Bible Science stories, revisited

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William Deresiewicz, "Capitalists and Other Psychopaths", NYT 5/12/2012:

THERE is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, consider the following. A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) […]

The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising.

The only thing that puzzles *me* about such claims is that they spread so far in reputable publications, over such a long period of time, despite being complete fabrications.

Deresiewicz (or the NYT editors) do provide a link to the 10-percent-of-Wall-Streeters-are-psychopaths "study", which goes to an article in The Week, "Why is Wall Street full of psychopaths?", 3/1/2012:

One out of 10 Wall Street employees is a clinical psychopath, estimates Sherree DeCovny in CFA Magazine [pdf for purchase], compared with one out of 100 people in the general population. That statistic is "shocking," says Sam Ro at Business Insider, and, while it doesn't mean Wall Street is crawling with ax-wielding serial killers (see American Psycho), the extreme character traits outlined in DeCovny's report are certainly prevalent — and often admired — in the industry.

The article in The Week, in turn, gives us a link to what seems to be the original source of the statistic —  Sherree DeCovny, "The Financial Psychopath Next Door", CFA Magazine, March/April 2012.

When I read the Deresiewicz study, my science-journalism spider sense started tingling.  The fact that the "study" link went to another news report kicked the tingle up a notch; and my skepticism crossed the threshold to near certainty at the step to CFA Magazine, a "practice-based, professional member magazine" which

…contracts with professional journalists to write most articles published in CFA Magazine. Accordingly, stories are approached from a journalistic perspective, providing varying viewpoints that are representative of the CFA Institute global membership and that offer real-life, professional applications through a balance of theory and practice.

So the question was, did I care enough about this example of the science-journalism telephone game to pay CFA Magazine a few dollars for a copy of the article? Before deciding, I thought I'd look around for a copy posted somewhere on the web; and that simple web search quickly revealed that an expert job of debunking had already been done: John Grohol, "Untrue: 1 out of Every 10 Wall Street Employees is a Psychopath", Psych Central 3/6/2012:

[I]n trying to research where this statistic came from, I stumbled upon a symptom of what’s wrong with a lot of journalism today.  I can summarize the problem in one word — laziness. Many (most?) journalists nowadays take “experts” words for whatever claims they make, without ever bothering to check them out independently.

Alexander Eichler, a “business reporter” at The Huffington Post, started this news cycle by making the claim in his article, “One Out Of Every Ten Wall Street Employees Is A Psychopath, Say Researchers:”

One out of every 10 Wall Street employees is likely a clinical psychopath, writes journalist Sherree DeCovny in an upcoming issue of the trade publication CFA Magazine (subscription required). In the general population the rate is closer to one percent.

Eichler isn’t suggesting 1 out of 10 Wall Street employees is a psychopath — he’s just passing along something he read in another magazine (note, it’s a magazine, like People, not a scientific journal). Eichler’s point of his blog entry is simply to regurgitate what DeCovny (2012) wrote in her article. Here’s what DoCovny, a freelancer, actually wrote:

Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare indicate that about 1 percent of the general population can be categorized as psychopathic, but the prevalence rate in the financial services industry is 10 percent. And Christopher Bayer believes, based on his experience, that the rate is higher.

When DeCovny was contacted about the statistic, she replied:

Christopher Bayer, a psychologist I interviewed for the article, told me about Hare’s study, so he should be able to point you in the right direction. Christopher provides therapy to Wall Street professionals. He’s also finishing up a book on this topic.

It’s great that Christopher Bayer is a therapist who treats Wall Street professionals. However, I could find no research he’s authored in this topic area. So while his opinion is duly noted, it really isn’t in the same league as empirical scientific data. The two should never be confused.

Hare, on the other hand, is a famous researcher who has made a career in studying psychopaths, has published dozens of scientific studies on the topic, and developed the preeminent checklist that is used in most psychopathy research. […]

Hare did indeed co-author a paper that examined “corporate psychopathy,” with colleagues Paul Babiak and Craig Neumann (2010). It did not look at the financial services industry specifically. The research used a sample that consisted of 203 corporate professionals from 7 different companies, selected by their companies to participate in management development programs from all areas of industry.

I did what any journalist writing about a famous researcher should do before saying he said something that seems a little “out there” — I contacted Hare to ask him about this data. Here’s his response to the claim that 1 in 10 (10 percent) of financial industry employees is a “psychopath:”

I don’t know who threw out the 10% but it certainly it did not come from me or my colleagues.

The article to which you refer describes a sample of “203 corporate professionals selected by their companies to participate in management development programs.” The sample was not randomly selected or necessarily representative of managers or executives, or of the corporations in which they work.

The approximately 4% who had a PCL-R score high enough for a research description as psychopathic cannot be be generalized to the larger population of managers and executives, or to CEOs and the “financial services industry.”

So to be crystal clear here, one out of every ten wall street employees is NOT a psychopath. At least not according to any actual scientific research. DeCovny took a professional’s word (Bayer’s) that this is what the research showed; and she had no reason to doubt him. But she also didn’t verify the information for herself (like I did), or bother contacting Hare to ensure the data being attributed to him was correct. (We could not reach Christopher Bayer in time to comment on the discrepancy between what he told DeCovny, and what Hare actually researched.)

Just to clarify a small point of quantifier scope: By saying that "one out of every ten wall street employees is NOT a psychopath", Dr. Grohol does not mean that 10% are non-psychopaths, implying that 90% of them ARE psychopaths; but rather than it is not the case that 10% of them are (or at least have been shown to be) psychopaths.

Now, I'm not a reflexive defender of Wall Streeters. For all I know, 10% — or 90% — of them really are psychopaths. But I do believe that public policy debates ought to be based as much as possible on facts, and not on made-up numbers that have been given a pseudo-scientific status by a multi-step journalistic "telephone game".

Adding to the documentation of this particular stream of nonsense in the media sewer, Dr. Grohol gives a list of other sightings:

Regular readers may recall some of the dozens of other examples that we've picked up on over the years, widely-reproduced stories telling us that email and texting lower IQ twice as much as smoking marijuana does; that Twitter and Facebook numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering; that women talk three times as much as men do, while men think of sex every 52 seconds on average; and so on. In an earlier post, I concluded that

… "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

What would the [editors responsible for promulgating these stories] say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods? I imagine that their reaction would be roughly like that of an Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, confronted with evidence from DNA phylogeny that the animals of the world could not possibly have gone through the genetic bottleneck required by the story of Noah's ark. I mean, lighten up, man, it's just a story.

For those interested in following up further, the study referenced above is Paul Babiak, Craig Neumann, and Robert Hare,  "Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk", Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 2010. I'll have a bit more to say about it in a later post.

Update — the New York TImes Op-Ed page, much to their credit, has posted a correction at the bottom of the original article:

Correction: May 16, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated the findings of a 2010 study on psychopathy in corporations. The study found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths, not that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths. In addition, the study, in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, was not based on a representative sample; the authors of the study say that the 4 percent figure cannot be generalized to the larger population of corporate managers and executives.


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

    Well, yeah, if you want to get all factual and scientific about it. But consider another point of view.

    Clinicians are interested in deciding whether a person is or is not a psychopath because that tells the clinician something about the individual's state of mental health. But society is interested in deciding whether a person does or does not commit acts that are consistent with psychopathy, because these acts cause problems for other people.

    We have institutions (corporations, the securities industry, our financial system) that exhibit various forms of dysfunction, at least in the opinions of a lot of people. If you've spent time in a corporate environment (possibly but not necessarily excepting your former employer Bell Labs), then you understand that middle managers are usually pretty ordinary, upstanding people in a difficult situation. As a result, they behave—at work—like Dilbert's pointy-haired boss. Blame it on the Peter Principle. Blame it on the natural design of hierarchical decision-making systems. Whatever.

    Similarly, people working in a system like Wall Street that provides incentives for behaving in antisocial ways will tend to behave in antisocial ways at work, even if they're the salt of the earth at home and their places of worship. So they may not be psychopaths from a clinical standpoint, but it's fair to ascribe psychopathic behavior to them. What percent of them? I have my opinion, which is as valid as anyone else's until someone defines criteria and does a random survey. And storytellers quoting storytellers misquoting scientists in order to gain unwarranted credibility does not constitute journalism. I agree with you there. But there's room for more than one operational definition of psychopathy, I think.

    [(myl) So you're an Episcopalian Sunday School teacher, right?]

  2. Brian R said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

    Great article. How can democracy flourish when both politician's and journalists are fabricating seductive narratives and not dealing with actual issues?

    [(myl) William Deresiewicz is neither a politician nor a journalist — I'm afraid that I may have misled you by lumping his Op-Ed piece into the category of "science journalism" simply because it cites a striking scientific factoid. But genuine journalists have certainly been quoting the same factoid; and I guess it wouldn't surprise me to hear it from a politician or two.]

  3. Joe L. said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 12:41 am

    Interesting discussion (link below) with Jon Johnson (who has "authored" on the topic of psychopaths relative to the capitalist draw), and Slavoj Zizek. Entertaining and serious. Yes, to your value placed on accuracy of quoting data or studies accurately, but it's important too that the general interest reader be able to understand the characteristics – lack of empathy, for example, as Johnson discusses. I'm linking to one of the small segments, but there's a link there to the longer discussion:
    The small segment is just a few minutes long. Thought you might enjoy it.

  4. Evan Morris said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 3:17 am

    That's Jon Ronson, author of "Them," a great book about conspiracy nuts, and "The Men Who Stare at Goats," a good book made into a mediocre George Clooney movie.

  5. Michael said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 3:39 am

    Dick Margulis said: But there's room for more than one operational definition of psychopathy, I think.

    No, there isn't!

  6. Berna Bleeker said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 4:05 am

    "Now, I'm not a reflexive defender of Wall Streeters. For all I know, 10% — or 90% — of them really are psychopaths. But I do believe that public policy debates ought to be based as much as possible on facts, and not on made-up numbers that have been given a pseudo-scientific status by a multi-step journalistic "telephone game"."

    Hear, hear!

  7. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 5:43 am

    Interesting discussion (link below) with Jon Johnson (who has "authored" on the topic of psychopaths relative to the capitalist draw

    Jon Ronson. He wrote last year's The Psychopath Test, which was inspired by Hare's ideas in general and the corporate psychopathy study referenced in the post in particular.

  8. m said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 6:19 am

    This idea of psychopaths in finance seems to be creeping up all over — it was more honestly referenced in ANOTHER piece in yesterday's NYT Magazine. Quote:

    "The societal costs of nonviolent psychopaths may be even higher. Robert Hare, the co-author of 'Snakes in Suits,' describes evidence of psychopathy among some financiers and business people; he suspects Bernie Madoff of falling into that category."

    Source: "Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?" by Jennifer Kahn.

    [(myl) And the two "psychopath" articles are #1 and #2 on the NYT's current "Most Emailed" list, and #1 and #5 on the "Most Viewed" list.]

  9. gasche said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 7:17 am

    > […] Dr. Grohol does not mean that 10% are non-psychopaths, implying that 90% of them ARE psychopaths […]

    While you're at it, one may say that "10% are non-psycopaths" but *not* imply that the other 90% of them are. For example, you could say about a trade shipment that "I sampled the items, and I can say for sure that 10% of them correspond to the vendor's description", without implying that the other 90% are bogus.

    [(myl) Yes, there's a large literature on related issues, under the heading of "scalar implicature", e.g. this.]

  10. Ross Mays said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    First thing Monday morning and I discover that I am a fundamentalist. Great. I prefer "factamentalist", though. Good article.

  11. Rachel said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    I am deeply embarrassed by recalling just how many times I have quoted that statistic.

    Thank you for this salutary post.

  12. Joshua Kidd said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 9:38 am

    Equating these kinds of stories to Bible stories is very apt, however I'm not sure that the following analogy is: You : NYT Op-Ed Pieces :: Fundamentalist : Bible Stories. In that I don't know of any fundamentalists who debunk Bible stories. The fundamentalists of NYT op-eds would insist on the truth of the stories regardless of the evidence brought against them. The Episcopal Sunday School teachers of NYT op-eds would say that the literary genre of NYT op-eds is not concerned with scientific truths.

  13. Laura said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    On the quantifier scope thing, on the News Quiz (BBC radio 4) the other day they told the story of MP Dennis Skinner, who once said in parliament, "half the members opposite are liars". When told to withdraw the comment, he apologised and said "half the members opposite are not liars". I don't know if it's true or apocryphal but very nice use of scope ambiguity either way.

  14. Mark Etherton said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 10:13 am


    The Dennis Skinner line was that a Liberal spokesman had not been in a particular committee half the time, which, when challenged, he changed to that he had been there the other half; the exchanges are in historic Hansard here, at the end of col 448:

  15. ShadowFox said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 11:59 am

    A version of the story also showed up on public radio, although I cannot name the program. The tie in was the "psychopath" scale for prisoners, with a discussion of studies that suggested a serious discrepancy between evaluations by experts hired by prosecution vs. defense. Since the test results are used in parole decisions, this is not merely an academic matter. Then the story veered off somewhere else, suggesting that "other studies" identify business leaders ad entrepreneurs scoring high on the psychopath scale considerably more frequently than the background population, complete with specific examples, including a guy who simply loved firing people (no, not Mitt Romney).

  16. Dakota said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    The analogy to Presbyterians is puzzling, since the last time I checked, they, along with the rest of the Mainstream Protestant groups, were pretty much all Darwinists.

    From the Episcopal Church, General Convention (2006), "Resolution A129: Affirm Creation and Evolution":

    Since the sixteenth century, Anglicans have described their faith in terms of the "three-legged stool" of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The quest to understand the origins of life on earth, and the forces that drive the ongoing changes in living organisms involves Reason and is in no way incompatible with the central truths of Scripture and Christian Tradition. Episcopalians generally accept that it is appropriate to seek to understand, through scientific probing, the origins both of the cosmos and life on earth, and that evolution is a valid explanation of the development of all living things, including humanity. Several leading Anglican theologians, past and present, among them priest-scientists William G. Pollard, Arthur Peacocke, and Sir John Polkinghorne, have shown how an evolutionary world view can be integrated with a theology of creation. The 67th General Convention affirmed a belief "in the glorious ability of God to create in any manner", and its "support of scientists, educators, and theologians in the search for truth" (GC Resolution 1982-D090).

    For a less stilted explanation by a marine biologist who is also an Episcopalian bishop,

    Not to use our brains in understanding the world around us seems a cardinal sin.

    see here:

  17. AMM said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    @ShadowFox: "A version of the story also showed up on public radio,…"

    The program was This American Life (I heard it on May 12.), and it was about the Psychopath [mumble mumble] Check List.

    The businessman in question scored high in some of the areas covered by the checklist, but low on others.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

    @Dakota: The analogy is to Episcopalians who believe in evolution and believe that the Biblical account of creation is "just a story", but teach it anyway.

    Speculating on what those editors would say is not my favorite kind of journalism. Neither is ""Untrue: 1 out of Every 10 Wall Street Employees is a Psychopath". As MYL said, for all we know it is 1 out of 10 or even 9 out of 10. To me these are disappointments in Grohol's otherwise excellent article.

    (And the mention of Jon Johnson or Ronson may make me launch into a comedy routine from the '70s.)

  19. Chandra said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    While I agree with Dick Margulis that the wider dialogue that emerges from these pseudoscientific telephone games may be worthwhile, I would argue that using unverified, easily-debunkable factoids as a foundation for an idea does more harm to this dialogue than good.

    It may be a useful and worthwhile endeavour on a sociopolitical level to have dialogues about things like Wall Street employees and their hypothetically psychopathic-like behaviours; however, just as the general public is apt to mindlessly latch on to a made-up statistic, they are equally apt to mindlessly dismiss any further considerations associated with it once they find out it was all a big fat lie.

  20. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    @Joshua Kidd:

    Spot on. As LL's sole reader who would happily self-describe as a fundamentalist, that's exactly right. Doubting the literal truth of Bible stories would get you drummed out of the Brownies.

    Mind you, Prof L did say "Episcopalian" Sunday School Teacher. I have a strong impression (in very real sense) that none of the many fundamentalist members of the Anglican communion call themselves Episcopalian …

    Of course, the basis for believing Bible stories in the teeth of compelling evidence to the contrary is the appeal to authority. The Episcopalian Bible Story school of science reporting doesn't feel that any authority is actually necessary …

  21. jmk said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    The story also made it to Wikipedia (Finnish version).

    The "encyclopedia that anyone can edit" now states solemnly (my translation):
    "According to a U.S. research study, psychopathy is more common among the financial sector employees, for example 10% of Wall Street employees are estimated to be psychopaths".

    The encyclopedia cites The Huffington Post as its source. Rich, isn't it?

  22. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    Obligatory XKCD link on citations:

  23. ohwilleke said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    As a former Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, I have to kind of agree with the lighten up sentiment, and the notion that factually incorrect stories can have a grain of truth to them even if they are hyperbole or you look at them from the wrong perspective.

    For example, if financial services professionals have a PCL-R score which is higher to a statistically significant extent amoong financial services professionals (and even more so if among particularly successful ones) than the general population, the fact that the number is not precisely 10% is really irrelevant, since the industry should have a far below average percentage if the old conventional wisdom myths about financial services being an industry based on trust and social virtues being true were correct instead.

    [(myl) If you check the 2010 Babiak et al. paper, you'll find that it involves a comparison of a sample of 203 executives in "management development" programs (from a wide range of businesses, not from Wall Street firms), with a large community survey. The psychological tests for "psychopathy" were not the same in the two cases, so the scales were equated by a simple linear transformation — the psychometric validity of this mode of comparison is apparently unknown. The results? The average psychopathy score of the executives was lower than the average of the community study (2.17 out of 24 compared to 2.67 out of 24). A substantially larger fraction of the executives scored very low in psychopathy (about 83% of them were in the 0-3 range, compared to about 73% in the community survey). A somewhat larger fraction scored high (3% of the executives were in the 20-24 range, compared to 0.2% in the community survey). But the difference in test instruments used makes it hard to evaluate the meaning of these differences.]

  24. haamu said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    Isn't it another flaw that Deresiewicz relied on a statistic at all, when (1) none are needed, and (2) doing so might actually hide a deeper truth?

    One salient fact about psychopaths is that it doesn't take a number anywhere close to 10% to ruin things. Even only one or two psychopaths, advantageously placed, can have a fairly deleterious effect. Or even zero: the manifest psychopathy of Wall Street as an institution may in fact be an emergent property. All of its human participants could be entirely sane; in fact, they may be the most rational among us.

    That would point to a far more intriguing and disturbing scenario, one in which we can't use a mythical 10% with supposedly abnormal personalities as scapegoats.

  25. Joe L. said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    @ haamu…agree, and as Slavoj points out, listening to Bach after hours.
    @myl: Thanks for changing the title to your post, for there is only one point to make here, and you make it forcefully enough without the Bible thumper comparison, which is that the percent of psychopaths on Wall St. is uncertain, and stories citing a percent as fact are disingenuous. But also of interest: wherever or whatever Wall St. is – it's interesting that the accuracy of the percent gets more attention than the metaphor, for surely anything called "Wall Street" is as misleading as the media stories about how many psychos might be camped out there. But could one's psychopathic score be below community average while one's individual score for lack of empathy be off the chart? This might be an interesting question in light of the recent Romney high school memoir story. In any case, the argument is weakest here: "… 'scientific studies' like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy," only because the statement is (I guess) metaphoric, lacks the kind of support you want the media to stick to on the psycho story, and suggests some sort of weird subtext as a tangential purpose to the post.

  26. Tom O'Brien said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

    I'm embarrassed that the psychopath story didn't trigger my usual skepticism, probably because it appealed to my prejudices. On a related topic, see Dave Cullen's review of The Bully Society in the NYT Book Review of April 29:

  27. Science stories, revisited « thinkalittleharder said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    […] Science stories, revisited […]

  28. Andy Averill said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    I find even the 1% figure alarming. Does that mean that there's a good chance that one senator and 4.35 congressmen are psychopathic?

  29. KevinM said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    From yesterday's NY Times, an example of the same "x% are not y" construction:
    "About 25 percent of the population is infected with HPV at any point in time, but “25 percent of people don’t get cancer,” said Dr. Alan G. Waxman…."
    As in the example you gave, the trigger for the ambiguity seems to be the desire to rebut a statement that "x% are y." As in "They said you weren't fit to live with pigs, but I defended you."

  30. hector said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 6:34 pm


    Hear, hear.

  31. Why things that are untrue get repeated | Joshua Curtis Kidd said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

    […] first post was written by Professor Mark Liberman on Language Log.  He looks at the claim that studies have shown 1 in 10 Wall Street employees to be psychopaths.  There is no evidence for this.  What I find interesting about this post is that he remarks that […]

  32. Mark F. said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 8:58 pm

    Anyway, I'm a little dubious about going from "Person X scored above N on the PCL-R" to "Person X is a psychopath." I just don't think psychiatric diagnosis is that reliable. I would not be astonished if, in 20 years, "psychopathy" had been replaced by multiple diagnoses or, alternatively, eliminated entirely (although that's not my guess).

  33. Private Zydeco said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 3:42 am

    " A balance of theory and practice" , or, as I deconstruct it,
    "truth, but then whatever contrivances we're wont to abide".

  34. Fighting the Good Fight Against Psychopaths – The Only Winning Move said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    […] the numbers given turn out to be a complete fabrication and are drawn from a secondary source that misrepresents the research in question. HT: […]

  35. Nathan Myers said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 4:31 am

    We can't say it's not true that 10% of options traders, or 4% of CEOs, or what have you, are psychopaths. All we can say is that we don't know what percentage are. It could be 10%, it could be 4%, or any other number.

    But if we have learned anything from the past century's events, it's that circumstances are just as important as anything innate. Students playing guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment were chosen randomly. Way more than 1% behaved pathologically. Our institutions often demand behavior indistinguishable from the psychopathic. Selection within these institutions is only between who can live with that, and who must find something else to do. Psychopaths certainly have an advantage, but most people are skilled enough at self-deception to participate. Any who aren't get replaced in short order.

    We should be able to say that the institution itself is psychopathic if its design drives out those not willing to behave as if psychopathic. The modern corporation is such an institution, just as were the soviet governments that copied their design, and the royal courts that preceded them.

    Jon Ronson's book, "The Psychopath Test", ends up promoting a much more nuanced view than most treatments I have seen. He only hints, though, at the institutional role in people's behavior.

  36. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 4:32 am

    My hypothesis: People are prone to repeating factoids that contain a simple piece of new information that reinforces what they already believe or suspect. If a belief is widespread, then the new 'fact' that seems to support it is going to get repeated a lot, especially if it gets picked up by important hubs of information.

    I wish I knew how to test this. How can we compare the frequency of repetition of factoids that add a detail to support common beliefs, vs. those that go against common beliefs, vs. those that do not obviously relate to common beliefs? We'd need to be able to identify the beliefs relating to specific factoids (basically, tenets within idealized cognitive models) and measure how commonly held they are, before we can even compare the degree of spread of the factoids that relate to them.

    As to how these factoids relate to other kinds of communication: Such factoids are like gossip in the way they draw interest as novel information, and hence get repeated, and also in the way the details morph in the transfer. But as Mark points out they're like religious stories in the feeling of explanatory value they provide. (A common function of science and religion of course.) There is also typically a moral value attached to them, I think usually a negative one ("this is deplorable"), which is another way these items are like gossip.

    I do find it sad that what are supposed to be high-quality sources of information in our culture do so much to spread what is effectively unsubstantiated gossip about the way the world works.

  37. [links] Link salad can dance if it wants to | said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

    […] Capitalists and Other Psychopaths — More on the psychopath ratio on Wall Street. Language Log injects a note of reality into the discussion. […]

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