Psychopathy, Altruism and the Mechanics of Motivation in the Normal Personality

The conflict of active and passive urgency in the normal personality

the central concept: active/passive urgency

with 2 comments

Sunday, 20 July 2014 – Norwegian surgeon, Mads Gilbert MD PhD, writing from Shifa Hospital, Gaza.

Mads Gilbert at Shifa Hospital, Gaza

Dr Mads Gilbert (centre) at Al-Shifa hospital, July 17th 2014, treating a wounded Palestinian child after an Israeli air strike killed four children and wounded five others

Dearest friends,

The last night was extreme. The “ground invasion” of Gaza resulted in scores and carloads with maimed, torn apart, bleeding, shivering, dying – all sorts of injured Palestinians, all ages, all civilians, all innocent.

The heroes in the ambulances and in all of Gaza’s hospitals are working 12-24 hour shifts, grey from fatigue and inhuman workloads (without payment all in Shifa for the last 4 months), they care, triage, try to understand the incomprehensible chaos of bodies, sizes, limbs, walking, not walking, breathing, not breathing, bleeding, not bleeding humans. HUMANS!

Now, once more treated like animals by “the most moral army in the world” (sic!).

My respect for the wounded is endless, in their contained determination in the midst of pain, agony and shock; my admiration for the staff and volunteers is endless, my closeness to the Palestinian “sumud” gives me strength, although in glimpses I just want to scream, hold someone tight, cry, smell the skin and hair of the warm child, covered in blood, protect ourselves in an endless embrace – but we cannot afford that, nor can they.

Ashy grey faces – Oh NO! Not one more load of tens of maimed and bleeding, we still have lakes of blood on the floor in the ER, piles of dripping, blood-soaked bandages to clear out – oh – the cleaners, everywhere, swiftly shovelling the blood and discarded tissues, hair, clothes, cannulas – the leftovers from death – all taken away … to be prepared again, to be repeated all over. More than 100 cases came to Shifa in the last 24 hrs. Enough for a large well trained hospital with everything, but here – almost nothing: no electricity, water, disposables, drugs, OR-tables, instruments, monitors – all rusted and as if taken from museums of yesterday’s hospitals. But they do not complain, these heroes. They get on with it, like warriors, head on, enormously resolute.

And as I write these words to you, alone, on a bed, my tears flow, the warm but useless tears of pain and grief, of anger and fear. This is not happening!

And then, just now, the orchestra of the Israeli war-machine starts its gruesome symphony again, just now: salvos of artillery from the navy boats just down on the shores, the roaring F16, the sickening drones (Arabic ‘Zennanis’, the hummers), and the cluttering Apaches. So much made in and paid by the US.

Mr. Obama – do you have a heart?

I invite you – spend one night – just one night – with us in Shifa. Disguised as a cleaner, maybe.

I am convinced, 100%, it would change history.

Nobody with a heart AND power could ever walk away from a night in Shifa without being determined to end the slaughter of the Palestinian people.

But the heartless and merciless have done their calculations and planned another “dahyia” onslaught on Gaza.

The rivers of blood will keep running the coming night. I can hear they have tuned their instruments of death.

Please. Do what you can. This, THIS cannot continue.

Mads Gilbert MD PhD
Professor and Clinical Head
Clinic of Emergency Medicine
University Hospital of North Norway


The evidence of man’s capacity for cruelty never makes easy reading. So much so that most of us quickly reach compassion overload and we tell ourselves that it’s terrible but what can you do? I hate to see cruelty. We all hate to see cruelty, so we tend, quietly and almost unintentionally, to avoid being reminded of its proliferation.

One thing we all agree upon is that none of it is our fault. We know that there are cruel people everywhere. In business, in industry and in politics, we know that ruthlessness and a lack of compassion are often prerequisite attributes of a successful career. It’s the ruthless personalities that tend to rise to the top, so it seems to stand to reason that ordinary people have no share in the blame for the injustice and cruelty that proliferates while multinational corporations compete for power and influence and profit and while governments, beholden to corporate interests, turn a blind eye to serial atrocities. We tell ourselves that 1) none of it is our fault and 2) there’s next to nothing we can do about it. Wrong on both counts – completely and profoundly wrong – and, if you’ll bear with me, I can explain why.

Scottish SPCA

Every day Scottish SPCA workers see the effects of domestic cruelty and neglect of animals

In the most extreme cases of cruelty, we might hear the use of terms like sociopath or psychopath. Most of us have a woolly idea of the meaning, but psychopathy is actually a very special case in scientific terminology. Psychopathy is unique amongst mental “illnesses” in that it is not an illness at all. As a distinct personality, the “psychopath” does not actually exist except in the arbitrary and, I would argue, wholly inappropriate classification of individuals for the purposes of the criminal justice system. Psychopathy, as a term, is only valid and only begins to acquire utility when it is understood as an extreme of a scale that includes the narcissistic personality but extends, also, through and beyond the normal personality.

Wherever power lies, it is often the near-psychopathic personality that ultimately controls the decision-making process. They can cause suffering on an unimaginable scale but, whatever they might say, they don’t actually care. To a great degree, they lack the empathy that inclines normal people to be averse to inflicting cruelty on another creature, of any species. The subject here is the reason for this lack of empathy: the origins and the mechanics of the motivational state that currently goes by the name of psychopathy.

Shock and Awe - Iraq 2003

State-level psychopathy – Iraq 2003 – the Pentagon proudly branded the campaign Shock and Awe

My mother, Elsie Campbell, died in January 2012. She and I often used to discuss this – basically, what follows here – and we had a deep difference of opinion. The work underpinning this essay was always intended to open up an avenue of research. When a hypothesis is tested and validated, then it may be of some use. Until then, it’s of absolutely no use to man nor beast. That was my argument. She disagreed. I could see no point in publishing anything. She disagreed. As I’ve said, she was dying – she had terminal cancer – and I made a promise. What she actually said was, ‘write the book and you’ll get your research.’ Eventually, I just said OK.

This following is a quote from the Amazon preview of M.E. Thomas’s “Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight.” The author, as you may know, has been diagnosed as a sociopath and she recognizes the various traits of sociopathy in her own personality, an admission which, in itself, was a bit unusual so it caught my interest. I’ll indent the quote so that you can skip past it if you’ve already read it.

M.E. Thomas writes:
“If my life were a television show, it would start like this: It’s a pleasantly warm summer day in a beautiful southern clime. Sunlight glints off ripples in the pool. The sliding door opens with a gentle rumble. A young woman steps out in her flip-flops and a black Speedo swimming suit. Her dark hair hits just below muscular swimmer’s shoulders. Her skin is darkly tan from lifeguarding at the local municipal pool. She is neither pretty nor ugly, of medium build and with no prominent features. She looks like an athlete; there’s a clumsy tomboyshness about the way she moves, an emotional disconnect with her body. She does not appear to have any feelings about her body, good or bad. She is used to being near-naked, the way athletes are.

“Today she is giving a private swim lesson. She flings a towel on a deck chair and kicks off her sandals. There’s a casual recklessness about the way she does these things, as if letting loose wayward objects into the world with abandon. That’s when she notices the ripples on the surface of the water. She sees that something is moving in the pool.

“It is so small that she doesn’t recognize it until she’s close – a baby opossum, probably only a week old, it’s tiny pink paws frantically paddling, its even tinier pink nose struggling above the surface of the water. The poor thing must have fallen into the pool in the night. It is too little to thrust its tiny body up and over the nearest ledge. The baby’s muscles quake with exhaustion. Even its sparkling eyes look tired; it is on the brink of succumbing to fatigue.

“The young woman moves quickly, sliding her sandals back on, and pauses for a moment at the top of the deck. She grabs a net and heads toward the opossum. The camera cuts in as the net lowers, dipping into the surface of the water, catching the baby opossum under the belly just in front of its hind legs. With a quick, almost effortless movement, the net drags the opossum under the surface until its head is fully submerged. The animal thrashes, its tired body now alert to a new threat. It struggles loudly, whimpering and squealing, until it finally manages to free its hindquarters from the lip of the net. But it’s barely able to gasp for breath before the net comes down again. The angle of the net is awkward though, and the animal is able to writhe out of its trap.

“The young woman sighs, and the net is lifted. The baby opossum feels relief wash over it for a fraction of a second, only to resume its desperate paddling against the water. The young woman drops the net on the ground, grabs her towel, and heads back inside. Moments later she is on the phone with her private student – today’s lesson is cancelled; there’s something wrong with the pool. She grabs her keys, flings her front door open, and skips down the stairs to the muscle car that she’s been driving since her sixteenth birthday. The V8 engine stutters for just a moment, then roars to life. She slams the transmission into reverse, just barely dodging the other cars in the driveway, then takes off, ready to make the most of a newly-free summer afternoon.

“When she returns home at dusk, she sees a dark shadow at the bottom of the pool. She grabs the same net, manages to scoop up the small bundle on the first try, and pitches it over the fence into her neighbour’s yard. She drops an extra chlorine tablet into the pool and heads inside. The camera lingers on the placid pool, no longer interrupted by frantic waves. Fade to black.

“I am a sociopath. Through quirks of genetics and environment, I suffer from what psychologists now refer to as antisocial personality disorder, characterized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” Key among the characteristics of the diagnosis are a lack of remorse, a penchant for deceit, and a failure to conform to social norms.”

Gaza 2008/9 - Israel flexes its USA-backed muscle in a frenzy of wilful destruction of life, property and infrastructure, an act of collective punishment almost unreported by the BBC as it happened

State-level psychopathy – Gaza 2008/9 – Israel flexes its USA-backed muscle in a frenzy of wilful destruction of life, property and infrastructure. 1300 Palestinians were slaughtered in an act of collective punishment that went almost unreported by the BBC over its entire 22 days

This essay is not the result of trying to understand the mental processes underlying psychopathy. It is the result of trying to come to a clearer understanding of the mental processes underlying the motivation of the normal personality and, in so doing, discovering psychopathy.

Before I start, to clarify a distinction intended here, broadly speaking, I take motives to be synonymous with goals, the “why” of behaviour. On the other hand, we might think in terms of a lack of motivation or of a person being “highly motivated” and it is this quantitative role that is central here.

Why is this important? Quantitative motivation can be defined in terms of the quantification of the need for action. A simple example: in a life-threatening situation, your goal might be to remove yourself from the locus of danger but survival might also depend upon how fast you move. In order to regulate the energy released to action, the urgency of action must be quantified. In other words, this distinction lets us hypothesize the existence of an independent variable regulating the energy released to action. That “missing” variable and its dominance over the static-logic aspects of cognition, is the subject of this essay.

Science has a particular problem with motivation since, by uncritically adopting a 20th-century cybernetics analogy, psychology and even cognitive neurology took a wrong turn quite a long time ago. Not to put too fine a point on it, we adopted a technologically-primitive (1980s) control-systems-logic metaphor to help us bridge the conceptual void between neurons and the mind and then we expect all animal behaviour to fit the metaphor.  It’s unrealistic and it’s illogical.

In the earliest days of psychology, Freud proposed the existence of what he called “psychic energy” or “libido.” He spoke of two opposing libido vectors, two fundamental drives from which, he thought, all motivation arises. According to Freud, one of these was a destructive force, a death wish and the other, in opposition to it, was creative and life-giving. This no longer has any currency, especially in neuroscience. It’s now well-understood that the brain operates much more like a hugely-complex, self-programming computer. There’s no “psychic energy” driving our behaviour, no libido, none of the positive and negative forces that once seemed to promise an explanation for the breadth of the human capacity for compassion or cruelty, only an infinitely complex piece of biological circuitry, a strictly intellectual apparatus representing the latest cutting-edge logic software evolution has to offer.

On an evolutionary scale, however, logic is a relatively recent development in the human brain (as evidenced by the difficulty we seem to have trying to apply it)! The original function of the brain was (and, arguably, remains) the control of the body and, in particular, the control of action. While neuroscience can provide endless detail on the neural processes that facilitate perception and control action in the mechanical sense, the question of motivation remains elusive, and one reason for that was the dismissal of Freudian drive theory.  If the model I’m about to set out is valid, Freud was not only correct – his terminology may have been unfortunate – there is no such thing in the brain as psychic “energy” – but his drive-conflict theory is, I hope to show, completely explicable in neuroscience, completely testable, and completely indispensable to a radical understanding of the motivation of the normal personality, and of the so-called psychopath.

motivation: the urgency data stream

Before we can approach a clear understanding of the mechanism of psychopathy, we need to have at least a theoretical concept of motivation in terms of cognitive neuroscience. What is motivation or, more particularly, how does the brain actually process the need for action?

If you’ve ever been writing something for an almost-impossible deadline or running late and caught in traffic on the way to an important meeting, you’re familiar with the idea of time urgency. It’s a thing, sometimes (not always) accompanied by anxiety, that crops up now and again for just about everyone. There is a parallel can be drawn, however, between perception of urgency and adaptation to other ever-present senses. I haven’t been conscious of the clock ticking or the room temperature until this moment when I needed to think on an example of something my senses have adapted to. The urgency to get today’s work completed has been present since the start and throughout the day but I have been only dimly aware of it if at all because it’s a relatively-unchanging, unremarkable level of urgency, enough to sustain my focus and get the job done without undue delay. We have no sense of urgency while its level is near normal.

The urgency, mid-term, to study for an exam is often so low as to be apparently absent. As the week of the exam approaches, a vague sense of growing urgency will generally surface. A degree of urgency, however, had been there all along. Earlier in the semester, it was simply so weak as to be beneath the level of perception. This, with parsimony in mind, is material to the question of how the brain really processes and measures the need for action.

the processing of time

When we look at the moving hands of a clock, they may appear static or, at the other extreme, if you’ve ever played tennis against someone with a really strong serve you may know what it feels like to be passed by a fast-moving object that you didn’t even see coming. What is interesting is the fact that some creatures, flies for example, seem to enjoy a slightly shifted band of movement perception.

If you have ever tried to catch a fly using a glass and card you’ll probably have been frustrated at every attempt. You’re never quite quick enough. The trick is to move very calmly, evenly and slowly and get right under the fly’s movement-perception threshold. By moving the glass steadily and slowly with absolutely no sudden moves, you can gently trap the fly. As far as the fly can tell, nothing around it is moving so its calculation is that, in the absence of movement, there can be no imminent danger, and so it carries on attending to whatever it is that flies find on windows, while you very gently lay the glass over it.

The fly is programmed to respond to its perception of imminent danger by taking to the air. What is going on here, however, is the processing not merely of a static threshold-based trigger but of a data-stream. It’s not a matter of the spatial proximity of the threat. The fly’s brain differentiates between a static object and a moving object. If a near object is changing its location with respect to time, it’s probably time for a sharp exit. That’s how flies think. [ Thanks to the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology for this beautiful and timely piece of research: ]

At this point, I have to invite you to think in a way which you will instinctively distrust: the plain logic of computer programming. The complexity of human motivation obscures an essential simplicity. The important question is this: are actions simply “switched on” or can motivation be shown to require a dynamic variable existing independent of the logic?

Psychology research is sometimes a bit like attempting to reverse-engineer the mind, but coming at it from the programming side recasts the question. In writing the software for the animal, one question the programmer would be faced with is how to relate the dynamic need for action to the regulation of the energy released to action: how should the brain take any and all of the biological and environment-driven needs that the animal is going to experience and respond to some of these with appropriate, measured action? At the most primitive levels of animal life, the mechanism has to balance conservation of energy with preservation of life so, programmatically, the crucial question for survival isn’t simply of the static-logic sort: “to run or not to run.” Programmatically, it’s almost always dynamic: “how fast, for this situation as it unfolds?”

If coding the animal’s software from scratch, we might start by creating a single variable that can take a value lying anywhere between zero and one. Think on the accelerator in a car. It has an infinite number of positions lying between off (zero) and fully on (one). Motivation has to operate in very much the same way.

the role of urgency in early prey/predator interaction

In order to eliminate some of the confusion obscuring the concept of motivation, we can look at some of the more primitive instances of the relationship between perception and action. Going back to the embryonic days of motivation, consider the survival advantage of the prey that is capable of making an assessment of the attack vector of the predator.

It might be suggested that, at the earliest stage in the evolution of the prey/predator relationship, the smell of the predator would be the trigger that would initiate locomotion. The olfactory system picks up on a few molecules of predator odour and that’s cue enough for a change of location but, at this level of existence, conservation of energy is everything, and olfactory cues are monstrously inefficient; it would mean bursts of fleeing about at full speed when, in some cases, flight might not have been necessary at all.

It might then be proposed that, at a later stage, whether by a combination of smell, and sight or sound, an assessment of the predator’s proximity must be the main thing. All readily agree (such is our remarkable capacity for logic) that it’s the calculation of proximity that matters ultimately. If the predator can be calculated, by whatever means, to be close, it can be assumed to be presenting an existential threat. Programmatically, all we would need to establish is a threshold value for “too close for comfort” and we can trigger locomotion.

Once again, however, we’re looking at a grossly inefficient system that almost falls short of deserving a mention in the evolution of mind and action but, now, consider the survival advantage at a subsequent stage of evolution in which the attack vector, the speed and direction of the predator, is being assessed. This is a stage that not only must be hypothesized as a result of any serious engagement with the issues but it is one that can be safely inferred from the existence of 99% of the current fauna.

This much more sophisticated data-stream-based calculation must confer greater survival advantage both in terms of escape outcomes and in terms of conservation of energy. We know it must, because we’re here to tell the tale, but this was surely an evolutionary milestone of immense proportions. The only thing that is really hard to understand here – and I invite you to think about this – is why it’s not to be had in the literature; why is there no research to be found based upon this beyond-probable and monumental step change in the evolution of mind and action?

A fast-moving predator with its focus upon another target raises the urgency only of paying close attention to its behaviour but energy is conserved because the data-stream-perception-enabled prey is also capable of making the calculation that, this time around, flight is not necessary. Time is the key. Imminent danger requires urgent action. The spatial proximity of the predator is a crude and inefficient trigger in comparison. The building blocks of motivation stem from that adaptation over three hundred million years ago when the processing of time became critical to survival.

The data-stream calculation of the urgency of action is not only the logical trigger but the logical moderator of the energy allocated to locomotion. Survival depends not merely upon being able to travel from here to elsewhere; what really matters is how long it takes to get there. We have a direct relationship between the urgency of action and the energy required to be released to locomotion.

We are now discussing a creature (an ancestor) that can modify its own speed and direction in a pursuit context in response to a data-stream perception of a dynamic threat. Flight is triggered and the energy released to locomotion is regulated not just by an assessment of the spatial proximity of the predator but by an assessment of the imminence of the danger (in whatever form it might come). Action is initiated, the allocated energy is regulated and sustained (or not – equally important for conservation of energy) according to the assessed urgency of initiating and sustaining locomotion. This is a complex sequence of data-stream-based calculations. Basically, we are now talking about a brain, and we’re talking about consciousness: the ongoing processing of time and perception.

Consciousness, at essence, is the business of processing time and perception in order to initiate, moderate and terminate action. How much energy we put into any action is determined byo the urgency of action, but urgency is not a static threshold value like proximity. Consciousness requires that urgency be processed as a continual stream of data.

So where, in the brain, should we expect to find the correlates of something so uncanny as an urgency data stream? Keeping in mind the proposition that consciousness itself can be defined in terms of this process, we might start with those neural oscillations known to be correlated with consciousness.

Viewed from the lofty heights of gross ignorance, the problem of identifying the neural correlates of urgency seems trivial. If the hypothesis is valid, urgency exercises a global influence involving the legion of coordinated signals prerequisite to mental or physical exertion.

Over the last few years, I’ve exchanged emails etc. on this subject with a number of psychologists and I’m going to quote one who thoroughly disagreed with what I was saying at the time (understandably, in retrospect).

Here is an excerpt from a 2008 paper by Phil Shaver in which he discusses attachment theory. This introductory section simply discusses motivation in terms of (its title) ‘Behavioral Systems Instead of Drives.’

As Yovell notes, Bowlby was trained as a psychoanalyst but became dissatisfied with the Freudian conception of human motivation based on ‘drives’ and the view of the mind as powered by ‘psychic energy.’ In contrast, Bowlby (1982) assumed that behaviors are not usually caused by drives or drive-like ‘instincts.’ In his view, a conception of motivation based on thinking first about general drives with no objects, then about intermediate-level drives with vague objects, and then about more specific drives with specific objects – the approach taken by Yovell – is misguided. Questions such as the following are unlikely to yield meaningful answers: ‘Is there a unique drive for putting your money in a savings account, or is it a product of more primitive drives or instincts?’ Or: ‘Is there a unique drive to sing folk songs, or is singing a product of other drives or instincts?’

When a person wakes up in the morning, his or her behavior is not generally governed by drives, except maybe hunger and the pressure to urinate. And even then, hunger pangs and the pressure to urinate need not be explained in terms of a general source of ‘energy’ that somehow channels itself, through the brainstem, into hunger and urination. Typically a person, awakened by his alarm clock, rambles to the toilet and urinates because of signals from the bladder (or out of habit). He may then eat breakfast either because he is hungry (a feeling based partly on stimuli in the gut and partly on signals from the hypothalamus, as Yovell mentions) or because he has read that a person is healthier and likely to remain thinner if he eats a good breakfast each morning. After breakfast, the person may brush his teeth – another medically advocated health behavior that would not be well conceptualized in terms of a tooth-brushing drive or psychic energy that, while searching for a way to get itself expressed, channels itself into tooth brushing.

According to Bowlby (1982), the working human brain generates goals, cogitates, evaluates, makes decisions, and steers behaviors by its very nature – by its cellular-network structure and its cybernetic organization. It does not need to be powered by libido, a life force, or any such thing; it is powered by glucose, but not by glucose looking for a way to express itself in mentation or behavior. Moreover, the signals that activate goals may come from the body (Yovell’s emphasis) or from the environment or from associative processes within the brain. There is no need to trace every goal to the body or to imagine how the body empowers the brain.

Following the rejection of Freudian metaphors such as drive and psychic energy, Bowlby (1982), who was influenced by scientific and technological developments in the mid-twentieth century – especially control systems theory, cognitive developmental theory, and ethology – created an alternative model of motivation based on the concept of behavioral systems. These systems were imagined to be species-universal neural programs that organize an individual’s behavior in ways that increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction in the face of environmental threats, demands, and opportunities. Bowlby (1982) viewed these systems as ‘goal directed’ and ‘goal corrected’ – that is, as working like servomechanisms that are turned on by certain internal or environmental demands (such as pain or hearing a scary noise) and terminated by an effective response to these demands (e.g., being held and protected by a sensitive and responsive attachment figure). Responding effectively to these demands – e.g., dealing with threats to life and well-being by relying on what Bowlby (1982) called ‘stronger, wiser’ caregivers, exploring environments and learning how to master them, caring for sexual partners and dependent offspring – resulted in the evolution of distinct but interrelated behavioral systems, each with its own primary functions and characteristic behaviors.

This was just a small part of a preface to a paper on attachment theory but it’s enough to highlight the problem. For all the right reasons, psychology took a wrong turning, and there were very few voices raised in dissent. We were far too easily persuaded by the argument. The whole body of Freudian drive theory was virtually discarded at a stroke and it was a monumental mistake, one that irretrievably crippled our understanding of motivation.

Let’s cherry pick through this excerpt.

‘Typically a person, awakened by his alarm clock, rambles to the toilet and urinates because of signals from the bladder (or out of habit). He may then eat breakfast either because he is hungry (a feeling based partly on stimuli in the gut and partly on signals from the hypothalamus, as Yovell mentions) or because he has read that a person is healthier and likely to remain thinner if he eats a good breakfast each morning. After breakfast, the person may brush his teeth – another medically advocated health behavior that would not be well conceptualized in terms of a tooth-brushing drive or psychic energy that, while searching for a way to get itself expressed, channels itself into tooth brushing.’

Without giving it much more thought, we can all agree on the absurdity of a drive for tooth-brushing. In fact, we can hardly fail to agree that the whole proposition of psychic energy and drives is quite silly, but we are not analysing anything here. We are simply building antipathy to Freud’s ideas about motivation, but based on rhetoric, not logic. Rather than thinking, we are feeling, sympathising with a viewpoint, laughing at the silly ideas that Freud, in his pre-empirical ignorance, evidently entertained.

Shaver now mentions cybernetic organisation:

‘According to Bowlby (1982), the working human brain generates goals, cogitates, evaluates, makes decisions, and steers behaviors by its very nature – by its cellular-network structure and its cybernetic organization. It does not need to be powered by libido, a life force, or any such thing; it is powered by glucose, but not by glucose looking for a way to express itself in mentation or behavior.

Again, we have an entertaining and persuasive rhetorical argument but then it gets interesting. We move on to touch upon control-systems theory:

‘Following the rejection of Freudian metaphors such as drive and psychic energy, Bowlby (1982), who was influenced by scientific and technological developments in the mid-twentieth century [my emphasis] especially control systems theory, cognitive developmental theory, and ethology, created an alternative model of motivation based on the concept of behavioral systems. These systems were imagined to be species-universal neural programs that organize an individual’s behavior in ways that increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction in the face of environmental threats, demands, and opportunities.

Now we are getting to the meat. The limited technological understanding of the twentieth century is echoed in Bowlby’s cybernetic approach to brain function.  I do the same thing myself. I see the brain as a sort of organic computer riddled with monstrous programming flaws but I’m of a slightly later generation and not handicapped with Bowlby’s primitive mid-20th-century understanding of cybernetics conceived before the advent of the data stream.

The problem is that this is not a debate. Phil Shaver agrees with Bowlby in his view that Freudian drives are superfluous and unhelpful to understanding motivation. I disagree profoundly but it’s not a contest. We are all, presumably, on the same side, and what we’re discussing here is beyond ‘important.’ From the smallest acts of kindness to the most egregious and unimaginable atrocities that shock the conscience of humanity, we rightly hope to find an explanation of human behaviour in our understanding of human motivation. What matters is not who wins the argument but that we analyse the argument with some vestige of a sense of its incalculable gravity in mind.

Bowlby’s 20th-century understanding of early control mechanisms and computers has informed decades of cognitive theory. We make decisions based upon goals and logical informed choices, goal-directed (or stimulus-response) behaviour. We brush our teeth for a number of rational reasons. We go to work, to earn money again for obvious conscious logical reasons and purposes. We learn from an early age about behaviour that’s rewarded and behaviour that’s punished. It’s all very logic-driven and we can almost envisage an old 20th century telephone exchange replacing some of the circuitry – switches and servos opening and shutting at breathtaking speed – neural pathways – 20th century logic circuits. I take issue only with that painfully inadequate metaphor.

The 20th century switchgear/computer analogy completely replaced Freud’s theory of positive and negative drives and ‘psychic energy’. I’ve been told in a hundred different ways that we’ve “moved on.” The idea of libido has, as Shaver later points out, no neural correlate, but let’s pause right there. Let’s start to analyse from here and let’s be clear about what we’re saying… and not saying. ‘The idea of libido has no neural correlate’ … when we apply the 20th century switchgear metaphor, it doesn’t lead us to find any neural correlates for libido. I’d have no hesitation in agreeing with that but at the very least, it begs the question.

‘Typically a person, awakened by his alarm clock, rambles to the toilet and urinates because of signals from the bladder (or out of habit).’

I passed that by without much comment but it’s actually worth a more careful examination. The person is ‘awakened by his alarm clock’ and ‘rambles to the toilet.’ I’ve done that often. Occasionally, I’ve moved a bit faster, i.e. with a bit more urgency.  The signals from the bladder can clearly produce a range of responses from a ramble to a rush but, in spite of the concept of urgency (or a relative lack of it) having been so graphically introduced, you might still argue that the 20th-century switchgear-logic metaphor still holds.

In that case, consider another scenario. The person isn’t awakened at all by his alarm clock. He wakes up half an hour later than he should and then his eyes focus on the clock. Again, we have the servomechanism logic registering the fact that he’s going to be late… ergo… he must now move a bit faster, at least that’s how we try to fit the behaviour to the metaphor but what’s the reality?

Urgency: a Data-Stream

In reality, he is not motivated simply by the logic of the situation. Where, seconds ago, he felt a bit sluggish as he transitioned from unconsciousness, now, on focusing on the clock, he senses an immediate and unmistakeable urgency, the urgency of getting out of bed and getting ready for work. He is instantly wide awake and another way of saying that is that a new, elevated urgency level has been established.  Everything he does from that moment onward will be done with some dispatch (even brushing his teeth). His motivation – the urgency of action – has been altered from its normal state.

If we could monitor his urgency – and we could – easily – remember we’re simply talking about those neural oscillations most correlated with urgency – we would see it remains pretty much elevated until he gets out of the door and starts walking for the bus which, just to put the tin hat on it, comes around the corner when he thought he had a couple of minutes to spare. The needle (I want it to be a needle for all our 20th century people out there) on the urgency meter gets kicked up yet again and he breaks into a run. That is motivation and its measure, I submit, under all circumstances, is urgency.

Our man makes it just in time and takes his seat on the bus. The sense of urgency disappears… more or less along with the sense of the feeling of the seat that he just sat down on – adaptation. His motivation has just dropped to closer to its normal level but he’s still awake so it hasn’t dropped to zero. It is simply below the threshold of perception. When he gets off the bus, he walks the short distance to the office. Now he’s not in any hurry – no sense of urgency – but here’s the point: if there were literally no urgency, our man wouldn’t be walking at all, he would just be standing (or lying) where he got off the bus. What he’s doing is walking with very little urgency. He is still motivated to walk to the office. His urgency is once again below the threshold of perception, that’s all.

He gets to his desk and makes a start on his inbox. “That flash git from sales is chatting up the new temp. How can she not see what a complete phony he is? All charm and pseudo-sincerity – that’s the only good thing you can say about that guy, he’s the best when it comes to shifting the product – salesman of the year, three times running – first in in the morning, last out at night – hardly ever stops – totally driven – flash git.”

The flash git sustains a higher level of urgency than our man. He had been head-hunted by HR because he is so obviously highly-motivated, because he has the level of “drive” they’re looking for.

This is 21st century computing. We’re not talking about switchgear logic, we’re talking about a data stream, and so was Sigmund Freud. He spoke about psychic energy and he spoke about libido. He had absolutely no conception of an urgency data stream but he wasn’t an imbecile. He knew exactly what he meant! It may be far from obvious and far from intuitive, but the measure of motivation is urgency. It is time itself that the brain is processing: the relationship between time, perception and action.

I woke up this morning, as I often do, just about 30 seconds before my alarm went off. I have never been a morning person. I generally wake up feeling dreadful. This morning was different. I woke up feeling angry. I was wide awake from the moment I got up. I was thinking about an opossum in a swimming pool. I was motivated to get what I was thinking down in text.

For the last three years of her life, my mother was motivated by something she watched on Al Jazeera over a 22-day period commencing on the 27th December 2008. Up until that point, like so many of us who used to put our trust in the BBC, she had given little thought to the oppression, dispossession and cruelty routinely inflicted upon the Palestinian people. Like so many of us, she had pretty much bought into the Israeli (and BBC) propaganda, “the cycle of violence”, “tit for tat,”  the inversion of reality that presents the Israeli superpower as the victims of the Palestinian people whom they have been ethnically cleansing not only from the land they stole from them in 1948 but from the remainder of Palestine that they still covet and secretly claim as their God-given right.

After watching the Gaza massacre, day and night for the full three weeks, watching the people of Gaza trapped, defenceless, and at the mercy of a racist, hate-filled Israeli military with all the power of modern weaponry at their disposal, after watching Israelis on the other side of the wall jump up and down and clap their hands with glee as white phosphorus rained down on rubble-strewn, panic-infused, blood-spattered streets, after listening to testimony given by surgeons at the impossibly under-equipped Shifa Hospital, running out of even the most basic medical supplies in the first days – the hospital itself, and even the ambulance crews, now targeted by “the most moral army in the world” – after hearing how airburst-delivered white phosphorus has burnt the flesh of children through to the bone, after watching as yet another precision-guided high-explosive missile pounded into the multi-story residential apartment blocks right in the heart of Gaza city,  after all that, she had acquired a sense of urgency.   She wrote letters, she spoke to politicians – she even got through to the Prime Minister’s office at one point. Even in the last couple of months of her life, now in a wheelchair and frail with the effects of cancer, she was putting boycott stickers on the Eden Springs water coolers in the hospital.  Elsie Campbell was born in Dumbarton, lived her life in Scotland, and died a Palestinian. That is motivation.


The Freudian concept of libido was based upon the recognition of the ubiquitous phenomena associated with the urgency data stream. The early psychologists, however, and naturally enough, described it as “psychic energy”, and that mistake was enough to allow lesser intellects, to their great satisfaction, subsequently to debunk completely these psychodynamic theories as being wholly without foundation. From that departure from joined-up thinking, going forward, any meaningful study of motivation based upon its manifestly dynamic nature was rendered impossible.

But there was another crucially important reason for this towering triumph of mediocrity: an urgency data stream – the dynamic urgency of action – like action itself, can have both an active and a passive component (which I will get to).  Freud’s negative and positive “psychic energy” and Jung’s extraversion and introversion both allude to this duality but the idea of a conflict of positive and negative “libido” is almost meaningless until it is understood in terms of its mechanics: a mathematical vector conflict of active and passive urgency.

A fair analogy of a vector conflict might be that of two horses pulling in direct opposition to each other.  The result will be a single, weak and indistinct force in the direction of the stronger horse. In the normal personality, the conflict of active and passive urgency produces a generally weak and indistinct level of motivation that is hard to identify at all. As Maslow fully recognized, it’s almost impossible to understand human motivation without studying, firstly, that of those exceptionally-motivated individuals to be found at the extremes of the normal distribution.

the conflict of childhood and parenthood in the normal 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. This model proposes that:

  1. synthesis of the urgency data stream lies at the core of the neurological mechanism of motivation
  2. urgency (like action itself) can be either active or passive
  3. and it can be active or passive because life has two-stages: childhood and parenthood.

I am a man and that means I am a combination of two very different animals: I am at once the father of my son and the child of my parents.  One of these will have been in charge for most of the day. How much of a man I have been today just depends upon which one was in charge.

Can it be that simple? I’m afraid that’s pretty much all there is to it and, when you get right down to it, there isn’t a single evil in the world that cannot be laid at the door of the habit of a simple choice, one that we make a hundred times every day: who is in charge at this moment, the child or the man? Through whose eyes do I see the world?  With whose mind do I understand?

The answer to that question is not written in stone.  For each and every individual, it is, in every case, a choice.  Shall I procrastinate when the job that needs done doesn’t appeal? Shall I throw the toys out of the pram because things are not to my liking? A hundred times every day, we make the trivial choices that define us and, ultimately, define the world that we live in. It’s an empowering understanding, obscured only by its simplicity.


Gaza 2014 – the Dahiya doctrine of pre-planned obscenely disproportionate force – some might talk in terms of Israel’s right to defend itself – others call it the genocidal collective punishment of a trapped civilian population. In my view, it’s the latter and the tragic human consequences of politicians who think as children, understand as children and act without the restraint and fundamental humanity of the adult personality.

Through whose eyes do I see the world?  The child or the man?  I keep coming back to the so-called Israel-Palestine conflict (not least because, at the time of this edit, July 2014, Israel is once again inflicting a murderous collective punishment upon the people of Gaza – over 1700 HUMANS dead at this point – babies to grandparents – one thousand seven hundred human beings, extinguished).  With whose mind do the architects of this carnage understand? It is of the very essence of the evil that has attached itself to Palestine that the government of Israel think as children and understand as children and behave like spoiled, scheming, lying, manipulative, disturbed children, but these are spoiled, disturbed children with F16s, Apache helicopters, drones, missiles, tanks and warships.  The Palestinians are a strong people who love their land, not in the sense of an artificial manipulated emotional patriotism but in the sense that they love the land itself, the land they farm, the olive trees, the orchards, the land that sustains them. Love is not an emotion. It is a state of motivation. It is the motivation literally to care for someone or something, care being the operative word. The Palestinians are a strong people at the mercy of weak people who covet that same land, weak men who understand as a child understands, who have as much compassion as a seven-year-old but who, nonetheless, have unimaginable military power at their disposal.

As I write, yet another grotesquely disproportionate military assault, another act of state-level psychopathy, another mass murder and collective punishment of the people of Gaza is ongoing.  Here is a comment made by an Israeli lawmaker, a member of the Knesset, Ayelet Shaked, immediately after the murder of the three Israeli boys that preceded this latest frenzy of murder and destruction and terror. Anticipating the civilian casualties that inevitably result when individuals are targeted in their homes, and modern high-explosive missiles slam into multi-story buildings in densely built-up residential areas, she said,

“Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. Actors in the war are those who incite in mosques, who write the murderous curricula for schools, who give shelter, who provide vehicles, and all those who honour and give them their moral support. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

Psychopathy is not just about the serial killer of the tabloids.  It’s about the real world.  The urgency of this research is the urgency of every single individual whose life has fallen under the mercy of the deeply flawed subjective thought processes of the deeply neurotic and the near-psychopathic personality.

The cognitive basis of empathy

Empathy is a survival-critical cognitive facility of parenthood. It is the facility to “feel” some representation of what the infant feels. It is because of the (healthy) parent’s capacity for empathic motivation that the infant’s communication of its own urgency can trigger, on the part of the parent, a measure of urgency to attend to the infant’s needs. Parenthood is, I believe, the root psychological basis of empathy and altruism.

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 one short and deceptively 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. The infant’s motivation references not its own action but that of the parent.

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 has a completely opposite vector to that of the parent. It is passive, 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).

On attaining adulthood, however, there’s no flipping of a switch to convert all that passive urgency into the active urgency of parenthood. The passive component generally diminishes as we grow up but, in the normal personality, there’s always a good measure of both.

In the weak adult personality, infantile passive urgency has persevered to remain the stronger of the two vectors. 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 loving parent who (rightly or wrongly) makes a judgment and eventually resorts to a smack to end a tantrum and a parent who unthinkingly uses violence against his own child out of his own anger or frustration.

The weak parent tends more frequently to be passively motivated: he will use violence against his child not because he (rightly or wrongly – I have to keep saying that!) genuinely believes that, in this rare instance, his child will actually derive benefit from pain but simply because the child has annoyed him.  (I’ll come back to this). What he wants to change is not the child’s behaviour for the child’s benefit but the impact of the child’s behaviour on him. Basically, this parent, in this context, is still motivated as and behaving as a child.

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

Apologies for labouring the point but the infant motivational 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 entirely 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. This is healthy. It’s simply how early infantile motivation works. It’s also how psychopathic motivation works.

We start out in life weak, entirely dependent, needing, wanting, utterly self-oriented, utterly selfish: completely passive in motivation. As we grow, we grow stronger. We grow towards becoming the parent. We learn very quickly to reciprocate affection but later we learn to care for (literally) 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 urgency vector is active in orientation, referencing its own action to serve needs outside of its own.


Let’s just touch upon the nature of the psychopathic 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 little or no real compassion for anything other than himself. Like an infant, his first recourse is to manipulation. Like an infant, he feels instinctively that he is entitled to be treated well. If the hypothesis is valid – I have to say “if”, in spite of a lifetime of questioning its validity! – these similarities with the infant personality 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 (Freud used to call it the libido).

The urgency of the psychopath is almost identical to that of the infant; it is approaching 100% internalized, almost completely passive in orientation, referencing, always, 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 and often scheming, requiring, infant-like, the action of another party to serve his needs, 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 he has never lost it! His urgency, his motivation is identical to that of an infant… overwhelmingly passive.

What I am about to set out is a psychological construct that should, 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 (in the static-data-logic form that matched the primitive technological understanding of the day).

Jung, Adler and Freud concurred upon the existence (in consciousness) of the continual data-stream that they called “the libido” but they could not remotely agree upon its nature, its effect or its mechanics. Tragically, and ironically, 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 parent and the infant, or had each only seriously considered the possibility that the other was correct, they would have found that all three arguments were sound, each addressing a different aspect of the mechanics of motivation.

Cause/goal orientation

Bearing in mind that the processing of time is central to the mechanism of motivation, there’s one further concept we need to consider before we can see how the pieces fit: cause/goal orientation.  In our studies of behaviour, we naturally assume that we share certain fundamental needs, and much experiment is premised upon that assumption. When we observe an action and try to understand the motivation underlying that action, we frequently assume the goal-oriented behaviour of the satisfaction of needs. While that may seem almost unavoidable, the crucial fact is that it is not always true in a cognitive sense i.e. it is not true that the brain necessarily initiates all action for the purpose of achieving a goal. It might be how you “think” but it’s not necessarily how your brain thinks!

It helps to revisit the evolution of the mechanism, and I invite you, once again, to think like a programmer.   You’ll remember that we had the data-stream-enabled prey registering a fast-moving object closing in on an attack vector. As a programmer, we know we now have a value (between zero and one) for the urgency of taking action and we know that that value can be used to determine the amount of energy to be released to the business of locomotion. The prey creature, for its part, understands that, given the circumstances, elsewhere has suddenly become a good place to be, but the urgency of flight can be programmatically expressed in two entirely opposite ways. We can write some code to initiate action with two completely different instruction sets:

1) goal-oriented: with some urgency, take us TO elsewhere (i.e. TO a place of relative safety)
2) cause-oriented: with some urgency, take us away FROM here (i.e. get us away FROM this place of danger)

The first option has the future-oriented GOAL of attaining a place of safety whereas the second, and more common in our species, has the past-oriented CAUSE of removing the prey from the locus of danger. The (time-based) urgency vector of these two otherwise-identical creatures is therefore entirely opposite so, in defiance of Occam’s razor, we have added a seemingly-unnecessary extra layer of complexity to our model but we are dealing with the real world here, and it is what it is :-)  (I’ll actually get to the explanation later but, at this point, I need to stick with the central concepts of the model).

What this tells us is that action, as far as the brain is concerned, can equally be goal or 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 (identity-based) 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 life for a cause rarely has a particular goal in mind. His commitment (past-orientation) to the cause is often central to his motivation. It might be argued that the goal of the hunger striker is to embarrass authority or 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 will often discover 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 there’s a reason for that (I’ll get to it), and we close and bolt the door on a clear understanding of motivation when we fail to recognize its existence.

The Altruism-Psychopathy Continuum

Much research over the past fifty years has been premised on the schoolboy-like 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 recognized a relationship between altruism and the healthy personality was Abraham Maslow. His attention was drawn by people who excelled in their fields: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt were mentioned. He found that these highly-motivated individuals 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 an external affair, unfiltered and pertaining to the “actual” world as opposed to the internalized, filtered, partly-subjective 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.

At the extremes of the unhealthy personality, we have the psychopath. The Hare checklist effectively provides a score above which an individual may be “safely” identified as being “a psychopath.” One fairly obvious inference of Robert Hare’s checklist, however, is that there are degrees of psychopathy.

We draw a line between the psychopathic and non-psychopathic personality.  In spite of its (questionable) utility in the criminal justice system, this is a misleading, counter-productive distinction. The natural assumption has always been that the psychopath is, in some way, a “damaged” personality, but this model posits a direct relationship between the psychopathic personality and the normal personality. We have much more in common with the psychopath than we would like to think.

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. We can now reframe it.


Probably the most significant shift in focus that this model proposes is treatment of the culture rather than the individual. Psychologists are in the business, mostly, of treating the neuroses of individuals when in some cases, possibly even for the most part, the reality is that it’s the culture itself that is sick; we are only treating the symptoms.

The central proposition of this model is the conflict of active and passive urgency but the model also alleges a psychopathy-altruism spectrum. If the model is valid, the normal personality lies between the extremes of the saint and the psychopath but it is the culture in which we’re immersed that dictates where on that spectrum we should expect to find the normal personality.  (I have to keep saying this but) if the model is valid, the single most important reason for character weakness and immaturity is capitalism and the single most important reason for capitalism is character weakness and immaturity: the prevalence of the plain selfishness and greed of the immature personality.

There are six months in everyone’s life when it’s healthy to be a psychopath.

This is one of the inferences that can be drawn, given validation of this model. 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.

On a personal note, I come from a secular family but I remember being taught, when I was quite young, “out of the sweetness came forth strength, and out of the strength, came forth sweetness.” For most of my life, I believed I understood the meaning. Decades later, the penny dropped!

Written by jimmypowdrellcampbell

December 1, 2008 at 10:33 pm

The Psychology of Compassion

with 2 comments

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell … ten years ago

This (with edits) is the original essay discussing the “mechanics of strength and weakness.”  At one point, I imagined that the libido-based model stood on its own, begging to be tested and requiring no further explanation, but I had underestimated the depth and extent of utterly groundless dogmatic antipathy to psychodynamic theory that’s rife amongst otherwise reasonable academics.  One thing at a time!

The conflict of active and passive urgency in the normal personality and the relationship of that conflict to root/branch intellect type and past/future motivational orientation.

As a foreword, I have to say 1) that I’m expressing the concepts to the best of my ability, 2) but I also realize that more than likely that’s just not good enough, in which case, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and give me a chance to try to put it another way.

Before getting back to the data-stream model, let’s look very briefly at the early psychodynamic models that were to be so casually discarded as unscientific speculation.

A “libido” conflict was first posited by Freud who spoke in terms of the life and death instincts. An entirely different concept of a bi-directional “libido” was introduced by Jung in his theory of extraversion and introversion.

Jung’s extraversion (an upward and outward flow) and introversion (a downward and inward flow), and Freud’s altogether different bi-directional “libido” (life instinct and death instinct) both relate to an imagined flow of what they called psychic energy but the Freudian and Jungian theories of libido are utterly incompatible:

  • The Jungian theory of libido gives us two personality types, extravert and introvert – neither one any “better” than the other, just different: one tending to be more outgoing, the other more reserved.
  • Freudian libido theory confronts us with a much more serious proposition: a positive and a negative flow of “energy” – life-instincts and death-instincts – one intent on giving life and the other on taking it away, one building and the other destroying.

If the attributes of Jung’s extraversion/introversion libido are valid, clearly, one might think, those of Freud’s life/death instinct must be wrong and vice versa. They might both be wrong but they cannot possibly both be right, or at least, so logic would seem to dictate.

Jung’s libido theory is probably one of the most familiar psychological concepts to the general public and yet it’s hard to find a psychologist who knows anything at all about its origins. On what did Jung base his theory? He goes to great lengths to set out the wealth of historical testimony for the construct but very few psychologists have the foggiest idea as to what gave rise to the idea in his mind. If you get nothing else from this, at least I can answer that question.

It was a mere few decades ago when I first came across the phenomenon that had led Jung into this territory. I had realized, instinctively, in the midst of an argument, that the other fellow was (erroneously) forming the same opinion about my intellectual shortcomings as I was (possibly erroneously) about his. It was almost as if we were not speaking the same language – two diametrically opposed ways of approaching the same issue. We were discussing the violence in Belfast at a time when it was at its worst. At one point, however, I caught a look which told me that he thought he was talking to a complete fool. The irony astonished me!

His argument centred on the imagined ambitions of the Catholic minority: given the opportunity, they would do everything in their power to disempower and drive out the Protestant majority. For my part, I found it hard to get past the history. Instinctively rejecting the colonialist mindset, I saw Catholic resistance as a natural consequence of the cruelty and injustice of British rule.

I was listening to this man adduce fact after fact to prove the anti-Protestant intent of the Catholic minority and then I catch a look which tells me that he thinks I don’t have what it takes to follow his argument. The argument itself was a waste of time but it took on new life with this.

What, at essence, we were discussing was the motivation behind the then recent terrorist attacks. My argument in favour of the IRA’s armed struggle had no emotional basis. My loyalty as a UK citizen, however, had not diminished my facility to understand the motivation of people who opposed British dominion in their country just as violently as we, the British, would surely oppose their dominion here.

But what really got the adrenalin flowing was not the argument itself but the consistency with which I had presented a past-related explanation for the actions of the IRA and the consistency with which the counter-argument presented a future-related attribution of what they wanted to achieve, their aim to disempower. And that was what, in his mind, I was failing to understand. Each time that he put forward his reasonable argument regarding the aims and ambitions of the Catholic minority, I had failed to address it in the terms in which it was presented. He mistakenly believed I wasn’t understanding what he had to say. I, however, had been doing exactly the same thing, presenting historical fact and context as if that alone was the only relevant rationale.

This was not a five-minute argument and yet the consistency was 100% but this was not merely an argument from polarized positions on the armed struggle. This, it became increasingly clear, was an argument between two completely different types of intellect. What it came down to, on my part, was an instinctive tendency to assume all motivation to be explicable in terms of its origin, its cause. But this cause-oriented attribution has no resonance for those – let’s say maybe 10% of the population – for whom the aim or goal of every event and every action is instinctively proposed as an explanation for behaviour. Bear in mind that we’re discussing an underlying assumption here, an intellectual tendency, as opposed to an academic explanation of behaviour in terms of motives and necessarily limited, therefore, to intent.

Jung, as a third party, was witness to exactly the same communication phenomenon: Freud who could see only the cause and Adler who could see only the goal. In the introduction to only one of the editions of his “Psychological Types” that I’ve seen does Jung explain that the origin of his theory of extraversion and introversion was his observation of that past/future fixation communication problem between Adler and Freud, and his recognition, in the first instance, of the possible existence of an intellect typology in terms simply of past or future intellect orientation.

This was Jung’s starting point and, in some respects, it was also mine. Jung, however, was soon to abandon his initial idea of an intellect typology and, in its place, he postulated his well-known libido typology.

Intellect Orientation: Root Intellect and Branch Intellect

The premised past-oriented root intellect is typified by the tendency and aptitude to get to the root of the issue. Especially where the generalities of personality, motivation and behaviour are under discussion, the root intellect will always tend instinctively to focus upon cause. He will instinctively make the assumption that behaviour is best explained by events in the past. (The heated discussion that I mentioned earlier illustrates the difficulty of overcoming that instinctive tendency). Where there is a need to understand, it is in terms of the radical.  It has been suggested that this is a difficult concept to establish experimentally but, in truth, it is as simple as that. The intellectual orientation can be established by testing for this alone: does the mind tend to the radical; does it focus upon the root of the issue? In particular, is the aptitude root and cause related?  If it is, then it is a past-oriented intellect – a root intellect.  It follows also that, for the root intellect, a high score for root/cause aptitude should be accompanied by a negative score for branch/goal aptitude.

The less common future-oriented branch intellect is typified by the tendency and aptitude to extrapolate and to deal with the goals, aims, consequences, and ramifications of the issue. These, therefore, are the two premised “intellect types” upon which this model and Jung’s theory of extraversion and introversion were initially founded.

Communication, as Jung observed, between root-intellect and branch-intellect types is frequently a frustrating business, neither being aware of the need to express themselves in terms which, from the other’s perspective, appear central or pertinent to the issue.

I am relying upon memory here but I believe, as an example, I can best cite the actual discussion which caught Jung’s attention. While Freud and Adler were arguing at length about a patient, Jung was studying Freud and Adler! This is always a danger when you put three psychologists in one room.

Freud (root intellect) and Adler (branch intellect) were discussing a particular case, a married woman whose hysteria, according to Freud, could be attributed only to an event or events in her past.  Find the repressed memories and her hysteria could be cured.  There was, Freud insisted, no other useful way of looking at the case.  Adler conceded that her childhood may hold some secrets but he was equally adamant that, regardless of her past, she was in control of herself to a much greater degree than Freud seemed prepared to accept and that her hysteria was her way of gaining power over her husband.  Her behaviour was not explained by events buried in her past but by understanding her aim, her goal – what she wished to achieve in the future.  Jung, watching this, realized that both Freud and Adler were imposing their own intellect type upon the woman. Freudian (root intellect) and Adlerian (branch intellect) psychologists are doing the same thing to this day. I make this observation not as a criticism but as a matter of plain fact to be kept in mind.

As I have said, Jung’s observations led him, firstly, to postulate the existence of a past/future intellect typology. But in trying to explain this proposed intellect typology, he assumed that it had its foundation in the so-called libido. He went on, therefore, to hypothesize “object fixation” as an explanation for Freud’s apparent preoccupation with causes and origins. Assuming a causal relationship between the motivational orientation and the intellect orientation, he dismissed the possibility of Freud’s evident intellectual past-orientation being an innate tendency. By proceeding to question what lay behind the phenomenon, and then identifying the individual’s “placing of emphasis” upon either subject or object, he actually moved from the principle to the derivative.

What I am suggesting is that, in this instance, experiment should proceed from Jung’s observations, not his conclusions. Freud’s intellect and intellectual aptitude was, I premise, fundamentally past-oriented (which I have termed root-intellect) while Adler was, equally unmistakably, future-oriented (branch-intellect).

I think it can be seen that the Freudian psychologists provide the most obvious ready-made pool of past-oriented intellect and, likewise, the future-orientation of the Adlerians pervades all their work. Since the past or future-fixated view of motivation, in both cases, is generally derived – if you will permit the assumption – from their imposing of their own intellect type, responses elicited from within these two groups should facilitate refinement of testing for intellect type in a more diverse population.

I believe, also, that there are parallels in Guilford and Hoepfner’s work on Convergent and Divergent intelligence – “The Analysis of Intelligence,” New York, McGraw-Hill, 1971. Again, this is an important work which documents the phenomena but fails to get to the core issue: past/future intellect orientation. The parallels between the root intellect and the “convergent” intellect are clear. Likewise, the development of the divergent intelligence is anticipated in the concept of the future orientation of the branch intellect, i.e. the necessity of addressing the ramifications, the branches of probability, but the significance of their research is lost because the time-related intellect type giving rise to the observed convergence or divergence, never having been offered, could not be investigated.

Intellect Type

type orientation focus aptitude
convergent root intellect past source, cause, origin to reduce to the fundamentals
divergent branch Intellect future goals, aims, consequences to extrapolate, to see ramifications


The intellect orientation or type is, I believe, immutable. I am assuming that it has a biological basis, that if you are born with a branch-intellect mind, you will enjoy the aptitudes of a branch-intellect mind for the rest of your life. Consider, now, the concept of motivation.  The idea that we are not necessarily conscious of our reasons for doing what we do does not appeal to some but there can be no serious dispute as to its validity; and motivation can be seen to have anything but a fixed orientation.

On the subject of motivation, I had, in those days, in the back of my mind, some nebulous but useful thoughts about the association of dualities and opposites and, in particular, the idea of positive and negative psychic energy (I was about twenty years old and had been studying Zen). I became focused upon the concept of positive and negative motivation.  (By negative motivation I meant generally destructive motivation). The unconscious associations I had in mind were such as day & night, awake & asleep, creation & destruction, giving & taking,  life & death etc. Accepting that association is a fundamental mechanism of the intellect, all of these seemed to me to have a bearing upon and to be in some form of perpetual relationship to motivation.

In this model, the concept of positive and negative motivation is dependent upon the validity of at least some of these associations and upon the validity of certain moral value judgements. If, for example, an individual were to avail himself of the opportunity to profit by the sale of drugs to some school children, I would consider him to have been negatively motivated. Psychology has created a generation of victims. The dealer is, according to some, a victim of his upbringing, his deprived social background or whatever, but, to the “man in the street,” this drug dealer is nothing more than a “selfish, evil bastard.” If this model is valid, the man in the street has been right all along.

motivational immaturity: feet on the seat

Had the guy with his feet on the seat noticed as I took the photo, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a great idea to explain that I’m collecting material for a book on motivational immaturity.

It is a matter of degree. There is the extreme negative motivation of the sociopath and there is the trivial negative motivation which we, all of us, give free reign to every day but who cares?

As a youth, one of my most frequent errors, arising out of a natural and wholly justified lack of self-esteem, was to try, in conversation, to improve the other party’s opinion of me.  I’d never stoop to bragging but I sometimes caught myself trying to impress subtly with a story.

In this case, to become conscious of what, moments ago, had been unconscious motivation, was just a matter of being honest with myself in answer to the question, “why on earth am I telling this person this story?”

This, however trivial it may seem, is an example of the kind of thing I understood as negative motivation. (I think I still do it sometimes – some days I wake up and I’m only ten years old – lol)!  My concern, at that moment, was, “what does this person think of me?” Unfortunately, such is our capacity for self-deception, that some erudite professionals will argue that there was nothing unhealthy in my attempts to impress. Can’t be helped. I only mean to stress the width of the spectrum of passive motivation. Everything we do has its motivation and no-one is permanently positively (actively) motivated.

Active and Passive Motivation

We give expression to our immaturity in a thousand different ways but there is one single underlying factor. As a child, our relationship to the world is almost exclusively passive. The infant is concerned not with what it is doing in the world but with what the world is doing to or for it. When it cries, it gets the attention it needs but even where it is (foolishly) allowed to manipulate the adults around it, its relationship with those adults is still passive.

I can’t resist the temptation to digress here, just for a moment. My wee nephew is four years old. A couple of days ago he was having what Scottish people might call a girny day. (It means he was doing a lot of crying). Eventually, my brother said to him, “you’ve been crying a lot today. Why’s that?” The answer he got was, “I just cry until I get what I want.” :)

The infant is completely and exclusively preoccupied with its own desires and that selfishness is the essence of its immaturity. It is perfectly healthy and natural for the child to exist at the centre of its world because its survival is dependent upon its carers but, thirty years later, that same degree of selfishness would be judged very unhealthy (possibly using the Hare checklist for psychopathic tendencies).

The most fundamental element of growing up is, I submit, not the acquisition of power or knowledge but the transition from that passive relationship with the world, the community and the family, to the active relationship which is natural to the (healthy) adult.

There coexists, in the normal personality, a bit of both the active and the passive but they are not just attributes or qualities which merely contribute “something” to the overall personality.  Motivation – urgency – could, theoretically, be 100% active or 100% passive but, in the real world, we – all of us – sustain a substantial measure of passive urgency.  What’s going to happen to me? – what will I get out of this? – what do people think of me? Active and passive urgency is therefore in perpetual conflict.  It is, however, an enfeebling, mathematical, vector conflict in which one vector will generally secure a marginal prevalence, ensuring that, for the normal personality, the immense motivational potential of the individual is never remotely reached or even imagined.

The people we hold in the highest esteem are generally not venerated by us because they are the owners of the greatest intellects – Einstein is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. In every case, the “greatness” that we instinctively recognize and respect lies in their motivation, their complete commitment to serving needs outside of their own. In fact, Einstein himself recognized that his intellectual achievements were more a measure of his dedication than his intellect.

Che GuevaraIf you want to understand the motivation of the normal personality, don’t study the motivation of the normal personality! The active/passive urgency conflict of the normal personality renders motivation levels weak and indistinct. It is necessary, firstly, to consider that of those individuals – Maslow’s self-actualising personalities – whose unusually high levels of motivation (i.e. relative absence of conflict) would place them at the far reaches of the normal distribution. (Forgive, for the moment, the apparently dogmatic assertions).

Because his intellect is past-oriented (origins, causes), the Freudian root-intellect type, in its healthiest (or most extreme) form, instinctively derives motivation from the past, shaping his actions according to a cause or principle and almost totally without reference to consequence. Nothing is more empowering to the root-intellect personality than the vow, – “Ich Dien”- the oath of service. Honour persists as a principle motivation in the root-intellect type’s (dynamic) motivational hierarchy and the (extremely rare) completely positive root-intellect type will obey its dictates even with the understanding that the outcome may yield several possibilities for disaster for himself.

Consequence is, for the extremely positive root-intellect personality, merely an intellectual consideration and not a factor in the motivational mechanism. The healthy root-intellect’s self-perception is that of the originator of action and his urgency is, therefore, outwardly directed toward the object, extraverted. His unusually high level of urgency is referencing the needs of others. His well-defined self-image includes his own system of values, convictions and principles and he brings his sense of identity to every situation. At the core of this identity lies neither an egotistic sense of self-worth nor a passive sense of belonging to his social group but an unqualified  commitment to serve. His urgency is highly extraverted because he is both intellectually past-oriented and almost exclusively past-motivated.

Where the healthy root-intellect has a sense of identity, the healthy branch-intellect, as Adler fully understood, has a sense of purpose. His personality is thus less obvious, less defined. His identity is inferred from his aims and purposes. His reputation of appearing to be more secretive or reserved is, to an extent, deserved but principally because his sense of purpose rather than identity is central to his existence. With the motivational hierarchy pertaining often to justice, the mind of the branch-intellect type, in its healthiest (or most extreme) form, has a clear aim in view. It looks to the future and understands action in terms of the intended result. As regards aptitude, there is frequently a marked tendency to be observant, to absorb, without effort, a proliferation of detail but this facility has cascaded from the distinct core ability and tendency to extrapolate, to consider the purpose or consequences of an event – the ramifications. In this way, above all else, the branch-intellect can and, for reasons which I hope will become clear, should be identified. It is an intellect that, “by design,” is future-oriented and, out-of-the-box, it has the facility and the functionality to address the business of action in terms of consequence. The urgency of the healthy branch-intellect has its origins in the future, being derived from its purposes.

Past-oriented motivation is necessarily, i.e. without exception, passive (negative) for the branch intellect.

Incidentally – (I’ll indent this “aside” so that you can skip it completely) – one of the most famous branch intellects of the 20th century was British Premier, Margaret Thatcher. You will think I’m over-simplifying here but I feel that, for those who have made it this far and are still with me on this, it’s worth making the observation, albeit superficially.  Thatcher’s outstanding aptitude for extrapolation was well-known in Government circles. She was also strongly (negative for the branch intellect) past-motivated: equally well-recognized was her sense of British identity, her sense of her own identity and her sense of her roots in the spirit of wartime England. In short, she was a strongly-past-motivated branch-intellect (future-oriented) personality. Assuming the validity of the model, we can say that while Thatcher may have been intellectually developed, motivationally, she was dangerously immature, i.e. she was strongly motivated by infantile passive urgency and, as such, her place in history was virtually guaranteed. For many, her lack of compassion was almost her trade mark. Amongst other widely-lamented monumental achievements, she was instrumental in shifting the culture of the UK (and, I would argue, the USA) further towards the general ethos of greed and self-interest from which we have yet to recover.

Thatcher was commonly described as a strong leader but it was her great weakness which defined her personality – weakness mistaken for strength – namely that she was stubborn, self-willed and headstrong. Her ability to push through ideological reforms was widely attributed to strength of character but, in reality, it was her drive, her motivational immaturity which set her aside from “lesser” men. It was her ruthless ambition and her lack of adult compassion which brought her the great respect of the men around her, men who were ambitious, perhaps, self-serving, perhaps, but not quite as ruthlessly ambitious as Thatcher herself.

The late Margaret Thatcher, “the Iron Lady,” is still regarded with great affection by most Conservatives.  The left wing, though, interestingly, not New Labour, had a very different view of her qualities.  Thatcher is a dirty word in most of Scotland.  From the perspective of the miners, the steel workers, and most of the Scots nation, for that matter, Thatcher single-handedly brought misery and injustice into the homes of millions.

Her father, so we are told, had commanded a corner shop with good common-sense principles of economy.  Mr Roberts’ self-reliance and prudent management, it seems, made a strong impression upon his ambitious daughter.  The young Margaret Thatcher was also deeply moved and inspired by the spirit of British patriotism which had been so strong and universal in the wartime years.  Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, the British people had come together and defied the might of Nazi Germany (the Americans helped, after a while).  It must have been stirring stuff (if you weren’t actually wearing the tin hat): endless stories of British heroism abroad, British stoicism throughout the Blitz, Victory-in-Europe celebrations.  But then came the grey hardship of the fifties followed by the growth of the power of the unions in the sixties.  Then came the unrest of the seventies: strikes, protest marches and civil disobedience, queues of unemployed expecting the state to provide for their needs.  Was this what our boys fought for?  Margaret Thatcher’s time had come.  What we needed was a return to the Victorian values of self-reliance and free enterprise… and that’s what we got.

Margaret Thatcher’s politics were not as radical as some would have us believe.  What differentiated Thatcher from many a Tory politician before her was her ability to carry it through, her determination to see through the programme of reform that, in her opinion, her country needed. She had the apparent “strength” of character to take on the unions and effectively destroy their power to hold the country to ransom.  Not a bad thing, some might say.  Lesser Tories might have balked at the hardship and the suffering that ensued but Thatcher was defiant and triumphant in the face of all opposition, a modern-day Boadicea.

To this day, Margaret Thatcher’s personality is widely considered to be a prime example of strong leadership and yet there is another way of looking at this imagined strength.  At an earlier stage in her career, she was reportedly rejected as unsuitable for employment with ICI on the advice of the company psychologist. I’m told that his conclusion was that she suffered from three identifiable weaknesses of character, describing her as “stubborn, self-willed and headstrong.”  In his opinion, these weaknesses were sufficient to bar her from employment with ICI. Unfortunately, he was not vetting her for the office of Prime Minister.

While freeing all constraints upon the greed of the wealthiest, Margaret Thatcher brought the thrift of the corner shop to the welfare state. The battle of will between the unions and the government ended in a crushing defeat for the left. The destruction of British industry, the steelworks, the shipyards and all labour-intensive manufacturing were collateral damage. The destruction of union power was what mattered.

Like him or loathe him, Ted Heath would never have had the conviction to achieve that degree of ruthless tenacity or any part of the catalogue of injustice that was the hallmark of Thatcher’s premiership, but here we come to the crux of the matter: Ted Heath’s apparent relative “weakness” in comparison to Thatcher’s drive and determination was an illusion.  Whatever we may think of the man, never mind of his politics, Heath was, by a long margin, the stronger personality of the two.  There was simply a measure of morality at work there, in conflict with his ill-conceived right-wing ideology. There were lines which, Tory as he was, he would not cross.  This was not weakness of character any more than Thatcher’s stubborn, ruthless determination to emasculate the unions at any cost was strength.

I sat, a few nights ago, listening to how great things would be if only women were in power.  Most of what was said was thoroughly reasonable – it was all about male egos and testosterone – and had there been any sexist males in the company, the force of the feminist arguments would have left the men without a leg to comment upon – so I didn’t feel inclined to chuck a spanner into the enthusiastic consensus by pointing out just how great things used to be when a women was prime minister!

It’s almost a redundant statement but it is the degree of commitment to the cause or goal which determines the level of motivation, the outcome, in the case of complete commitment, being relatively unconflicted urgency, an exceptional level of drive. That degree of commitment is sufficiently rare as to lie outside of the experience of most psychologists (Maslow being the obvious exception) but it is only by understanding the mechanics of the completely-committed personality, be it the saintly figure or the freedom fighter, that we can understand the enfeebling nature of the conflicted urgency of the normal personality. At the other end of the scale, it might be said that the near-psychopathic personality, whether in the classic tabloid form of the serial killer or in the more common and often more vicious form of the corporate CEO, is completely committed, infant-like, to his own interests.


The model anticipates the extreme difficulty of properly investigating the motivation of the normal personality in a Western culture since the predicted near-equal conflict of active and passive urgency renders the urgency level – the effective level of motivation – weak, indistinct and obscure. I imagine the simplicity of this model also lends it a fanciful-seeming quality but the foundation of the model is the simplicity of the active/passive relationship between parent and child and, again, the simplicity of root/branch intellect differentiation.

Future-related motivation can only be in conflict with the adult root-intellect’s natural past-rooted and identity-based extraverted motivation. Motivation which relates to an aim, hope or goal is, for the past-oriented (root-intellect) extravert-type, always negative. In spite of all appearances to the individual, it is, in Freudian terms, a death wish. In the absence of any commitment to a cause – perhaps having watched the Gaza massacre or having become a parent – both are life-changing causes in my experience – it is vital for the root-intellect type who retains any aspirations to personal strength to learn consciously to avoid goal-seeking and to cultivate the ability to live in and to “achieve” in the present.

This is immediately obvious from my own (root-intellect) motivation-fixated point of view but, to put it in Jungian terms, in the case of the future-motivated root-intellect, the “energic” relationship between subject and object is reversed. It is passive in potential, rather than active. He or she is no longer the originator of action, but a potential recipient of what the future will bring. The child has decided the action.

The predominantly passive relationship with the object, the condition of the common somewhat negatively-oriented personality, is something with which we are all familiar – “a man who is wrapped up in himself makes a very small package”. He tends to think the world revolves around him. Preoccupied with his own desires or, on another day, his fears, his primary concern is how the world treats him. It’s all about him, his desires, his needs.

Altruistic motivation – an area almost completely neglected by modern psychology – is, I submit, a commonplace dynamic determinant of adult behaviour, only marginally influenced by but effectively independent of basic needs and gratification logic.

Active and Passive Urgency for each Intellect Type

Intellect Type Active (Positive/Adult) Urgency Passive (Negative/Infant) Urgency
Root Intellect (past intellectual orientation) Extraversion (past-related motivation) Introversion (future-related motivation)
Branch Intellect (future intellectual orientation) Introversion (future-related motivation) Extraversion (past-related motivation)

the motivation of an infant in the body of an adult

Further along the scale, any degree of morality, from the point of view of the near-psychopathic personality, is looked upon as weakness. This is true not only in terms of his personal experience but mathematically. His “strength” derives from his complete commitment to his own interests, his lack of conscience, his lack of empathy, his lack of conflicting motivation. What he doesn’t understand is that his “strength” amounts to no more than a gross immaturity. The psychopath can be defined as an adult with the almost completely passive motivation of an infant. Regardless of any apparent emotional and intellectual maturity, we’re talking about a baby. The most fundamental mechanism of the brain, that which controls action, is still working in reverse; it’s still approaching 100% passive, 100% selfish. Devoid of empathy, devoid of responsibility, devoid of remorse, resorting to manipulation to get what it wants, it moves among normal people causing untold damage and suffering, but nothing matters except that it gets what it wants. We were all born as psychopaths but we, most of us, grew out of it while we were still too small to do any damage.

In both the fully matured and the very immature libido, the relative absence of urgency conflict suggests the existence of a single, more or less unchallenged principle motivation: either commitment, on the one hand, to a cause/goal in service of the needs of another person or persons or, on the other hand, a complete surrender of the individual to his own desires to the exclusion or detriment of all other interests and considerations. “Do what thou wilt be the whole of the law.”

Think, in your own experience, on the difference between love and lust. A relationship may start out with a good healthy measure of lust but when you “fall in love” it is the instinctive drive (literally) to care for the other person that has taken over. Survival of the family requires that we care for each other and for our children and, in preparation for the long-term relationship that a stable healthy childhood demands, our motivation is fundamentally altered. The infantile passive vector is greatly diminished, giving way to a personal commitment to the welfare of the other person. Love, as distinct from affection, can be defined as a motivational state arising from an instinctive commitment to the welfare of another person, and anyone who has been in love has experienced the phenomenon, at least to some extent, of relatively unconflicted active urgency.

When you’re in love, you see the world afresh through the eyes of an adult. You seem to feel the awesome beauty of nature for the first time because you are no longer filtering your perception passively and processing it subjectively in terms of “what good are these trees to me?” Just living is the breath of life for the grown-up personality.

The key to understanding morality is survival. Survival of the family and of the community places certain obligations upon its members. The healthy adult is aware that the needs of the family must take precedence over the desires of the individual. Weakness, however, breeds weakness. The unhealthy parent tends to impede motivational development in their offspring by placing insufficient emphasis upon encouraging empathy and upon the correction of selfish/inconsiderate behaviour both by instruction and, most importantly, by example. The selfishness of the individual in one situation emerges as an equivalent weakness or inadequacy in another. Again, the exception proves the rule, but the child which is exposed to the extreme selfishness of its parents can generally be expected to follow in their footsteps and, perhaps, eventually treat us to the joys of his narcissistic personality disorder. Depending on the depth of his pain, he may achieve some local notoriety as a sociopath. As long as we fail to recognize the simplicity – the direct relationship between selfishness and immaturity – we lack sufficient understanding to tackle the sickness at source.

Our instinctive recognition of the “drive” or “energy level” i.e. what we perceive as “strength” in others can be attributed equally to either side of the scale. When we speak of a “strong” leader, we make no distinction between active and passive motivation; we instinctively recognize only that the individual has more drive, more focus, more motivation: a higher level of urgency than more “normal” people.

At the extremes of passive urgency, we may, on occasion, identify the psychopathic personality but between mere selfishness/weakness and the absolute ruthlessness of the psychopath, lie some of the most dangerous personalities in existence. They can be found both in business and in politics. If an example helps, as I write, the name Rupert Murdoch springs immediately to mind. They have sometimes been termed the industrial psychopath. They owe their success not to their strength of character but, it might be said, to the strength of their weaknesses and to their defining failure to curb these weaknesses as might a more normal individual. They can generally rationalize their ruthlessness and lack of compassion by reasoned argument – “someone has to be strong enough to take the hard decisions” (Tony Blair) – but it is their great weakness, their motivational immaturity, their negative strength, be it plain greed or ego-driven ambition, that facilitates their rise in the corporate or in the political world.

The banking crisis has exposed to the public consciousness the flawed beliefs which brought it about.  In particular, it was widely held that in order to attract “quality” people, it is essential to pay the highest salaries.  This model suggests quite the reverse. The highest levels of drive and focus are to be found equally on both sides of the psychopathy spectrum.  “Quality” people with immense drive and power of intellect are to be found in every profession in this country.  When I was young, our family GP in Glasgow’s west end, was William Blair, an absolutely outstanding and gifted individual whose dedication to medicine was absolute and not unconnected to a belief, shared, I imagine, by all at that Anniesland practice, that the National Health Service was a thing of immeasurable worth.  He grasped the opportunity to serve the community with his substantial intellect and his continually-expanding knowledge of medicine.  It would be absurd to suggest that a productivity bonus might have induced a man of that exceptional calibre to be on call for longer or to apply his considerable intellect more assiduously to the task of saving life and alleviating suffering (although I don’t imagine he would have turned it down)!  It is only the immature personality that is attracted and motivated by the high salary and the goal of the high bonus.  The consequences of the influx of the self-serving, risk-taking, motivationally-immature personality into the banking industry are now being felt across the planet.  There is nothing healthy about selfishness in any degree, nothing healthy about a grown man with the motivational maturity of a child and when a degree of hedonism is the norm, there is nothing healthy about the culture that has created that norm.  Capitalism is the inevitable consequence of a dangerously immature and unhealthy culture, and vice versa.

If this model is valid, the psychopath represents nothing more than the extreme of the normal distribution but the destruction that he leaves in his wake does not begin to compare with the catalogue of death and destruction that can be attributed to the near-psychopathic personality whose ability to integrate successfully into society, together with his psychopath-like qualities, may have placed him in poll position for a successful career in politics (or, perhaps, in a media empire which exerts an irresponsible culture-corrupting influence). Unlike the mere psychopath, he can acquire power and influence; he can use his glibness and his penchant for deceit to advance his position. His manipulative skills, his ruthlessness and his lack of remorse are qualities that are rewarded with continued success.

Psychopathy is, necessarily, a moral construct and, understood within the framework of the urgency-conflict model, plain common or garden selfishness occupies merely a different position on the same finite scale of passive urgency as the full-blown psychopath. For any population, “normal” need no longer be wrongly assumed to be a benchmark for health. There follows an inescapable statistical inference: the occurrence of the phenomenon of the psychopath can be predicted to increase exponentially as the centre of the normal distribution moves to the passive side. The more selfish the culture, the more psychopaths it can be expected to generate. Essentially, it is the culture itself that is sick.

One of the most central messages of Christianity was to persuade its followers that a culture of greed and self-interest is unhealthy and yet we have the USA, the most “Christian” country on the planet, at the vanguard of the drive to present greed and self-interest as a virtue.  Capitalism is the ultimate expression of psychopathy. It encapsulates the essence of the unhealthy, immature culture.  It is a self-sustaining barrier to human progress that must inevitably promote exploitation and oppression, generate war and dispense death and injustice in order to survive (although if you get your news from the BBC, you probably won’t know what I’m talking about)!

If this hypothesis is valid, the power to reverse the culture that produces state-level psychopathy lies with and only with the shared values of the ordinary people of every nation. A change in culture can be subtle and seemingly marginal and yet effective and it’s interesting to look back at the very marginal change in values that took place over such a short period during Thatcher’s time, albeit that it was in entirely the wrong direction. There was something attractive in the values that were passed around in those days like a bag of sweeties. We – not all of us but enough of us – liked the sound of what was on offer and said, “yes, let’s have some of that.” No-one’s personality changed overnight. No-one became greed-driven and self-absorbed who wasn’t inclined that way in the first place but the cultural shift was no less real and no less effective. The centre of the normal distribution moved towards psychopathy.

unhealthy (capitalist) culture
healthy culture

active and passive urgency - graph depicting the normal distribution

incidence of the
incidence of the
mature altruistic

I have often asked myself, given research and validation of this hypothesis, what good it would do even if the simplicity of it were to seep through to the public consciousness, if it were to become common knowledge that selfishness and immaturity are one in the same.  The answer lies in the normal distribution. In the eighties, it did not take an immense change in attitudes to achieve that translation from a not-particularly-healthy culture to a slightly more unhealthy culture and yet it brought the near-psychopathic personality to prominence in all fields of industry and commerce while drastically diminishing the incidence of the healthy altruistic adult personality. Those who are unfamiliar with the absolute power of statistics and probability will find that proposition difficult to accept but, if we were to disregard completely everything that this hypothesis tells us, that fact would remain. If the only valid proposition in the hypothesis were the psychopathy/altruism continuum, the unavoidable conclusion that must be drawn would be that it is the ordinary people who are in the driving seat and it is the attitudes and the shared values of ordinary people that control the incidence of both the strong altruistic and the near-psychopathic personality.

If we become even slightly more interested in the welfare of other people both here and abroad, we shall inevitably move the curve towards altruism.  I’ll leave it to others to explain the processes and confine myself to the fact of the plain statistical inevitability: the incidence of the psychopathic and near-psychopathic personality will diminish drastically while the incidence of the strong, healthy altruistic adult personality will increase. If our shared values even marginally incorporate the idea that selfishness and immaturity are one in the same, if selfishness can go out of fashion just as easily as it came into fashion in the eighties, that is what will inexorably follow.

I entitled this essay, “The Psychology of Compassion,” but it could equally have been entitled, “The Essence of Evil.” The relationship between the parent and the infant is pivotal to the psyche of each. There is absolutely no evil in the child’s passive relationship with the parent. Evil is the word we use when the infant’s deeply-self-oriented motivational state persists into adulthood.

I realize, in closing, that I didn’t elaborate much on the importance of “choices.” It is impossible to overstate that importance.  It’s by that legion of trivial choices that we make a hundred times every day, that we either condemn ourselves to the mediocrity of “normality” or free ourselves to grow into the powerful and compassionate adult personalities that lie within our reach.

As I’ve said, the corruption of the world of capitalism, with its oppression, rampant inequality, exploitation, wars, untreated preventable disease, poverty, injustice and cruelty – not so much here in this green and pleasant land but in far away places that we needn’t think about – that corruption is a statistical inevitability that arises from the normal distribution of the psychopathy/altruism spectrum.  By our seemingly-innocuous marginal self-interest, our perfectly “normal” preoccupation with our happiness and our desires, by our complicity as consumers in the capitalist culture, by our rejection of any personal responsibility, we, ordinary people, far from being powerless to change anything, are collectively and individually in the driving seat.  We always have been.

Every day, by a hundred small, insignificant choices, we choose weakness or strength. Some of us have enough self-knowledge to be aware of our weaknesses but then we imagine that these weaknesses are somehow a part of our identity.  It is nonsense.  Weakness of character is no different from weakness of muscle.  For an adult, weakness is almost always a choice, rarely an affliction, but without the understanding that all forms of selfishness are expressions of immaturity and weakness, it can be hard to see how effortlessly we can change our own personalities, just by becoming increasingly aware of these small choices that we make which incrementally strengthen or weaken us.

I think it was the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Even in the world of political activism, however, we see weakness and self-deception in the simple choices that individuals make.  A demonstration against some act of gross cruelty or injustice might be expected to draw thousands in a major city but, for all the countless thousands who claim to support the cause of human rights, only a small percentage of those countless thousands will make the choice to be present on the day. Some will argue, against all the evidence of history, that civil unrest and mass demonstrations have little or no effect. Some will tell themselves that their individual presence can make no difference but, of course, if everyone were to take that view, there would be no demonstration.  Some will just convince themselves that they have other more pressing things to attend to, but the truth is that, for whatever reason they might come up with, they have simply made a choice. Most of us care about injustice. Most of us, however, just don’t care enough. Most of us are simply too immature to choose, on the day, to get out on the street and try to raise awareness, try to make a difference. That’s the unvarnished truth. The sacrifice of a couple of hours proves too much. Choices!

My mind is very much upon Gaza at this time. I lay every death at the door of the American Dream. I won’t start into international politics at this point but, contrary to what a few anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists might imagine, if the USA decided that enough was enough, Israeli state psychopathy would come to an end in a matter of minutes rather than days.

Death, blood, mutilation, torn flesh, severed limbs, agony, grief, terror, dead children lying in dust and rubble, parts of dead children lying in dust and rubble – is that worse? – a number of dead – over 1700 as I write – perhaps the number is meaningless? Perhaps all of their lives were meaningless. Probably they were exactly that – meaningless to the pilots and the drone operators – distance murder – dead grandparents, dead brothers and sisters, a mother… dead… a father… dead… five children playing on the beach, shelled from a warship… one is still alive, talking about having lost his friends… 15 dead inside a UN school – dead neighbours, dead passers-by, dead farmer, dead car mechanic, dead fisherman, dead ambulance driver, dead schoolteacher. One thousand seven hundred human beings. Does anyone still really care, now that they’re gone? – now that they’re just corpses and bits of corpses to be reclaimed from the dust and rubble that used to be a street – homes, shops, busy with humanity, vibrant, bustling with life. Now we know. Even a street can die.

Watch this and this.

Is it appropriate, at this time, to be discussing a hypothesis addressing the motivation of the child in the body of the adult? Could anything be more appropriate? Zionism was conceived in the late 19th century as an answer to the racism of anti-Semitism. The irony appears to be lost on them, but Zionism was always a deeply racist answer, one that disregarded completely, as an irrelevance, the interests and welfare of the people of Palestine. Israel was born a racist settler colonial state that was always destined to become the pariah state it is today. The terrorists that followed in the tradition of the Irgun and the Stern Gang have now assumed the mantle of statehood but their racist contempt for Arab lives is unchanged. Given the power, the abused became the abuser. The lack of humanity, the lack of restraint, the all-pervasive ethos of racism and the serial vindictive cruelty that has arisen out of that collective sense of victimhood is thoroughly predictable but it is, nevertheless, thoroughly repulsive to anyone sufficiently adult to take an interest in the endless horrors inflicted upon Palestine. Israelis will point out that they have contributed much to the world by way of science and technology but perhaps their greatest contribution is only now about to be realized: Zionism – a study in the evil of passive urgency – a nation that thinks as a child, understands as a child, reasons as a child, reacts as a child and behaves with a complete lack of the restraint and compassion that are the defining characteristics of the adult personality.

Over the last few days, Lewis Carroll’s phrase “the time has come” has come into my head occasionally like a bad tune that perseveres however much you’d prefer to forget it. I may well be completely mad – I’d be the last to know – but sometimes the unconscious mind works like that, except that it should have been saying, “enough! It stops here! In the name of Christ, have these people not suffered enough?”

I see what is happening in Gaza right now and I can’t carry on treating this as some sort of intellectual exercise, repeatedly asking myself if I’m expressing the concepts with enough clarity. I no longer care. Meet me half-way, for Christ’s sake! THIS, as Mads Gilbert put it, certainly can’t wait while I finish the book. Across Scotland, the members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign are out on the streets protesting, trying to raise awareness, organising, giving voice to the public fury at Israel’s state-psychopathy while, today, of all times, I’m not with them. Today, I’m sitting in front of the computer and writing this but I think the time has come to do whatever it takes to get this out and get it researched.


My conclusions, in no particular order:

  • the transition from the passive urgency of infancy to the active urgency of parenthood is not an automatic process
  • at the extreme of human weakness, the psychopath can be described as an adult with the motivational maturity of an infant. He is completely devoid of the prime attributes of the healthy parent, namely compassion and responsibility. Like a healthy infant, he feels a sense of entitlement, an instinctive expectation that the world should provide for him. Like an infant, he is virtually 100% self-oriented, completely passively-motivated, requiring to manipulate others to address his needs.
  • there is a continuum, on a scale of strength and weakness, ranging from the extremes of great weakness – the unchallenged infantile motivation of the psychopath – to the even-more-rare (in an unhealthy culture) unchallenged adult motivation of the completely-committed altruistic personality
  • a culture that promotes or encourages immature motivation whether in the form of a greed/consumer/market-driven economy or in the form of endemic racism can be predicted to produce a greater proportion of psychopaths and near-psychopathic personalities, the centre of the normal distribution having been translated toward the psychopathic end of the scale. Likewise, a lower incidence of “strong” altruistic individuals can be predicted
  • It is the seemingly-innocuous culture of measuring success in terms of status, fame, power and wealth – the misplaced values behind the American dream – that is responsible for the amorality of corporate America and for the psychopathic militaristic and imperialist foreign policy of the USA
  • selfishness and immaturity are one and the same


  • Experiment will demonstrate, firstly, the existence of the synthesis of urgency as the neurological mechanism which, by maintaining the relationship between perception, time and action, initiates and moderates action by both dynamic data-stream and threshold trigger mechanisms. It should be relatively trivial and inexpensive to identify the neural correlates of libido (and consciousness): those sets of neural oscillations most directly correlated with urgency.
  • Secondly, experiment will demonstrate the existence of the root/branch intellect typology. (I have, as yet, been unable to find any research which has been undertaken in this area although, as I mentioned earlier, there are important parallels in Guilford and Hoepfner’s work on Convergent and Divergent intelligence – “The Analysis of Intelligence” [1971] New York: McGraw-Hill).
  • I would predict, finally, for each intellect type, a substantial correlation between the degree of identifiable non-pathological character weakness (ranging from the psychopath to the neurotic) and the level of passive-urgency, defined as motivation that is negatively oriented with respect to the root/branch intellect type. I already mentioned that we have a ready-made pool of root-intellect minds in the Freudian School together with an equally clear pool of branch-intellects with the Adlerian School. Additionally, initial testing of “sociopaths” for intellect type might help refine testing methods for a more diverse population.

If you can help in any way, as always, it just comes down to a choice… and the urgency of action.

Copyright © Jimmy Powdrell Campbell 1996, 2014.

Written by jimmypowdrellcampbell

November 30, 2008 at 3:00 pm


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