Tag Archives: instrumental

Neurological models behind (anti)social behavior

Neurobiologists have put forward two neurological models that can be used to understand the development of social behavior; the Violence Inhibition Mechanism, and the Somatic Marker Hypothesis.

The Violence Inhibition Mechanism (VIM)

The VIM was first proposed by R.J.R Blair in 1995 in his article A cognitive developmental approach to morality: Investigating the psychopath. The VIM proposes that individuals (and other organisms capable of empathy) experience stress cues from others, including sad and frightened faces, and these are filtered/processed through the VIM before theĀ  individual’s stress response is activated. Our sense of morality also causes an emotional experience based upon the observance of these stress cues, and the VIM again processes behavioral outcomes before they arise.

In his book The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, Blair states that the observance of another’s suffering acts as a form of punishment, which in turn decreases the likelihood of engaging in behavior that caused the suffering (the psychological definition of punishment, unlike reinforcement, is something that results in the decrease of the behavior in question). Empathy, then, creates an emotional experience that should dissuade a person from engaging in acts that cause the suffering of others. If it was violence that resulted in the suffering, the VIM should prevent a repeat of this violence.

This model seems contingent on an observer empathizing with the victim, rather than the aggressor. While empathizing with the victim does seem the most honorable and obvious, if the benefits and pleasure obtained by the aggressor seem desirable, the aggressor’s behavior could reinforce the behavior in question.

Somatic Marker Hypothesis

The somatic marker hypothesis was proposed by Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error: Motion, Reason, and the Human Brain. This hypothesis is built on the idea that emotional states or feelings mark certain behaviors from experience (and presumably from witnessing the behavior of others), and this is crucial for understanding prosocial behavior and making good decisions.

When a person experiences arousal (positive or negative), the central nervous system becomes active, and communication between brain stem nuclei and the limbic system generate an internal emotional state. These emotional states become tagged to the memories of what the organism was experiencing at a specific time, and are thus re-created when the organism remembers the experience. This emotional re-creation allows us to learn from experience.

It has been argued that psychopaths, who seem to suffer from some kind of affective blunting, are unable to tag memories with or experience emotions that are common to most of us. As the psychopathic brain develops, therefore, the individual is unable to learn right and wrong like the rest of us, and can only approach the subject from an emotionless logical perspective. The brain areas involved in producing these crucial markers (incl. the amygdala, the orbitofrontal & ventromedial prefrontal cortices, and the cingulate) are often found to be dysfunctional or mal-developed in the antisocial brain.

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 areĀ  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