Why We Fight and Punish: A Q&A With Robert Sapolsky

The author of Behave talks about why people so often don't.


Robert Sapolsky. Photo credit: Stanford University

"The current state of the country and the current state of political and intellectual conversation depresses me in a way that it never has before," the libertarian economist Russ Roberts wrote in a recent essay. "I know there's a lot of hatred in the human heart. It's nothing new. But what appears to be new at least in America in my experience…is a willingness to vocalize that hatred and to act on it."

I get where Roberts is coming from. To anyone who shares such feelings, I recomment Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, a book by the neuroendicronologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky.

Published in May, Behave is a colorful and intellectually rigorous tour of everything we know about the constellation of phenomena that shape our actions. Sapolsky is a materialist, and his observations (of which there are many) and prescriptions (of which there are few) reflect his conviction that human beings are the products of inputs they mostly didn't choose. Seeing the worst human behaviors as a result of bad programming—rather than the influence of a malovelent diety or a conscious choice to suck—has helped me feel compassion for people who irritate and/or scare me. But it will not leave readers with a sense that all is well, or that everything ultimately will be well.

I recently had the chance to talk to Sapolsky about a few of the topics his book tackles, from myths about hormones to the way we treat victimhood. I have edited our conversation for length and clarity.

Reason: You set the stage for Behave by stating that no one discipline can fully explain human behavior. It's genes, but not just genes. Neuroendocrinology, but not just that. Half a dozen disciplines have something to contribute to our understanding of why we do the things we do. After putting together an encyclopedic guide to all the factors that influence behavior, does the idea of intentionally changing behavior for the better seem impossible?

Robert Sapolsky: Fortunately, no. That's where, against my better nature, some optimism crept into the final section of the book. We've learned a lot about the incredible malleability of who counts as an "us" versus a "them," about all the hierarchies we hold in our heads at once and how we can shift their priority instantly, about the historical and psychological evidence that killing is a psychologically aversive things for humans to do and the inhibitions that can be exploited to avoid it.

I'm also endlessly impressed by studies showing just how powerfully—including at a neurobiological level—things like perspective-taking can be. Individuating people—seeing a "you" instead of a them—is just incredibly powerful.

In terms of a roadmap for how to do something useful, I tried to drive home in Behave just how little classic cognitive processes are relevant to this discussion. Over and over, what we see is that you can't reason someone out of a thing they weren't reasoned into in the first place. The emotional level, the implicit level, is really what the target should be.

Reason: And this is good news if you see advanced cognitive tools as being less effective for some people.

Sapolsky: Yes, though it's a double-edged sword. This research also gives us more insight into how to make people crummier to each other. The same knowledge that allows you to do pseudo-kinship allows you to do pseudo-speciation.

Reason: You focus a lot on adolescence, when humans are the most malleable. Adults seem to instinctively know this, and so they both fear teenagers and fear for them. But you also point out that malleability can be positive. It allows us to introduce younger humans to incredible things at a time when they're most open to new experiences.

Sapolsky: Yes, but again, like everything else, that malleability is double-edged. Adolescence is the perfect time to introduce someone to a horrific ideology that will, if they are lucky enough to escape it, take years to get out of. They can be turned on to violence and oppression. It's an age that just sops up social influences.

Reason: How do you process disagreement and social conflict? I tend to understand various skirmishes through the lenses of party politics or ideology. But I know class, race, and gender all play roles as well.

Sapolsky: I use some of the same categories. For instance, in my world of biologists—most of whom are evolutionary biologists to the core—we tend to throw up our hands that people continue to deny the reality of evolution. Inevitably, the point is raised that this view is heavily represented in the American South. And some biologists will say, "Well, yeah, this is where you have the most religious fundamentalism and the poorest education." The easiest explanation, which we often run with, is "Those people simply aren't very smart."

Far more fundamental to understanding their skepticism, in my view, is that this is the part of the country with the poorest health care, the shortest life expectancy, the lowest socioeconomic gradient. No wonder they're skeptical of a scientific stance that is two and a half steps away from Social Darwinism.

Reason: They got a raw deal, which is true of a lot of people everywhere. It sometimes seems like having been wronged is a kind of currency, and that we spend more time trying to rank our grievances than we do addressing them. Would it make more sense to say, "Every grievance is equally legitimate, now let's try to address them"? Or is it futile to attempt that?

Sapolsky: Well, you have to consider the weight of history. The Armenian genocide was terrible, but not as long or as impactful as American slavery. But it is also probably the case that—to borrow from a physics law—everybody's hurt expands to fill the space available, even if some wounds are, by outside standards, more painful than others.

What's distressing is the ease with which people and groups who really have been poorly treated come to a set of parochial conclusions rather than universal ones. It is not surprising, but also not great.

Reason: These seem like the kind of situations where taking perspective can be really helpful. I recently read a story about two people who didn't care for the other's politics being asked to read the other's first-person statement. If I'm remembering the story right, one of the participants was brought to tears by stepping into the other person's shoes.

Sapolsky: Individuating and taking someone else's perspective can be very powerful. But one of the lessons of contact theory, and from these heartwarming experiences about summer camps for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, is that it doesn't come cheap. It's a lot of work, it often fails, and if you don't pay close attention to what you're doing, you can actually make things worse. But in principle, perspective taking, contact, and individuation are potentially very powerful tools.

Reason: You have a very civil libertarian perspective on criminal justice. Can you talk about some of the ways in which we're messing up juvenile justice in particular?

Sapolsky: Juvenile justice is probably the area that's most ripe for reform, in the nice liberal sense of the word, simply because there's no getting around the fact that a teenage brain is not an adult brain. The Supreme Court has now recognized that in three different rulings. It's an area that is the front line for reformers to introduce science into the criminal justice system.

But it's no more or less relevant than any other domain of criminal justice when it comes to the more fundamental problem, which is that because there's no free will, a system predicated on punishment and retribution makes no sense whatsoever. It's biologically unsupportable. When you get to that issue, nice, good-hearted fixes like making sure 17-year-olds can't be locked in prison forever or executed don't begin to address the deeper issue that none of this stuff makes any sense at all.

Reason: It's disheartening to see how hard-won these reforms have been. You highlight Miller v. Alabama, in which the Supreme Court ruled that life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. It's a great ruling, but it's terrifying that it took a SCOTUS intervention to stop the practice.

Sapolsky: That reflects the glacial speed of progress with this issue and the fact that it's an uphill battle to get people to think differently about the basic premises of the criminal justice system. Most of us believe people are responsible for their actions, rotten actions derive from rotten souls, and punishment is a virtue in and of itself.

Reason: We do love punishment.

Sapolsky: It does wonders for dopamine levels. But evolutionarily, it's costly. You better feel good about punishment because you have to pay a lot to cover police department dental insurance and other third-party costs.

Reason: There's a whole genre of lay-friendly neuroscience that's aimed at helping people lead more fulfilling lives. Your book is not written in that way at all, but I am curious whether you see untapped utility in recent neurosciences advances, and whether any of the research you've done has led you to change your own behavior.

Sapolsky: Well, much of my research over the years has been on stress, and the adverse effects of stress on the health of the central nervous system. All things considered, I've been astonishingly unhelped by my own research.

When it comes to how neuroscience could help the wider public, the worst thing is when we make advances in, say, mindfulness, and then decide that everybody can potentially think their way to curing themselves or develop their own psycho-neuro-immune mechanisms for boosting cancer defenses. Not only is it gibberish science, but you're setting people up for feeling as if they're to blame for illness. It's a new version of the Calvinist condemnation of disease as a sign of sin. The modern version is that disease signals a lack of sufficient motivation to get better, or nonsense like that.

Reason: It's interesting that you bring up the Calvinists, because their ideas, just like the conventional wisdom about punishment, are good-intentioned. Nineteenth-century public health reformers were rightly concerned about the squalid conditions of cities and the lack of sanitation, but they attributed disease and early deaths to people purposefully living the wrong way.

Sapolsky: Yes, and in that regard a similar advance in a parallel field is the recognition that alcoholism is a disease with biological underpinnings. That was one of the first and best attempts of getting people out of the mindset that it's about a lack of self-control, or a lack of discipline, or a failure to think of others. We're now starting to learn, for instance, that extreme obesity can involve screwy setpoints in the feedback loops for satiation in the hypothalamus.

Brains work differently among different people. Pancreases work differently. Fat depositions work differently. Those are all biological phenomena, and they're all domains where we're starting to make inroads.

Reason: And yet awareness at the top needs to be matched by awareness at the bottom. I recently read a post from a psychiatrist who's had patients reach the conclusion that because the first pharmacological treatment they tried didn't work for them, they were unhelpable. That they failed. And yet most doctors know that while one SSRI might work for one person, another person might be better served by a different SSRI, or a drug like bupropion.

Sapolsky: The notion that you should feel guilty for disappointing a health care professional, that you aren't serious enough about change, is a pernicious and bizarre part of this domain. These drugs are incredibly ad hoc in their mechanisms and in how clinicians choose who gets what. There is a high failure rate, and that is not a measure of someone not wanting to get better.

But the more that people can be taught, and emotionally accept, that these things are diseases—rather than self-indulgence or lack of gumption—the better. Major depression and major anxiety disorders are as much biochemical diseases as diabetes. And you don't sit down a diabetic and say, "What's with this insulin stuff? Stop babying yourself." If the biologizing of psychiatry for the lay public continues, that's the best outcome.

Reason: Speaking of myths: You have a section in Behave addressing the claim that testosterone causes violence. That seems pretty entrenched, but the research you highlight shows it's not accurate.

Sapolsky: With all the provisos of averages and individual variation—and the proviso that the behavior-testosterone correlation suggests behavior drives testosterone, rather than the other way around—what seems to be the finding in most research is not that testosterone makes you more aggressive, but that it makes you more responsive to the social stimuli that provoke aggression, or the environmental inputs that provoke aggression. It lowers the threshold for you to do whatever aggressive behavior it is you've previously learned to do in those situations.

Reason: I'm trying to imagine a journalist using the number of words necessary to adequately explain something like the relationship between a given hormone and various behaviors. But across the media industry, it seems as if the best way to understand neuroscience is also the way it's least likely to be communicated to the broader public. What are your thoughts on science journalism?

Sapolsky: Who has time for that, either to write it or to read it? Overall, the best thing that's happened with science journalism in the years I've been interacting with that world is education. When I first started out, the reporter I'd speak to would invariably have been on the city desk or the sports page and have screwed up royally, and their punishment was being exiled to doing the science column. Now you have science journalists with PhDs who decided that instead of running a lab, they wanted to write about the stuff. The level of education—that there are now masters degrees in science journalism—is just fantastic.

Reason: Last question. In the fields in which you work—neurobiology and primatology—what are you excited for? What are you optimistic about?

Sapolsky: From a primatology standpoint, I'm pretty damn pessimistic. I don't think I know a single field primatologist who's not seeing their animals or their ecosystem in some way menaced. So I'm not coming up with a lot of optimism there.

But something I'm kind of optimistic about is social media, which is just turning out to be so powerful. It's a way to subliminally reach people and get them to adopt completely different mindsets about "us"es and "them"s. For instance, we have the technological capacity for you to get up in the morning and watch a family, anywhere on this planet, eating breakfast, and subliminally, all you would get out of it is, "Wow, they're just like me."

The potential for that kind of thing has me slightly optimistic, even if what we've mostly seen is all the ways in which online communication is used to polarize people.

Reason: I've used social media for a long time, and these days mostly feel sad when I use it. But I love the idea that it could be a platform for helping humans see how similar they are.

Sapolsky: If the internet can be used, 24/7, to get you to buy—and buy into—all sorts of crap, it could certainly be used to sell prosocialty.

NEXT: Motel 6 Announces Plans to Stop Sucking

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  1. Very interesting interview, but what is even happening with Sapolsky’s follicular situation.

    1. Somebody really should study the correlations of brain functions with being a gross beardo.

      1. I mean, i’m pretty smart and have a nasty beard, but i DEFINITELY do not have a waterfall of silken ringlets tumbling down o’er my shoulders.

        1. He plays in a heavy metal band, and also, his hair gives him strength against the Philistines.

          1. On second thoughts, I don’t think he’s in a heavy metal band, he simply lives in a mountain cave where he does his research.

            1. Lives in a cave with a grizzly bear.

              1. He’s a primatologist. Gorillas aren’t primates. He’s obviously King Kong’s personal groomer.

                1. I mean grizzly bears aren’t primates.

                  1. Gorillas aren’t mammals.

                    1. Certainly not, humans are mammals and I didn’t descend from no gorilla.

                    2. Gorillas are mammals. We’ll have to agree to disagree, but I’ll be right and you’ll be wrong.

            2. And subsists solely on various fungi.

            3. There’s no free will, so obviously he’s not responsible for his follicular situation.

        2. If Sapolsky challenged Robby to a coif-off, who would win?

          1. They are yin and yang. They are eternal complements. They never actually compete, but all of existence depends on their balance.

      2. “Somebody really should study the correlations of brain functions with being a gross beardo.”

        Grizzly Adams makes Einstein look like Forrest Gump. It’s science.

          1. Robert Reich has the saddest beard. Or is it Krugman?

            1. Krugman has a sad beard. Reich’s is technically facial pubes.

    2. At least it doesn’t look like it was intentionally styled to look like a helmet like that weirdo from yesterday.

      1. He looks like he goes to the same barber as Erlich Bachman,

        1. Would that be the barber who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves?

    3. I think I see a white rumped swallow’s nest up that beard. Alert the Sierra Club!

      1. Hey, wasn’t that you nickname in college? The White Rumped Swallow?

  2. I use some of the same categories. For instance, in my world of biologists?most of whom are evolutionary biologists to the core?we tend to throw up our hands that people continue to deny the reality of evolution. Inevitably, the point is raised that this view is heavily represented in the American South. And some biologists will say, “Well, yeah, this is where you have the most religious fundamentalism and the poorest education.” The easiest explanation, which we often run with, is “Those people simply aren’t very smart.”

    Far more fundamental to understanding their skepticism, in my view, is that this is the part of the country with the poorest health care, the shortest life expectancy, the lowest socioeconomic gradient. No wonder they’re skeptical of a scientific stance that is two and a half steps away from Social Darwinism.

    That is the most offensive and stupid thing I have read in a long time. What the hell does one’s view on evolution have to do with their morality or propensity to kill? This guy is a complete moron.

    1. Well if you don’t believe in evolution then you’re an inbred hick who believes God told you to kill the gays. Duh.

    2. Somehow I knew this interview was going to make you very angry, John.

      1. And I felt slight anger because John was dismissive, fascinating.

    3. I think he’s just saying they’re stupid.

    4. Do you disagree with the theory of evolution?

    5. Far more fundamental to understanding their skepticism, in my view, is that this is the part of the country with the poorest health care, the shortest life expectancy, the lowest socioeconomic gradient. No wonder they’re skeptical of a scientific stance that is two and a half steps away from Social Darwinism.

      He’s saying that people who feel that society has judged them as “unfit” aren’t going to rush to accept a theory in which the continued health of a species is dependent on the survival of only the fit. Having grown up among southern Evangelicals, i don’t necessarily agree (in my experience the religious fundamentalism factor far outweighs all others in the rejection of evolution, and is independent of intelligence) but Sapolsky’s view seems pretty understandable and not offensive at all.

      1. Or maybe he’s saying that WHITE southerners are unfit? It’s just that often enough people who aren’t white are excluded from the category of southerners, even though a good many of them live in the south.

    6. Could you highlight the part that talks about morality or propensity to kill? I’m somewhat confused on how you jumped from his quote there to your comment.

      1. John read Sapolsky’s mind and uncovered what he REALLY meant. It’s what he does.

    7. If there’s no such thing as free will, there’s no such thing as morality either. He can’t help himself. It’s just that he’s so evolved.

  3. How old is Russ Roberts? Did he not study any recent history?
    His assertion, or his expression of his ‘experience’, is utterly absurd. How long has it been since the locals burned down a downtown? I remember LA (more than once) and Detroit. I remember the Vietnam War protests.
    This was not a time of peace and love, other than as an aspirational slogan.
    To assert that people (specifically in the US no less) are more prone to violence or expressions of hatred now than 50 years ago is simply clueless rhetoric, empty of content other than pearl-clutching.

  4. Sapolsky is a cool cat. I highly recommend his Neurological Origins of Individuality course. I learned a fuckton from this course.

    1. I should look into it.

  5. Looks like the trustafarian offspring of John C. Reilly and Jaron Lanier!

  6. Now you have science journalists with PhDs who decided that instead of running a lab, they wanted to write about the stuff. The level of education?that there are now masters degrees in science journalism?is just fantastic.

    +1 CNN Science reporter.

  7. the more fundamental problem, which is that because there’s no free will

    Oh, he’s one of those people.

    1. Depends on your definition of free will.

    2. Huh, I missed that, so I’m doing a little googling.

      There is no concept more American than “free will”?the idea that we’re all gifted (probably by God) with the power to choose a path of success or destruction and bear responsibility for the resulting consequences. It’s the whole reason we “punish” people for committing crimes. The idea is so ubiquitous that most people have never even pondered an alternative.

      Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky sees things differently. He’s opposed to the concept of “free will.” Instead, he believes that our behavior is made up of a complex and chaotic soup of so many factors that it’s downright silly to think there’s a singular, autonomous “you” calling the shots.

      It’s a bit disturbing that he talks as if no-free-will is a fait accompli. As if the science is settled.

      I find it interesting that people interested in criminal reform often end up going down this path, and I have to confess it’s disappointing. I’ve met people like this before– people who’ve suggest that ultimately, ‘nothing is anyone’s fault’ and as such, the concept of prison is barbaric. this philosophy is, to me, a dangerous form of elitism.

        1. I should clarify that I am not opposed to the concept of free will. In fact, I vehemently support it. However, people’s idea of what free will entails are very confused and wrong.

          1. But results aren’t enough to convince Frith that free will is an illusion. “We already know our decisions can be unconsciously primed,” he says. The brain activity could be part of this priming, as opposed to the decision process, he adds.

            Part of the problem is defining what we mean by ‘free will’. But results such as these might help us settle on a definition. It is likely that “neuroscience will alter what we mean by free will”, says Tong.

            I have no problem with this. But when it translates to the state actively removing things like accountability in its justice systems, we have a problem. I just believe that the entire concept of claiming that people don’t have ‘choice’ or agency in their actions is a very dangerous road to head down, even though it might be briefly attractive to those of us who are interested in criminal justice reform.

            1. I actually think it’s a moot point.
              It’s not like there’s some “you” inside helplessly trapped while the other parts of your brain go around murdering people. Whatever the “you” is, it is your brain. So to say people shouldn’t be punished for stuff their brain does which they can’t really control is just equivalent to saying they shouldn’t be punished. But punishment is really a teaching signal – we’re trying to get that person (or their brain) to learn not to do it again. And prison is also a mechanism for quarantining them so they can’t harm others. It’s not all about abstract ideas of retribution.

                1. Mostly, so do I, but the notion that ‘whatever the “you” is, it is your brain’ is ludicrously wrong.
                  The ‘you’ is a complex of interacting subsystems, in layers, within an encompassing system that is the body — brain, guts, endocrine system, kinesthetics, and all the rest.
                  The brain is not a separable component that can be isolated from the body in anything other than by effectively arbitrary decisions about where the ‘boundaries’ are.
                  Mind != brain, important though brains are to minds.
                  Self != brain, important though brains are to the existence of a ‘self’.

                  Simple-minded reductionism of this sort is actively counter-productive to rational thought, particularly about ‘free will’, ‘agency’, ‘moral [and other] choice’.

                  1. Well, it’s shorthand for mind=body. In totality. I actually did my minor in grad school on cognitive science which includes the concept of the mind as embodied process involving continuous external feedback. In some ways, the mind isn’t even “in” your brain alone, but in the sensory and physical interactions between the brain, the body and the world outside of it. Mind is a dynamic process, not an object.

                    But still, the “you” depends on all that physical stuff, and it’s erroneous to think of a person as being separate from from or helplessly controlled by it. The you-ness arises from that process, there is no you outside of yourself looking in.

              1. But punishment is really a teaching signal – we’re trying to get that person (or their brain) to learn not to do it again.

                Probably too late for that. Punishment is to teach other people that there are consequences if they do what this fool did.

            2. http://slatestarcodex.com/2015…..-a-crisis/

              There are serious problems with priming experiments. They tend not to replicate.

        2. So a study shows that when priming people then asking them to make choices based on the priming they can predict which choices will be made? I’m not trying to be overly skeptical or dismissive here, but I’m not sure I can fully believe that you’re bound to do what you’re programmed to do and can’t possibly do anything different.

          1. A computer is a terrible analogy here. Of course we are not programmed to do certain things. What that study shows is that many times, even though you think you made a choice based on a first set of factors, your brain already made a choice and then the conscious part of you explained it as away based on a second set of factors, which may be different from the first set. But the choice was still made by YOU. It was just not made how you think it was made.

            1. I don’t disagree with that. And you’re right, it does have to do with what you define the term ‘free will’ to mean. Scientists claiming that there is no free will are consciously using a term that is different from the way everyone else understands it. Maybe they can measure brain activity to see that a decision is developed in the brain a few seconds before it’s consciously thought of, but that doesn’t rule out free will as the rest of the world understands it. To do that, they’d need to prove that they can detect the impulses which lead to the decision which leads to the decision which leads to the decision ad infinitum. In that case, they wouldn’t be able to separate the signal they’re looking for from the noise of the entire rest of the decision chain.

              1. Yeah. Not being able to consciously observe and think about a decision you’ve made until microseconds after you’ve made it doesn’t mean it isn’t you who’s making the decision. The “you” goes deeper than consciousness, is all.

                1. I think this is the best description.

                  I’m fully aware that I’m a cocktail of chemicals and electrical impulses firing, and as an agnostic who borders on atheism, I don’t have any explanation about higher beings or higher purpose that transcends my physical body and existence. But having said that, the idea that I am bereft of choice merely because… wow, this brain sure is amazeballs, it does things before you’re even ‘conscious’– is pretty dubious to me.

                  I believe that the choices we make are in fact deeper than the higher level functions of language and perceived conscious thought. I also believe that our conscious thought and higher level language can train and change our own subconscious brain.

                  Ultimately, I believe our entire being is a kind of feedback loop.

                  1. The universe doesn’t even resolve its state until we decide to look at it.

      1. I never really thought of it as elitism, though I agree that it’s dangerous. How do you see it involving elitism? In the sense that good people are just inherently good because of their programming and vice versa for bad people?

      2. “You only think you think” Some Ayn Rand villain.

    3. Free will sure does seem like an illusion. But it’s an illusion that we have to treat as though it were 100% real or nothing works. So you can say it’s an illusion, and it sure seems like it is, but so what?

      1. I think that’s where I get concerned. When someone, or some institution intervenes with me and tells me that my desires and thoughts are an illusion, that’s where the trouble begins.

    4. If there’s no free will, it doesn’t matter what he says or writes, because he was pre-ordained to say or write it.

      1. How does that follow? There may be no free will, or even will of any kind, behind a falling boulder, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences! So yeah, events w no free will behind them, including pronouncements, matter.

  8. “Seeing the worst human behaviors as a result of bad programming?rather than the influence of a malovelent diety or a conscious choice to suck?has helped me feel compassion for people who irritate and/or scare me.”

    Determinism doesn’t make me feel much better about humanity. I’d rather think the worst human behaviors are a conscious choice to suck–because then persuading people to make better choices is always a possibility, even under the most improbable circumstances.

    Choices are what we’re talking about when we talk about rights. Rights arise naturally as an aspect of our agency like ethics. That agency exists regardless of whether the choices made are determined by the conditions that surround them, but, more pertinent to this quote, respect for other people’s agency seems to be necessitated by the very essence of reality.

    Violating people’s right to make choices for themselves is seeming punished by reality universally. The Soviet Union tried to violate people’s right to make choices about their own property, but reality wouldn’t allow for that policy. It’s the same thing with violating people’s rights in other ways. You can do it on a small scale and survive, but even then, reality imposes consequences for violating people’s rights that are consistent across all cultures and throughout history. Those consequences are harder to quantify than violating people’s economic rights, but they’re just as real as the economic consequences.

    1. Most choices are not conscious, Ken. What I mean by that is that most choices are not the result of a long process of introspection. In fact, contrary to popular belief, we are not even conscious most of the time. People think that consciousness is like a beam of light, illuminating our world at all times except for sleep. It is not. It is more like the flashing butt of a firefly. But because we are only aware of it during the flashes, we think it is continuous.

      1. I hear what you’re saying, and it’s certainly interesting stuff in the realm of deep science, but when policy-makers get hold of this stuff, that’s when things are going to get ugly.

        1. Agreed. I don’t think anyone here is saying we should base policy decisions on any of this. Most of us here are opposed to policy decisions in general.

      2. The question of whether our choices are predetermined or whether they’re the result of free will doesn’t ignore the fact that we make choices and can make choices.

        No,not all of our choices are the result of introspection. Determinism suggests that they can’t be the result of free will. That if they’re the result of introspection, then that introspection was the result of some other external condition beyond the scope of our own free will.

        Likewise, whether all our free choices are the result of introspection doesn’t negate the possibility that they can be.

        Drug addiction treatment will often talk about “moments of clarity”. Even heroin addicts have the possibility of such moments, even if not all their choices are the result of introspection.

      3. I don’t care if you’re Evelyn Wood, reading stuff (like this) seems to require a pretty steady light of consciousness. If it’s discontinous, the flashes must be very closely spaced, like movie frames.

  9. Whether we’re talking about Protestant vs. Catholic violence during the Thirty Years War or the war between ISIS and their Shia enemies, there are negative consequences to violating people’s right to choose their own religion by making their religion dependent on who controls the government–and that’s just one example. I suppose, in that way, it might be comforting to think that people cannot choose to violate other people’s rights without consequences, and that our two steps forward, one step back, evolutionary adaptation of government and society must contend with that reality.

    I still find that less comforting than the idea that we can all choose to respect other people’s rights of our own free will. I’ve seen similar people in the same circumstances behave differently. “Man does not live by bread alone”. Some chased runaway slaves for money while others helped run the underground railroad at great risk and paid the price. Some turned on their Jewish neighbors, and some hid Anne Franks in their attics. That some people can be persuaded to make different choices under the same circumstances is comforting to me. The idea that we just learn from banging our stupid heads against the walls of reality is much less so.

    1. Has anybody tried naming a brand of hot dogs Anne Franks? Seems almost too obvious.

  10. I was watching a liveleak video yesterday of a situation in Lebanon. There was a madman armed with two knives surrounded by police officers. The madman was running and swinging the knives at the officers who were retreating while spraying mace and shooting bullets at the ground around the guy. The chasing and retreating went on and on. These cops were doing everything in their power to not kill the guy and it seemed so strange to me because of my experience seeing the way these events play out in America. I imagined it’s the way I would have dealt with the same situation if that madman was my brother and I was the cop. And that’s what I imagined motivated the cops. And similarly the cops here in America who shoot people at the slightest provocative facing the slightest risk do so because they have dehumanized these people.

    1. I think in America they mostly play out that way too. We just focus on the nasty cases where they don’t.

  11. has helped me feel compassion for people who irritate and/or scare me.

    Has it?

  12. “Sapolsky is a materialist, and his observations (of which there are many) and prescriptions (of which there are few) reflect his conviction that human beings are the products of inputs they mostly didn’t choose.”

    I’m always struck by the differences between people’s perceptions of academia and the reality.

    Most people probably imagine that most academics are materialists. I suspect most atheist libertarians imagine that most atheist academics are materialists–and I believe that to be false.

    Most academic philosophers are not materialists. 95% of the universe, be it in the form of energy or matter, doesn’t interact with the electromagnetic spectrum. It is only apparent because of its effects on gravity. But you know all about it, huh?

    Go subatomic, and we’re talking about uncertainty and randomness–not things that can be tortured into our favorite formulas. For goodness’ sake, Newtonian physics is an internally consistent noble lie, that’s taught and is useful because itss lies are more than sufficient to account for and explain what we perceive on earth and what we need for engineering and legal purposes.


    Almost all of Marxism has been debunked, and the parts that haven’t have been absorbed by libertarians (see “creative destruction”. The materialism upon which Marxism is based has been roundly debunked, to my satisfaction, too.

  13. Reality itself will reward and punish in time, regardless of how you are “programmed” to believe. Keep “forgiving” people who are being asshole will only get you more people who are asshole. It’s basic Game Theory.

  14. Interesting stuff. Book looks right up my alley.

  15. I believe in the existence of will, but not that will is “free” in some way that makes it different from anything else. I think it may well be that will & all of experience originates in a non-material realm, but if it does, it’s just as subject to the rules there, whatever they are, as material stuff is. And though quantum indeterminacy may be effective (rather than just descriptive), I’ve no reason to think will has any special relationship w it.

    As I’ve stated here previously, I’m a strong skeptic of the efficiency of at least the restraint aspect of confinement in response to criminal behavior. Either the person’s a hothead or not. Hotheadedness tends to be either acute or lifelong. If it’s acute, just confine the hothead long enough to cool off; that might take hours or days, but I can’t see it ever taking longer than ~3 mos. If it’s chronic, just kill or cripple hir. If you want to deter crime, use more efficient threats, such as of torture, that can be accomplished & gotten over quickly. Punishment per se makes no sense except possibly to teach an animal or young child; it’s silly to try punishing a hothead, though threats may deter a hothead. Retribution is competely beyond the pale; if it doesn’t make the future any better, what good is it to make certain persons less happy because they’ve made other persons less happy?

  16. Hey Bob, get a fucking haircut…

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