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Global Commentary
Saturday, 28 May 2005
The biology of psychopathy and empathy
Topic: Science & Technology
Researchers have found that psychopathy may be an inherited trait.

An article in The Economist "Original sinners?" reported the results of a study on twins' behaviour. Many of the twins studied had a tendency to bad behaviour and for the display of callous and unemotional traits, such as a lack of feelings of guilt after doing something wrong, or not having at least one good friend. In adults, callous and unemotional traits are symptoms of psychopathy.

The findings were reported as follows:

Based on the teachers' assessments, the researchers identified the naughtiest 10% of the individuals in their sample—in other words those with severe conduct disorder. They then subdivided these children into those with psychopathic traits and those without and asked, in each case, whether an individual's twin showed bad behaviour, psychopathy, or both.

Their analysis showed that bad behaviour without psychopathy has relatively little genetic component—less than a third. By contrast, four-fifths of the difference in behaviour between the general population and children with psychopathic traits seems to lie in the genes.
The article concluded that if there is a genetic basis for psychopathy, there is probably a selective advantage to the trait.

If it does, such an advantage probably pertains only when psychopaths are in the minority (a state of affairs known to biologists as a balanced polymorphism). But it does mean that far from being an aberrant behaviour, psychopathy may be disturbingly normal.
Callous and emotional traits are related to empathy, or more accurately, the lack of it. An earlier article in The Economist "A mirror to the world" discussed the biological basis of empathy.

Essentially, empathy appears to rely on a type of nerve cell known as a mirror neuron. A mirror neuron is one that is active when the individual whose brain it is in is engaged in some action or experiencing some sensation or emotion, and also when that particular action, sensation or emotion is being observed in someone else. A lack of mirror-neuron activity is considered to be at least part of the cause of autism.

The idea that traits such as empathy and psychopathy have biological and even genetic bases will inevitably be controversial to society, as most claims of genetic linkages in personality traits tend to be. However, it is the job of scientists to discover the science behind the traits, and the responsibility of society as a whole to determine what to do with the discoveries.

Posted by lim_cs at 9:23 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Friday, 27 May 2005
Innovation and age
Topic: Science & Technology
Edward Hugh reads a working paper "Age and Great Invention" from the National Bureau of Economic Research and concludes that "there is hope for some of us yet". From the abstract of the paper:

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago... I find that innovators are much less productive at younger ages, beginning to produce major ideas 8 years later at the end of the 20th Century than they did at the beginning. Furthermore, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age... [T]he accumulation of knowledge across generations leads innovators to seek more education over time. More generally, the results show that individual innovators are productive over a narrowing span of their life cycle, a trend that reduces -- other things equal -- the aggregate output of innovators. This drop in productivity is particularly acute if innovators' raw ability is greatest when young.
Yes, there is reason to be hopeful for some -- specifically for those who might have thought they had missed the innovation boat -- but overall, the message of a narrowing productive innovation life span is not one of optimism.

On the other hand, greater knowledge accumulation through longer education means that innovators start the most productive phase of their life spans with greater innovative capacity. In addition, the information and management sciences now have a better understanding of how information is assimilated and converted into knowledge and thence, innovation.

Improvements arising from such understanding enable organisations and individual innovators to compensate for the shorter innovation life spans of the latter with more intensively productive ones.

Posted by lim_cs at 11:09 AM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Friday, 18 March 2005
Subconscious altruism
Topic: Science & Technology
A New Scientist report entitled "Pay up, you are being watched" describes a study which provides a clue as to why people behave altruistically.

[Researchers Terry Burnham] and Brian Hare pitted 96 volunteers against each other anonymously in games where they donate money or withhold it. Donating into a communal pot would yield the most money, but only if others donated too.

The researchers split the group into two. Half made their choices undisturbed at a computer screen, while the others were faced with a photo of Kismet - ostensibly not part of the experiment. The players who gazed at the cute robot gave 30 per cent more to the pot than the others. Burnham and Hare believe that at some subconscious level they were aware of being watched. Being seen to be generous might mean an increased chance of receiving gifts in future or less chance of punishment, they will report in Human Nature.
If true, this suggests that people who act altruistically may actually be doing so for deep-seated subconscious reasons, and not necessarily because they are consciously seeking favours in return.

This seems a reasonable postulate. People do not always act on purely rational grounds. The subconscious plays an important part. After all, isn't that how conscience works?

Posted by lim_cs at 1:42 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post

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