The Children of Eris

Near to the beginning of time, Eris, goddess of strife and discord, eldest daughter of Night, gave birth to a great number of children, among them Toil, Forgetfulness, Lies and Falsehoods, Sufferings, Quarrels, Fights, Murders, and Folly or Ruin[1]. These fatherless, unloved, but immortal children of Eris are too several and alike and loathsome to tell apart, and so they are simply called the Kakodaimones or ‘evil spirits’.

Once, many ages before ours, the Titan Prometheus[2] stole some fire from the gods in the stalk of a fennel plant and, taking pity, gifted the fire to mortal man. Zeus, the father of all the Olympian gods, punished Prometheus by bounding him to a cliff overlooking the great sea. Each day a giant eagle tore at his liver, only for the organ to regenerate overnight and to be re-eaten the next day.

Not content with punishing Prometheus, Zeus moved to punish mankind. Thus he ordered the creation of Pandora[3], a beautiful evil fashioned with softest clay and appointed with seductive gifts from each of the Olympian gods. One day – in innocence rather than malice – Pandora lifted the lid of the great jar that contained the Kakodaimones and unleashed the children of Eris onto mankind. By the time she could replace the lid, all the Kakodaimones had fled, and only poor Hope remained at the bottom of the jar.

Many generations of mortals came and passed. One fine spring, Zeus asked all the gods and demi-gods to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the soon-to-be parents of the soon-to-be hero of the Achaeans, the great Achilles. All, that is, except for Eris, who had not been forgotten but ignored, and who exacted her revenge by tossing into the party a golden apple inscribed with the message, ‘To the Fairest One’. As Eris had no doubt expected, the three most beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, began to quarrel over the apple.

To settle their dispute, Zeus appointed the hapless Paris, Prince of Troy, to pick out the fairest of the three. Hera tried to bribe Paris with a gift of the political art, Athena promised him skill in battle, and Aphrodite tempted him with the love of she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty, Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. By picking Helen over wisdom and war, Paris enraged Menelaus and the Achaeans, who set out in a thousand ships to deliver Helen from Troy. With the war that came, came the downfall not only of Paris, but also of his royal house, peoples, and city of Troy, ancient Troy, razed to the blood-soaked ground of the once fertile plain of Scamander.

[1] Ponos, Lethe, the Pseudologoi, the Algea, the Neikea, the Hysminai, the Phonoi, and Aite.

[2] The name translates as ‘Forethought’.

[3] The name translates as ‘All-gifted’.

Successful psychopaths (Updated)

Whilst personality disorders may lead to distress and impairment, they may also lead to extraordinary achievement. In 2005, Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey found that, compared to mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, high-level executives were more likely to have one of three personality disorders: histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and anankastic personality disorder.

Thus, it is possible to envisage that people may benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and therefore at building and exercising business relationships; people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, and self-focused, and able to exploit people and situations to their best advantage; and people with anankastic personality disorder may get quite far up the corporate and professional ladders simply by being so devoted to work and productivity. Even people with borderline personality disorder may at times be bright, witty, and the very life of the party.

As the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) put it more than a hundred years ago, ‘When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce … in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.’

Update 27/12/11:
Most recently, in 2010, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues carried out a study to uncover exactly how successful psychopaths differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked a number of members of Division 41 (psychology and law) of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify and then to rate and describe one of their acquaintances (if any) who was not only successful but also conformed to Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath,

…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.

From the responses that they collated, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues found that the successful psychopath matched the unsuccessful one in all respects but one, namely, conscientiousness. Thus, it appears that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the one behaves impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the other is able to inhibit or restrain those destructive tendencies to build for the future.

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.

Asceticism: Anthony of the Desert and Simeon Stylites

A beacon of the ascetic life is St Anthony of the Desert, the ‘Father of All Monks’, who has the rare distinction of having lent his name both to an Oxford college and to a skin disease (St Anthony’s fire or erysipelas). According to the Life of Anthony by the 4th century and near contemporary bishop St Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony, having lost both his parents, renounced his inherited wealth and devoted himself entirely to religious exercises, heeding the supererogatory counsel of Jesus, who, according to Matthew 19:21, said to the rich man, ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.’ After some years on the ascetic path, Anthony took up residence in a tomb near his native village. There he resisted the temptations and torments of the devil, an episode that has often been depicted in art – including by modernists such as Cézanne and Dalí. Demons in the forms of wild beasts attacked him in the tomb, occasionally leaving him bruised and unconscious and in need of care. Having spent 15 years in the tomb, Anthony retreated further and into complete solitude, secluding himself in an abandoned fort in the desert of Egypt and subsisting on nothing more than the food that pilgrims catapulted over the walls. After some 20 more years, his devotees persuaded him to leave the fort to instruct and organize them, whence his epithet ‘Father of All Monks’. He emerged from the fort not emaciated as people had been expecting but healthy and radiant. He passed five or six years with his devotees and then once again withdrew into the Egyptian desert, to a mountain whereupon can still be found the monastery that bears his name, Der Mar Antonios. This time, however, he did consent to receiving visitors and even undertook some travels. In particular, he twice visited Alexandria, once in 311 to support the Christian martyrs in the persecution, and a second time near the close of his life in around 350 to preach against the Arians. One must believe that austerity makes for longevity: Anthony died at the grand old age of 105, which for the 4th century might be considered not far short of a miracle.

Anthony’s life may seem heroic, but it is not quite as heroic as that of St Simeon Stylites, who, in the 5th century, lived for 39 years perched on top of a pillar (Greek, stylos) near Aleppo in Syria. Simeon had initially sought isolation on a rocky eminence in the desert, but pilgrims invaded the area and pestered him for his counsel and prayers. As he could no longer find enough time for his devotions, he felt that he had no choice but to create a small platform atop a pillar, this time trying to escape vertically rather than horizontally. The first pillar was little more than nine feet high, but was superseded by others with the last being over 50 feet and topped with a balustered platform. There, exposed to the elements, he delivered addresses, wrote letters (including one to emperor Leo in favour of the Council of Chalcedon), and admitted of visitors who ascended to him by a ladder. Each year he passed the entire period of Lent without eating or drinking, to which deprivations he added the mortification of standing continually upright. When he became ill, emperor Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to come down to earth and see a physician, but he elected instead to trust in God and made a swift recovery. Simeon inspired several other so-called pillar-saints or stylites to take up his very particular brand of asceticism, not least one St Alypius who stood upright for 53 years before his feet could no longer support him, after which, still atop his column, he lay on his side for the remaining 14 years of his life. Alypius may well have become better remembered than Simeon had the latter not had the first mover advantage. Four basilicas were built around Simeon’s column, and the base of the column and the ruins of the basilicas can still be seen in the vicinity of Aleppo.

In his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon says of Simeon,

In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Splitting as an ego defense

Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil. – Nietzsche

Splitting is a very common ego defense mechanism; it can be defined as the division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes. This is often seen in politics, for example, when members of the Labour Party portray members of the Conservative Party as narrow-minded and self-interested, and conversely when members of the Conservative Party caricature members of the Labour Party as self-righteous hypocrites. Other examples of splitting are the deeply religious person who thinks of others as being either blessed or damned, the child of divorced parents who idolises one parent and shuns the other, and the hospital in-patient who sees the doctors as helpful and dedicated and the nurses as lazy and incompetent. An example of splitting in literature can be found in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The main protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is mystified by adulthood. To help cope with his fear of becoming an adult, he thinks of adulthood as a world of entirely bad things such as superficiality and hypocrisy (‘phoniness’) and of childhood as a world of entirely good things such as innocence, curiosity, and honesty. He tells his younger sister Phoebe that he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play, and himself as the ‘catcher in the rye’ who stands on the edge of a cliff, catching the children as they threaten to fall over (and presumably die/become adults).

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

In contrast to JD Salinger, Miguel de Cervantes uses splitting to great comical effect as his main protagonist, the self-styled Don Quixote de la Mancha, guides us through a world that he has repopulated with heroes and villains, princesses and harlots, giants and dwarves – with the heroes being the greatest, the villains the most cruel, the ladies the fairest and most virtuous, and so on. ‘Take care, your worship,’ cries Sancho Pancha, Don Quixote’s peasant-turned-squire, ‘those things over there are not giants but windmills.’ Splitting diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying and schematising the situation and thereby making it easier to think about; it also reinforces our sense of self as good and virtuous by effectively demonizing all those who do not share in our opinions and values. On the other hand, such a compartmentalization of opposites leaves us with a distinctly distorted picture of reality and a restricted range of thoughts and emotions; it also affects our ability to attract and maintain relationships, not only because it is tedious and unbecoming, but also because it can easily flip, with friends and lovers being thought of as personified virtue at one time and then as personified vice at another (and back and forth). Splitting also arises in groups, when members of the in-group are seen to have mostly positive attributes, whereas members of out-groups are seen to have mostly negative attributes – a phenomenon that contributes to groupthink. Finally, it is worth noting that both fairy tales and the Church feature a number of sharp splits, for example, heroes and villains, good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, and saints and sinners; and that the greatest characters of literature, such as the Achilles or the Odysseus of Homer and the Anthony or the Cleopatra of Shakespeare, contain large measures of both good and bad, with the one being intimately related to the other.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.


Everything has been figured out, except how to live. - Sartre

Inauthenticity involves pretending to be something other than one is and so, by implication, casting off the freedom to create, express, and fulfil one’s own self. Inauthenticity is often reinforced by sociocultural forces such as peer pressure and advertising, and is motivated by the subconscious desires to fit in, avoid criticism, and minimise or put off the existential anxiety associated with choice and responsibility. Examples include the teenager who acts ‘cool’, the person who takes an interest in something because others do, and the person who gets married because he has arrived at the ripe old age of 30, 35, or 40 years old.

The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls such inauthenticity mauvaise foie, ‘bad faith’. His paradigmatic example of bad faith is that of a waiter who does his utmost to conform to the archetype of the waiter, that is, to everything that a waiter should or is expected to be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to entertain or even recognise the multitude of other choices that are open to him, the waiter places himself at the mercy of his external circumstances. In this important respect, he is more akin to an object – ‘a waiter’ – than to a conscious human being who is able to transcend his existence to give shape to his essence. As Freud himself commented in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, ‘Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.’

The concept of authenticity does not begin with Sartre or Freud, and stretches at least as far back as Plato. In the Greater Alcibiades, Socrates asks a young and foolish Alcibiades how one is to go about gaining self-knowledge. Socrates maintains that, if one were to say to the eye, ‘See yourself,’ the eye should look into a mirror to see itself. Since the pupil of the eye is just like a mirror, the eye could see itself by looking into an eye. Similarly, the soul can see itself by looking into the soul, and particularly into that part of the soul which has most to do with wisdom and which is therefore most akin to the divine. Self-knowledge, Socrates concludes, is, in fact, no other than wisdom; unless Alcibiades finds wisdom, he will never be able to know his own good and evil, nor that of others, nor the affairs of states. If Alcibiades were to become a statesman – as indeed he intends – without first having found wisdom, he would fall into error and be miserable, and make everybody else miserable too. What is more, he who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom; since that which is better is also more becoming, slavery is more becoming to such a person. Socrates’ conclusions may seem abhorrent to modern sensitivities, but it does stand to reason that the person who unconsciously defines himself according to the likes and expectations of others and, by extension, of society also condemns himself to by far the most dishonourable kind of slavery, the slavery of the mind.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

– William Blake, London

As noted by the 20th century psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm, the authentic person does not necessarily need to resemble some kind of freak outsider. If a person engages in a frank and thorough appraisal of the universal and personal implications of the prevailing social norms and then decides to adopt some or most of them en toute connaissance de cause, then he cannot be taxed with inauthenticity. Conversely, it should not be assumed that every eccentric is an authentic. Genuine authenticity lies in the method and not in the madness.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith

Jung in a Nutshell

There is no coming to consciousness without pain. - CG Jung

Carl Gustav Jung was born in 1875 in the canton of Thurgau to Paul Jung, a poor rural pastor in the Swiss reformed Church, and to Emilie Preiswerk, a melancholic woman who claimed to be visited by spirits at night. His paternal grandfather Carl Gustav Jung, after whom he was named, was a physician who was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Goethe, and who rose to become Rector of Basel University and Grand Master of the Swiss Lodge of Freemasons. His maternal grandfather Samuel Preiswerk was an eccentric theologian who had visions, conversed with the dead, and devoted his life to learning Hebrew in the belief that it was the language spoken in heaven. He used to make his daughter Emilie (Jung’s mother) sit behind him while he composed his sermons, so as to prevent the devil from peering over his shoulder. When Jung was three years old, his mother had a nervous breakdown for which she needed to spend several months in hospital. In his autobiography of 1961, Memory, Dreams, Reflections, he wrote ‘From then on I always felt mistrustful when the word ‘love’ was spoken. The feeling I associated with ‘woman’ was for a long time that of innate unreliability.’ Jung’s father was kind but weak-willed, and all too accepting of the religious dogma in which he had long lost all faith.

Jung was a solitary and introverted child who imagined that he had two personalities, that of a typical schoolboy of his time (Personality No 1), and that of a dignified, authoritative, and influential man from the past (Personality No 2). He once carved a tiny mannequin into the end of a wooden ruler, which he kept together with a painted stone in a pencil case in his attic. He periodically returned to the mannequin, bringing to it scrolls inscribed in a secret language of his invention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was not popular at school. At the age of 12, he received a blow to the head and for a moment was unconscious. He lay on the ground for much longer than necessary and thought, ‘Now you won’t have to go to school anymore’. For the next six months, he avoided school by fainting each time he was made to go, an experience which gave him an early insight into hysteria.

Inspired by a dream, Jung entered the University of Basel in 1895 to study natural science and medicine. His father’s premature death one year later prompted his mother to comment, rather eerily, ‘He died in time for you’. During his early years at the University of Basel, Jung had a dream in which he was making painful headway through dense fog, with a tiny light in the cup of his hands and a gigantic black figure chasing after him. When he awoke he realised that the black figure was his own shadow, brought into being by the light that he was carrying: ‘…this light was my consciousness, the only light that I have. My own understanding is the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest.’ After presenting a paper on The Limits of the Exact Sciences, he spent two years attending and recording the séances of a young medium, his cousin, Hélène Preiswerk. He submitted his observations in the form of a doctoral thesis entitled On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.

Towards the end of his studies, a reading of Krafft-Ebing’s textbook of psychiatry led Jung to choose psychiatry as a career. The Preface alone had such a profound effect on him that he had to stand up to catch his breath: ‘Here alone the two currents of my interest could flow together and in a united stream dig their own bed. Here was the empirical field common to biological and spiritual facts, which I had everywhere sought and nowhere found.’ Jung was taken on at the renowned Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital in Zürich as an assistant to Eugen Bleuler, who went down in history as the man who coined the term ‘schizophrenia’. Bleuler set Jung to work on Galton’s word-association test, and in 1906 he published ‘Studies in Word Association’, which he thought provided hard evidence for the existence of unconscious complexes. He sent a copy to Freud, and on their first meeting in Vienna the two men conversed without interruption for thirteen hours.

Jung needed a father as much as Freud needed a son, and Freud formally anointed Jung his ‘son and heir’. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that Jung was unable to accept Freud’s assumptions that human motivation is exclusively sexual, or that the unconscious mind is entirely personal. For Jung, sexuality was but one aspect or mode of expression of a broader ‘life force’, and beneath the personal unconscious there was a deeper and more important layer that contained the entire psychic heritage of mankind. The existence of this ‘collective unconscious’ had been hinted at by Jung’s childhood dreams and experiences, and confirmed by the delusions and hallucinations of psychotic patients which contained symbols and images that occurred in myths and fairy-tales from all around the world. In his book of 1912, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido, Jung replaced Freud’s concept of libido with a much broader concept of undifferentiated psychic energy, arguing that undifferentiated psychic energy could ‘crystallise’ into the universal symbols contained in dreams and myths, for example, into the hero’s slaying of the dragon, which represents the struggle of the adolescent ego for deliverance from parental dominance. For Jung, the purpose of life was ‘individuation’, which involves pursuing one’s own vision of the truth and, in so doing, realising one’s fullest potential as a human being. If this meant disagreeing with Freud, then so be it. In 1913, on the eve of the First World War, Jung and Freud broke off their relationship.

Once again Jung was alone, and he spent the next few years in a troubled but highly creative state of mind that verged on psychosis and led him to a ‘confrontation with the unconscious’. By then Jung had had five children with his wife Emma Rauschenbach, the daughter of a rich industrialist. Despite being happily married, he felt that he needed a muse as well as a home-maker, observing that ‘the pre-requisite of a good marriage … is the license to be unfaithful’. The marital strife that resulted from his affairs, and particularly from his affair with a former patient called Toni Wolff, contributed to his troubled state of mind, and Emma accepted Toni as much from a concern for Jung’s sanity as from a desire to save her marriage. During his confrontation with the unconscious, Jung gained first-hand experience of psychotic material in which he found a ‘matrix of mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age’. Like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Heracles, Orpheus, and Aeneas before him, he travelled deep down into an abyssal underworld where he conversed with Salome, a beautiful young woman who was the archetype of the feminine, and with Philemon, an old man with a white beard and the wings of a kingfisher who was the archetype of the wise old man. Although Salome and Philemon were products of his unconscious, they had a life of their own and said things that he had not previously thought. In Philemon, Jung had at long last found the father-figure that both Freud and his own father had singularly failed to be. More than a father-figure, Philemon was a guru, and the projection of what Jung himself was later to become – the ‘wise old man of Zürich’. At the end of the First World War, Jung re-emerged into sanity, and considered that he had found in his madness ‘the prima materia for a lifetime’s work’.

Freud in a Nutshell

Reaction Formation, Stockholm Syndrome & S&M Sex

How mightily, sometimes, we make us comforts of our losses!
And how mightily, some other times, we drown our gain in tears! (…)
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together:
Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and
Our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.

Displacement, the redirection of uncomfortable feelings towards someone or something less threatening, and somatisation, the conversion of uncomfortable feelings into more tolerable physical symptoms (see previous posts), are both important means of transforming uncomfortable feelings into something that is more manageable. Another such mean is reaction formation, which can be defined as the superficial adoption and exaggeration of ideas and impulses that are diametrically opposed to one’s own. For instance a man who finds himself attracted to someone of the same sex may cope with the unacceptability of this attraction by over-acting heterosexual: going out for several pints with the lads, speaking in a gruff voice, banging his fists on the counter, whistling at pretty girls (or whatever people do these days), conspicuously engaging in a string of baseless heterosexual relationships, and so on. A possible high-profile case of reaction formation is that of the Florida Congressman Mark Foley who, as chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus, introduced legislation to protect children from exploitation by adults over the Internet. Foley resigned when it later emerged that he had exchanged sexually explicit electronic messages with a teenage boy. Other, classic, examples of reaction formation are the alcoholic who extolls the virtues of abstinence, the rich kid who organises anti-capitalist rallies, the absent father who occasionally returns with grands gestes to spoil and smother his children, and the angry person who behaves with exaggerated calm and courtesy. In some cases, this last can result in passive-aggressive behaviour, that is, unconscious resistance to meeting the reasonable expectations of others by such means as creating doubt and confusion; being late on a regular but unpredictable basis; forgetting or omitting significant items or details; withdrawing usual behaviours such as making a cup of tea, cooking, cleaning, or having sex; and shifting responsibility or blame. As the name suggests, passive-aggressive behaviour is a means of expressing aggression covertly and so without incurring the interpersonal and social costs of more overt aggression. It does, however, prevent the underlying problems from being identified and resolved, and can lead to a great deal of upset and resentment in the person or people on the receiving end. An especially interesting example of reaction formation is that of two people who matter deeply to each other, but who argue all the time to suppress their mutual desire. Typically, A accepts that B is really important to him, but B does not accept this of A; thus, B initiates arguments so as to help deny those feelings, and A initiates (or participates in) arguments so as to help cope with that denial, that is, to safeguard his ego, vent his anger, and temper his feelings. Another, rather special, example of reaction formation is the person who hates the group but not the individual members of the group with whom he is personally acquainted; this helps to explain such phenomena as the misogynist who is devoted to his wife or the racist who marries a coloured person.

Behaviour that results from reaction formation can be recognised – or as least suspected – as such on the basis that it tends to have something of a manic edge, that is, it tends to be exaggerated, compulsive, and inflexible. More importantly, perhaps, is that the person’s behaviour does not seem to ‘add up’ in the context of his bigger picture, and may therefore appear to be groundless, irrational, or idiosyncratic. In many cases, the behaviour is also dystonic, that is, out of keeping with the person’s ideal self-image, and therefore damaging to his deep-seated goals and ambitions and ultimately to his sense of worth. If the person is challenged about his behaviour, he usually appears either confused and silent or irritated and evasive. But careful: whereas pointing out a person’s ego defences and observing his reaction might lead you to a better understanding of that person, it is almost bound to cause him significant distress; in terms of helping him, it is likely to be either futile or counterproductive, serving merely to anger or alienate him and to further entrench his ego defences. This is mostly because an ego defence such as reaction formation does not exist in some sort of splendid isolation, but as a symptom or manifestation of some even more profound and pervasive problem – and it is this primary problem, if any at all, that first needs to be addressed.

Reaction formation may at least partially underlie the apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon that the criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot named ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ after the events that took place during a robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalamstorg, Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Jan Erik Olsson, a prisoner on leave, entered the bank with the intention of robbing it. When police followed in, he opened fire and injured one policeman. A hostage situation ensued: for six days, from August 23 to August 28, Olsson held four bank employees at gunpoint in the bank’s main vault. Olsson demanded, among others, that his friend and old cellmate Clark Olofsson join his operation; once within the bank, Olofsson established a communication link with police negotiators who, despite hearing death threats and screams, refused to let the comperes escape with the hostages. Eventually, the police drilled a hole into the vault from the apartment above and launched a gas attack. Soon after, Olsson and Olofsson surrendered without any of the hostages being seriously injured. But the strange thing is this. After some time in the vault, the hostages began to form an emotional attachment with their captors. They reported fearing the police more than their captors, and, after their release, they refused to testify against Olsson and Olofsson and set up a fund to cover their legal defense fees. Olofsson claimed that he had not been aiding Olsson but merely trying to contain the situation and safeguard the hostages, and so had his convictions quashed by the court of appeal. He became friendly with one of the hostages, Kristin Ehnemark; they met occasionally and even their families became friends. Another notorious case of Stockholm Syndrome is that of millionaire heiress Patty Hearst, who on February 4, 1974, at the age of 19, was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California by a left-wing urban guerrilla group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). On April 3 Hearst announced on an audiotape that she had joined the SLA under the pseudonym of ‘Tania’, and on April 15 she was photographed wielding an M1 carbine while robbing a bank in San Francisco. When she was eventually arrested, she listed her occupation as ‘urban guerilla’ and asked her attorney to ‘tell everybody that I’m smiling, that I feel free and strong and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there’. After almost two years in prison, Hirst had her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter; on January 20, 2001, President Bill Clinton granted her a full Presidential Pardon in his last official act before leaving office. Most of human history has been played out in hunter-gatherer societies in which abductions, particularly of women and their dependent children, must have been a very common occurrence. Thus, it is possible to envisage that the capture-bonding psychological response exhibited by Kristin Ehnemark, Patty Hearst, and countless others is not just an ego defense, but also an adaptive trait that promotes survival in times of war and strife. In fact, an inverse of Stockholm Syndrome called ‘Lima Syndrome’ has been proposed, in which abductors develop sympathy for their hostages. On December 17, 1996 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took hostage hundreds of people attending a party to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Akihito at the official residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru. But within a few hours the captors had released most of the hostages, including even the most valuable ones. If the capture-bonding response is indeed deeply ingrained in the human psyche, then its activation or partial activation could help to explain not only the counterintuitive behaviour of some hostages, but also that of people who engage and persist in, among others, religious cults, abusive relationships, and sadomasochistic sexual practices.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Previous Older Entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 176 other followers

%d bloggers like this: