly personal questions and complex demands of the auditor, a powerful authority figure believed to have achieved a more evolved superhuman consciousness. Each auditing session concludes with cathartic group gatherings in which the participants ‘share wins’ and “were warmly welcomed into the group, greeted and applauded” (Wallis 1977: 173). This sequence proved to be remarkably effective in gaining great loyalty from many Scientology ‘preclears’, who would themselves move up the elaborate ladder toward ‘clear’ status and become ‘auditors’ of other initiates (See Note 35).

Est never utilized such a literal image of liberation as Scientology’s Thetan, but very similar techniques were in operation in the recruitment and training process. For est, as in Scientology, history and family are considered to be destructively enmeshing, and the point of training is to be released “from the cultural trance, the systematic self-delusion, to which most of us surrender our aliveness” (Marsh 1975: 38). The process is conceived as awakening to one’s timeless and vital transpersonal essence, thus becoming “truly able and perfect” (an est trainer, quoted in Tipton 1982: 177). As in Scientology, trainees cannot break through into this perfect realm by reason; reason is regarded as a defense against the intrinsic and immediate truth of intuitive feeling states. “If you experience it, it’s the truth. The same thing believed is a lie” (Erhard, quoted in Tipton 1982: 192).

As in Scientology, instruction is geared to break down the students’ reasoning power and ‘conditioning’ through emotionally charged training sessions designed to demonstrate that their beliefs and personalities are programmed by their past, their culture, and their associations. In the classical est seminar, 250 persons or so spend two weekends totalling 60 to 70 emotionally intense (and expensive) hours of lectures, meditation and confrontation. The trainer typically abuses and infantilizes the group, calling them ‘assholes’ whose lives are ‘shit’, and prohibiting them from using the toilet. The students are further bombarded by paradoxes undercutting logic (See Note 36), asked to relive traumatic emotional experiences of the past, incited to act out deep fears, or perhaps insulted and abused by the leader in front of the audience for arrogance or selfishness. Role playing, switching genders, taking on other identities, all are part of the repertoire. The effectiveness of these efforts to decenter the self in the context of the group is evident in one participant’s description: “It seems now that almost the entire roomful of people are crying, moaning, groaning, sobbing, screaming, shouting, writhing. ‘Stop it! Stop it!’ ‘No! No! No!’ ‘I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!’ ‘Please….’ ‘Help!’ ‘Daddy, daddy, daddy….’ The groans, the crying, the shouts reinforce each other; the emotions pour out of the trainees” (quoted in Martin 1980: 123).

These methods are quite typical, and involve what Harriet Whitehead (1987) has called ‘renunciation,’ that is, a dedifferentiation of cognitive structures coupled with a withdrawal of affect from its previous points of attachment. In this process, the susceptible subject is pressed to become ‘deautomatized’ (Deikman 1969), hyperaware of the role of conditioning and the plasticity of the self, while simultaneously stimulated to emotionally charged abreactions which are mirrored and magnified by the group and the leader, who represents the sacred group founder. These deconditioning’ exercises are obviously not aimed at promoting adaption to ‘ordinary misery’ (Freud’s claim for psychotherapy), but rather to the revelation of a deeper, transcendent inner self no longer bound by the chains of culture or context, nor by the stimulus-response mechanisms of the mind. Instead, “you take responsibility…. in effect you have freely chosen to do everything that you have ever done and to be precisely what you are. In that instant you become exactly what you always wanted to be” (Brewer 1975).

For participants (See Note 37), this inner self is not a matter of conjecture or theory. It is really experienced in the effervescence of the collective – just as Durkheim hypothesized. The combination of an undermining of personal identity, systematic devaluation and confusion of ordinary thought, the stimulation of heightened abreactive emotions detached from original causes within the context of the mirroring group and under the protection of a god-like leader act together to provide expansive sensations of catharsis for those who are carried away by the techniques of collective ecstasy.

The individual participating in this experience is likely to attribute his or her feelings of expansion to the doctrine and the leader. The ‘perfect self’ that is then revealed when personal identity is stripped away is, more often than not, a self modeled after the charismatic group exemplar. A new identity then replaces that which has been abandoned as inauthentic – an identity legitimated by the intensity of the emotion generated in the altered state of consciousness of the ecstatic group context – but one which, in consequence, can only exist within this extraordinary situation (See Note 38). In other words, despite appearances of pragmatism, the world-affirming group is likely to develop into a node of collective effervescence that stands in opposition to the larger rationalized social organization, which is experienced as ‘dead’ and alienating. The next step is to try to make the world replicate the group; this is the road toward Messianism and paranoia.


Two points are especially worth reiterating here. The first is the repeated use of techniques aimed at demonstrating that the recruit is not an autonomous individual, but rather is ‘programmed’ and ‘conditioned’ by history, culture, and family. This revelation, engendered in a highly charged group context under the authority of an apparently powerful authority figure, is crucial in stimulating the emotional abreaction that helps lead the subject into collective participation. It is, it seems to me, an anthropological fact of considerable importance that persons in this culture can be transformed by discovering that their lives are not totally autonomous and that their identities are not completely self-manufactured. The efficacy of this technique is, quite evidently, closely related to the prevalent American capitalist social organization and its accompanying ideology of possessive individualism and purposive agency.

A connected point is that members of a configuration with such an ideological and social structure are highly susceptible to a covert hunger for the collective experience offered by charismatic immersion. As I have argued elsewhere (1990), when the feeling self is stripped of identity markers and significant emotional ties with others, and simultaneously affirmed as the sole source of action and preference, then the intensity and certainty of charismatic revelation will be extremely attractive, since participation in a charismatic group offers precisely the emotional gratification, self-loss and affirmation of a transcendent identity that the predominant social model of reality precludes.

However, because such movements are in conflict with the ruling order of thought, they must take on extreme forms. Charisma becomes not a moment, but eternal; the god is no longer manifested occasionally in an otherwise ordinary mortal, but the vehicle has to be holy all the time. So, paradoxically, a culture founded on the ‘standard’ consciousness of rationality and individual agency renders even more fervid and impetuous the expression of the altered state of awareness Weber called ‘charisma’.

To summarize, in this essay I have argued that ‘meaning-centered’ interpretive analysis is in fact located within a tradition that assumes as its basic premise the rationality of maximizing individual actors. This perspective is not adequate for understanding forms of social action that are outside the realm of rationality – a point recognized by Weber himself in his discussion of tradition and charisma.

Here I have sketched very lightly, with plenty of room for contradiction and dispute, some alternative views on irrationality, using the works of Weber, Durkheim, Le Bon and Tarde to argue that processes of charismatic involvement, collective effervescence, and crowd psychology may help us grasp the basic pattern of such apparently irrational action and to place it a framework of theoretical knowledge. Far too rapidly, I’ve applied this framework to the actual trajectories of two new religions, showing how their evolution and their mode of recruitment fit within it.

The final question is perhaps whether this mode of approach is applicable only for understanding cultic groups at the periphery of social life, or whether it might have some relevance for more mainstream medical practitioners and psychiatrists. I contend the latter is the case. For example, if we believe, with Durkheim, that human society is built upon an emotional experience of selflessness within the transcendent group, what then happens when the increasing dominance of the competitive economy and the worship of the individual make such experiences less and less likely to occur, or even to be imagined? One result might be the charisma hunger mentioned above, and the escalating excesses of charismatic groups. But the more prevalent result may be the appalling number of complaints about depression, deadness and detachment among psychiatric patients in the US, coupled with fevered efforts to stimulate some sense of vitality through various forms of addiction and thrill seeking. These may be the prices paid for the absence of any felt sense of connection to the social world.



  1. I am not claiming that Westerners only have positive evaluations of instrumental rationality; ‘sincere’ emotion is also highly valued. However, sincere feelings do not come from the mind, but from the heart.
  2. The ‘ideal type’ is a formal conceptual model to be used as a lens for viewing variations in real social configurations in order to make comparisons. This implies that ‘rational’ social formations are in actual fact never fully rational, but always have ‘traditional’ and ‘charismatic’ elements within them, even though these elements may be suppressed or denied. And, of course, the reverse is also the case. For more on Weber’s methodology, see Weber 1949.
  3. Instrumental rationality – the rationality typical of modernity and capitalism – is characterized by the most efficient use of means to reach an end. Value rationality – the rationality of premodern societies – envisions means as ends, with efficiency taking second place to proper modes of behavior. The complexities and ambiguities of this distinction are many, and the boundaries of the categories are by no means clear, but what is relevant here is simply that both types of social action, whatever their differences and similarities, involve conscious choices and acts aimed at maximizing valued goals.
  4. In a sense, charisma is the non-rational parallel to value-rationality, since charisma is the attachment of the self to another through affect, just as value-rationality involves an affective faith in a value. Tradition, which is cold and routinized, is, in this respect, analogous to the equally cold technical efficiency of instrumental rationality.
  5. Interestingly, Weber foresaw just such a hive-like future for rational man. Utmost rational efficiency will lead, he feared, to a rigid and immobile bureaucratic and technocratic social system.
  6. See Weber 1978: 242, 400-3, 535-6, 554, 1112, 1115. 1972: 279, 287 for the relationship between charismatic revelation and ecstatic states of excitement.
  7. The conjunction between epilepsy and charisma seems odd given our modern medical conception of grand-mal and petit-mal epileptic seizures as electrical storms in the brain that eliminate consciousness while causing gross motor convulsions. But Weber’s model (one common to his era) broadly imagined epileptic – or, more properly, epileptoid – seizures as closely akin to hypnotic states and to hysterical fits (see Thornton 1976, Massey and McHenry 1986 for more on this connection). Our modern counterpart might be the category of dissociation. However, it is also worth noting that Winkelman (1986), among others, has argued for a parallel between shamanic dissociation, temporal lobe epilepsy, and other forms of what Sacks (1985) has called mental superabundances, or disorders of excess, in which sensations of energy and vitality become morbid, and illness presents itself as euphoria. An example is Dostoyevsky, who writes, “You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring!” (quoted in Sacks 1985: 137). We might also recall that cross-cultural studies of shamanism do in fact show strong incidence of overtly epileptoid manifestations such as trembling and convulsions, especially in the early stages of shamanic initiation. Evidently there may be both a predisposition and an element of imitation and training at work in achieving shamanic trance, and the trance itself may have a considerable overlap with some mild forms of disturbance of the temporal lobe.
  8. “Ecstasy was also produced by the provocation of hysterical or epileptoid seizures among those with predispositions toward such paroxysms, which in turn produced orgiastic states in others” (Weber 1978: 535).
  9. Characteristically, Weber’s own intellectual concern is with typologizing and contextualizing the novel ethical meaning systems provoked by the prophet’s revelations. He notes that the prophet himself may believe the new meaning system is his major contribution. But Weber clearly states that for the masses, and especially for the impoverished, the prophet remains a charismatic with transcendent powers; the commitment of these followers is not to ideas, but to the prophet’s person and his promise of immediate experiential salvation (Weber 1978: 467, 487).
  10. Levi-Strauss (1967) takes a similar position, but with a very different analytical point.
  11. “Under the technical and social conditions of rational culture, an imitation of the life of Buddha, Jesus, or Francis seems condemned to failure for purely external reasons” (Weber 1972:357).
  12. See Greenfeld (1985) for a good statement of the distinction between primary and secondary charisma; though she too assumes as the essential driving force an orientation for building meaning.
  13. As Harriet Whitehead writes, “cultural anthropology has chosen the conservative route of merely noting that religious practices seem to have some intensifying or disordering effect upon experience, and retreating back into the realm of culturally organized meaning manipulation” (1987: 105). In Weberian terms, this ‘retreat’ has an ‘elective affinity’ for intellectuals, because it is founded on an assertion of the absolute value and importance of the scholarly professional faith in the primacy of reason and the possibility of approaching meaning through interpretation.
  14. Weber profoundly regretted his own incapacity to experience the compulsion of charisma, he lamented the decline of the ecstatic, and he longed for the advent of “entirely new prophets” who would bring, through their very presence, an escape from “the iron cage” of rational action without transcendent content that he envisioned as the inevitable and unhappy future of humanity (Weber 1958:181-2).
  15. See, for example, Meeker, who portrays Durkheim as believing “science would eventually prove fully adequate as a replacement for religion” (1990: 62), and who castigates him for his supposed dismissal of “human dreams and wishes” in favor of the apotheosis of an abstract emblem. Meeker here ignores Durkheim’s emphasis on passion and desire in the construction of the elementary forms of religious life.
  16. “We do not admit that there is a precise point at which the individual comes to an end and the social realm commences…. we pass without interval from one order of facts to the other” (Durkheim 1966: 313).
  17. In taking this perspective, Durkheim prefigures Freud, but with an entirely reversed moral viewpoint. And, of course, the influence of Rousseau and the Comptean vision of a revolutionary sociology are very strong indeed in Durkheim’s apotheosis of society.
  18. Durkheim argues in an important footnote that the realm of the economy, where the maximizing rational individual holds sway, is the only arena of social life that is in essence completely opposed to the sacred. The dominance of the economy in modern culture is therefore destructive of the moral bonds of society (1965: 466). Note how different his project is from Weber’s, who aimed to show the ways in which various prophecies favor or oppose the rise of capitalism.
  19. As Moscovici writes, the hypnotic state was envisioned in late 19th century French culture as “that strange drug which… releases the individual from his solitude and carries him off to a world of collective intoxication” (1985: 92). As already noted, hypnotism and epilepsy were thought to be similar in nature. The idea and experience of hypnotism and allied dissociated states was a romantic counter to Utilitarian individualism, and had a strong influence on social and psychological thought, as well as literature and the arts, in the late 19th and early 20th century.
    20 The similarity to Weber’s ‘objectless acosmism of love’ is evident.
  20. For this reason, Durkheim can make the seemingly paradoxical claim that “despotism is nothing more than inverted communism” (1984: 144).
  21. This image continues to prevail in medical theories of ‘mass hysteria’. See Bartholomew (in press) for a compendium of examples. Bartholomew’s paper is also an example of the interpretive attempt to validate all apparently irrational action by demonstrating its meaningfulness and intent within a cultural context.
  22. The tropes of the ‘feminine’, ‘savage’, ‘childish’ crowd are painfully clear indicators of the anxiety felt by these men over a possible loss of control and over the weakness of their masculine, civilized, adult personnas. An interesting, if obvious, analysis could be made of these metaphors, which relate to the changing political climate of France and heightened fear of lower class rebellion. What I wish to stress here, however, is the structure of the argument.
  23. Awareness makes no difference to this existential condition. “If the photographic plate became conscious at a given moment of what was happening to it, would the nature of the phenomenon be essentially changed” (Tarde).
  24. As Tarde writes, “volition, together with emotion and conviction, is the most contagious of psychological states. An energetic and authoritative man wields an irresistible power over feeble natures. He gives them the direction which they lack. Obedience to him is not a duty, but a need….. Whatever the master willed, they will; whatever the apostle believes or has believed, they believe” (1903: 198).
  25. Although the the leader’s appeal is irrational, it has certain pattern, and Le Bon gained much of his fame as a modern Machiavelli, telling rulers how to hold the reins of power in the new Age of the Crowd through the use of emotionally charged theatricality, large gestures, dramatic illusions and the rhetoric of myth. According to Le Bon, the modern leader’s technique must be “to exaggerate, to affirm, to resort to repetitions, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning” (Le Bon 1952: 51). Le Bon’s instructions have been taken seriously by many demagogues, including Hitler, who cited him extensively in Mein Kampf.
  26. Those who believe that Nazi devotees and leaders were motivated by either value or instrumental rationality should consider work by Robert Waite (1977) and Ian Kershaw (1987), as well as Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler (1974), and the numerous biographies of dedicated Nazis. For more on this, see Lindholm 1990: 93-116.
  27. The intellectual debt of much contemporary anthropological theory to existential and phenomenological thought cannot be adequately pursued here, but particularly noteworthy is an emphasis on ‘authenticity’ and a refusal to make comparisons – both derived from premises of the priority of a unique inner self-consciousness struggling to free itself from what Heidegger (1962) called the tyranny of ‘the they.’ The Western character of these premises is, I hope, evident.
  28. see Lindholm (1990) for a theoretical framework, and for analysis of more extreme cases of modern charisma: Nazism, the Manson Family, and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple.
  29. The term is used by Roy Wallis to distinguish these positive movements from apocalyptic and millennial ‘world rejecting’ movements such as Jonestown (Wallis 1984).
  30. The material is taken from sources which rely both on the testimony of converts and of those who have ‘deconverted’. On the question of the moral stance of the informant, and its influence on the data, see the Appendix in Wallis (1984). Here, I have used material which is corroborated by sources both within and without the movements.
  31. Hubbard was officially reported dead in 1986, but he had not been seen in public for many years, and may have died sometime previously (see Lamont 1986 for an account). The difficulty of maintaining a charismatic organization after the death of the leader is probably one cause of the reluctance to admit his death.
  32. Erhard has subsequently resigned some of his positions of authority in the organization.
  33. These methods have been substantially altered as each organization moves through the cycle of charismatic routinization and then again attempts to restimulate fervor among the disciples. The examples used here date from the most expansive and charismatic phase of this process.
  34. See Bainbridge and Stark (1980), who argue that the lack of any real content in ‘clear’ status and the constantly shifting Scientology doctrine actually enhanced Scientology’s hold over its converts.
  35. Erhard, a postmodernist before his time, has commented that “there are only two things in the world, semantics and nothing” (quoted in Martin 1980: 114).
  36. I should note that of course not all participants prove to be equally susceptible to the lure of the group. Innumerable differences in personal and cultural background and circumstances will make a difference in the degree to which any individual will be likely to participate. But under the right conditions, it is also very possible that even the most resistant individual might be caught up in the compelling dynamic of a charismatic collective.
  37. Bainbridge (1978) has called this process “social implosion,” that is, the development of a tight knot of persons, interacting solely with one another, bound by powerful feelings of loyalty and of separateness from the rest of society.

Charisma, Crowd Psychology and Altered States of Consciousness, Charles Lindholm, University Professors Program and Dept. of Anthropology, Boston University

Brain Basics

Some feedback on this site requires me to tackle some basic questions such as How the human brain works? What is insanity? What is the best way to be constructive? Where do superstition and prejudice come from? Over the next few days I’ll be looking up answers and writing about them.

Cognitive modules  

The human brain works by activating thought modules (cognitive modules). Examples of cognitive modules: 

  •  The modules controlling your hands when you ride a bicycle, to stop it crashing by minor left and right turns.
  • The modules which allows a basket-ball player to accurately send the ball into the basket. 
  • The modules which recognized hunger and says that you need food. 
  • The modules which cause you to appreciate a beautiful flower, painting or person. 
  • The modules which cause some humans to be jealous of their partners’ friends. 
  • The modules which computes the speeds of other vehicles and tells you if you have time to cross before the other car arrives. 
  • The modules which tell you to look both to the right and to the left before crossing a street.
  • The modules which cause parents to love and take care of their children. 
  • The sex drive modules. 
  • The fight or flight selection modules. 

Learned or inherited

Some of these modules are partly based on genetic inheritance, but also the inherited modules can be modified by learning. All you learn, in your childhood, and as an adult, will add new cognitive modules to your brain. An adult human has millions of cognitive modules. The human species is unique in its capability to develop and modify cognitive modules by learning. Thus, the human species is successful because it is not so much controlled by instinct (genetic modules) and that it can modify or replace genetic modules by learned modules. 

Selecting the right cognitive modules  

How, then, does the human brain select the right module to apply to a certain issue? This can be explained by an analogy with a piano. A piano has a number of strings, one for each tone. If you let a loudspeaker play a single tone loudly, then the corresponding piano string will begin to vibrate. Other piano strings corresponding to close matches, and to overtones of the played tone, will also start to vibrate, but to a less extent. All the piano strings receive the sound, but only those that match the sound will begin to vibrate. Thus, all piano strings test the sound at the same time. In a similar way, when meeting a situation, this situation will simultaneously test many cognitive modules in the brain. To test manu modules at the same time is known as “parallel processing” and is something which the brain is much better at than computers. But of all tested modules, only those which fit the situation best, are those which are most closely matched with the situation to be managed. The brain then has a selection mechanism, where the cognitive module which is most strongly activated takes over and is used as a model for how to handle the new situation. Examples of this selection mechanism is when you are feeling pain in different parts of the body at the same time, you are only conscious of the strongest of the pains. In the same way, lots of modules may react to your situation, but only one or two of the strongest will make its way up to the conscious mind.  The human brain contains millions of billions of synaptic connections, in which the cognitive modules are stored. This vast size, and the capability to rapidly find appropriate moduels in this large storage, is central to human intelligence.  

Difference between the human brain and computers

Note that this is very different from the way a normal computer functions. Few computers have this facility of activating and matching millions of cognitive modules and selecting the appropriate one in a new situation. Especially the human capability to recognize cognitive modules which are in some way similar, but not identical, to a new situation, is unique for humans. Computers are good at finding identical situations, but not good at finding similar but not identical situations.  

Psychic disorders

Personality and psychic disorders can then easily be explained by the same model. Such disorders are simply dysfunctional cognitive models. People who have been involved in an airplane accident, may develop a cognitive module which causes them to shy traveling by air. Such cognitive modules are named “phobias”. A person may have developed cognitive modules which were appropriate to handle relations with some other people, for example close family members. They may then apply such modules to other people, even when they are not appropriate. This is in psychology terminology called transference, and is one of the most common causes of neurosis. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) means that some cognitive modules, for example involved with washing, are stimulated too much. Most law-abiding people have cognitive modules which stop them from committing crimes. Criminals have different modules, causing criminal behaviour.  Paranoia and paranoic personality disorders are cognitive modules which exaggerate the idea that other people are out to get you.  Sigmund Freud’s theory of sublimination said that cognitive modules for some activities, such as sex, may incorrectly be applied in cases where they are not suitable. Freud also introduced the idea of the unconscious, by which is meant cognitive modules, where a person is not aware of the initial cause of these modules, and may then use them inappropriately.  

Treatment of psychic disorders 

The aim of psychotherapy is the modification or replacement of inappropriate cognitive modules (cognitive-behavioural therapy). Important is also training in how to control inappropriate reactions caused by inappropriate cognitive modules. It is easier to do this if you are aware of your inappropriate cognitive modules, thus, understanding and recognizing these modules is also central to psychotherapy. The psychodynamic school of psychotherapy puts much efforts into recognizing how you learned inappropriate modules as a child, while the gestalt school of psychotherapy puts more effort into understanding how the inappropriate modules work in the present.  Certain psychic disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression and OCD, seem to be related to incorrect triggering and emphasis on certain modules. While psychotherapy can help also for such disorders, medicines which modify these incorrect triggerings are also important in the treatment of such disorders. The best effect is often achieved by a combination of medicines and psychotherapy.  

Superstition and prejudices 

A problem with the human dependence on use of stored cognitive modules is that when such modules are inappropriate or out of date, they are the cause of superstition, prejudice and unwillingness to accept changes. There is also a problem in that humans very easily construct new cognitive modules which are inappropriate. To understand the mechanism behind this, the result of a psychological experiment can be used. In this experiment, a machine was constructed which generated a random series o bits, 0 or 1. The bits were generated so that on average, one third was a 0 and two thirds was a 1. A test person was then asked to guess, before the display of the next bit, whether that bit would be 0 or 1. The test person would also get paid, with higher payment the more often he/she guessed right. Since the bits were random, there was no chance of really guessing what the next bit would be. The optimal strategy for maximising the score would then to always guess at a 1. This would give a score of 66.7 % right. However, very few of the test persons ended up using this optimal strategy. Most of the test persons developed more or less complex rules for whether the next bit would be a 0 or a 1, giving on average a 55.6 % score, . What this experiment indicates, is that humans, when confronted with a complex reality, tend to construct complex explanations rather than accept that the reality contains a random element which they cannot predict. In real life, this tendency means that people will often guess at explanations which are incorrect, when confronted with a complex reality. Example of such incorrect deductions are beliefs like “Moslems were guilty of the 9/11 attacks, killing 2819 people, thus all Moslems are evil” or “This homeopathic medicine makes me better”.  The reason why the human mind works in this way, is probably that in many cases, it is useful to build new or revised cognitive modules to handle new kinds of situations. The tendency to build new or revised cognitive modules is thus in most cases a good strategy, and it may be more useful for a person to sometimes generate false cognitive modules than to not try to find explanations for what happens in life.  

Group support 

Another very common human tendency is to group other people into different kinds of groups, and then to like and support people who belong to the same group as oneself. This tendency can manifest itself as support for people believed to belong to the same ethnic group, religion, or speaking the same language. Even within a language, there are sublanguages, such as the language used my medical doctors when communicating with each other. A person belonging to such a group, such as a medical doctor, will be more positive to another person capable of using the medical language. This tendency is probably partly genetic, and it may have developed in a human life where people belonged to many small tribes and had a need to support members of their own tribe and be suspicious of members of other tribes. 

Are cognitive modules intelligent? 

Note that cognitive modules can be intelligent or dumb, rational or emotional, effective or ineffective, suitable or unsuitable. Psychic illness occurs when a person has some cognitive modules which are inappropriate and which dominate too much. Some people say that human thinking can be categorized into rational thinking and emotional thinking, with an implicit assumption that rational thinking is in some way better or more effective. However, cognitive modules combine rational and emotional thinking, and many very important and appropriate modules are highly emotional, for example the module which causes people to care for and protect children. A better way of categorizing cognitive modules is as appropriate and inappropriate, rather than as rational and emotional modules.   

Delusions, Beliefs

I spotted the following article in The Psychologist Vol 16, and it made me realise how many people of different faiths, beliefs, and mindsets should be really considered to be deluded. Indeed, I know the case of a Swedish religious convert to an Eastern Religion that I could relate this article to (actually I can relate this article to many followers of Western and Eastern religions). The aspect of standing back and each one of us really looking at ourselves in a reasonably objective way is crucial for a rationalist. Unfortunately, it is a luxury that eludes many people. The aspect of being critical of everything and everyone is an intellectual honesty and baggage that not all people are capable of handling. Of course, intellectual honesty is a causality of people who want certainty in their lives at the expense of truth, and it is intellectual terrorism for those who center their lives around such zealous propagation of religion, faith, and unquestioning culture.

Early in his third month of office, President Reagan was on his way to address a conference when John Hinckley fired six gun shots at point blank range, wounding the president and three of his entourage. In the controversial trial that followed, three defence psychiatrists successfully argued that Hinckley was not guilty, on the grounds that he was suffering from the delusion that the assassination would cause Jodie Foster, the actress from Taxi Driver (a film which Hinckley was obsessed with), to fall in love with him. In the same year the award-winning author Philip K. Dick, whose books have been turned into major Hollywood films, such as Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, published one of his last books. The sprawling and eccentric VALIS is a novel based on delusions resulting from his own psychotic breakdown, which he drew on for much of his prolific career (see box 1).

From these and many other examples, it would appear that unusual or unlikely beliefs have significant consequences and continue to captivate the interest of many of us. But to examine such claims we need to know what is meant by a delusion. How do delusions differ from other abnormal beliefs? Does the study of delusions provide a productive way of understanding beliefs?

Box 1: Philip K. Dick
Many novels and short stories by Philip K. Dick contain elements from the delusions he suffered regarding identity and the nature of reality. Dick described many bizarre experiences and came to believe that human development was controlled by an entity called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) and that his perception of Orange County, California was an illusion disguising the fact that he was really living in firstcentury Rome.There were multiple reasons for Dick’s bizarre beliefs, given his share of trauma, phobias and drug abuse, but it is likely that many of the delusions he wrote about stemmed from psychotic episodes he experienced as a sufferer and as an observer of others.This alone makes his work of great psychological interest. However, Dick also seems to have some knowledge of contemporary psychology himself, incorporating as he did the work of Penfield,Vygotsky and Luria (among others) into his stories.

Defining issues

Delusions are one of the most important constructs used by psychiatrists to diagnose patients who are considered to have lost touch with reality (Maher, 1988). For Jaspers (1963), one of the founders of modern psychiatry, delusions constituted the ‘basic characteristic of madness’ despite being ‘psychologically irreducible’.

More significantly, the detection of delusions has ‘enormous implications for diagnosis andtreatment, as well as complex notions concerning responsibility, prediction of behaviour, etc.’ (David, 1999). Yet, as pointed out by many commentators (see Jones, 1999), the clinical usage of the term delusion and its distinction from other abnormal beliefs involve a host of semantic and epistemological difficulties. Predominant amongst these is our belief that delusions are (to a large extent) self evident; that is, that they constitute a type of belief that (almost) everyone else would recognise as pathological. This, however, is more apparent than real, and is not even reflected in the many different opinions that surround the definition of the construct (Berrios, 1991; Garety &Hemsley, 1994; Spitzer, 1990). Indeed, David (1999) has suggested ‘there is no acceptable (rather than accepted) definition of a delusion’ (p.17).

For most of us, however, these thorny issues of definition can be sidestepped by choosing to adopt the descriptive and widespread characterisation offered by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). This established psychiatric nosology text considers a delusion to be, first and foremost, a form of belief: a belief whose acceptance and subsequent behaviour can constitute the grounds for insanity. But no justification is offered and the statement itself amounts to a belief in delusions. More explicitly, the standard definition characterises delusions as false, based on an incorrect inference about external reality and different from what almost everyone else believes (APA, 1994). Other features such as degree of conviction and imperviousness to persuasion do not set delusions apart from other beliefs (Garety & Hemsley, 1994).

Delusions – An abnormal belief by any other name

Despite differences in emphasis, most definitions consider two criteria to be significant when establishing a delusion: falsifiability and bizarreness. Simply described, ‘bizarre delusions are generally impossible, whereas non-bizarre delusions are generally improbable’ (Sedler, 1995, p.256). The DSM-IV distinguishes these as follows: a non-bizarre delusion may involve situations that in principle could occur in real life but are thought (by the psychiatrist) to be highly improbable and therefore potentially falsifiable; a bizarre or fantastic belief, however, is considered impossible and therefore assumed to be one not normally held by others in the culture or society. The problem with each of these definitions lies not with the differential distinction, but with the absence of agreed operational definitions as to how these criteria are arrived at clinically.

The DSM definition does not specify how one might set about establishing the falseness or bizarreness of the belief; nor how one could know whether the belief was the product of an impaired inference, such as occurs in paranoid patients, who show a tendency to jump to conclusions in situations requiring probabalistic reasoning (Bentall, 1994). Here we turn to some specific problems.

Falsifiability Non-bizarre delusions involve situations and events that could occur in real life, such as believing that one is being followed, infected, poisoned or deceived by another. Therefore the ‘falsifiability’ criterion can mean that psychiatrists are often required to make judgements on claims of marital infidelity, persecution or conspiracy in the workplace (Jones, 1999), where the available relevant evidence is either limited, cannot be ascertained within the confines of the consulting room, or lies beyond the forensic capabilities of the clinician. As pointed out by Young (2000), ‘many of the beliefs considered to be delusions do not meet these criteria (or are not tested against them) in practice’ (p.47). This can have some curious consequences (see ‘The Martha Mitchell Effect, box 2).

Accordingly, this falsity criterion has been rightly questioned (Spitzer, 1990). Moreover, it is unclear what level of evidence would be required to consider a belief ‘incontrovertibly false’ and whether judgements should be based on the ‘balance of probabilities’ or the more stringent test of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. ‘Delusional’ beliefs, consequently, may not be false (Heise, 1988) or even firmly sustained (Myin-Germeys et al., 2001).

Bizarre beliefs The attribution that a delusion is bizarre is typically defined in terms of beliefs considered not normally held by other members of a person’s culture or society. This, however, often first involves the psychiatrist’s own evaluation as regards the plausibility of the belief; after which the psychiatrist considers whether it is one typically sustained by the others in the person’s culture. Although both evaluations may be related, they need not be. If, based on his or her own beliefs and experience, the psychiatrist considers the belief sufficiently bizarre, then presumably a diagnosis of delusion can be made independent of ascertaining the actual prevalence of the belief in the patient’s culture. 

Box 2: The Martha Mitchell Effect
Sometimes improbable patient reports are erroneously assumed to be symptoms of mental illness (Maher, 1988).The ‘Martha Mitchell effect’ referred to the tendency of mental health practitioners not to believe the experience of the wife of the American attorney general, whose persistent reports of corruption in the Nixon White House were initially dismissed as evidence of delusional thinking, until later proved correct by the Watergate investigation. Such examples demonstrate that delusional pathology can often lie in the failure or inability to verify whether the events have actually taken place, no matter how improbable intuitively they might appear to the busy clinician. Clearly, there are instances ‘where people are pursued by the Mafia’ or are ‘kept under surveillance by the police’, and where they rightly suspect ‘that their spouse is unfaithful’ (Sedler, 1995).As Joseph H. Berke (1998) wrote, even paranoids have enemies! For understandable and obvious reasons, however, little effort is invested by clinicians into checking the validity of claims of persecution or harassment, and without such evidence the patient could be labelled delusional.

The DSM definition, however, clearly assumes that the criterion of abnormality or bizarreness should be obvious, given that the belief is one not ordinarily accepted by other members of a person’s culture or subculture. This is not necessarily a reliable strategy: many studies of psychiatrists show poor interrater reliability for ratings of bizarre beliefs (Flaum et al., 1991; Junginger et al., 1992). Moreover, most clinicians are not in a position to know or find out whether such beliefs comprise those normally accepted, except by direct comparison with those of his or her own peer group. One method of comparison is the use of large-scale surveys, but most clinical judgements on the prevalence of beliefs in society are not typically informed by empirical evidence.

In fact, beliefs in unscientific or parapsychological phenomena are not statistically uncommon (see Della Salla, 1999), and were this criterion alone employed as a sufficient condition, then many of us at times might be classified as delusional (Moor & Tucker, 1979). Large-scale marketing research polls carried out in the UK and North America consistently reveal that significant numbers of people within society hold strong beliefs about the paranormal. For example, a 1998 UK survey found that 41 per cent of respondents believed in communication with the dead, and 49 per cent believed in heaven – but only 28 per cent in hell (‘Survey of paranormal beliefs’, 1998). Such surveys also reveal important cultural differences in held beliefs. In many Western countries opinion polls confirm that large numbers believe in god(s) and hold other paranormal beliefs (Taylor, 2003). Consequently, religious beliefs, including praying to a deity, are not typically considered delusional, while believing and claiming that one is a deity (see ‘The Three Christs of Ypsilanti’, box 3) or that one’s spouse has been replaced (see ‘Capgras delusion’, box 4) typically are.

The existence of high levels of conviction in what might be considered abnormal, unscientific or paranormal beliefs raises important questions for mental health workers when justifying the notion of bizarre beliefs on purely conceptual or statistical grounds. As pointed out by French (1992), most beliefs are based upon ‘personal experiences perhaps supported by reports of trusted others, and the general cultural acceptance that such phenomena are indeed genuine’.

Although clinically important, the conceptual basis for the criteria of falsification or impossibility clearly breaks down under scrutiny. It is also problematic because psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations are not inevitably associated with the presence of a psychiatric disorder (Johns & van Os, 2001). Consequently, patients with DSM-IV-type delusions do not constitute a homogeneous group.

Box 3: The Three Christs Of Ypsilanti
In 1959 social psychologist Milton Rokeach brought together three schizophrenic patients in the same psychiatric ward in Ypsilanti, Michigan, all of whom suffered from the Messiah complex – each believed he was Jesus Christ. Rokeach was interested in seeing whether these mutually exclusive delusions would interact and affect the extent of conviction and content of each patient’s delusional beliefs. In his book Rokeach (1964/1981) records how each patient dealt with this conflict, one by avoidance, one by relinquishing his delusion and the other by attributing the identity claims of his compatriots to mental illness.Whilst this study would be considered ethically dubious today, it was one of the most original forays into the study of psychopathology where the explicit aim was to inform normal belief processes.

More often than not the decision about whether or not a belief is delusional is made on pragmatic grounds – namely, the evidential consequences of the beliefs including the extent of personal distress, potential or actual injury or social danger generated by the belief. Sometimes the decision may be simple – Cotard’s delusion, a person’s belief that they are dead, may be assessed differently from a delusion of grandeur such as believing that you are dating a famous TV star.

Can delusions tell us about ‘normal’ beliefs?

Notwithstanding difficulties with the standard psychiatric definitions, most people accept that normal beliefs perform an essential and fundamental process in establishing mental reference points from which to help explain and interact with the world. It is impossible to understand racism, prejudice, and political and religious conflict without considering discrepancy in fundamental belief systems. Fodor (1983) indicated that beliefs comprise a ‘central’ cognitive process and should be regarded as qualitatively different from the modular processes that have been well exploited by cognitive neuropsychologists (Coltheart, 1999). The proposition, however, is not matched by any clear consensus in neuropsychological accounts of what constitutes the cognitive or neural mechanisms involved, the evolutionary functions, or how such beliefs can be changed and maintained.

Jones (1999) describes beliefs as mental forms that incorporate the capacity to influence
behaviour and cognition and govern the way people think and what they do. But the debate as to what defines a belief or belief state rumbles on, and some researchers have instead opted to examine the ways in which damage or change to known cognitive processes can affect belief formation, as communicated or acted upon by patients diagnosed as suffering from delusions.

Bryant (1997) observed that over the past 20 years a variety of cognitive models of belief formation have drawn ‘empirical support from evidence that delusions can be elicited in normal individuals undergoing anomalous experiences (Zimbardo et al., 1981), the prevalence of delusions in neuropathological disturbances of sensory experience (Ellis & Young, 1990), reasoning deficits in deluded patients (Garety et al., 1991) and the tendency for deluded patients to make external attributions following negative life events (Kaney & Bentall, 1989)’ (p.44). Recent developments from cognitive neuropsychiatry have shown how detailed investigations of monodelusional conditions (e.g. Capgras) can help to generate testable theories of delusion, face recognition and normal belief formation (Ellis & Lewis, 2001). But this potentially rich vein of research for cognitive neuropsychiatry (see Coltheart and Davis, 2000; Halligan & David, 2001) does not necessarily imply that delusions are the primary source of psychopathology in patients diagnosed as psychotic.

Since most patients requiring psychiatric help have fully formed delusions by the time they are clinically diagnosed, establishing the causal factors responsible for the delusion is difficult. The neuropsychological or neurophysiological abnormalities observed could just as easily be interpreted as the product rather than the cause of these mental disorders.

However, if the formation of delusions as abnormal beliefs is the product of selective but as yet unspecified cognitive disturbance (e.g. in reasoning, thinking, attribution) then studying delusions may inform our understanding of how this psychopathology impacts on normal belief systems. Either way, they provide a platform for elucidating the cognitive architecture of belief formation itself.

Box 4: Capgras Delusion
Following a car crash in September 1995 Alan Davies became convinced that his wife of 31 years died in the accident and had been replaced by someone with whom he did not want to share his life. Diagnosed as suffering from Capgras syndrome, Mr Davies was awarded £130,000 damages after it was claimed that his rare psychiatric syndrome was caused by the crash that he and his wife, Christine, had survived. Despite suffering only minor physical injury he came to regard his wife, whom he now called Christine II, as an imposter and became stressed by any show of affection (de Bruxelles, 1999).

Future directions from a useful past

Despite the concept of delusion being common parlance in psychiatry and society, it is only in the last 20 years that serious attempts have been made to define and understand the construct in formal cognitive terms (Bentall et al., 2001; Coltheart & Davis, 2000; Garety & Hemsley, 1994).

One area that has been either ignored or relegated to a mysterious box in belief formation diagrams is the influence of our current ‘web of beliefs’ on the adoption or rejection of new beliefs. Stone and Young (1997) strongly argued that belief formation may involve weighing up explanations that are observationally adequate versus those that fit within a person’s current belief set. However, a plausible process by which beliefs may be integrated into such a belief set, or by which such a pre-existing set may influence how we generate beliefs about our perceptual world, has not been widely adopted.

Philosophers and social psychologists have attempted to piece together some of this network – and with some success. Quine and Ullian (1978) set out some philosophical principles by which a web of belief should operate. Of particular interest is their principle that beliefs are more easily shed, adopted or altered when the resulting network disruption is minimal, and that beliefs are validated by their relationships with existing beliefs. Moreover, they claim that any belief ‘can be held unrefuted no matter what, by making enough adjustments in other beliefs’ (p.79) – though sometimes this results in madness. Based on the idea that not all beliefs (or links) are created equal empirical work has shown that particular beliefs can be differentiated by the amount and strength of other beliefs, which are relied on for justification (Maio, 2002).

One theoretical framework that we are exploring in Cardiff is that provided by coherence theory (Thagard, 2000) when considering dynamic models of belief processes in action. Our working model describes how active beliefs can be evaluated for their acceptability by how well they cohere into existing belief sets. Beliefs and the constraints between them (for example, believing that Elvis is alive would constrain you to reject the belief that he is buried at Graceland) can be given values or weights. These allow an overall measure of coherence to be calculated and also permit a quantitative measure of disruption when beliefs are added, discarded or revised.

Sensory input may be a constraint in itself with the threshold for believing things obtained from  your own senses (‘I believe it was raining this morning’) considered higher than those taken on authority alone (‘I believe it was raining during the Battle of Waterloo’). This hierarchy may partly explain why in some cases delusional beliefs can be adopted over very short periods and with such conviction, and involve the sufferer dramatically revising other beliefs to cohere with their new-found preoccupation. Unusual experiences, which may accompany brain injury or mental illness, may also give direct perceptual experience for unlikely or bizarre beliefs that cause a radical reorganisation of a previously conservative belief network.

However, there must be more to pathological beliefs than simply reacting to unusual experiences, otherwise our belief systems would be in a constant state of flux. Influences on the ways in which individuals establish links between beliefs and their subsequent relevance for the individual also need to be taken into account when trying to explain why delusions are often considered bizarre.

A coherence theory account can address some of these problems by allowing reasoning biases to be modelled via damage to the constraints between beliefs. Of particular advantage to this approach is that coherence models can be implemented as artificial neural networks. This means the model can address predictions from neuropsychiatry. For example, Spitzer (1995) has argued for the the role of dopamine modulation in perceiving significance. He likens the role of dopamine to a perceptual ‘signal to noise ratio’ contrast control, where too little modulation could mean we make no useful distinction between meaningful and nonmeaningful information.

Too much, however, could lead us to see significance and meaning in perceptual information that we might otherwise ignore, causing, according to Spitzer, a range of unusual and unlikely beliefs. Given the heterogeneity and complexity of the factors involved, not least of agreeing a common language to describe and access the construct of abnormal beliefs in question, it would seem sensible to adopt an eclectic approach to delusions – one that links understanding from neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology. This would allow ‘abnormal’ and delusional beliefs to be understood as arising not simply from damaged biological mechanisms or information processing modules, but from cognitive beings firmly situated within their social milieu. Such an approach might also better allow us to treat patients with distressing beliefs, as well as provide a clearer insight into how each of us comes to hold our own beliefs, be they viewed by others as mundane, profound or peculiar.


American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th edn).Washington, DC:Author.
Bentall, R.P., Corcoran, R., Howard, R., Blackwood, N., & Kinderman, P. (2001). Persecutory delusions:A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 1143–1192.
Berke, J.H. (1998). Even paranoids have enemies: New perspectives on paranoia and persecution. London and New York: Routledge.
Berrios, G.E. (1991). Delusions as ‘wrong beliefs’:A conceptual history. British Journal of Psychiatry, 14, 6–13.
Bryant, R.A. (1997). Folie a familie:A cognitive study of delusional beliefs. Psychiatry, 60, 44– 50.
Coltheart, M. (1999). Modularity and cognition. Trends in Cognitive Science, 3(3), 115–120.
Coltheart, M. & Davis, M. (Eds.) (2000). Pathologies of belief. Oxford: Blackwell.
David,A.S. (1999). On the impossibility of defining delusions. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology, 6, 17–20.
de Bruxelles, S. (1999, 5 March). Crash victim thinks wife is an imposter. The Times, p.7.
Della Salla, S. (Ed.) (1999). Mind myths. New York:Wiley.
Ellis, H.D. & Lewis, M.B. (2001). Capgras delusion:A window on face recognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(4),149–156.
Flaum, M.,Arndt, S. & Andreasen, N.C. (1991).The reliability of ‘bizarre’ delusions. Comparative Psychiatry, 32, 59–65.
Fodor, J. (1983). The modularity of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
French, C.C. (1992). Factors underlying belief in the paranormal: Do sheep and goats think differently? The Psychologist, 5, 295–299.
Garety, P.A. & Hemsley, D.R. (1994). Delusions: Investigations into the psychology of delusional reasoning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Halligan, P.W. & David,A.S. (2001). Cognitive neuropsychiatry: Towards a scientific psychopathology. Nature Neuroscience Review, 2, 209–215.
Heise, D.R. (1988). Delusions and the construction of reality. In T. Oltmanns & B. Maher (Eds) Delusional beliefs (pp.259–272) Chichester:Wiley.
Jaspers, K. (1963). General psychopathology (7th edn; J. Hoenig & M. Hamilton,Trans.). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Johns, L.C. & van Os, J. (2001).The continuity of psychotic experiences in the general population. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 1125–1141.
Jones, E. (1999).The phenomenology of abnormal belief. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology, 6, 1–16.
Junginger, J., Barker, S. & Coe, D. (1992). Mood theme and bizarreness of delusions in schizophrenia and mood psychosis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101, 287–292.
Maio, G.R. (2002).Values – Truth and meaning. The Psychologist, 15, 296–299.
Maher, B. (1988).Anomalous experience and delusional thinking:The logic of explanations. In T.F. Oltmanns and B.A. Maher (Eds.) Delusional beliefs (pp.15–33). Chichester:Wiley.
Moor, J.H. & Tucker, G.J. (1979). Delusions:Analysis and criteria. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 20, 388–393.
Myin-Germeys, I., Nicolson, N.A. & Delespaul, P.A.E.G. (2001).The context of delusional experiences in the daily life of patients with schizophrenia. Psychological Medicine, 31, 489– 498.
Quine,W.V. & Ullian, J.S. (1978). The web of belief (2nd edn). Toronto: Random House.
Rokeach, M. (1981). The three Christs of Ypsilanti. New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1964)
Sedler, M.J. (1995). Understanding delusions. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 18, 251–262.
Spitzer,M. (1990). On defining delusion. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 31, 377–397.
Spitzer,M. (1995).A neurocomputational approach to delusions. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 36, 83–105.
Survey of paranormal beliefs. (1998, 2 February). Daily Mail.
Thagard, P. (2000). Coherence in thought and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Stone,T. & Young,A.W. (1997). Delusions and brain injury:The philosophy and psychology of belief. Mind and Language, 12, 327–364.

Beliefs About Delusions, Vaughan Bell, Peter Halligan and Hadyn Ellis.
Published in The Psychologist Vol 16 No 8, pages 418-423.

Limits of Rationality

Rationality in Conflict Management 

Much of the conflict resolution literature presents an image of disputants as rational actors who are focused on pursuing their long-term interests, unaffected by their emotions. The “realist” approach suggests that all conflict involves material interests, while the rationalist approach suggests that conflict is the outcome of conscious intentions. [1] The idea seems to be that if parties rely solely on logic, both sides can advance their interests and come to a mutually acceptable compromise in the event that those interests conflict. Any emotional and relational factors should be set aside so that the political and economic interests that are central to the conflict can be addressed. Feelings of humiliation, shame, fear, and anxiety are viewed as obstacles to rational thinking and as a sign of vulnerability. [2]

Once parties have identified their deep-seated concerns and interests, they can make trade-offs and concessions and work together to devise creative solutions to their problems. Rationality helps them to explore their various interests and options, identify their zone of possible agreement, and find a way a way to compromise. According to the widely-accepted conception of means-ends rationality, a rational act is one that uses the most efficient means to achieve a given end. [3] Classical economic theory, for example, describes individuals as “hyper-rational.” [4] They make decisions by gathering and processing information and then acting in a manner that maximizes utility.

However, an approach to conflict that over-emphasizes rationality may obscure the fact that disputants in conflict are often influenced by unconscious motives and guided by the emotions of anger, fear, distrust, and shame. Protracted conflict, in particular, is often a result of parties’ lack of self-knowledge, disturbances in communication, and unacknowledged feelings about their relationship. [5] Insofar as strong emotions typically play either a positive or negative role in the way parties wage conflict and attempt to negotiate solutions, emotions have a profound influence on dispute management as well  Conflict and its resolution are driven not only by the pursuit of instrumental goals and rational interests, but also by desires for less tangible things such as love, recognition, and a sense of belonging.

Are Negotiations Guided by Rationality?

Most of the training literature for negotiation and mediation suggests that emotions should be ignored and that third party interveners should guide disputants toward rational behavior. [6] However, it is doubtful that the rational thought processes and decision-making that occurs during negotiation can function independently of the emotions. [7] Indeed, strong emotions are typically part of the negotiation process and may cause negotiations to break down if they are not dealt with properly. Feelings of fear, mistrust, and anger, for example, often interfere with effective negotiation by clouding parties’ judgment, narrowing their focus of attention, and distracting them from their substantive goals. [8]

For a settlement to be reached, it is not necessary that parties overcome all obstacles or address all of their concerns. There simply need to be enough incentives to motivate them to consent to the proposed agreement. Note that not all of these incentives are ones that figure into cost-benefit analysis or rational assessment. While it is true that disputants typically rely on rationality to assess the gains and losses associated with a proposed settlement, it seems clear that psychological rewards and disincentives likewise play a role. In addition to financial considerations and material interests, there are intangible considerations that may weigh in favor of settlement or against it. [9] For example, the emotional benefits and losses that may be anticipated as a result of settlement include recognition, revenge, honor, distrust, anger, and embarrassment. Other intangible considerations include the thoughts and feelings of the disputants about their relationship.

In many cases, disputants are not even reflectively aware of these emotional and relational factors. Unacknowledged threats to relational bonds result in shame can set the stage for insult, humiliation, and revenge. [10] These hidden emotional factors may make coming to a settlement seem unfavorable even, when such an agreement would best serve parties’ material interests. Indeed, if emotions are high, disputants are likely to be antagonistic in response to anything the other side proposes. Negative emotions thus may lead parties to neglect their instrumental goals.

Conflicts that are relatively intangible are those rooted in the dynamics of history, religion, culture, and values. Because these conflicts “arise from the depths of the human heart rather than the material world,” it is difficult to determine their parameters and boundaries. [11] When these conflicts continue for a long time, parties’ goals tend to extend beyond advancing their concrete interests to include upholding their dignity and prestige. Conflicts rooted in underlying value differences, identity issues, or unacknowledged emotions cannot be addressed in the same way as disputes over tangible resources. According to Jay Rothman (1997), trying to use common modes of bargaining to address conflicts that are poorly defined or intangible often proves to be inadequate.

Marc Gopin (2002) recommends that political negotiations to manage such conflicts be accompanied by efforts to address religion, culture, moral commitments, and the transformation of relationships. In his view, building peace requires more than political settlements and rational agreements. It requires groups’ ability to address the cultural and spiritual dimensions of conflict and deal with their feelings of humiliation, dishonor, and grief. Systems of mourning and coping with ultimate loss should be brought into the realm of peacemaking. Gopin believes that in addition to addressing the conflict’s substantive political issues, we should work to foster healing and reconciliation.

Understanding Conflict Escalation

In addition, an over-emphasis on rationality will limit our understanding of conflict escalation. Under certain circumstances, such as when one party has overwhelming power over its opponent, escalation is the rational thing to do. It makes sense to use one’s power to overcome the opponent’s resistance or to intentionally escalate the conflict in order to gain more leverage. [12] In these cases of tactical escalation, where parties make a rational choice to intensify conflict, they may actually be able to improve the conflict situation. However, escalation more commonly occurs without the parties having a full understanding of the situation or considering alternative courses of action. When conflict is driven by feelings of anger, fear, and perceived injustice, parties may overreact to the situation at hand and conflicts may spiral out of control. For example, sometimes individuals will perceive a grave threat, even though the situation is not actually as dangerous as they think it is. While there may be no real cause for anger or intense fear, these feelings may take over and lead to aggression. Actions that are seen as extreme or overly severe may then provoke outrage from the other side and cause conflict to become unnecessarily violent and destructive. [13] Overcome by hostility or a desire for revenge, the parties may develop grandiose positions that are unrealistic and unreasonable.

The intensification of conflict is typically accompanied by significant psychological changes among the parties involved. In addition to feelings of anger and fear, parties tend to develop stereotypes, negative attitudes, and mistaken perceptions of the other side. There is a tendency to misinterpret the behavior of one’s opponent or to assume that the intentions and basic dispositions of one’s enemy are always fundamentally “evil.” Even when an adversary makes some conciliatory actions or attempts to make some concessions, this conduct is likely to go unnoticed, or to be discounted as deceptive. [14] These mechanisms of attributional distortion and selective perception are not fully rational, and yet they influence much of the destructive behavior we see in value and identity conflicts. Indeed, parties may become so hostile and aggressive that they that may come to believe that the only way to resolve their conflict is to destroy the other side and make the other group just “go away” or “disappear.” It is these extreme attitudes that often result in genocide, war, and terrorism, many instances of which result in great harm to oneself or one’s group. Indeed, the injury that people sometimes undergo so that they can cause harm to their “enemies” suggests that people caught in conflict often act for reasons which defy rational calculations of self-interest. A failure to address these non-rational, social-psychological dimensions of conflict makes it difficult to account for why ordinary people engage in such destructive and violent acts.

Non-Rational Modes of Conflict Resolution Knowledge

Focusing solely on rationality may also cause us to overlook some of the important ways that people come to learn about ways to manage conflict. The conflict resolution field emphasizes research, training, and study as primary avenues for the development of knowledge. Through analysis and the application of various theories, practitioners can learn how to synthesize different approaches and apply resolution procedures to concrete conflict situations. Many people believe that knowledge gained through rational thinking and book learning should serve as the field’s focus. However, some theorists have begun to recognize that everyday, commonsense understandings of conflict play a central role in the process of learning how to manage conflict. Rather than being developed through scholarly study, folk knowledge is acquired through intuition and experience and embedded in cultural traditions. This awareness of how to manage conflict is a skill that people develop through everyday activity rather than through reflection and textual analysis. According to Paul Wehr (1998), this sort of knowledge evolves from generation to generation and emerges wherever human beings try to live together and get along in everyday life. [15] Children receive a great deal of this knowledge from their parents, elders, and social surroundings.

Stories, poetry, and rituals are likewise important sources of conflict resolution knowledge. Narratives allow people to gain insight into the perspectives and experiences of others and understand the motives and intentions behind their behavior. Similarly, poetry can help parties to identify their grievances, raise understanding about conflict dynamics, and move them toward reconciliation. In addition, participating in rituals often allows people to gain a deeper sense of what sorts of relationships they would like to build. Instead of emphasizing words or rational thought, ritual involves symbols, senses, and non-verbal communication. Through informal social activities as well as more formal cultural and religious ceremonies, parties tap into their emotions and learn how to wage conflict in more constructive ways. According to Lisa Schirch (2005), ritual offers parties an opportunity to interact in a space that is set apart from the conflict so that they can begin to develop a shared understanding of the challenges they face. Through art, ceremony, and symbolic activity, people who know little about the academic study of conflict resolution can gain knowledge about how to manage their conflict. In Schirch’s view, efforts to approach conflict in an exclusively rational, analytical, and linear mode are insufficient. [16] This is because much of our knowledge about conflict is rooted in our emotions, worldviews, and cultural understandings.

The imagination is yet another source of conflict knowledge that is not strictly rational. According to John Paul Lederach (2005), the capacity to recognize possibilities and envision constructive change does not emerge through the careful application of pre-established techniques. Instead, conflict transformation tends to come about through something that approximates an artistic process. [17] These “ah-ha” moments in which valuable insights surface are more like moments of aesthetic imagination than rational examination. Lederach thus views peacebuilding as an art form that requires creativity, constant innovation, and the ability to get to the heart and soul of conflict.
[1] Suzanne Retzinger and Thomas Scheff, “Emotion, Alienation, and Narratives: Resolving Intractable Conflict.” Mediation Quarterly 18(12)(2000-2001); available at:

[2] Daniel L. Shapiro, “Negotiating Emotions,” in Conflict Resolution Quarterly, (20:1, 2002), 68.

[3] Milton Rinehart, “Towards Better Concepts of Peace,” Working Paper 89-14, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado; available at:

[4] Edward E. Ergenzinger, “Conversations with Phineas Gage: A Neuroscientific Approach to Negotiation Strategies,”; available at:

[5] T. J. Scheff, Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, and War,(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994) 3.

[6] Suzanne Retzinger and Thomas Scheff, “Emotion, Alienation, and Narratives: Resolving Intractable Conflict.” Mediation Quarterly 18(12)(2000-2001); available at:

[7] Ergenzinger,

[8] Robert S. Adler, Benson Rosen, and Elliot M. Silverstein, “Emotions in Negotiation: How to Manage Fear and Anger,” in Negotiation Journal, (14:2, 1998). Summary available at:

[9] Shiri Milo-Locker,”The Decision to Settle – Balance, Setoffs and Tradeoffs Between Rational, Emotional and Psychological Forces,”, available at:

[10] Scheff, 1994, 3.

[11] Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity-Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 11.

[12] Otomar Bartos and Paul Wehr, Using Conflict Theory. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 99.

[13] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 1998), 169.

[14] ibid., 153.

[15] Paul Wehr, “The Development of Conflict Knowledge”

[16] Lisa Schirch, Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding, (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, Inc., 2005), 35.

[17] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Arts and Soul of Building Peace, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

The above article is by Michelle Maiese from  and the original can be found at