Monday, January 19, 2015

Magic Mushroom Users who get High without Drugs
Psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin have been of interest to psychologists due to their ability to induce altered states of intense well-being and profound personal significance. A recent study asked people, some who were psilocybin users and others who were not, about the best, most wonderful experiences of their lives. Some users said that the most wonderful experience occurred under the influence of psilocybin. Other users, who had their most wonderful experience while not under the drug’s influence, nevertheless reported a profound alteration of consciousness that was similar in some ways to the effects of psilocybin. For example, they described unusual visual hallucinations in addition to transcendental mystical states. Both groups of users said their most wonderful experience involved a more profoundly altered state of consciousness compared to the experiences of non-users. One possible implication of this study is that psilocybin could have lasting effects on a person’s ability to enter altered states of consciousness without drugs. However, further research is needed to confirm if this is actually the case.

The intense visual phenomena induced by psychedelic drugs have inspired some remarkable art
Image Credit: 
Psy - "Pink" - Peace(link is external) by sorrowdiess(link is external) via DeviantArt

Psychologists have long been interested in understanding the human capacity for intense well-being. Abraham Maslow, a pioneer of humanistic psychology, in particular coined the term “peak experiences” to refer to states in which a person feels intensely positive emotions such as great ecstasy, wonder and awe (Klavetter & Mogar, 1967). He considered peak experiences to be a sign of psychological health and thought that such experiences were particularly common in people who were fulfilling their deepest human potentials. Maslow conceptualised peak experiences as a perception of “Being” or “ultimate reality” in a mystical sense, although other researchers have used the term more broadly to refer to the most wonderful or best experiences in a person’s life.

Pioneering studies in the 1960’s investigated the potential of psychedelic drugs such as LSD to induce peak experiences. For example, one study on LSD-assisted psychotherapy found that under the influence of LSD some people had experiences involving feelings of intense beauty, a sense of deeper perception of reality, and of self-transcendence (Klavetter & Mogar, 1967). Furthermore, those who had such experiences believed that they had gained lasting benefits, including greater insight into themselves and their relationships, and that they had become clearer about their values in life. On the other hand, some of the participants in the study did not have a peak experience and reported that they found the experience disappointing and confusing, or felt that they had temporarily gone mad. Hence, some people seem more likely to benefit from psychedelic drugs than others. For example, people who are highly open to new experiences seem to benefit most, while people who are emotionally unstable or rigidly conventional in their views are prone to greater anxiety and negative, disturbing experiences (Studerus, Kometer, Hasler, & Vollenweider, 2011).

Research on psychedelic drugs was unfortunately suppressed in the 1970’s and has been resumed only in more recent years, and today uses somewhat more rigorous scientific methods. One well-known study, which I have discussed elsewhere, also found that psilocybin, the active component of magic mushrooms, can induce profoundly positive experiences in certain people (Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse, 2006). In this study mentally stable adults volunteered to take psilocybin under supportive conditions. About two-thirds of participants had a “complete mystical experience” involving feelings of intense joy, timelessness, a sense of oneness with the universe and ego-transcendence, and feelings of profound insight into reality. In a fourteen month follow-up, nearly all of the participants who had a mystical experience said they regarded it as one of the most personally significant moments of their lives.

The effects of psychedelic drugs are sensitive to features of the setting they are taken in. In the Griffiths et al. study psilocybin was administered in a safe comfortable setting with an assistant present to provide emotional support as needed to the volunteers. This helped to maximise the chance that they had a positive outcome. However, recreational users of psilocybin may be more casual about the kind of setting they create so the outcomes could be more variable. A recent study attempted to understand the outcomes of psilocybin use in more naturalistic recreational settings (Cummins & Lyke, 2013). In particular, the authors wanted to know how common peak experiences are among users and how they might compare to peak experiences reported by non-users. They gave a survey to 34 psilocybin users and 67 non-users, asking them to recall a peak experience, defined as the best experience or group of experiences in their lives. They then completed a questionnaire assessing the degree to which their peak experience involved alterations in their state of consciousness. Altered states of consciousness were assessed along three dimensions: oceanic boundlessness, which involves subjectively positive, mystical or transcendental experiences; visionary restructuralization, involving visual hallucinations and synaesthesia (crossover of sensory experiences, e.g. seeing music); and dread of ego dissolution, which includes negative experiences such as anxiety about one’s mental processes. Additionally, participants were asked if the peak experience had been induced by psilocybin and if they were under the influence of any other drugs at the time.

Among psilocybin users, 47% reported that their peak experience had occurred under the influence of psilocybin, while the other users said that it had not. Consistent with previous research, those who reported that their peak experience occurred under psilocybin said that it involved very high levels of oceanic boundlessness and visionary restructuralization, as well as relatively high levels of dread of ego dissolution. This is comparable to the findings of the study by Griffiths et al. in which about a third of participants experienced a high level of anxiety at some stage even though they rated their overall experience as being highly positive. Perhaps more interesting was that psilocybin users whose peak experience had not been induced by psilocybin also reported that their peak experience involved high levels of oceanic boundlessness (their questionnaire scores being nearly as high as those who had their peak experience under psilocybin), as well as moderately high levels of visionary restructuralization (although somewhat lower than the other psilocybin users) but very low levels of dread of ego dissolution. For both groups of psilocybin users, their peak experiences involved considerably higher levels of oceanic boundlessness and visionary restructuralization compared to the peak experiences of those who had never used psilocybin. This indicates that lifetime peak experiences of psilocybin users involved more profound alterations of consciousness, whether they had or had not been induced by psilocybin, compared to the lifetime peak experiences of people who had never used.

These results raise some fascinating questions that the study design was not able to answer. For example, it is unknown why some psilocybin users had the most wonderful experience of their lives under psilocybin while other users did not. Situational factors, such as the setting in which the drug was taken might have played a role, plus characteristic of the users themselves might also be a factor. For example, differences in the personality trait of absorption, one’s propensity to experience episode of “total attention”, are strongly linked to how profoundly a person responds to psilocybin (Studerus, Gamma, Kometer, & Vollenweider, 2012), so it is possible that the two groups of users might have differed on this trait. However, what I find even more intriguing is the fact that psilocybin users who had peak experiences without drugs nevertheless reported that these peak experiences involved intense alterations of consciousness that included visual hallucinations as well as mystical states. It would be interesting to know whether these peak experiences were spontaneous or deliberately sought. For example, there are specific practices designed to produce altered states without drugs, such as shamanic rituals, which can induce visionary experiences.

It is also possible that people who have non-drug peak experiences involving visual phenomena might have distinctive personality traits compared to those who are not prone to such experiences. One study found that people who reported having peak experiences tend to have particular traits such as being more imaginative, less authoritarian and dogmatic, more tender-minded and more experimenting than people who had not reported such experiences (Mathes, 1982). People high in fantasy proneness have a natural tendency to have very vivid imaginative experiences, and it is possible that such people are more inclined to use psilocybin. Hence, the unusual results found by Cummins and Lyke might reflect the pre-existing characteristics of people who use psilocybin.

However, another intriguing possibility is that psilocybin use itself might result in long-term changes in a person’s propensity to experience unusual visual phenomena. In a web-based survey, over 60% of people who had used psychedelic drugs reported that they had had unusual visual experiences while not under the influence of any drug (Baggott, Coyle, Erowid, Erowid, & Robertson, 2011). Furthermore, 23.9% said that such experiences occurred constantly or nearly constantly. Most people said that they were not bothered by them, although 4.2% said such experiences were sufficiently troublesome to warrant seeking treatment. These experiences came in a wide variety of types, including seeing halos or auras around things, things appearing to move or breathe, moving objects leaving after-images, seeing things with eyes open that are not really there, and more. The number of different visual phenomena a person experienced was proportional to the number of times they had taken psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD and psilocybin, although ketamine and salvia were also indicated. The reasons for these findings are not really known, although it could well be the case that taking psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin might increase a person’s propensity to experience hallucinatory visual phenomena in the long-term. If this is true, then it might explain why psilocybin users who had a peak experience that was not induced by drugs reported unusual visual experiences.

In a previous article I speculated about the possibility that psilocybin use could alter the sensitivity of neuroreceptors that underlie individual differences in the trait of absorption, a trait associated with having altered states of consciousness. A related possibility is that psilocybin and similar drugs might also alter the long-term sensitivity of neuroreceptors that underlie the experience of hallucinatory visual phenomena, which might explain why some users experience persistent unusual visual experiences. There is an additional and related possibility that psilocybin use increases a person’s tendency to have mystical peak experiences even when not using drugs. These are very speculative ideas and longitudinal research studies in which people are tracked for some time before and after initiating usage would be needed to determine if psilocybin does have long-term effects on a person’s consciousness. Further research on psychedelic drugs could help provide a deeper understanding of the nature of experiences associated with profound levels of well-being. 

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image Credit
Psy - "Pink" - Peace by sorrowdiess via DeviantArt

Other posts about psychedelic drugs
Can Cannabis Cause Psychosis? A Hard Question to Answer (Admittedly cannabis is not a classic psychedelic, but still.)

Baggott, M. J., Coyle, J. R., Erowid, E., Erowid, F., & Robertson, L. C. (2011). Abnormal visual experiences in individuals with histories of hallucinogen use: A web-based questionnaire. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 114(1), 61-67. doi:
            Cummins C, & Lyke J (2013). Peak experiences of psilocybin users and non-users. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 45 (2), 189-94 PMID: 23909006
Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187(3), 268-283. doi: 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5
Klavetter, R. E., & Mogar, R. E. (1967). Peak Experiences: Investigation of Their Relationship to Psychedelic Therapy and Self-Actualization. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 7(2), 171-177. doi: 10.1177/002216786700700206
Mathes, E. W. (1982). Peak Experience Tendencies: Scale Development and Theory Testing. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 22(3), 92-108. doi: 10.1177/0022167882223011
Studerus, E., Gamma, A., Kometer, M., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2012). Prediction of Psilocybin Response in Healthy Volunteers. PLoS ONE, 7(2), e30800. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030800
Studerus, E., Kometer, M., Hasler, F., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2011). Acute, subacute and long-term subjective effects of psilocybin in healthy humans: a pooled analysis of experimental studies. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(11), 1434-1452. doi: 10.1177/0269881110382466

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cannabis Use and Psychosis: The Still Difficult Question of Causality
Many studies have linked adolescent cannabis use and risk of becoming psychotic later in life. However, the question of whether cannabis use actually causes some people to become psychotic is a difficult one to answer and the evidence remains inconclusive. Although it is possible that cannabis use could be a direct cause of mental illness, it is also possible that both usage and mental illness are caused by an underlying third factor. In support of this latter theory, a recently published study comparing family history of mental illness in people with schizophrenia who either have or have not used cannabis, suggests that heavy cannabis use and risk of mental illness are both related to an underlying genetic predisposition. Furthermore, long-term studies on cannabis use have generally not considered that personality characteristics that have been linked to mental illness might also prompt a person’s decision to use drugs such as cannabis.

Cannabis, commonly known as marijuana and also by many other names, is one of the most popular recreational drugs in the world. Although many people try it without apparent ill effects, a large amount of evidence exists that individuals who engage in heavy cannabis use before the age of 18 have an increased risk of developing a psychotic mental disorder later in life (McLaren, Silins, Hutchinson, Mattick, & Hall, 2010). Testing whether or not cannabis use actually causes people to become psychotic is difficult to do, because the only truly conclusive way to do so would involve experimenting on a bunch of people and randomly assigning them to either be users or non-users for a long period of time, and assessing their mental health status before and after. Due to ethical constraints this is not possible (especially in the current climate of political correctness) so researchers have had to make do with alternative study methods. The strongest evidence for a causal role of cannabis comes from prospective cohort studies in which very large groups of people are initially assessed in regards to their mental health and drug use, preferably in adolescence, and then reassessed over a period of years. A review of 10 studies involving seven cohorts in six different countries showed that all but one of these studies found that there was an association between cannabis use and later risk of psychosis (McLaren, et al., 2010). For example, the first such study, and one the largest, assessed over 45,000 Swedish male conscripts aged 18 and then tracked how many were admitted to hospital for schizophrenia over the next 15 years. This study found that those who had used cannabis between 10 and 50 times before the age of 18 were three times more likely to be hospitalised for schizophrenia compared to non-users, while those who had used more than 50 times before age 18 had a six-fold risk compared to non-users. Several other cohort studies also found that heavier usage was associated with increased risk. To put this in perspective, schizophrenia occurs in less than 1% of the general population (van Os & Kapur, 2009), so even if with increased risk associated with heavy use, only a small minority of cannabis users would be affected.

While these prospective studies are consistent with the idea of cannabis causing later psychosis, insofar as usage preceded the development of symptoms and heavier usage was associated with higher risk, alternative explanations for the relationship between cannabis usage and psychosis cannot be ruled out. It is also possible that people who are at greater risk of becoming mentally ill are also more inclined towards cannabis usage, or that there is some third factor underlying both. For example, a limitation of the Swedish cohort study was that it did not assess whether participants who became mentally ill had also used other drugs after the age of 18, such as amphetamines, that might lead to psychotic symptoms (McLaren, Silins, Hutchinson, Mattick, & Hall, 2010). Furthermore, cohort studies mostly have not considered genetic factors or personality traits that are associated with heavy use of cannabis and with risk of psychotic disorder.[1] People who choose to engage in heavy cannabis usage might do so because they have characteristics that also predispose them to eventually become psychotic.

Artistic view of how the world feels like with schizophrenia

The authors of a recent study have argued that that the genetic/familial risk of schizophrenia is what accounts for the association between cannabis use and schizophrenia (Proal, Fleming, Galvez-Buccollini, & DeLisi, 2014). That is, cannabis use is probably not the cause of schizophrenia but itself a manifestation of the underlying genetic factors that also case schizophrenia. This study compared people diagnosed with schizophrenia, who either did or did not have a history of heavy cannabis use in adolescence prior to the onset of their illness, with two comparison groups of people who did not have schizophrenia and who either did or did not have a history of heavy cannabis use in adolescence.[2] They then determined how many people in each group had first degree relatives who had been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness. This was done in order to assess the genetic/familial risk of schizophrenia for members of each group. If cannabis has a special causative effect in the development of psychosis that goes beyond pre-existing genetic risk, then cannabis users who had become psychotic would be expected to have a lower genetic risk compared to non-users who had become psychotic. What the authors found was that, compared to the two comparison groups, people with schizophrenia had the same elevated level of familial/genetic risk regardless of whether they had or had not used cannabis. Hence, they argued that it is the genetic risk that is most likely the cause of schizophrenia, and that cannabis use is unlikely to be the cause, although they admitted that it might hasten the onset of symptoms. Additionally, relatives of the two cannabis-using groups, had high rates of drug use in general, which is in line with research indicating that some people have a genetic predisposition to use drugs.

As well as family history of mental illness, certain psychological characteristics are associated with an increased risk of developing psychotic symptoms. Specifically, some people who are not clinically disturbed have certain tendencies that resemble mild psychotic symptoms, such as experiencing unusual perceptions (e.g. feeling that strangers can read you mind) and holding peculiar beliefs about the nature of reality (e.g. that aliens are influencing events on earth). Psychologists refer to these tendencies as schizotypy, because of their resemblance to more extreme symptoms observed in people with schizophrenia. People with high levels of schizotypy have an elevated risk of becoming fully psychotic later in life, although it is important to note that this only occurs in a minority of people with these tendencies[3] (Chapman, Chapman, Kwapil, Eckblad, & Zinser, 1994). Many research studies have found that heavy users of cannabis also tend to be high in schizotypy traits compared to non-users (Fridberg, Vollmer, O'Donnell, & Skosnik, 2011). Additionally, older users tend to have more severe schizotypy traits compared to younger users, suggesting that symptoms might increase over time in users. Once again, it is difficult to say whether having schizotypy traits predisposes people to use cannabis, or whether using cannabis increases schizotypy. It is also possible there could be a two-way relationship. However, there is some evidence that schizotypy traits in heavy users tend to emerge before they first start using. One survey of users tested this by asking participants who indicated that they had schizotypy symptoms to estimate when they first noticed them occurring, and to state when they first began to use cannabis (Schiffman, Nakamura, Earleywine, & LaBrie, 2005). In the majority of cases, participants said that they had first noticed having schizotypy symptoms a few years before ever using cannabis. Of course this does not necessarily mean that schizotypy causes people to use cannabis, but it may well be a factor. More to the point, it is possible that heavy cannabis users may have an increased risk of psychosis because they naturally tend to be higher in schizotypy traits, rather than because of their drug use. However, it is also possible that the two act in combination and may be mutually reinforcing. 

Schizotypy also tends to be associated with other personality traits that may be relevant to mental health, such as high neuroticism, and low conscientiousness and agreeableness. Neuroticism has been identified as an independent risk factor for schizophrenia in prospective studies (van Os & Jones, 2001) and for mental disorders in general (Malouff, Thorsteinsson, & Schutte, 2005). Although heavy cannabis users tend to be higher in schizotypy than non-users, they do not tend to be higher on neuroticism, although they do tend to be lower than non-users in conscientiousness and agreeableness, as well as higher in openness to experience (Fridberg, et al., 2011). The majority of users, even heavy users, do not go on to develop psychotic mental disorders, so perhaps there is a particular subset of users who are most at risk. Fridberg et al. suggested that those who are not only high in schizotypy but also high in neuroticism and openness to experience as well as low in conscientiousness and agreeableness might be particularly vulnerable. People who have a family history of mental illness would also be of particular concern. 

To reiterate, determining the nature of the causal connection between cannabis use and psychosis is very difficult. It is possible that cannabis use during adolescence has a direct causal role, perhaps due to the drug’s influence on the developing brain. However, the reasons that a person chooses to take up cannabis use in the first place may reflect pre-existing risk factors for psychosis, such as such as genetic/familial risk and schizotypy traits. Future research studies should take these factors into account in order to better help identify individuals who may be at the greatest risk of harm.


[1] One cohort study using a genetic test found that in heavy users with a specific genetic polymorphism had an increased risk of psychosis compared to heavy users without it (Caspi et al.). However, a later study failed to confirm this result (McLaren, et al., 2010a).
[2] The authors were careful to include only people who had not used any other illicit drugs.
[3] In fact, some people with schizotypal tendencies are otherwise well-adjusted. Schizotypy is often associated with creativity and professional artists and stand-up comedians tend to be high in these traits. 

Image Credits

Mystic Weed Rose by MorbidKittyCorpse at Deviant Art 

Schizophrenia/Internal Symmetry by Craig Finn courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Use of these artworks is permitted by the Creative Commons Licence and does not imply endorsement by the artists. 

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Posts I have written about psychedelic drugs (which are not linked to psychosis)

Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., Cannon, M., McClay, J., Murray, R., Harrington, H., . . . Craig, I. W. Moderation of the Effect of Adolescent-Onset Cannabis Use on Adult Psychosis by a Functional Polymorphism in the Catechol-O-Methyltransferase Gene: Longitudinal Evidence of a Gene X Environment Interaction. Biological Psychiatry, 57(10), 1117-1127. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.01.026 
Chapman, L. J., Chapman, J. P., Kwapil, T. R., Eckblad, M., & Zinser, M. C. (1994). Putatively Psychosis-Prone Subjects 10 Years Later. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(2), 171-183.
Fridberg, D. J., Vollmer, J. M., O'Donnell, B. F., & Skosnik, P. D. (2011). Cannabis users differ from non-users on measures of personality and schizotypy. Psychiatry Research, 186(1), 46-52. doi: 
Malouff, J. M., Thorsteinsson, E. B., & Schutte, N. S. (2005). The Relationship Between the Five-Factor Model of Personality and Symptoms of Clinical Disorders: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 27(2), 101-114.
McLaren JA, Silins E, Hutchinson D, Mattick RP, & Hall W (2010). Assessing evidence for a causal link between cannabis and psychosis: a review of cohort studies. The International journal on drug policy, 21 (1), 10-9 PMID: 19783132
Proal, A. C., Fleming, J., Galvez-Buccollini, J. A., & DeLisi, L. E. (2014). A controlled family study of cannabis users with and without psychosis. Schizophrenia Research, 152(1), 283-288.
Schiffman, J., Nakamura, B., Earleywine, M., & LaBrie, J. (2005). Symptoms of schizotypy precede cannabis use. Psychiatry Research, 134(1), 37-42. doi:
van Os, J., & Jones, P. B. (2001). Neuroticism as a risk factor for schizophrenia. Psychol Med, 31, 1129 - 1134.
van Os, J., & Kapur, S. (2009). Schizophrenia. The Lancet, 374(9690), 635-645. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Heroes and Villains: Banal or Special People? Part 2 of 2
In part 1 of this post, I discussed the situationist analysis of the “banality” of evil and of heroism respectively. To recap, according to Phil Zimbardo and colleagues, both heroic acts and evil acts occur primarily in response to situational factors, rather than internal features of the person. However, on closer inspection, the situationist analysis provides inconsistent accounts of how each of these occurs. Evil actions are attributed to factors entirely outside the person, while heroism relies on the person’s inner qualities. In this post, I explore these inconsistencies in more detail and consider some relevant evidence.
The false dichotomy of dispositions vs. situations
In developing his situationist explanation of why “good” people do evil things, Zimbardo draws heavily on his analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), in which students recruited to act as guards in a mock prison engaged in abuse and mistreatment of students recruited to act as prisoners. Zimbardo has drawn many parallels between the SPE and the prisoner abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib. In both cases, Zimbardo has argued that the horrendous behavior of those involved can be explained pretty much entirely as a result of external factors and that “dispositional” factors internal to the person are irrelevant. He states:
 When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you’re going to get this kind of evil behavior. The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That’s a dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that’s the wrong analysis. It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.’ (Emphasis added)

Was this woman just a victim of circumstance? Does the situation absolve her of responsibility?  
As can be seen from the foregoing, situationists explicitly reject what they call “dispositionalist” explanations that invoke personality traits to explain why people behaved the way they did in such situations. Supposedly, those who are inclined to a dispositional analysis want to pin all the blame on the “bad apples” involved, while ignoring the importance of the all-powerful “bad barrel” that is the real cause of all the horrendous things that were done there. As I noted previously, situationists pay lip service to the notion that behavior, including prisoner abuse is the product of the interaction between features of the situation and features of the person. (See this article by Zimbardo for example, where he responds to criticisms of situationism.) However, in practice he and his colleagues have expressed scorn for the idea that it might be worthwhile to consider the relevant personality traits of those who engaged in abusive behavior in the SPE and at Abu Ghraib.

The importance of self-selection

Specifically, personality psychologists have argued that self-selection played an important role in what happened both in the SPE and at Abu Ghraib. That is, people with certain personality traits that may predispose them to abusive behavior may be more likely than others to volunteer to either join a prison experiment or to work as prison guards respectively (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007). To provide evidence for this, they conducted an experiment to test whether people who would volunteer for a prison experiment (“a psychological study of prison life) had different personality traits from people who would volunteer for a non-specific psychology experiment (simply “a psychological study”).  (Neither one of the advertised “psychological studies” actually went ahead, as the real experiment was to see who would volunteer for each one.) Those who volunteered for the prison experiment were found to differ significantly from the control group on seven distinct personality traits related to aggressive tendencies. Specifically, the prison experiment volunteers were noticeably high on measures of aggression, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and also lower on altruism and dispositional empathy. Carnahan and McFarland argued that people tend to make choices to enter situations that allow them to express their personalities. Hence situations that lend themselves to abuse may be particularly attractive to people who are inclined to become abusive. The researchers were careful to point out that they were not denying the power of these situations to influence behavior. In fact, they argued that situations such as a prison where abuse is condoned act to reinforce and amplify pre-existing tendencies to be abusive (McFarland & Carnahan, 2009).

Do personal choices matter at all?
In their response to this study, Haney and Zimbardo (2009) attacked the authors for their supposed “dispositionalism” which they argued was an attempt to draw attention away from larger systemic factors that facilitated abuse while neatly blaming the actors involved, who were really just decent people caught up in terrible circumstances. Haney and Zimbardo blatantly parody the idea of self-selection, saying: “therefore, whatever extreme behavior people engage in is the product of their free and autonomous choice making, largely unencumbered by circumstance or context.” They go on to argue that most choices that people make are “highly situationally constrained” and determined less by personality than other factors such as economics. The idea that people’s choices must be ‘unencumbered’ or they have no real choice at all, strikes me as a false dichotomy, much like the false dichotomy between “bad apples” and a “bad barrel”. Ignoring the role of systemic factors at Abu Ghraib, such as policies and practices implicitly condoning prisoner abuse, would surely be a mistake. But ignoring the role of individual differences and the capacity for individual choice would also be a mistake. A comprehensive understanding of the causes of things like prisoner abuse requires attention to all the relevant variables involved.

McFarland and Carnahan acknowledged that something like Abu Ghraib can indeed induce abusive behavior. However, they argued that a model based on “the power of the situation” is too limited because it overlooks the importance of self-selection and selection by others and treats individual differences as irrelevant (2009). McFarland and Carnahan also challenge Zimbardo’s claims that the abusers at Abu Ghraib, and people who have engaged in government sanctioned torture in Greece and Brazil, were just “ordinary, normal” people corrupted by situational forces. Although Zimbardo claimed that “virtually anybody” in the situation at Abu Ghraib would act the same way – a sweeping generalization for which little or no evidence is provided – there is evidence that at least some of the abusers at Abu Ghraib volunteered for duty and that they had predispositions to abusive behaviour. A psychiatrist who investigated Abu Ghraib concluded that both situational and dispositional factors played a role on the abuse, and cited “psychological factors of negativity, hatred, and desire to dominate and humiliate” (McFarland & Carnahan, 2009).

Who has what it takes to do evil?

McFarland and Carnahan also point out that although Zimbardo and colleagues have claimed that torturers in Greece and Brazil were just ordinary people, research on this topic has found that those who were recruited for this role were carefully screened and selected for personal characteristics such as sympathetic attitudes to the reigning military regime and for conformity and conventionalism. Those who passed the screening then freely selected to go through intensive training. They were further screened for blind obedience to authority and for their ability to endure beatings. They were hardly ‘ordinary’ in the sense of being fairly representative of men of their age. McFarland and Carnahan point out that these sort of attitudes are consistent with an authoritarian personality profile. If it were true, as Zimbardo claims, that “virtually anyone” could be made to do evil things under the right circumstances, why would those responsible for recruiting torturers go to so much trouble to select suitable candidates?

Double standards for doing good and evil
What I also find disturbing about claims about the power of the situation to overrule individual choices is that it seems to locate all moral responsibility for evil behavior outside the persons involved, as if the participants in this drama were utterly powerless to act any differently. Indeed, Haney and Zimbardo seem to imply that unless people are “unencumbered by circumstance or context” their personal ability to make choices has little or no relevance to how they behave. Yet when it comes to heroic choices, the picture presented is almost the complete opposite of this. Heroes turn out to be those who have cultivated a “heroic imagination” and who have had the courage to make difficult decisions in situations where they were under considerable pressure to turn a blind eye to wrong-doings in their environment.

Just how “banal” is heroism really?
Consider an example of the “banality of heroism” that occurred at Abu Ghraib, described in an article on Zimbardo’s website. (Scroll down to the last page of the document, and see the sidebar story, “The Prison Guard’s Dilemma” by Jason Marsh.) This describes the story of Sergeant Joseph Darby, a prison guard at Abu Ghraib who became aware of prisoner abuse and made a brave decision to report it instead of turning a blind eye. According to the article, Darby decided to act in spite of the culture of the prison which “persuaded everyone else to perform or accept prisoner abuse.” He did this because he believed it was his moral duty, even though it meant that for a month and a half he “lived in a state of perpetual fear” of retaliation by the other guards if they found out what he had done. Since then he has been hailed as a hero, yet vilified by others, and now lives in hiding after going into protective custody.
Here we have a case of a man who performed a very brave action that put his own safety at risk because he believed that it was the morally right thing to do. Yet this is described as “banal” because apparently he was just an “ordinary” man. (As opposed to what, a superman?) To my mind, the “banal” (i.e. common, ordinary) response in this situation would be to go along with the crowd and cave in to pressure to do nothing. Furthermore, far from being “unencumbered by circumstance or context,” he was under considerable situational constraint, yet still managed to resist the power of the “bad barrel” that corrupted many others who did not show his courage. It is far from clear to me how this example can be explained in terms of purely situational factors that pushed the man in question into acting heroically.
Another case of heroism cited by Franco and Zimbardo illustrates the ability of individuals to make conscious choices to resist situational forces in order to uphold moral values. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul official in Lithuania in 1940, assisted more than 2,000 Jews to escape the Nazi invasion, in spite of direct orders by his government not to do so. Franco and Zimbardo point out that not only was this a difficult decision for him, but it was one that he thought about carefully over a long period of time. Discussing Sugihara’s personal history, they point out that:
These incidents suggest that Sugihara already possessed the internal strength and self-assurance necessary to be guided by his own moral compass in uncertain situations. We can speculate that Sugihara was more willing to assert his individual view than others around him who preferred to “go along to get along.”
Franco and Zimbardo therefore acknowledge that internal features of the person such as “internal strength and self-assurance” are needed to make moral decisions in difficult situations. This is in direct contrast to Zimbardo’s statements implying that heroism is a result of external circumstances and is unrelated to internal qualities of the person.
The importance of character
Franco and Zimbardo acknowledge that they do not actually know what prompts some people to take action when heroism is called for. They even consider briefly that those who do so may be more conscientious or they may be less risk averse. Conscientiousness and risk aversion are personality traits, so it seems that “dispositional” explanations are no longer completely off the table. However, they spend much more time discussing the importance of the “heroic imagination” and ways in which it can be nurtured so that ordinary people can learn to become heroes. They define the heroic imagination as “the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s actions and the consequences.” They then go on to enumerate a number of steps a person can take to foster this. These steps amount to developing the willingness to hold to a code of ethical conduct and act with integrity even when under pressure rationalise inaction or justify evil deeds. Additionally one must be able to “transcend anticipating negative consequences associated with some forms of heroism, such as being socially ostracized.” To my mind, these things sounds much like what lay people would call developing “character,” the inner strength to act with integrity and the courage of one’s convictions. In other words one must develop the ability to resist external situational forces and follow an internal moral compass. Ultimately, Franco and Zimbardo state that there must be “a hero’s willingness to accept any of the consequences of heroic action—whether the sacrifices are physical or social.”
Heroes need the strength of character to resist evil forces
I find much of what Franco and Zimbardo are saying about heroism to be commendable, particularly the concept of willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions. However, now I need to ask how this is compatible with the view that when people do evil it is because they are the victim of circumstances and forces outside of themselves? If ordinary people have the capacity to become heroes who take a stand against injustice, then surely they are responsible for their actions when they choose instead to do evil. If ordinary people can develop the strength of character to resist situational forces, then does not this imply that those who do not so resist are of weak character? Why not hold evil-doers and heroes alike to the same moral standards of accountability for their actions? I do not mean to imply that situational forces that act upon a person should be disregarded. What I am arguing is for a balanced perspective which takes into account the nature of the person who responds to these forces, including their capacity to make responsible choices. Personality psychologist David Funder (2006) has argued that situationist accounts appear to condone an ideology of victimisation in which people are not to blame for their actions because the real causes lie outside themselves. He contrasts this with a more person-centred approach that favours being true to oneself and the human capacity to develop a consistent self that seeks to control one’s destiny rather than remain a pawn of situational forces. An ideology of victimisation is also incompatible with the development of the heroic imagination.
Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image Credits
Photo of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Frodo Baggins by sykaaa at DeviantART

Carnahan T, & McFarland S (2007). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Personality & social psychology bulletin, 33 (5), 603-14 PMID: 17440210
Funder, D. C. (2006). Towards a resolution of the personality triad: Persons, situations, and behaviors. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(1), 21-34. doi:
Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2009). Persistent Dispositionalism in Interactionist Clothing: Fundamental Attribution Error in Explaining Prison Abuse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 807-814. doi: 10.1177/0146167208322864

McFarland, S., & Carnahan, T. (2009). A Situation's First Powers Are Attracting Volunteers and Selecting Participants: A Reply to Haney and Zimbardo (2009). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 815-818. doi: 10.1177/0146167209334781

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Heroes and Villains: Banal or Special People? Part 1 of 2
What moves a person to become a hero or a villain? Do people perform heroic actions, acts which involve genuine risk to themselves, because they are special people, or is it just a matter of circumstance, being in the right place at the right time? Do people who perform evil actions do so because of flaws in their character, or are they just victims of an evil system that corrupts the innocent, inducing otherwise “good” people to do terrible things? Those who subscribe to situationism, such as Phil Zimbardo, have argued that given the proper circumstances virtually anyone could either become a hero or an evil-doer. Zimbardo has argued that the “banality of heroism” mirrors the apparent “banality of evil.” That is, people choose to perform either heroic or evil deeds mainly according to the circumstances in which they find themselves, rather than because of any inner qualities of goodness or pathology they might possess. However, a closer examination of Zimbardo’s writings on the subject reveals apparent double standards for good and evil, in that evil actions are attributed to external forces imposing upon a person, whereas heroic actions are attributed to internal qualities that empower a person to resist situational pressures towards apathy and inaction. Zimbardo’s own writings on the subject suggest that heroism is far from banal because heroic action involves doing the brave thing in situations when the more commonplace response would be to do nothing. Since heroes take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, does that not mean that evil-doers are responsible for their choices too?

Sometimes people must choose between good and evil. But how do they decide?

Personal power and situational power: opposed or complementary forces?
One of the more generally accepted theories in psychology is that behavior results from an interaction of the internal features of the person (e.g. their personality, motives, and values) and the external features of the situation, such as social pressures to behave a certain way. However, according to the school of thought called situationism, there are situations that are so powerful that they pretty much compel people to act in certain ways, regardless of their internal dispositions or even their moral values. This view is particularly associated with Phil Zimbardo, who claimed that “A large body of evidence in social psychology supports the concept that situational power triumphs over individual power in certain contexts” (2007). I am not sure what body of evidence exactly he is referring to with this statement, as a meta-analysis of 100 years of research in social psychology found that the average effect size of social influence on behavior was actually smaller than the effect of personality (Richard, Bond Jr, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003).[1] Zimbardo has argued that powerful situations can induce “good” people to do evil things. In particular, he has claimed that abusive behaviors that occurred in the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment (which I have analyzed in a previous post) and at Abu Ghraib prison can be explained in terms of external situational forces rather than the personal characteristics of those who were involved. More recently, Zimbardo has argued that situationism can explain not only the extremes of evil but the extremes of good as well:
The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism. Both are not the consequence of dispositional tendencies, not special inner attributes of pathology or goodness residing within the human psyche or the human genome. Both emerge in particular situations at particular times when situational forces play a compelling role in moving individuals across the decisional line from inaction to action.
In this view, situational forces move people, pushing some people to do evil, others to turn a blind eye to evil-doers, while still others act heroically to right wrongs at great personal risk. In an article arguing for this situationist explanation, Zeno Franco and Zimbardo stated that “Some situations can inflame the ‘hostile imagination,’ propelling good people to do bad deeds, while something in that same setting can inspire the ‘heroic imagination’ propelling ordinary people toward actions that their culture at a given time determines is ‘heroic.’” (Emphasis added.)
The real life Braveheart: was he just an ordinary guy after all?
Situations as a personality test
In the language of social psychology, the situationist view attributes behavior mainly to external, rather than internal forces. Hence, heroism and villainy are unrelated to individual differences in personality or even conscious decisions based on one’s values. This seems to imply a rather passive view of human behavior in which people are largely at the mercy of circumstances outside themselves, rather than rational actors capable of making choices. However, if features of the person can be disregarded in favour of situational forces, then it is very difficult to explain why it is that the same situation can elicit completely opposite responses from different people. This would seem to suggest that situations elicit either heroic or villainous responses in a random way that cannot be predicted, or that situational factors alone are insufficient to explain the choices that people make in difficult circumstances. An alternative view is that situations do not so much suppress the individual personality, as reveal the person’s latent potential (Krueger, 2008). Therefore, a dangerous situation for example might reveal one person’s potential for bravery and another’s potential for cowardice.
Within you, without you: The incongruity within situationism
As I noted earlier, most psychologists believe that both situational and personal factors need to be considered in understanding why people behave the way they do. Franco and Zimbardo actually acknowledge this in one of their articles: “Just as in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies, the situation and the personal characteristics of each person caught up in the situation interact in unique ways.” When I first read this I thought it was a remarkable admission considering that Zimbardo and his colleague Craig Haney responded with hostility and dismissal (Haney & Zimbardo, 2009) to the suggestion that the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment could have been influenced by the fact that people with certain personality traits might have been more likely to volunteer for such an experiment than others (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007). Furthermore, it appears difficult at first to reconcile an interactionist view with statements that Franco and Zimbardo have made that that extreme behavior involving either heroism or evil is best understood as a product of external circumstances and not of internal dispositions. However, in practice, situationists seem to offer a double standard when it comes to explaining evil versus heroic behavior. Evil behavior is explained in terms of external situational and systemic forces that compel otherwise “good” people to do bad things. Zimbardo explains that prisoner abuse is not due to a few “bad apples” but a “bad barrel” that corrupts whatever is put into it. He even goes so far as to say that “you can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel,” implying that people in such circumstances are passive victims without any moral agency. On the other hand, heroism is explained in terms of the “heroic imagination,” something internal to the person that enables them to actively resist external pressures to turn a blind eye to injustices. And such heroes can even emerge in an “evil barrel” like Abu Ghraib. Hence, people respond to the very same situation in either good or evil ways. When some do evil, the situation is blamed, yet when others do heroic deeds, at great risk to themselves, it reflects the strength of their own character. This seems like a very unbalanced view that appears to reflect ideological biases more than objective analysis.
In the second part of this article, I will explore in more detail the situationist analysis of evil and of heroism respectively, and will argue that a more balanced view that takes into account personal responsibility and moral agency is needed to understand these extremes of human behavior.
Further Reading

[1] For the statistically minded, the average effect size of social influence was r = .13, compared to the effect size of personality which was r = .21. This was brought to my attention in a book review by Krueger (2008). 

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image Credits 
The One Ring - courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
William Wallace portrait - courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Carnahan T, & McFarland S (2007). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Personality & social psychology bulletin, 33 (5), 603-14 PMID: 17440210
Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2009). Persistent Dispositionalism in Interactionist Clothing: Fundamental Attribution Error in Explaining Prison Abuse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 807-814. doi: 10.1177/0146167208322864
Krueger, J. I. (2008). Lucifer's last laugh. The American Journal of Psychology, 121, 335-341.
Richard, F. D., Bond Jr, C. F., & Stokes-Zoota, J. J. (2003). One Hundred Years of Social Psychology Quantitatively Described. Review of General Psychology, 7(4), 331-363. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.7.4.331
Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (1st ed.). New York: Random House.