Sunday, September 10, 2006


No, really: WTF?

It [the psychology of forgiveness] is a new discipline. Sigmund Freud concentrated on hysteria, addiction and depression and, however discredited his theories have become, psychiatrists and psychologists have stuck with the same subjects ever since.

I can't speak for the loony-doctors, but psychology in the UK and US started with William James (smarter brother of novelist Henry) whose 'Psychology' was published in 1890. James was a clearer thinker, better writer, and more original researcher. (The best text on Freud, before even Popper, is Jeffrey Masson's splendid The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory.)

If researchers neglected happiness in the 20th century, they shunned forgiveness. Robert D Enright, an American professor at the forefront of 'forgiveness studies', said that when he started out in 1985, he couldn't find a single scientific paper on what made people merciful.

The man's a fool. Getting on with people, tolerating their faults, and making up after arguments is the default human behaviour. We know about "time, the great healer" and we know that most people, most of the time are merciful. The issue is also confused because it's cross-culturally seen as a social good to be merciful, so even when they aren't, people say they are. Take Peter Hitchens (no really): if he wants to argue for longer prison sentences or the death penalty, he does so, not on the grounds that "hanging people is fun" but on the grounds that he's caring for victims. Even the Nazis often claimed that they were merely going to move the Jews elsewhere; extermination wasn't something one said aloud in public.
The great Stanley Milgram experiment (which, to repeat myself owes nothing to Freud) was an attempt to find when people were not merciful. Before he started Milgram canvassed psychiatrists -- including the kind who were influenced by Freud, or by the sham Theodor Adorno, whose study "The Authoritarian Personality" is one the worst-researched, narrow-minded, and fatuous works ever completed in human history. They universally agreed that subjects would not inflict pain. Of course, they almost all did.
My now ancient 1985 second edition copy of Psychology by Henry Gleitman says on p544-545 regarding chidren and empathy:

As we develop, we become increasingly able to tell what other people are likely to feel in a given situation and how to help if it is needed. But even that is not enough to ensure that we will act unselfishly. For helping is only one means of getting rid of the empathic distress tht is caused by the sight of another person's pain. There is an easier but more callous method: one can simply look away. This often occurs in the big city, with its many beggars and derelicts and victims of violence, where empathy may seem a luxury one can no longer afford.

I don't know who Robert D Enright is, but I do know you sound cooler if you claim to be the first. Contra Coleridge, it is not disbelief which needs to be willingly suspended but belief. There are lots of studies of empathy and generosity before 1985, and most of them concluded that the main factor, when mercy is seen to be rare, was the perception of the other is inside or outside one's own group. (There was brilliant study in the 70s or 80s which used an actor who feigned to have collapsed on a university campus close to a lecture theatre. Students who were late were a lot less likely to stop. One reason for being merciful: not being late. Seriously. Though I can't find that now.)
As Nick comes close to admitting, the reason forgiveness is not much studied (apart from the problem of how do you tell forgiveness from forgetting), is that it makes sense. Not forgiving makes less sense, but clearly exists, making it a useful subject of study.
I don't know what this means:

Men and women at the top of politics tend to be like street fighters, who demand respect and respond to snubs with vehement anger even if the cost to themselves (and their party) is out of all proportion to the offence given.

But that's what being an alpha male means: in politics, street gangs, clans, academia. It means not taking any shit. (You can see this in academia in the vendettas Chomsky pursues.) Of course politicians are like street fighters: for these purposes they're the same.
And finally a question:

If the Chancellor takes power, the odds are that Blairites will do to Brown's premiership what the Brownites did to Blair's premiership.

What have the Brownites done to Blair's premiership? I'm agin Blair. Even in 1997 when I supported him (against wiser council), I hoped that he'd step down in favour of his cleverer number 2 sooner rather than later. (Ie before the then putative 2001/2002 election.) But Blair did most of the damage himself. Brown didn't make up any 45-minute claims about non-existent WMD. Brown didn't go on holiday with Silvio Berlusconi. Brown doesn't have a greedy wife who profits from books about her husband. Etc, etc, etc.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enough with the Freud-bashing already.

9/10/2006 04:13:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Mmmm, the great disaster of Blair's Premiership was the invasion of a Middle East country on false pretences and its dreadful consequences. I'm not entirely sure how Brown can be blamed for that.

9/10/2006 05:18:00 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I think the Granita deal involved Blair ceding a fair chunk of the domestic agenda to Brown. Blair has more control over foreign policy, especially latterly. Now Blair's foreign policy has come back to bite him, weakening the party by the perceptions it creates.

There's a lot of finger pointing about the "coup". However the underlying reasons could be:

1. Blair's formulas: initially saying he would go sometime before the General Election of 2009/10, and then saying he will go within a year. These statements almost seem designed to damage the Labour Party, and politics generally, and they jar with the British system of govt.

2. Labour slipping in the polls, and the Tory rise. This has acted as a catalyst, making Labour MPs more jumpy generally and setting the stage for the Brownites recent move. They thought they might as well lance the boil earlier rather than later, and move on.

9/11/2006 05:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is your actor experiment the famous study done at Princeton in the 70s by John Darley? His subjects (a nice touch, this) were seminary students who were on their way to give an impromptu lecture on the good samaritan. 90% of the ones who were running late stepped over the body of a man apparently lying in distress in the street.

9/11/2006 08:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will Nick mention last week's Intelligence Comittee report from the USA? It has a lot in it about the INC and its role in feeding doubtful information about Iraqi WMD into the system in 2002 and 2003. I seem to remember that at about the same time Nick gave some favourable publicity to the INC in his columns.

9/12/2006 01:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The best text on Freud, before even Popper, is Jeffrey Masson's splendid The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory.)"

This is the BEST text on Freud?

I guess that means Masson's 'Dogs Have the Strangest Friends: & Other True Stories of Animal Feelings' is the best book on dogs.

Yeah, splendid.

9/12/2006 09:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BD: Just follow the link.

9/13/2006 12:50:00 PM  

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