the central concept: active/passive urgency
“We, most of us, would be appalled by the suggestion that normal people have anything in common with the ruthless and evil personalities who satisfy the criteria of the Hare checklist for psychopathic tendencies but, if my work has any validity at all, the psychopathic personality represents no more than an extreme of the normal distribution.
I should probably begin by making it clear that I am not remotely interested in the psychopathic personality. What does interest me is strength, the exact opposite to psychopathy. On a personal level, I have also been extremely fortunate throughout my life in that I’ve been in the company of some exceptionally powerful individuals and I’ve had the opportunity to observe, first hand, the initially-breathtaking fact that real power can and does flow equally from great strength and from great weakness.
This paper, however, can do no more than make the case for an avenue of research. It is based on an enquiry which began over 30 years ago with what amounted on my part, initially, to little more than a feeling that there may be two types of intellect: past-oriented and future-oriented. It discusses the psychopathic personality only as and for the reason of its being an extreme on a continuum hypothesized to include the normal personality and to extend, at the other extreme, to the completely-committed altruistic personality.
The construct invites us to revisit the earliest psychodynamic theories of Freud, Adler and Jung in terms not of a conflict of “energy” but of a mechanism of time/urgency data-stream processing. If the model is valid, the process of maturing involves a reversal of the motivational vector by which the infant’s passive motivation, the need to be cared for, moves incrementally towards the active adult motivation of the parent caring for the child.
It is argued that psychopathy is an extreme form of arrested development of that maturing process and that the normal personality, by definition, will always lie somewhere between the passive motivation of infancy and the active motivation of the fully-developed adult personality, i.e. that we sustain, in adulthood, a significant measure of the self-directed passive motivation of the infant in the form of an enfeebling conflict of active and passive urgency.
Ultimately, it is argued that what we perceive as “selfishness” is directly related to how far, as adults, we have travelled in that process of moving from passive to active motivation, i.e. that socially-destructive attributes such as selfishness and greed can be lifted entirely out of the moral debate and understood solely in the context of an immaturity of the mechanism of motivation.
If valid, the model completely debunks the assertions implicit in the seminal work of Richard Dawkins that selfishness is of the essence of the living organism. If the model is valid, the essence of life itself is compassion.
In our studies of goal-oriented behaviour, we naturally assume that we share certain fundamental needs, and much experiment is premised upon that assumption. When we observe an action and attempt to understand the motivation underlying that action, we frequently assume goal-oriented behaviour. While that may seem almost invariably to be the case, the crucial fact is that it is not always true: action is often entirely cause-oriented. The mother who gets up in the middle of the night to comfort a child is not necessarily motivated by the desire to put a stop to the noise. Her instincts as a mother are to respond to the needs of the child. She is already out of bed before she has had a chance to consider what she might wish to achieve. The hunger striker who risks his own life for a cause rarely has a particular goal in mind. His subservience to the cause is central to his motivation. It might be argued that the goal of the hunger striker is to draw attention to a perceived injustice and this is a useful possibility to offer, provided we are content to settle for speculation. When we put a name to the hunger striker and trace the history, we may discover a reality, events in the individual’s past, that lead us entirely away from goal orientation and towards a clearer understanding of the factors underlying radicalization: when compassion is aroused beyond a certain threshold, the effect on motivation can be lifelong.
Cause-oriented behaviour is perhaps less obvious and less common than goal-oriented behaviour but we close and bolt the door on an understanding of motivation when we fail to recognize its existence.
The Hare checklist effectively provides a score above which an individual may be safely identified as being “a psychopath.” The obvious inference, however, is that there are degrees of psychopathy. We draw a line between the psychopathic and non-psychopathic personality but it’s a misleading, counter-productive distinction.
The natural assumption has been that the psychopath is, in some way, a “damaged” personality, but the key to understanding the psychopath lies in a radical understanding of the cognitive/neurological processes governing action.
Stated briefly, the model questions the validity of any theory of motivation that does not discuss the role of time urgency. It proposes that the synthesis of that urgency is the fundamental initiator and moderator of action and it holds that, like action itself, urgency may be either passive or active. Psychology does not take issue with the existence of time urgency in a negative sense, e.g. the conscious anxiety, on occasion, to complete a task within a timeframe. This paper makes use of the term in a much more broad sense, and in particular, it identifies the existence, in consciousness, of a continual processing of the relationship between time and the need for action, persisting as an urgency stasis below the threshold of perception.
Much research over the past fifty years has been premised on the assumption of the universality of self-gratifying motives. Altruism has variously been addressed as a curiosity or attributed to underlying self-gratifying motives but one psychologist who recognised a relationship between altruism and the healthy personality was Abraham Maslow. His attention was drawn by individuals who excelled in their fields: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt. He found that they had certain qualities rarely found in the normal personality: they were “reality-centered” rather than self-centred. Crucially, their focus was primarily upon issues outside of their own needs and desires. Their awareness was somehow an external affair, unfiltered and pertaining to the “actual” world as opposed to the iternalized, filtered “reality” of the normal personality. He described these unusual individuals as “self-actualizing,” and he identified the possibility of two separate studies: the unhealthy personality and the healthy personality.
Psychopathy is necessarily a moral construct. Like the infant, the psychopath is utterly self-centred. Where the psychopath is completely preoccupied by his own needs and desires, and where his motivational focus is upon manipulation, wholly passive, self-directed, infant-like, i.e. referencing the actions of others to serve his own needs, the motivation of Maslow’s “self-actualizing” individuals is active, referencing their own actions to serve the needs of others. It is their commitment to the welfare of others that differentiates them. Their urgency, parent-like, is the urgency of the needs of others. Maslow hypothesized that the instinct to grow towards self-actualization lies within us all but, for most of us, the term itself lacks meaning.
There are six months in everyone’s life when it’s healthy to be a psychopath.
That’s one of the inferences that can be drawn, given validation of this hypothesized model of the fundamental mechanism of motivation.
We were, according to this hypothesis, all born as psychopaths and remained so for the first six months of life. After that, we, 99% of us, have moved on. Before we are one year old, having been shown a measure of kindness and compassion, we have begun to imitate the example of our parents and we have begun to move away from the utter selfishness which every infant enjoys as a matter of entitlement.
The Psychology of Compassion proposes an avenue of research addressing the abnormal urgency dynamics that are characteristic of both the infant personality and the psychopathic personality.
I find it’s sometimes the simplicity of a concept that makes it difficult to grasp and, in some cases, it is also the evident simplicity that causes us to overlook its importance. At the core of this model lies an unattractively simple concept: urgency can be either active or passive.
adult urgency: active
Both from an evolutionary and from a psychological point of view, the parent and the infant represent the most fundamental of relationships, and the most simple of psychic forces are at work. One short and very obvious sentence defines that relationship: the parent takes care of the infant.
infant urgency: passive
Let’s invert the sentence: the infant is taken care of by the parent. The meaning is unchanged. I’ve simply expressed the relationship from the infant’s perspective. The infant has a passive relationship with the parent. It is being taken care of. In the context of this relationship, the parent’s motivation is active where the infant’s is passive: it cries because it desires to be fed. That is to say the infant’s motivation carries through not to its own action but to that of the parent. The infant’s urgency is expressed passively. It is self-directed, requiring the action of the parent.
The parent and the infant are two very different animals from a psychological point of view. They require a completely different understanding and that understanding cannot be attained without a radical understanding of the nature of action and the neurological mechanism of synthesizing urgency as a data stream, historically addressed in terms of libido, a confusing and wooly term once understood to mean psychic energy.
(Apologies if you find the tone here a bit puerile and inappropriate. There has been some astonishingly muddled thinking about the nature of the relationship between action and time and I prefer to make this point in my own way and without dressing it up as something profound). Let’s turn the clock back a few hundred million years and think in terms of some very simple lifeforms who are in the habit of eating each other. The main thing to focus upon here is natural selection, and survival.
The prey creature is going about his business, looking for something lower down the food chain than himself, when along comes the predator. Instinct tells the prey that elsewhere might be a good place to be, but a change of location alone would not be enough to save him from becoming a snack. What really matters is how long it takes him to get there, and that was precisely the job of the libido. The libido, at its core, was and is a cognitive/neurological mechanism which synthesizes the urgency of action, in this case, based upon the imminence of the danger – N.B. not the proximity of the predator but the imminence of the threat to life. The threat to survival is more efficiently measured in time than space. As the predator approached and the imminence of danger increased, the libido cranked up its output (urgency) to a level that was impossible to ignore. In an instant, the prey was elsewhere, leaving the predator creature wondering what the hell just happened there?
Just to labour the point on the terminology, the libido’s output, urgency, is a prerequisite of action. Survival depends not only upon the ability to move from here to elsewhere but upon the facility to have a care to the time taken to get there. Imminent danger calls for urgent action. The libido lies at the very core of motivation. It is the neurological mechanism which maintains the relationship between perception, time and action. The output/intensity of the libido is measured in urgency.
At some point, in the dawn of time, a differentiation took place. Locomotion firstly confers advantage in terms of increased food intake outweighing the energy expended but, at some point, locomotion became a factor in survival in the prey/predator relationship. The children will be quick to point out that an increase in the energy allocated to locomotion might have been triggered by the smell or the spatial proximity of the predator and that is certainly a stage which might reasonably be assumed but the survival advantage conferred by the more complex calculation of time-urgency as a data-stream is the defining characteristic of our early ancestors. The threshold trigger does the same job but crudely and inefficiently.
The facility to moderate the energy expended on locomotion in response to a data stream (urgency) rather than a mere threshold trigger confers immense survival advantage especially in pursuit contexts. The imminence of danger is the key, not the spatial proximity of the predator. Conservation of energy, likewise, is favoured by those who have the facility to moderate their action according to a diminishing necessity. As the perceived imminence of danger subsides, the urgency of continued flight is reduced accordingly. This is not to dispute the continued existence of a threshold trigger. The point here is that the efficiency of data-stream processing must inevitably confer survival advantage.
When that differentiation took place, our time-urgency-capable ancestors, having evolved the facility to moderate the energy expended upon locomotion in relation to time-based calculations, laid the foundations for the animal motivational mechanism which we are about to discuss here.
As the core mechanism governing action, it remained crucial to survival throughout every subsequent adaptation and that differentiation was the very birth of intelligence. An understanding of the role of time-urgency in initiating and moderating action is absolutely prerequisite to a clear understanding of animal motivation.
The word obscures its own meaning because, as with temperature or pressure, we are so accustomed to being aware of urgency only when it is heightened but essentially what I’m proposing is that, for any animal capable of action, consciousness and the continual processing of the time-urgency data-stream are virtually synonymous. As an interesting aside, it might be noted that consciousness persists in complete sensory deprivation. A profoundly deaf and blind person will experience consciousness in exactly the same way as anyone else except that the senses of sight and hearing will not be included in the awareness of their “being.” Our difficulty in defining consciousness arises from our failure to recognize consciousness as being time-urgency-data-stream-based. All action, however, trivial, however feeble, is initiated, sustained and moderated by a degree of urgency.
Now, to return to the infant, in the most important respects, the infant is effectively incapable of action. Its survival is dependent upon the actions of its parents. The infant’s urgency is passive in that it references not its own action but the action of the parent, that which it desires to be done to or for it. The manipulative behaviour of the psychopath is identical in this as in all other respects. The infant’s urgency has a completely opposite vector to that of the parent. It is self-directed: feed me, comfort me. This is entirely natural and healthy in the infant personality. The parent (active urgency) feeding, comforting, takes care of the infant (passive urgency).
What is interesting to note in this relationship is that, in the weak personality, the vector is often reversed. There has been much discussion recently about violence breeding violence but it is much less misleading to say that weakness breeds weakness, and that violence is only one of many forms of weakness. There is a world of difference between a parent who eventually resorts to a smack to end a tantrum and a parent who uses violence against his own child out of his own anger or frustration.
The weak parent tends, I submit, to be passively motivated: he will use violence against his child not because he (rightly or wrongly) genuinely believes that, in this instance, the child will benefit from physical discipline but simply because the child has annoyed him. Not unlike a child, his first concern is how he, himself, feels. His action is passively-motivated: it arises not from his concern for the welfare of the child but from his concern for how the child’s behaviour impacts upon him.
By placing his own needs above the needs of his child, the weak parent has reversed the psychologically-fundamental relationship between parent and child, depriving the child, at least for that moment, of the security and care upon which it relies and, in this way, he passes some of his weakness to the next generation.
Healthy and unhealthy passive motivation
Few would disagree that the psycopathic personality has some parallels with the infant personality. All he thinks about is how he is being treated, what he wants, what he needs. He hasn’t, at any point, learnt to care for anyone except himself. He has absolutely no compassion for anything other than himself. Like an infant, his first recourse is to manipulation; he feels instinctively that he is entitled to be treated well. If the hypothesis is valid, however, these similarities are not accidental. If it is valid, the infant and the psychopath have in common a very special kind of immaturity: immaturity of the neurological mechanism of motivation.
The infant has the cognitive facility to generate urgency but – apologies for labouring the point – it is important to remember that, if the model is valid, the infant’s urgency is passive. It wants to be cared for. The action which the infant requires is not its own action but that of the parent. When it feels the need for food, it cries. When it wants food urgently, it cries harder. It wants to be fed… passive. The infant urgency is directed entirely passively, i.e. its vector is entirely opposite to that of the (healthy) adult. The infant’s “reality” is entirely internal, populated by “person” complexes, representative of the infant’s subjective view of the actual world. The infant’s understanding of the complex it knows as its parent is in terms only of how and to what extent that “person” serves the needs of the infant, how that “person” impacts upon the life of the infant. Beyond that, the “person” it knows as its parent has no existence and no value.
We start out in life weak, entirely dependent, needing, wanting, utterly self-oriented, utterly selfish and completely passive in motivation. As we grow, we grow stronger. We grow towards becoming the parent. We learn to care for and care about people and things external to ourselves, external to our own needs and desires. We learn to give, not just to take. The mature adult libido is active in orientation. It references its own action. The urgency of the psychopath, on the other hand, is almost identical to that of the infant; it is almost 100% internalized, almost 100% passive in orientation, referencing the action of others. He may appear mature in his manners and show no obvious sign of his dangerously immature motivation but he has merely learnt to act like an adult even, perhaps, to the extent of showing apparent compassion and empathy (which he has observed in others) but, in reality, his entire motivation and outlook is totally passive, necessarily manipulative, requiring, infant-like, the action of another party, self-oriented, unchanged from the earliest days of his life when he naturally expected to be cared for and treated well by his parents. He has, I submit, a sense of entitlement because his urgency, his motivation is identical to that of an infant… passive.
What I am about to set out is a psychological construct that might, I believe, have been discovered many years ago but for an unresolved argument between three of the founders of modern psychology: Jung, Adler and Freud. The disagreement was on the most fundamental question facing them. It caused a divergence in the course of the science that is reflected in three irreconcilable “schools of thought” to this day, and followed by an inevitable marginalization of the whole field of psychodynamic theory in favour of behavioural then cognitive theory.
All three concurred upon the existence of “the libido” but they could not remotely agree upon its nature, its effect or its mechanics. Tragically, they split up precisely because of their common fascination with the question of motivation. Had they considered, in this context, the psychologically-absolutely-fundamental relationship between the adult and the infant, had each only seriously considered the possibility that the other was correct, I believe they would have found that all three arguments were sound, each addressing merely a different aspect of the mechanics of motivation.
Written by jimmypowdrellcampbell
December 1, 2008 at 10:33 pm
Tagged with adler, altruism, antisocial behaviour, Antisocial Personality Disorder, axiology, ethics, evolution of morality, evolutionary ethics, freud, Gaza, hedonism, israel, jung, libido, libido theory, Maslow, meta-ethics, Military-Industrial Complex, moral philosophy, moral psychology, moral universalism, morality, morals, motivation, narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, Palestine, personality types, philanthropy, philosophy, philosophy of mind, psychodynamic theory, Psychology, psychopath, psychopath definition, psychopathic personality disorder, psychopathy, sociopath, strength, universal morality, USA, value theory, weakness
Subscribe to comments with RSS.