Sep 25th 2015

Is Humanity Psychologically Capable of Building a Better World?

by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes is trained in psychoanalysis. In the area of political science, he co-authored a study on the effectiveness of democracy in Ireland. He graduated with a PhD in atomic physics from Queen’s University in Belfast, and worked in some of the top research laboratories in Europe and the United States. These included JET, the nuclear fusion research facility, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States.

In his 2018 book Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy, he brought together his experience in science, psychology and political science to demonstrate that a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world. The book explored how demonstrably dangerous individuals, namely psychopaths and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders, can so easily gain power, attract widespread followings and lead societies towards calamity. He is also contributing author to the 2019 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork. His work at MaREI is aimed at helping to establish a common understanding among decision-makers across government of the challenges and opportunities associated with system transitions for sustainability and the policy responses which can enable the system changes needed to address climate change.

Before the end of 2015, the leaders of the world’s nations will attend two major summits. Their task is nothing less than to change the course of history.

This week in New York, the U.N. post-2015 Development Summit will seek to agree a set of goals that together aim to create a more peaceful and equal world by 2030. Then, in December, the 2015 Paris Climate Conference will aim to reach a legally binding agreement on climate, with the goal of keeping global warming below 2°C.

A Better World

The aim of the 17 sustainable development goals, or SDGs, being debated at this week’s U.N. summit can be summarised quite simply.

In adopting the SDGs, the nations of the world will agree that by 2030 the world we want is one where no one is poor or hungry, where everyone has access to quality health services and benefits from a quality education, where social security protects the vulnerable, and where everyone has access to justice on an equal basis.

It will be a world in which there is a sustainable and inclusive model for the global economy, in which economic growth benefits all, combats climate change and halts the loss of the earth’s natural resources.

It will be a world of greater equality both within and between nations, where everyone is treated equally regardless of gender, religion, race, and ethnicity.

And it will be a world where national and global partnerships are capable of achieving this Vision.

Humanity Divided

That all of the world’s nations have been able to reach agreement on what constitutes a better world is a remarkable achievement. At a time when war and suffering are ever present in our headlines, it is a much needed beacon of hope.

But those very pictures of war and suffering also beg the question:  are we, humanity, psychologically capable of building such a fairer and more peaceful world?

Any debate on this question must acknowledge three basic facts about our psychology.

First, human nature, for the majority of human beings, is an extremely malleable thing. For most of us, our beliefs and behaviours vary depending on the circumstances in which we have been brought up, and the context within which we find ourselves.

This basic fact means that, as psychologist Steve Pinker describes, human nature comprises a mix of both inner demons and better angels. Motives like predation, dominance, and vengeance which impel us to violence exist alongside motives like compassion, fairness, self-control and reason that, under the right circumstances, impel us toward peace.

Changes in our social, cultural and material conditions can change our pliable nature in different ways. If the conditions which favour our better angels prevail, violence is low. If conditions such as fear, insecurity and intolerance hold sway, our inner demons win out and violence and greed increase.

The conditions which contain the worst aspects of human nature are in fact, those which the post-2015 agenda seeks to strengthen: an absence of poverty and destitution, fair and effective application of the rule of law, just and transparent government, and a greater tolerance of diversity.

A Dangerous Minority

A second unpalatable fact we must acknowledge, however, is that a minority of human beings are psychologically incapable of building a fairer and more peaceful world.

Decades of research in psychiatry has identified a minority of people whose psychology does not allow them to even conceive of the notions of fairness and equality, peace and mutual benefit. The psychology of this minority, rather than being malleable like the majority, is rigidly fixed in a way that predisposes them towards dominance, greed, paranoia and hate.

This minority is composed of those individuals who suffer from psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder.

Psychopathic personalities lack the capacity to react to other people’s feelings with feelings of their own, and so have a terrifying ability to treat people without conscience – as things rather than as people.

People with narcissistic personality disorder have minds structured to convince them of their own superiority. They are psychologically incapable of conceptualising others as their equals.

People with paranoid personality disorder have minds frozen in a perpetual state of emergency. They can perceive others only as a threat and continually search for vulnerable scapegoats on whom to focus their fear.

While for most of us, forces such as law, democracy and human rights help tilt the balance away from our inner demons and towards less violent and more humane behaviour, the psychology of this small but active minority is such that their inner demons always win out.

The Dangers of Group Psychology

Our discussion needs to consider a third basic fact. The psychological malleability of the majority of humanity, in which we may sway towards peace or violence, altruism or greed, depending on circumstances, allied with the fixed malevolent nature of a minority, means that this minority can gain enormous influence over the majority when circumstances allow.

Although individuals with dangerous personality disorders comprise just a few per cent of the total human population, they can have an enormously destructive influence because of their ability to rise to positions of power when circumstances allow. Under such circumstances they can readily recruit not only on groups of likeminded individuals, but also large swathes of the rest of us – the psychologically malleable majority - to their cause.

Such was the case in Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The destructive influence of this minority is still evident in today’s world where tyranny, war, and acts of barbarism in the name of God or country remain commonplace.

Our discussion on psychology and the post-2015 development goals might conclude then that humanity is indeed psychologically capable of building a fairer and more peaceful world, as the development goals envisage.

But this will only happen if we acknowledge the basic facts of human nature and resolve to work together to reduce the influence of those who are psychologically incapable of building a better world.

Only then will can we hope to succeed in building together the better world that most of us want.

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Apr 8th 2021
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Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
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Mar 30th 2021
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Mar 28th 2021
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Mar 26th 2021
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Mar 20th 2021
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Mar 18th 2021
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Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
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Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
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Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "