What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?



File 20190104 32148 1z0p5uh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
There seems be an attractive quality to things that are ostensibly unhealthy or dangerous.
Alisusha/Shutterstock.com

Mark Canada, Indiana University and Christina Downey, Indiana University

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

And how many times have we learned of someone – a celebrity, a friend or a loved one – who committed some self-destructive act that seemed to defy explanation? Think of the criminal who leaves a trail of evidence, perhaps with the hope of getting caught, or the politician who wins an election, only to start sexting someone likely to expose him.

Why do they do it?

Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s greatest – and most self-destructive – writers, had some thoughts on the subject. He even had a name for the phenomenon: “perverseness.” Psychologists would later take the baton from Poe and attempt to decipher this enigma of the human psyche.

Irresistible depravity

In one of his lesser-known works, “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe argues that knowing something is wrong can be “the one unconquerable force” that makes us do it.

It seems that the source of this psychological insight was Poe’s own life experience. Orphaned before he was three years old, he had few advantages. But despite his considerable literary talents, he consistently managed to make his lot even worse.

He frequently alienated editors and other writers, even accusing poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism in what has come to be known as the “Longfellow war.” During important moments, he seemed to implode: On a trip to Washington, D.C. to secure support for a proposed magazine and perhaps a government job, he apparently drank too much and made a fool of himself.

According to Edgar Allen Poe, knowing something is wrong can make it irresistible.
Wikimedia Commons

After nearly two decades of scraping out a living as an editor and earning little income from his poetry and fiction, Poe finally achieved a breakthrough with “The Raven,” which became an international sensation after its publication in 1845.

But when given the opportunity to give a reading in Boston and capitalize on this newfound fame, Poe didn’t read a new poem, as requested.

Instead, he reprised a poem from his youth: the long-winded, esoteric and dreadfully boring “Al Aaraaf,” renamed “The Messenger Star.”

As one newspaper reported, “it was not appreciated by the audience,” evidenced by “their uneasiness and continual exits in numbers at a time.”

Poe’s literary career stalled for the remaining four years of his short life.

Freud’s ‘death drive’

While “perverseness” wrecked Poe’s life and career, it nonetheless inspired his literature.

It figures prominently in “The Black Cat,” in which the narrator executes his beloved cat, explaining, “I…hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart…hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin – a deadly sin that would so jeopardise my immortal soul as to place it – if such a thing were possible – even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

Why would a character knowingly commit “a deadly sin”? Why would someone destroy something that he loved?

Was Poe onto something? Did he possess a penetrating insight into the counterintuitive nature of human psychology?

A half-century after Poe’s death, Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal and innate “death drive” in humans, which he called “Thanatos” and first introduced in his landmark 1919 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal death drive, which he dubbed ‘Thanatos.’
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Many believe Thanatos refers to unconscious psychological urges toward self-destruction, manifested in the kinds of inexplicable behavior shown by Poe and – in extreme cases – in suicidal thinking.

In the early 1930s, physicist Albert Einstein wrote to Freud to ask his thoughts on how further war might be prevented. In his response, Freud wrote that Thanatos “is at work in every living creature and is striving to bring it to ruin and to reduce life to its original condition of inanimate matter” and referred to it as a “death instinct.”

To Freud, Thanatos was an innate biological process with significant mental and emotional consequences – a response to, and a way to relieve, unconscious psychological pressure.

Toward a modern understanding

In the 1950s, the psychology field underwent the “cognitive revolution,” in which researchers started exploring, in experimental settings, how the mind operates, from decision-making to conceptualization to deductive reasoning.

Self-defeating behavior came to be considered less a cathartic response to unconscious drives and more the unintended result of deliberate calculus.

In 1988, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Steven Scher identified three main types of self-defeating behavior: primary self-destruction, or behavior designed to harm the self; counterproductive behavior, which has good intentions but ends up being accidentally ineffective and self-destructive; and trade-off behavior, which is known to carry risk to the self but is judged to carry potential benefits that outweigh those risks.

Think of drunk driving. If you knowingly consume too much alcohol and get behind the wheel with the intent to get arrested, that’s primary self-destruction. If you drive drunk because you believe you’re less intoxicated than your friend, and – to your surprise – get arrested, that’s counterproductive. And if you know you’re too drunk to drive, but you drive anyway because the alternatives seem too burdensome, that’s a trade-off.

Baumeister and Scher’s review concluded that primary self-destruction has actually rarely been demonstrated in scientific studies.

Rather, the self-defeating behavior observed in such research is better categorized, in most cases, as trade-off behavior or counterproductive behavior. Freud’s “death drive” would actually correspond most closely to counterproductive behavior: The “urge” toward destruction isn’t consciously experienced.

Finally, as psychologist Todd Heatherton has shown, the modern neuroscientific literature on self-destructive behavior most frequently focuses on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with planning, problem solving, self-regulation and judgment.

When this part of the brain is underdeveloped or damaged, it can result in behavior that appears irrational and self-defeating. There are more subtle differences in the development of this part of the brain: Some people simply find it easier than others to engage consistently in positive goal-directed behavior.

Poe certainly didn’t understand self-destructive behavior the way we do today.

But he seems to have recognized something perverse in his own nature. Before his untimely death in 1849, he reportedly chose an enemy, the editor Rufus Griswold, as his literary executor.

True to form, Griswold wrote a damning obituary and “Memoir,” in which he alludes to madness, blackmail and more, helping to formulate an image of Poe that has tainted his reputation to this day.

Then again, maybe that’s exactly what Poe – driven by his own personal imp – wanted.The Conversation

Mark Canada, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Indiana University and Christina Downey, Professor of Psychology, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?



File 20190104 32148 1z0p5uh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
There seems be an attractive quality to things that are ostensibly unhealthy or dangerous.
Alisusha/Shutterstock.com

Mark Canada, Indiana University and Christina Downey, Indiana University

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

And how many times have we learned of someone – a celebrity, a friend or a loved one – who committed some self-destructive act that seemed to defy explanation? Think of the criminal who leaves a trail of evidence, perhaps with the hope of getting caught, or the politician who wins an election, only to start sexting someone likely to expose him.

Why do they do it?

Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s greatest – and most self-destructive – writers, had some thoughts on the subject. He even had a name for the phenomenon: “perverseness.” Psychologists would later take the baton from Poe and attempt to decipher this enigma of the human psyche.

Irresistible depravity

In one of his lesser-known works, “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe argues that knowing something is wrong can be “the one unconquerable force” that makes us do it.

It seems that the source of this psychological insight was Poe’s own life experience. Orphaned before he was three years old, he had few advantages. But despite his considerable literary talents, he consistently managed to make his lot even worse.

He frequently alienated editors and other writers, even accusing poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism in what has come to be known as the “Longfellow war.” During important moments, he seemed to implode: On a trip to Washington, D.C. to secure support for a proposed magazine and perhaps a government job, he apparently drank too much and made a fool of himself.

According to Edgar Allen Poe, knowing something is wrong can make it irresistible.
Wikimedia Commons

After nearly two decades of scraping out a living as an editor and earning little income from his poetry and fiction, Poe finally achieved a breakthrough with “The Raven,” which became an international sensation after its publication in 1845.

But when given the opportunity to give a reading in Boston and capitalize on this newfound fame, Poe didn’t read a new poem, as requested.

Instead, he reprised a poem from his youth: the long-winded, esoteric and dreadfully boring “Al Aaraaf,” renamed “The Messenger Star.”

As one newspaper reported, “it was not appreciated by the audience,” evidenced by “their uneasiness and continual exits in numbers at a time.”

Poe’s literary career stalled for the remaining four years of his short life.

Freud’s ‘death drive’

While “perverseness” wrecked Poe’s life and career, it nonetheless inspired his literature.

It figures prominently in “The Black Cat,” in which the narrator executes his beloved cat, explaining, “I…hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart…hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin – a deadly sin that would so jeopardise my immortal soul as to place it – if such a thing were possible – even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

Why would a character knowingly commit “a deadly sin”? Why would someone destroy something that he loved?

Was Poe onto something? Did he possess a penetrating insight into the counterintuitive nature of human psychology?

A half-century after Poe’s death, Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal and innate “death drive” in humans, which he called “Thanatos” and first introduced in his landmark 1919 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal death drive, which he dubbed ‘Thanatos.’
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Many believe Thanatos refers to unconscious psychological urges toward self-destruction, manifested in the kinds of inexplicable behavior shown by Poe and – in extreme cases – in suicidal thinking.

In the early 1930s, physicist Albert Einstein wrote to Freud to ask his thoughts on how further war might be prevented. In his response, Freud wrote that Thanatos “is at work in every living creature and is striving to bring it to ruin and to reduce life to its original condition of inanimate matter” and referred to it as a “death instinct.”

To Freud, Thanatos was an innate biological process with significant mental and emotional consequences – a response to, and a way to relieve, unconscious psychological pressure.

Toward a modern understanding

In the 1950s, the psychology field underwent the “cognitive revolution,” in which researchers started exploring, in experimental settings, how the mind operates, from decision-making to conceptualization to deductive reasoning.

Self-defeating behavior came to be considered less a cathartic response to unconscious drives and more the unintended result of deliberate calculus.

In 1988, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Steven Scher identified three main types of self-defeating behavior: primary self-destruction, or behavior designed to harm the self; counterproductive behavior, which has good intentions but ends up being accidentally ineffective and self-destructive; and trade-off behavior, which is known to carry risk to the self but is judged to carry potential benefits that outweigh those risks.

Think of drunk driving. If you knowingly consume too much alcohol and get behind the wheel with the intent to get arrested, that’s primary self-destruction. If you drive drunk because you believe you’re less intoxicated than your friend, and – to your surprise – get arrested, that’s counterproductive. And if you know you’re too drunk to drive, but you drive anyway because the alternatives seem too burdensome, that’s a trade-off.

Baumeister and Scher’s review concluded that primary self-destruction has actually rarely been demonstrated in scientific studies.

Rather, the self-defeating behavior observed in such research is better categorized, in most cases, as trade-off behavior or counterproductive behavior. Freud’s “death drive” would actually correspond most closely to counterproductive behavior: The “urge” toward destruction isn’t consciously experienced.

Finally, as psychologist Todd Heatherton has shown, the modern neuroscientific literature on self-destructive behavior most frequently focuses on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with planning, problem solving, self-regulation and judgment.

When this part of the brain is underdeveloped or damaged, it can result in behavior that appears irrational and self-defeating. There are more subtle differences in the development of this part of the brain: Some people simply find it easier than others to engage consistently in positive goal-directed behavior.

Poe certainly didn’t understand self-destructive behavior the way we do today.

But he seems to have recognized something perverse in his own nature. Before his untimely death in 1849, he reportedly chose an enemy, the editor Rufus Griswold, as his literary executor.

True to form, Griswold wrote a damning obituary and “Memoir,” in which he alludes to madness, blackmail and more, helping to formulate an image of Poe that has tainted his reputation to this day.

Then again, maybe that’s exactly what Poe – driven by his own personal imp – wanted.The Conversation

Mark Canada, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Indiana University and Christina Downey, Professor of Psychology, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘365 Ways to Change the World,’ by Michael Norton’


I have decided to not post any more thoughts on suggestions offered by this book. It is not because I don’t like the book – I do like it and think that the majority of the suggestions are worth following up on. I know I will be trying to follow up on many of them.

I think I have provided enough to whet the appetite of all so that those who will want to find out more will go out and buy the book. I highly recommend it.

Remember the website at:

www.365act.com

‘Shameful Flight – The Last Years of the British Empire in India,’ by Stanley Wolpert


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

‘Shameful Flight’ relates the history of the final years of the British Raj in India, including the partition of India into both Pakistan (West and East) and India, and the early hostility of the two new nations destined for perpetual warfare in such regions as the Kashmir.The history of this era of political instability on the subcontinent includes all the main players from Great Britain, India and Pakistan.These main players include Winston Churchill, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah. There is not a single figure in this history of India’s partition who comes out of it in a good light, though several seem to have had very well-intentioned aims and motivations. It is the true story of lost opportunity and the devastating consequences of human pride and selfishness that have reverberated down through the decades to the present day and remain visible in the continuing clashes between India and Pakistan, as well as in the extremism expressed in both the Islamic and Hindu communities throughout the sub-continent. It is a story of perpetual tragedy and human suffering with no end in sight.

This book is extremely easy to read, passes on a wealth of historical information and whets the appetite for further research on the India/Pakistan situation. It provides enlightenment, by bringing understanding to the current political instability in both India and Pakistan, by clearly revealing the root of the problem – the manner of the birth of both nations out of British imperialism and that nation’s final haphazard departure aptly described as a ‘Shameful Flight.’ This is a great book for understanding the sub-continent and the wounds it still carries to this day.

This book was provided to me for review by Oxford University Press – www.oup.com

THE STORY OF THE ENGLISH BAPTISTS: John C. Carlile


I have recently posted on the particularbaptist.com library site ‘The Story of the English Baptists,’ by John C. Carlile. The book can be found at the following link:

http://particularbaptist.com/library/englishbaptists_john-carlile.html

I own the 1905 edition which was printed as a hardcover by James Clarke & Co. in London, England. My copy is quite aged and is in quite poor condition. The version I have placed online is of course in pristine condition and will undoubtedly stay that way.

There are a number of illustrations and photographs in the book – all of which can be found in the online version.

The book provides something of an introduction to both the General and Particular Baptists, and as such is probably a useful book in that it whets the appetite to research deeper into the history of Baptists in England – which in my case is especially true of the Particular Baptists (of whom I am one).

There are some very interesting and useful chapters in the book, though the treatments of some of the ‘big’ names in Particular Baptist history are quite brief – as I say, something of an introduction. Perhaps an overview may be a better way to describe the book.

I don’t think everyone will necessarily agree with all of the conclusions and statements made by the author of the book. For example, there is something definitely hinky about his comments regarding possible unification of General and Particular Baptists. I’m not sure that he really grasps the significance of the differences between the two camps.

Out of 5 I’d probably give the book a generous 3. I think the book has merit, but is yet disappointing.