Tag Archives: fighting

Professional Fighters and Domestic Abuse

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I’m trying to get an idea what public opinion is on professional fighters involved in domestic abuse cases. Heavyweights Deontay Wilder and Dereck Chisora have both been involved in domestic abuse cases, as has Welterweight Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Taking into account their fight training, should this factor in when deciding a sentence?

Evolution and the Psychopath


Since I began studying psychopathy, I have often wondered about an evolutionary basis for this dangerous disorder. Psychopathy is considered to be a developmental disorder (Blair, 2006), which means that through its normal course of development the brain experiences stresses or biochemical changes that are not conducive to proper neurological development. This idea is supported by suppositions from both behavioral psychology and neuroscience; firstly, in behavioral psychology, it is suspected that serious child abuse could be an underlying factor behind psychopathy (Kunitz et al., 1998), and secondly, in neuroscience, it has been noted that many with psychopathy show a significant underdevelopment of a number of regions in their brain (for a review see Pemment, 2012).

Read more at Psychology Today…

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012

How biological and psychological perspectives on psychopathy shape public opinion

It is commonly known that when a psychopath is on the stand, the prosecution is going to push for a jail term based upon the idea that the defendant is sane. The defense, on the other hand, will no doubt argue that their client is insane, and so should therefore be sent to a psychiatric institution.

In order to determine if the defendant is a psychopath, very often a test called the psychopathy checklist – revised (PCL-R) will be administered. This test has to be conducted by a trained psychologist who has the time to get familiar with the defendant and their history. However, it has been shown that psychologists hired by the prosecution and the defense can come up with different verdicts that tend to favor their own arguments. If the test determines that the defendant is a psychopath then they have essentially just been tarred and feathered and will meet the full wrath of the law with no sympathy. If the test shows otherwise, that label of psychopath will not be applied, and the defendant is likely to meet some leniency.

Numerous points can be made here, but the point I would like to make is  that the use of the psychological test (the PCL-R), if it determines that the defendant is a psychopath, seems to convince the jury of the worst, and they are likely to reflect this in their judgment. However, a recent article on NPR pointed out that judges tends to be lenient when the biological basis for psychopathy is pointed out. It is indeed true that the neurobiology of the psychopath is different; this has been indicated on the tissue level and the genetic level.

This seems to suggest that a judge can be told that a psychological test has determined the defendant is a psychopath and so causes the worst possible outcome, yet if an explanation is given on the tissue, cellular, or genetic level, they can be swayed back towards leniency. It’s as if biological explanations destroy the facade of an individual and look to the minute building blocks of life (which we have no/limited control over), but the minute psychology appears, the individual is back and suddenly accountable for their actions.

This is one problem with juries when it comes to trying psychopaths. If the level of scientific analysis focuses on the individual, the jury will see the individual, whereas if the level of analysis on the molecular biological level, the jury will see cells and genes (which have a life of their own). I, personally, think it is irresponsible to allow a jury to have to reconcile these differences during the trial, especially if they have no scientific understanding.

**I would like to point out that not all psychologists work at the level of the organism, of course, and even if they do they are likely to be aware of cellular/genetic implications of their work.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012

Author, Seeing Red

The Problem of Self Defense

All schools of martial arts (including boxing) make promises, in fact, that is part of what makes them marketable. Self-defense and fitness are probably the two most parroted terms. The fitness claim is not really disputable; if you engage in physical exercise in moderation one’s level of fitness tends to improve. Self-defense, on the other hand, needs to come under intense scrutiny, and the reason for this is because it is a very serious concept. In the eyes of the law an argument for self-defense has the power to validate an appeal for a retrial where the initial trial resulted in a verdict of murder, as in State v. Leidholm (1983). If there is an argument for self-defense, therefore, there could be a degree of legal leniency.

Cases of self-defense, however, frequently involve a death, and the justification for self-defense offered by the North Dakota Century Code (used in the aforementioned case) states, “A person is justified in using force upon another person to defend himself against danger of imminent unlawful bodily injury,” in other words, defending oneself against an act of violence using what also amounts to violence. A worthwhile study would investigate style participation based upon the use of the word violence instead of the term self-defense and could involve the following questions: Would you practice a fighting style that teaches you violence to defend yourself? Would you rather defend yourself with the use of violence or self-defense? The difference between violence and self-defense is minimal to illusory, but in all probability nobody would choose the former as a reason to practice a fighting style.

It can be argued that self-defense simply implies using your mind to escape a harmful situation without inflicting harm upon an aggressor. There may be some truth to this, but every style teaches how to engage physically with an aggressor and self-defense in legal terms is generating a sufficient defense for using violence. Using the term “self-defense”, therefore, carries a great deal of responsibility, and it is questionable whether all styles and schools are qualified to use the term. Further problems arise when a person has trained to a sufficient standard that they are no longer considered to act out of self-defense, but are instead considered to be at more an advantage than a person considered unlikely to defend themselves against an aggressor; in other words, the more self-defense is practiced, the less lenient the law could be in the victim’s defense.

There is no question that the full contact fighting styles, such as boxing and MMA, train fighters to use violence and to receive violence, but these styles, especially boxing, do not tend to use self-defense as a reason to partake in the style and will openly admit that you will be hit hard and you must learn to reciprocate; the aggression employed is a lot more obvious than other styles.

Do psychopaths fight professionally?

Out of the estimated 1% of the American population with Antisocial Personality Disorder (the most extreme of whom could be psychopathic individuals), how many of them have made a career (or are currently making one) in culturally accepted forms of fighting and aggression, such as boxing or MMA? Here it is important not to confuse serial killers with psychopaths (it’s estimated that in the US there are about 8 serial killers operating at one time), and 1% of the American population is 313,000, and so it’s quite a different question to ask if serial killers become boxers (they probably don’t).

In much of the literature on aggression there tends to be two types of aggressive male; those who are reactively aggressive, and those who are instrumentally aggressive. Numerous boxers, including Michael Bentt, have said recently (commenting upon the recent Haye/Chisora/Klitschko debacle) that boxers are naturally aggressive, and if this is the case then those two categories of aggressiveness are probably also present among fighters.

There are both psychological and physiological differences between reactive and instrumental aggression. Reactive aggression frequently involves losing your cool in the face of a perceived harmful stimulus, whereas instrumental aggression involves carefully planning how to use aggressive behavior to achieve a goal. Reactive aggression is associated with a rapid rise in heart rate and a diminishing capacity for logical thought, whereas those with a tendency for instrumental aggression are able to keep a low heart rate when faced with the kinds of shocking/harmful stimuli that would cause the rest of us to lose control.

Psychopaths are renowned for instrumental aggression and ALL fighters have to utilize instrumental aggression in order to win (they have to plan/scheme/adapt in their fighting style to best their opponent and receive all of the benefits and rewards that come with winning). Of course a crucial difference here is that psychopaths also have no remorse or guilt, and I can imagine the kinds of discipline and rule following that accompanies fighting would only serve to frustrate a psychopath, hindering their quest for extreme stimulation and power. So would psychopaths fight or not?

On the one hand, it is not hard to imagine why a psychopathic individual would turn to professional fighting. Firstly, they get to hurt people, and this could be accompanied by extreme exhilaration (the basic reward circuitry in psychopaths is often underdeveloped and poorly functioning. It could be argued that because of this psychopaths often turn to alcohol and other drugs, as well as violence to feel exhilaration). Secondly, provided they were good at it, they could obtain a high social status (powerful people who could be manipulated and controlled), wealth, and access to gorgeous women (who could be manipulated and controlled).

On the other hand, they could lose and end up with none of that. Psychopaths, particularly unsuccessful psychopaths (those deemed to have lower neurological integrity in the frontal lobe and tend to end up in prison more than their successful counterparts), are notoriously bad at making risky decisions; this could support the notion of unsuccessful psychopaths becoming fighters. It would be much easier for a psychopath to rely on their charm to manipulate in an innocuous environment to gain control and fulfill their egoistic goals than to subject their bodies to tremendous punishment in a ring with a lot less certainty of success. Psychopaths who do or would fight, would in all likelihood be unsuccessful psychopaths, and could be identified by a number of factors: One, have they been involved in domestic abuse? Two, have they shown any remorse concerning said domestic abuse? Three, do they also assault people they are not familiar with/have no relationship with? Four, is their ego ridiculously high, even for a fighter?

Ring any bells?

Show me the discipline!

Recently, I came to the conclusion that years of boxing could have both positive and negative effects on the brain. Excluding the damage that can occur when a boxer has been repeatedly punched hard in the head for 15-20 years, boxing is going to become interwoven into the neural fabric and reflect an aggressive history; the question being has this conditioned the boxer to be in control when faced with aggressive stimuli (keeping a cool head), or has it simply made them more reactionary?

This week seems to demonstrate the latter. Dereck Chisora, the British heavyweight who recently had a commendable loss to the WBC heavyweight champion, Vitali Klitschko, is clearly a very aggressive and somewhat remorseless individual (I am yet to see any indication that he regretted assaulting his girlfriend late in 2010, in fact his response at a press conference before he was due to fight Wladimir Klitschko, when Wladmir commented on the quality of a man who hits a woman, Chisora responded by trying to denigrate Wladimir’s girlfriend (Press Conference).

But still, you can’t use the behavior of one boxer when considering if boxing has a disciplining effect on those who practice. The only trouble is that Chisora isn’t the only boxer who has recently been accused of assault; so have Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather. So what does it mean for a boxer to say that boxing is a way to discipline oneself? Assault is either carried out as a reaction to a (perceived) harmful stimulus, or it is used as a means to gain control for a particular end (money/respect/sexual domination/revenge). The difference between these two types of aggression is control. This raises a serious problem, because if boxing disciplines (which puts a boxer in control of reactive aggression), then their assaults are more likely to be planned and callous attempts to achieve a particular goal.

Another strike this week against boxers being in control came from the Welsh up-and-coming Nathan Cleverly, who defends his WBO Light Heavyweight belt against American Tom Karpency tomorrow in Wales. Cleverly has recently commented on the Chisora-Haye debacle by promising to be a model boxer, but he also made a surprising comment that almost appears to be a back-handed slap towards boxing: “Fighters are fighters, they are naturally aggressive and in the heat of the moment can flip out. So it’s important security is stepped up.” This remark, while on the one hand is not surprising, on the other hand it is. Fighting is aggression, and fighting is also violence, so to become a skilled fighter is to become skilled in the use of physical aggression and violence. But the difference between being able to use skilled aggression and being aggressive surely brings us back to the problem of control? As a boxing fan, I hope this distinction exists.

Instrumental and Reactive Aggression

Like many kinds of behavior, aggressive behavior also comes in different flavors. The large difference here appears to be whether or not the aggression was premeditated. Reactive aggression seems largely elicited, but I would argue that it can also be trained elicited if a person drills an effective form of self defense for long enough; many fighters and martial artists will confess to the fact that their style “becomes them”. It is of course extremely beneficial to have defensive moves “becoming” reflexes, and no doubt reflects changes in the brain that have occurred in order to promote the defensive movements as a likely outcome when given the right (probably aggressive) stimulus.

Blanchard et al (1977) lists reactive aggression as “the ultimate mammalian response to a threat”, and explains that in response to a threat, “[Humans] freeze to distant threats, attempt to escape from closer threats, and then launch explosive attacks against threats that cannot be escaped.” The main brain regions involved in our reaction to a threat are  the frontal cortex (medial and orbital), the amygdala, hypothalamus, and the periaqeductul gray (Blair, James et al. 2010, The Psychopath – Emotion and the Brain, Blackwell). A large component of reactive aggression, therefore, is promoted by the autonomic nervous system.

Neurological studies of instrumental aggression appear to be less numerous. It is easy to see that the use of aggression can help individuals (also groups and nations) to achieve their goals, and is typically used to force another into subordination, but can we talk about the neurology of instrumental aggression in the same way? Instrumental aggression seems to be a social phenomenon, where the aggression is initiated in the form of a gamble; the odds of the fight are considered in light of potential outcomes, and a decision is made to fight or not. But once the fight has been initiated, the very same systems that are involved in reactive aggression will come to life, and so in this sense, instrumental aggression is merely the choice to activate your reactive aggressive response, presumably because you have a high degree of confidence in the outcome.

It is this gambling that makes me believe that the reward circuitry in the brain must be activated when considering instrumental aggression and the potential outcome is being considered. If you consider instrumental aggression as a means to be rewarded, then this makes sense. I haven’t seen any studies that have explored this, and would be grateful if anybody knows if these areas have been explored. Instrumental aggression, to me, is simply our own ability to assess whether or not to risk placing ourselves in harms way in the light of the potential goals/benefits.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012

Author, Seeing Red