Why People Fall for Charismatic Leaders

Oct 14, 2016

By Olga Khazan

Why do people still believe Donald Trump when he says things like, “Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever”? (Even setting aside slavery and Jim Crow, “Nationally, the black poverty rate is 24.1 percent, which is much higher than the 9.1 percent percent it is for whites. But that’s still lower than it has been in the past,” Politifact points out.) Or that there could be anywhere from 3 to 30 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but “the government has no idea.” (The number is 11.4 million, Politifact says, and the government is quite sure.)

It could be because Trump, like many charismatic leaders, casts his arguments in ways that tickle the emotional parts of our brains while telling the more rational lobes to shush. That’s the process explored by Sara E. Gorman, a public-health expert, and her father, Jack M. Gorman, a psychiatrist and CEO of Franklin Behavioral Health Consultants, in their new book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us. “Persuaders might want to reduce the possibility of dissonance by constantly reassuring people that they have made the right choice … or that there is no viable reasonable alternative,” they write. (Remember “I alone can fix it?”)

In the book, the Gormans explain not just how people fall for the false claims of politicians, but also how intelligent people wind up in cults or why a nation wracked by gun violence continues to reject gun-control measures. They admit they do not support Trump, but they’re otherwise equal opportunity debunkers, taking on GMO fear-mongering and anti-vaxers along with the National Rifle Association. I recently interviewed the Gormans about why false information and charismatic people can seem so seductive. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.

58 comments on “Why People Fall for Charismatic Leaders

  • “Len Oakes, an Australian psychologist …argues that charismatic leaders exhibit traits of narcissism and also argues that they display an extraordinary amount of energy, accompanied by an inner clarity unhindered by the anxieties and guilt that afflict more ordinary people….”

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search?index=books&linkCode=qs&keywords=9780815603986

    I think the appeal of clarity through simplicity of vision engages folk from the bottom up, those least inclined to any hard thinking. To achieve such simplicity, moral concerns must be swept away as if they did not exist. I think the American populace, already often seduced by the simple-mindedness of religious promises and morality, have found the perfect “religious” leader for them.



    Report abuse

  • “…an inner clarity unhindered by the anxieties and guilt…”

    As with psychopathy.

    …those least inclined to any hard thinking.

    Least inclined, though not necessarily least able. Many (most?) of these are intelligent people, capable of “hard thinking”, but who perhaps have grown tired of the effort it requires because they perceive the reward as too small. Finding a charismatic leader to do your thinking and fighting for you is a more “efficient” way to get the job done.

    I wonder if perhaps these folks are focused too much on “the destination” rather than the journey.



    Report abuse

  • PP

    …psychopathy

    Tell it, sibling!

    Least inclined, though not necessarily least able

    Entirely so. The excuses/causes are almost certainly manifold. The desperate poor may be less educated to use their brains. The comfortable rich like all domesticated animals lose the need of them. Certainly a feeling of political powerless-ness in a country made of late by and for psychopath parasites, “gamed” free markets and organised selfishness is an inevitability.

    Frogs are boiled to death as the heat is turned up slowly under them. The sudden realisation that they may become frog stew comes too late. Saviours are needed.

    Look here comes Trump with his ladle and dish to save us!

    Is that a napkin tucked into his collar?



    Report abuse

  • I’ve just come home from a beach restaurant in Cyprus where my brother in law embroiled me in a conversation with a man who used to teach computer science in London. He started off with a civilisation that had planes and “everything” 40 thousand years ago to a meteor that caused the world to flood and so Noah and then fiddled with his hands to show the world tilting and swallowing up ancient cities and ” powers” coming from the sky to cause all sorts of things.

    Signed
    Disappointed and frustrated.



    Report abuse

  • Isn’t charisma something that’s attractive , although,he’s certainly has attracted a lot of people… I can’t understand why anyone with half a brain can’t see that Trump (knowing anything about him) doesn’t care about other people,especially the type of idiots that you see at his rallies. I wonder is he also doing this to impress his dead father in some way. I think daddy may have given him a hard time,well, because he is a spoiled asshole for starters, so it might be a “Look Daddy, look at me now, I’m the president of the USA” . I don’t have time to write this out properly ,but you get my drift…



    Report abuse

  • Cantaz #1
    Oct 14, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    Is it correct to qualify unrestrained bullying as ‘charismatic’?

    Trump’s repeated attempts at bullying the unimpressed Scots, was notably and consistently unsuccessful in a series of courts!

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/05/welcome-to-the-age-of-trump/

    US billionaire Donald Trump has suffered a blow after the UK’s highest court rejected his bid to stop a wind farm being built near his luxury Scottish golf resort.

    The presidential hopeful had been trying to block construction of offshore wind turbines, which he claims will spoil the view of golfers playing at his Trump International Golf Links venue in Aberdeenshire.

    However, in a boost for the green energy industry, five Supreme Court judges unanimously ruled against Mr Trump’s argument that the turbines are a “dangerous experiment with wind energy”.



    Report abuse

  • “Charisma” usually references the capacities of a person to charm and persuade others. The author interviews researchers who tend to frame “charisma” in negative terms because they are fixated on the atrocious behavior of Donald Trump in a partisan election contrasted with the dull but “reasonable” presentation of Hillary Clinton who cleaves to establishment politics.

    What is lost in the article, and the comments it generates, is that “charisma” is a neutral, amoral term until applied to a personality in context. Both Hitler and Winston Churchill projected charisma from the pinnacle of national power to the masses. Jim Jones of Jonestown coolaide infamy and Martin Luther King swayed large audiences not only with eloquence but also with effective calls to action. Both appealed to constituencies who felt powerless and fearful, but no one would characterize the followers of Martin Luther King in the same demeaning frame of reference as these highly politicized, wonkish researchers.



    Report abuse

  • Noun

    charisma ‎(usually uncountable, plural charismas or charismata)

    1) Personal charm or magnetism

    2) (Christianity) An extraordinary power granted by the Holy Spirit

    3) The ability to influence without the use of logic.

    Charisma is not neutral in matters of reason any more than faith is.



    Report abuse

  • Charisma is not neutral in matters of reason any more than faith is.

    I do not follow this argument from analogy. Charisma is (very generally) the personality trait that charms, persuades and influences others to follow leadership but the trait may be used for good or evil under various circumstances. Abraham Lincoln’s charisma was an indispensable force in persuading congress to abolish slavery and grant full citizenship rights to former “negro” slaves. Alabama governor George Wallace used his charisma to whip up virulent racism and make an impressive die-hard effort to restore segregation to the south.

    Whether charismatic leaders use their magnetic charm and riveting powers of persuasion for good or ill, most of us wish we had more of the stuff than less.



    Report abuse

  • Melvin, you made a strawman argument. The article’s thesis is not about how well meaning or not the charismatic leader is but how easily charismatic leaders can mislead folks on matters of fact if they are ill inclined. The examples are from the ill inclined.

    Trump; “Or that there could be anywhere from 3 to 30 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but “the government has no idea.”
    (The number is 11.4 million, Politifact says, and the government is quite sure.)….It could be because Trump, like many charismatic leaders, casts his arguments in ways that tickle the emotional parts of our brains while telling the more rational lobes to shush.



    Report abuse

  • The researchers lost touch with the topic of charisma when they chose the soft target of Donald Trump implicitly juxtaposed with Hillary Clinton in a highly politicized partisan polemic. Trump does appeal to millions even though he is obviously a pathological liar and narcissist. Clearly he projects a kind of crude pseudo-strongman charisma reminiscent of fascist leaders of the 1930s. He is an unmitigated menace to the nation and the world. Still I’m puzzled why “charisma” is being analyzed from such a simplistic narrow political focus that congratulates progressives on the cheap for being so “reasonable.”

    Keeping within the analogy of Hillary Clinton versus “Charisma,” consider the 2008 Democratic primary and the general presidential election. Ramping up to 2008, Clinton was the presumptive nominee assured by the backing of party leaders, and a war chest bursting with treasure from the pockets of prominent donors. Wearing a medal for delivering an impressive speech at the 2004 democratic convention and backed by a handful of visionaries who saw his potential, Barack Obama proclaimed himself Hillary’s opponent for the nomination. Every big gun was turned on him but though wounded he went through her like shit through a goose and went on to win the presidency by a huge landslide.

    He not only charmed nearly every constituency (excluding loyal, especially right-wing Republicans) he inspired record numbers of voters to get off their butts and go to the polls.

    No one castigates Obama’s followers because of his charisma, the trait that won him the nomination against daunting odds. Had he won by circumstance lacking charisma as Hillary Clinton lacking charisma will surely win this time around, he would not enjoy the high approval ratings along with the widespread esteem, even love at home and abroad that contribute to his legacy.

    “Charisma” obviously informs the effectiveness of leaders who work for evil or for good. The researchers failed to point out that the public, comprised of diverse political persuasions, prefers “charisma” in their leaders as a lubricant to implementing successful programs, policies, legislation and budgets. “Charisma” is a desirable, often indispensable quality for a candidate’s electability and effectiveness in office however “reasonable” or “unreasonable” this or that individual (or group) praises or deplores them and their supporters.



    Report abuse

  • No one castigates Obama’s followers because of his charisma,

    We’ve put this one to bed already. It all depends if you use your super powers for good or evil. Lie or tell the truth…..the point of the article.

    they chose…. Donald Trump implicitly juxtaposed with Hillary Clinton

    Exactly!!!! THAT is la question de nos jour..

    Its exactly another attempt to implicitly understand why He is still around and She is not home free.

    Perhaps it is because he is a lier with charisma and she, though pretty straight and fully capable, ain’t no Bill, nor even a Michelle Obama, in the charisma stakes.



    Report abuse

  • A comment you posted earlier helps explain how the researchers may have distracted us from what they intended to be a neutral discussion about why people resist accepting the findings of the “fact checking” process based on the scientific method -rational examination of empirical data and evidence. The primitive component of the brain that triggers reflexive fight or flight responses also internalizes deeply emotional biases that override the slower, rational, deliberative activity of the prefrontal cortex: the gray matter of the anterior part of the frontal lobe that is highly developed in humans and plays a role in the regulation of complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).

    Unfortunately, the researchers not only brought up the contentious subject of partisan politics but also kept a gratuitously prolonged focus on the current U.S. presidential election as the centerpiece of their thesis. Even though Trump deserves everything they happened to dish out, his lies have touched on legitimate social, political and economic concerns of the American people among those either inclined or disinclined to support him. The reader begins to wonder whether they cared more about an impartial analysis or campaigning for the democratic candidate: Perhaps it is because he is a lier with charisma and she, though pretty straight and fully capable, ain’t no Bill, nor even a Michelle Obama, in the charisma stakes. The least of Hillary’s corruption involves her lack of charisma. Now see what you went and done, Phil; you went and done got us into a political argument. (Not now…but if it helps I’m voting for her as the lesser of two evils.)



    Report abuse

  • “Good” or “evil”, Phil? There you go! Progress. Here’s my two cents: authoritarian leaders remind people of when they were very young and mom and dad said “yes’ and “no” and “good and “bad” and, “do this” and “don’t do that.” It reminds them of that time, takes them back there and comforts them; a part of them wants to be told what to do, even if at the same time they decry the authority of “government.”

    This question can’t be answered by one comment or two or ten. You have to read about it, study it. Very complex and insidious. Another aspect is simple flattery. Trump flatters his supporters, as did Hitler. There is also rage and bigotry and resentment, pent up feelings of all kinds amongst his bestial dumb supporters; he promises them justice and deliverance and prosperity. Insidious stuff. Usually scapegoats involved and conspiracy theories. All lies with a little truth thrown in here and there.

    Trump is not charismatic but he is aggressive. I think Hillary has some charisma, as much as Michelle Obama who has zero (but is a good, solid woman) but has been relentlessly maligned way out of any decent limit or proportion. The Trump people believe what they are told. So lazy ignorance is yet another part of the equation.

    The good news is that she is way ahead. Trump is hysterical now about the rigged system, has given up.



    Report abuse

  • I don’t believe this has anything to do with “Charisma”.
    This is ingrained in the Rep party. They are going full tilt towards racism, anti-gay, anti-agnostic, anti-rights and so on. They just found someone who is not in fear of losing his political standing.
    This is making the USA an ugly place to live lately.



    Report abuse

  • “The good news is that she is way ahead. Trump is hysterical now about the rigged system, has given up.”
    Dan, then he can lie down and start decomposing. His hotels have taken a beating before last week. The occupancy rate is down sixteen percent.
    After next quarter, his investments may be in trouble.



    Report abuse

  • Phil, Melvin

    Hillary is not evil! She wants equal pay for women, wants public college tuition to be free, will try to improve the health system, knows how to work with Republicans, has a better tax plan, is pro-choice…

    Meant to write: “I think Hillary has some charisma, more than Michelle Obama who has zero…”

    Two more points:

    Lying is highly effective form of treachery in debates, and as a form of persuasion is as effective as it is wrong; that is why so many unprincipled and incompetent politicians (like Trump!) lie like hell.

    The primitive component of the brain that triggers reflexive fight or flight responses also internalizes deeply emotional biases that override the slower, rational, deliberative activity of the prefrontal cortex: the gray matter of the anterior part of the frontal lobe that is highly developed in humans and plays a role in the regulation of complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning.

    Not sure who said this. I an critical of this kind of talk. What’s the solution. Are we to point our fingers at those parts of the brain? To what end? Should we force surgery upon these dull voters? Or are you just showing off? It’s meaningless.



    Report abuse

  • Alf

    I am still very anxious. How are you doing?

    By the way, I heard he’s going to start a media empire. We haven’t heard the last of him. But as long as he isn’t sitting in the white house I don’t care what he does.



    Report abuse

  • Doing fine Dan, nothing has fallen off lately.
    I think we can relax a little. I say a little, the followers of Trump (trumpets) are going to be need to be watched after the election. There will be a fringe group who will be violent.



    Report abuse

  • Dan,

    I put good and evil in to catch your eye. I also used it because I talked of charisma like a superpower and that kind of comic book screwy needs comic book motives.

    Clinton is worthy but uncharismatic. In truth in a safe and rational world such a public servant should be. Facts and reason should speak for themselves.

    Melvin,

    The reader begins to wonder whether they cared more about an impartial analysis or campaigning for the democratic candidate

    Not me. Its a cracking example of their point. No need for political balance, whatsoever. Trump’s policies on his site are still barking un-evidence tosh and the Democratic policies fact based.

    I’m voting for her

    Good man. Now if only Dan would come off the fence and make a commitment…..



    Report abuse

  • Phil,

    I thinks H has some charisma. Nice smile. Strong presence. But you’re right: other qualities are far more important.

    You had me going there. I still think that evil is a good word. How about obscene? I define obscenity as that which is out of joint with nature. I presented a definition of evil as absolute selfishness on another thread. (A Plan to Defend.) I added that evil has many facets. Why must it imply something supernatural?

    The “primitive component of the brain.” Hitler must have had a field day with that. He tried to take Germans back to their primitive roots. This is happening today as well. How do we as a species get people not to be susceptible to appeals to that part of the brain without compromising “primitive” impulses that may be beneficial? The creative and the destructive impulses are not unrelated, presumably. Both may be said to be primitive. As for the rational and deliberative pre frontal cortex. No one was more rational and deliberative than the Nazis. Many murderers are rational to the core.

    Can this dubious ability to identify characterize, and label, parts of the brain and their functions be helpful, that is, ameliorating in a social sense? If so, how?

    My hunch is that social amelioration will come from social, .i.e., psychological, educative, economic and cultural changes. The brain will follow; it does not lead.

    Dan (with another confused comment)

    P.S. Someone once said that the tendency to express somewhat chaotic, contradictory, and only partially formed ideas and hypotheses is the sign of a superior mind. Maybe Lou Salomé. (Google her.)



    Report abuse

  • The reader begins to wonder whether they cared more about an impartial analysis or campaigning for the democratic candidate
    Not me. Its a cracking example of their point. No need for political balance, whatsoever. Trump’s policies on his site are still barking un-evidence tosh and the Democratic policies fact based.

    “There you go again.” (Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter in one of their pre-election debates). You’re getting drawn into political arguments again. The article only expresses “the fact of the matter” because in the contest of Hillary versus Donald, the Donald is deemed a pathological liar by a near unanimous consensus of intelligent fact checking people. Donald is a self-destructive tautology who nonetheless speaks to the grievances of (largely) marginalized white males with a high school education.

    Hillary Clinton has said several times that she wants to create an economy that works for everybody. All economies generate gains and losses therefore “an economy that works for everybody” is not fact based, defies common sense, and represents a pandering lie to gullible morons. Hillary claims that the FBI director concluded she had done nothing wrong in using a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state; when “in fact” he castigated her for being seriously negligent. Do you see how we are nudging each other towards political altercation.. No? Then surely you agree that Ronald Reagan was, as “a matter of fact,” a great president; and Margaret Thatcher was, as “a matter of fact” a great prime minister. Social scientists, notorious for their ideological agendas, should stay away from partisan politics when advocating for “reason” and proclaiming the “fact of the matter.” Their motives become suspect teetering on the edge of personal political agendas.

    Dan: Daniel Dennet noted that “objects are centers of descriptive gravity;” philosopher Richard Rorty added that they are also “centers of narrative gravity.” You and others are not talking about the intrinsic qualities of “evil.” You are only talking about “evil,” a word in our vocabulary, to the extent that you are bringing other words together that you believe accurately describe how “evil” works in relation to objects and actions (and indeed other ideas) in your experience. “Evil” does not exist as an entity with intrinsic properties outside our linguistic descriptions and narratives in relation to our linguistic awareness of how it works consistent with our beliefs, interests, needs and purposes. A simpler way of saying this is we do not talk about “the thing-in-itself.” We talk about the way we prefer to talk about things in the tentative moment. Some ways we have of talking about things -the bundle of relational descriptions and narratives- say about the holocaust- enjoy almost universal consensus and those ways of talking are not likely to be worked out of our language. Still the holocaust has no intrinsic properties that make the event “evil” independent of our descriptions and narratives.



    Report abuse

  • Dan

    Evil has no natural history beyond the cultural. It was born once the concept of “nature” was born. Disgust , lust, aggression all have natural histories that carry you all the way back to the proto-purpose of homeostasis.

    My hunch is that social amelioration will come from social, .i.e., psychological, educative, economic and cultural changes. The brain will follow; it does not lead.

    If you can’t even begin to imagine a mechanism for change given all actions start as brain actions then this looks starkly bonkers.

    If you are suggesting these qualities are somehow innate and become newly expressed by circumstance then say so.

    But, on Dawkins site, in the name the Blessed Darwin, why would it not be that ultimate gradualist, iterative synthesiser of the new, evolution, tinily rewarding better, more reproductively fit, behaviours (or vetoing of same) from the brain?



    Report abuse

  • Melvin

    All economies generate gains and losses therefore “an economy that works for everybody” is not fact based, defies common sense, and represents a pandering lie to gullible morons.

    Then, sir, I demand satisfaction. The above is palpable nonsense. Why are economies zero sum? (Many, most, even all to some degree are not.) Wealth is created every time capital is used to solve a problem….and succeeds. It is the muddle of wealth with its occasional tokens that lead us to such error.



    Report abuse

  • Melvin, Phil

    Melvin

    “Still the holocaust has no intrinsic properties that make the event “evil” independent of our descriptions and narratives.”

    That’s not necessarily true. But one thing is certain: if we do not experience what I call evil then it is absurd to speak of evil. Same with truth and beauty and justice. Evil is not a Platonic Idea floating in the ether. That is a straw-man. (That mischaracterization of the Platonic Idea has caused great confusion.)

    The relationship between the thing named and the named thing is a complex one. Can we say that Tom IS fat? Why not Tom IS evil?

    If a bully hits someone, the “meanness”, which surely exists and is really felt, is what? where? nowhere? nothing? To say that it is nothing and only something described is as absurd as saying that it (the meanness) is a little god (Cupid’s evil twin) that hovers about and shoots his venom into unsuspecting victims.

    “We do not talk about the thing-in-itself.”

    Speak for yourself. I have talked about it ad nauseam (but usually in reference to “objects”). Ask anyone on this site.

    Phil, I have to confess that I am unable to respond to your most recent comment above about the brain. I can’t understand your comment. (And what “qualities” are you referring to?) Nor do I know what evil is or where it comes from or whether it can be said to exist.

    I hate to ask you to rephrase your comment but if you could I’d appreciate it.

    But my general objection to the idea of the brain as first cause (particularly in a moral sense) has been based on the intuitive assumption that the brain was formed like everything else was formed, by a more primary will or desire. The brain is objectified will or need or desire. It causes us to do many things, yes; but it is also the product itself of causes more primary.

    (Exhausted. Going to sleep. Melvin, are you the same guy I used to talk to about a year and a half ago? Just curious. If it is you, glad you’re back. And if it isn’t glad you’re with us.)



    Report abuse

  • Evolution, Dan. Can you explain the development of evil in evolutionary terms?

    Brains evolved because of an evolutionary pressure to better manage movement as explained by Daniel Wolpert if you recall his TAD talk? Brain behaviours (all our actions and thoughts, heuristics, cognitions the lot) evolved also.

    You seem to be posing a nonsense chicken and egg dichotomy between brainstates and actions/thoughts, when we know evolutionary “discoveries”….er…evolve, a gene changes, a protein is tweaked goes here rather than there, a behaviour is modified and if reproductively virtuous, gets copied more.

    Now cultural evolution, relatively speaking can turn on a dime….though its still a joined up process in many ways. We can talk about purely cultural inventions in entirely different ways. We can’t though claim the same level of existence for these inventions.

    You can argue evil is as real as money. But as you can see with my disagreement with Melvin, money is ill defined stuff. Not so, disgust or emotional empathy whose affects are pre-conscious. They have an evolutionary natural history.



    Report abuse

  • alf1200: To whom are you addressing?

    I’m speaking to anyone who communicates with language, manifestly here and now on a comment thread.

    We’re not talking about an entity with intrinsic properties floating out there in “reality,” in “nature,” in the “universe.” We’re describing or narrating in various linguistic ways how we believe “evil” works in relation to our point of view. (Simplistically, dictionary definitions actually express compressed descriptions adopted into wide consensus within a language community.) That’s all any human being can do. We can never pick out what some object “really is” apart from the way its relational properties impinge on our sentient and neurological processes and generate the various ways we talk about it.

    Phil: Then, sir, I demand satisfaction. The above is palpable nonsense. Why are economies zero sum?

    My object lesson was to get you arguing about political issues from a partisan perspective. The researchers unwittingly encouraged this exercise in endless futility, when they highlighted Trump’s fabrication or denial of facts within the context of a partisan election campaign. Well, Hillary Clinton does so do that too! So there! She called the TPP the “gold standard” of trade agreements expressing what she believed as “a matter of fact,” then later when the liberal left base objected, she said she opposed the deal and that she had never said anything to the contrary. A lie.

    Evolution, Dan. Can you explain the development of evil in evolutionary terms?

    Dan, I believe Phil and I are pretty much on the same page but put “evil” under different descriptions. I never denied that animals can “feel” anger, empathy or that intelligent animals premeditate, plan, solve cognitive manipulative problems or, on the violent side, injure or kill other members of their species. It seems intuitive to assume on evolutionary grounds in a tautological manner that such sentient conscious inputs and behaviors are precursors to language. I renounce the speculation that bonobos are evolving the ability to acquire and use language “just like us.” Such an outcome seems unlikely even projecting eons of evolution to come. In my view, given the odds against the evolution of talking chimps, the more likely scenario is that both humans and chimps will become extinct before such a remote possibility comes to fruition. Decisively, by the way, human intervention in Eco-systems has pretty much truncated natural selection almost certainly for most of the more complex adaptations.

    [Edited by moderator to bring within Terms of Use]



    Report abuse

  • Melvin

    Just saw this.

    …. bonobos are evolving the ability to acquire and use language “just like us.”

    Who claimed this? Sorry whoever it was but its bonkers or a bonkers strawman.

    The view I expressed on markets is not a party political differentiator at all. Economists agree that value is added. Dissent may exist about market fairness but that is nothing like your strange claim.

    If Clinto expresses disputable “facts” by being uncharismatic she represents no risk.

    Your TPP acount is misrepresentative. (And this is political.) I applaud politicians who change their mind on reflection and in the face of new facts. HC has managed two honourable changes of view so far….



    Report abuse

  • @ Melvin, Phil, others

    Melvin, I believe that you and I are more or less on the same page regarding the differences between animals and humans, and that was made clear on the other thread. I did suggest, however, that the absence or presence of language was not the deciding factor; one could be “evil” without language and, as we all know, one could refrain from evil with it.

    How did evil evolve? It is hard for me to think in these terms. I don’t have the vocabulary or the training. I can only speculate in my groping, intuitive way. It must be the case that “evil” is older than goodness, although The Good is very old as well

    But back, way back in the past, there was no evil, as it was the norm. We were non-human animals at one time ourselves. (This is what I’ve been getting at.) No feeling, no feeling (as we were not yet human) of anything comparable to what we recognize as sympathy today. Cruelty was the norm. That cruelty was felt but there was no word for it yet. Eventually – perhaps as an outgrowth of care for the young – concern developed into affection and affection became universal, not confined to members of one’s own family (or whatever it is called). We then became a family of brothers and sisters, and felt the pain of others as if it were our own. This was in opposition to evolution, and served no useful purpose; it was anti-nature and yet was to become human nature. This capacity to feel sympathy was not distributed evenly amongst the early humans or their direct predecessors. (I have been consistent and have always defined moral goodness as sympathy and sympathy alone. Therefore, my definition of evil would have to be the absence of sympathy – although it has other elements). I would argue that this capacity to feel sympathy remains, to this very day, something that varies in degree and strength – and it is inherited. And there are those who I choose to call evil who, like our brutish ancestors, have no capacity to identify with the pain of others at all. Why this transcendent quality of compassion (along with the feelings for art, beauty, and justice), was not equally distributed amongst us is not something I can address. It may be that the incalculable differences amongst humans – morally and intellectually – are a reflection of the way the process of traits being transmitted from parent to child generally work: nothing was uniform: it all happened in spots – here and there.



    Report abuse

  • Dan

    I realise there is not the least scintilla of understanding between us on this matter. I read this and wept.

    Eventually – perhaps as an outgrowth of care for the young – concern developed into affection and affection became universal, not confined to members of one’s own family (or whatever it is called). We then became a family of brothers and sisters, and felt the pain of others as if it were our own. This was in opposition to evolution, and served no useful purpose; it was anti-nature and yet was to become human nature.

    Like kin selection had never existed, and the Selfish Gene never been written.
    Dammit, Dan, if anyone needs religion its you….



    Report abuse

  • Phil

    I read this and wept.

    Calm down. Take it with a grain of salt. I am an ignoramus. I don’t even know what a genome is. And I was improvising (which is how Beethoven got some of his best ideas, by the way).

    Someday I’ll produce a great symphony of ideas. You will weep for joy.



    Report abuse

  • …. bonobos are evolving the ability to acquire and use language “just like us.”
    Phil: Who claimed this? Sorry whoever it was but its bonkers or a bonkers strawman.

    I never said you claimed this in my comment, Phil. It is bonkers. Nonetheless, you have talked about “tokens” as pre-cursors to language in animals; “Language to the level of say a three year old is teachable to bright enough primates and corvids…” There are researchers who adopt such terminology and measurements. Here you and I parted company. The neurological complexity of the human brain is uniquely evolved with the ability to acquire and use language. The brain of a chimp has not evolved to acquire language at the “level” of a three year old human. Language use must demonstrate the implementation of integral generative syntax and grammar combined with semantics. Grunts, barks, squawks and croaks -including signing and parroting vocalizations- that sometimes point to discrete objects represent conditioned or instinctual associations and not the acquisition and use of linguistic/semantic vocabulary or grammar generated sentences. Marveling at the displays of “sophisticated” cognitive-driven behavior from animals whose smaller brains also have a prefrontal cortex and memory capacity, should not be inflated to include language behavior or “language culture” watered down by anthropomorphic projections implied by such phrases as “language at a rudimentary level.” (That’s my supported view.)

    Looks like we’re both voting for Hillary. In any event, the overwhelming consensus among responsible journalists, political science academics and pundits, and a significant portion of the informed public is that she habitually fabricates or distorts facts, denies that she has done what she has done; denies that she has said what she has said. The article focuses on Trump because he is “worse” than Clinton but being the lesser of two liars does not immunize Hillary from clashing with the fact checkers or suffering the distrust of large swaths of the American electorate.



    Report abuse

  • It seems to me that some see language and communication as two separate things with ‘language’ applicable only to the ‘clean’ animal as in humans.

    An example, I read, as a prime difference between ‘man’ and ‘others’ was that lesser animals only use language in the now. Tell that to the feral cats here in Cyprus that have learned who to trust and who not to (they soon scarper when the owner of the beach restaurant turns up) trust and spend hours on my wife’s lap whether she feeds them that day or not.



    Report abuse

  • Melvin,

    You seem as oblivious to my point now as you were then. The discussion was about the roots of moral thought in exact contradistinction to the claim of the need for language to begin a moral process. The significance of the “tokens” was to show that primates, lacking a language, had no problem with categories of objects, indeed when taught a language, words for categories (these tokens) very often appeared to pre-exist so efortlessly were they adopted. (Others could be got with some effort.)

    Teaching a chimp a language, say, is entirely different to a child acquiring a language, which they do quite without any encouragement. Simple grammar for taught primates and very young children is at a similar level. Rich Chomskian grammar (a needless diversion) may well depend critically on the associative corteces, explosively grown post birth only in humans. Your points are strawmen still. You fail to notice the detail and the specifics of what I am saying, about the pre-language capabilities of organised thought. Your weird emotional hang ups on this are not interesting to me, but misrepresentation of my position is.



    Report abuse

  • Phil: The significance of the “tokens” was to show that primates, lacking a language, had no problem with categories of objects, indeed when taught a language, words for categories (these tokens) very often appeared to pre-exist so efortlessly were they adopted. (Others could be got with some effort.)

    I am not oblivious to your point I am disagreeing with it. Talking about “language” you move from “tokens’ to “categories of objects” to “when taught a language, words for categories (these tokens).” The reader may reasonably assume you are saying that animals acquire a linguistic vocabulary. “Tokens” seems to be something inside the animal’s brain that recognizes the vocalization of the human trainer as a word.

    Teaching a chimp a language, say, is entirely different to a child acquiring a language, which they do quite without any encouragement. Simple grammar for taught primates and very young children is at a similar level.”

    In my argument “teaching a chimp a language” is entirely different from a child acquiring a language because I try to show that it is not language that is being taught to the animal. The animal is learning to associate sounds (vocalizations) with objects and, granted, categories of objects, but these object associations lack semantic content, what Daniel Dennett called “descriptive or narrative centers of gravity.” Stimuli from the properties of the object processed through the sensory and neurological organs of the animal cue recognition of the object in association with the sounds directed by the trainer (or sometimes by fellow members of the same species as when a distinctive cry recognizes a sky predator ( for example a hawk) or a ground predator (for example a snake.) The recognition of the object that usually triggers manipulative or physical behavior- signing, touch-typing or vocalizing an appropriate “human word” in the case of a parrot in no way enables the animal to put the object under a linguistic description – to comprehend it in a linguist sense.

    Two quick examples justify skepticism. The woman who trained a single “bright” bonobo to “talk” by typing on a computer keyboard found him after she had to give up on his mother (and many others) as suitable candidates. If many chimp or gorilla specimens have problems “learning” rigorous operant- conditioning, why suppose that pre-existing “tokens” or words are present in the animal’s brain that facilitate “effortless” rudimentary language acquisition. The animal may simply be balking and sometimes cooperating with the anthropomorphic agenda, actually the operant-conditioning regime, of the trainer.

    A man in Germany taught his German Shepard to apparently “understand” some 200 words. On command the dog could go into a separate room and pick out the designated object from 200 other objects and fetch it back to his master. The animal could distinguish between “tennis ball” and “croquet ball;” “Raggedy Ann” and “Raggedy Andy” dolls. Mystifying? Not really. Though the dog has far less cognitive ability than a chimp, he has far greater human-compatible “social intelligence.” The German Shepard steeped in the positive feedback from a beloved domestic master with evolutionary origins in the alpha [male] leader of the wolfpack, paid diligent attention to the operant-conditioning process and appeared to learn an impressive linguistic human vocabulary. In the case of a dog in contrast to a “bright primate,” you may be more inclined to conclude that Fido did nothing of the kind.



    Report abuse

  • Learning a language…

    … is learning to associate sounds (vocalizations) with objects and, granted, categories of objects,…

    …adjectives, verbs, prepositions

    but these object associations lack semantic content

    But you just accepted “categories”! All new stuff that can be eaten is automatically classified as “food”. Cake unencountered before is classified as “bread”. Coherent feelings are expressed. A death of a companion animal is “sad”. Ideas of number and quantity are corralled and used accurately. Your claim that these words are used without meaning (no semantic content) is simply uninformed. Illustrating with a dog retrieving objects is aiming really low.

    But before you go off on your own concerns again, my points are made. That you choose a personal definition of language so restrictive is clearly to suit your needs rather than those scientists who wish to study the big-brained, tool-using, problem-solving, highly social and certainly cultural animals on their journey from thinking (how they do these things) to articulating it. What this use of simple language can also directly illustrate (again back to my original intention) are thinking abilities, cognitive tasks readily performed and signalled.

    Yes this old one, the second half after the schmooze….

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0E1Wny5kCk

    Some very interesting recent papers of fMRI on dogs and their two path processing of semantic and emotional content of speech. Exactly like humans…



    Report abuse

  • Phil

    Just spent a half hour on a comment. Pressed a button by mistake. Gone.

    Short version:

    No chicken egg. No dichotomy between brain states and thought. But the brain does not act and it does not feel. (This sounds nuts to you, I know.) It sends messages and presents motives. I feel cold. I put on a sweater. Does my brain put on the sweater? What is doing that? A species evolves and develops fur over time. Is the brain less cold? I am presented with two motives: kill and take my neighbor’s land or refrain from killing out of compassion and respect for my neighbor’s feelings and property. Is the brain both the messenger and the doer? Does the brain feel? It is easier to say that it does; but I remain a transcendentalist and a skeptic. (And a colossal ignoramus.)

    Comment 36: I was wrong to say that sympathy is in opposition to evolution. You asked me how evil evolved. My premise was that it didn’t; only something opposed to it did. “Evil”, or antagonism between the creatures of the earth, has been with us from the beginning, from before the beginning. Sympathy later emerged. Only after we had developed the capacity to form abstract concepts could we identify “evil” or callous indifference to suffering, as a thing. But it did not arise through nature and was not created by language or culture; it has been a protagonist always. But as we had nothing to contrast our experience with, and did not have the ability to form concepts, it didn’t exist as a meaningful idea. This idea emerged when enough people or life forms were able to resist powerful instinctual desires to conquer and kill, i.e., develop a greater susceptibility to an opposing motive based on sympathy alone; then they could identify it through words or at least gestures. But it was always there, was there before the idea, before the word. And it always will be there. It is nature itself. But humans have human nature. We are absolutely a part of nature and yet separate, have emerged from nature. (This is anthropocentrism). Sympathy as we know it, that is, universal and indiscriminate sympathy, as well as sublimity in the Kantian sense, can be described as “anti-nature.”



    Report abuse

  • Dan,

    I will have a proper response to this in a little while. Work has piled up rather.

    Bad luck on losing the post I’ve done it a couple of times now on big posts.

    but I remain a transcendentalist

    Argh! I’ve just been reading up on transcendentalism in the US in my researches into Libertarianism and government phobia, which I am now thinking needs a book. Such a mild mannered yet poisonous set of dogma’s from which to grow the bloom, selfishness….

    Oh and brains feel and act. That is why the evolved feeling bits and acting bits



    Report abuse

  • Phil: Thank you for the video. I am familiar with it. I believe you are using highly stipulated descriptions of what language is, or more precisely, how language works. When Polly vocalizes, “Polly wants cake,” it appears to the deceived observer that the bird is talking just like a person using three intelligible words in a subject-verb-object grammatically correct and semantically coherent sentence. I maintain that Polly is not using either words or grammar at allin the sense of human language. Either Polly is mimicking a series of sounds she associates with her owner/trainer feeding her or she is mindlessly running through her memorized repertoire of sequential sounds subsequent to some arbitrary stimulation. You seem troubled by the delusion that I do not recognize the animal as a creature with cognitive abilities to navigate its environment or that I deny sentience (feelings, consciousness) to the animal. If Polly is hungry and vocalizes, “Polly wants cake” it is apparently “telling” us so, when actually it is pulling a vocal lever that has been followed by the serving of food. Anyone who has been around “talking” birds will tell you they vocalize the sentences that they have “learned” with no more intention than a quacking duck. These examples seem to roll off you like water off a (heh,heh) duck’s back.

    Perhaps we can reach some compromise by settling on an umbrella term you used once to designate these behaviors. PRE-LANGUAGE



    Report abuse

  • Phil

    Transcendentalism: you haven’t even asked me what I mean by that, but should know by now that I am no libertarian. Nor am I a follower of Emerson and Thoreau et al, although I admire them and the others.

    Brains do not feel and they do not act. (Neither does the heart or the liver.) That which knows can never know itself (transcendentalism). You don’t know what we are in ourselves – and you never will. We can know our own actions, what we do, and that, over time, informs us or others about what we are in a moral sense, e.g., good, wicked, honest, treacherous. Some would argue that we are what we do. I take issue with that, although it is a respectable thesis.— But a brain, finally, is just an integral part of a larger, more comprehensive, whole, the inner nature of which is inscrutable.

    You seem a bit irascible lately. Everything okay? 🙂

    “That is why the evolved feeling bits and acting bits.” Sentence unclear.



    Report abuse

  • Melvin,

    AGAIN I want you to notice the cognitions revealed. No-one is claiming subject verb object grammar. It is the intellectual, problem-solving, one word answers that are astounding and the implications they have for non-verbal thinking. I get the impression you think this a sham of coaching the answers. I would be fascinated what cognitive processes you think parrot’s may actually be capable of.

    Otherwise, I think we can call this done now.

    For anyone who can get this (sorry, probably UK only)

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wt6bj

    Unsurprisingly I agree with most of this and find the papers I read nowadays are in agreement for the greater part. His recent work on reconcilliation I find particularly fascinating. It is a rather cerebral activity to repair the damage often of emotional infection.



    Report abuse

  • Phil: You have inexplicably concluded that my views on “ape language” merely express contrived, eccentric personal opinions when in fact I have consulted scientific sources and responsible investigative reporting on the internet. Here is a link to an (unusually sound) article from Slate with further links. Terrace, Sanders, Bever et. al are the big names to research for skeptical critiques of alleged ape language abilities. Kanzi, a single aging bonobo specimen, apparently remains the best candidate for demonstrating language at a rudimentary level. Extensive controlled further research, largely discontinued for the time being, remains to be done.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/08/koko_kanzi_and_ape_language_research_criticism_of_working_conditions_and.html



    Report abuse

  • Everything okay? ?

    No real problem thanks, Dan. But perhaps a new plan for better using my time

    We have talked before of my interest in what goes for typical American narratives (like the paucity of narratives for managing failure and how it traps poorer and demoralised folk in keeping up appearances and not demanding societal help.) You recall I was equally excercised about the seemingly innocuous assertion “you can be whatever you want to be”….

    Your comment on the rifeness of libertarian thinking amongst all Republicans set me thinking that I rather thought it ran also to quite a few Democrats and probably most inbetweeners.

    Why? So I’ve been thinking a lot about the biblical and other roots, the freedom of the individual, of “just deserts” thinking, that appears to undergird it all. The Unitarian and transcendentalism thinking in the early nineteenth century, I found fascinating, very American and wanted to contrast that with how UK moral thinking from Quakers and other non-conformists developed differently in their narrative forms, particularly addressing a huge extant historical underclass, repeatedly stolen from (the enclosures etc.)

    On the other part of your post, I don’t want to begin the whole explanation thing on this. I don’t feel that the stuff I report from researchers is actually ever accepted or even retained. If you can manage to listen to the Frans de Waal interview with Jim al Kahlili above that might be a little more engaging than I seem to be.

    Like with Melvin I won’t pursue these conversations on the evolution of cognitions and feelings and how these build into our human existence anymore.

    They are little fun to others, it seems, and I feel a need to be more productive with my time.



    Report abuse

  • Melvin. Strawman. I am not making any of those claims the journalist is attacking. I was challenging your assertion that verbal responses where always and entirely empty of the animals own thinking. I am talking neural processes that single word responses can (impressively) reveal. Only ever have been.

    No more.



    Report abuse

  • Phil
    AGAIN I want you to notice the cognitions revealed. No-one is claiming subject verb object grammar. It is the intellectual, problem-solving, one word answers that are astounding and the implications they have for non-verbal thinking.

    Ah, now I get it but I’ve conceded your obvious observation previously in unambiguous agreement. I believe you have deliberately ignored this agreement to expound on beliefs , held by some scientists and opposed by others, that neurological cognitive powers species-specific to apes have been empirically demonstrated that establish language acquisition and use by gorillas and bonobos.

    “That you choose a personal definition of language so restrictive is clearly to suit your needs rather than those scientists who wish to study the big-brained, tool-using, problem-solving, highly social and certainly cultural animals on their journey from thinking (how they do these things) to articulating it.”

    animals on their journey from thinking (how they do these things) to articulating it implies that animals are “progressing” on what could reasonably be construed as some kind of evolutionary path to “talking.” In my view such a journey is nonsense. Language must be put under a restrictive definition, actually restrictive complex descriptions, for it to make sense when we talk about whether or not this or that noise or gesture is linguistic in relation to specific criteria in practice. Otherwise, we may foolishly say that our whimpering chimp is saying, “please don’t go…I love you…I missed you..feed me” and on and on. Nonsense.

    Please understand that we are discussing a controversy where different views are being expressed in terms that mean different things to different people. “Melvin strawman” does not settle anything.



    Report abuse

  • Melvin

    but I’ve conceded your obvious observation previously.

    Yes, but without in any way detailing the concession, then immediately making a nonsense of it by claiming any animal utterance of qualities or categories deduced, answering a question, is nothing other than something somehow simply rehearsed. It is the most worthless of concessions. So this

    I believe you have deliberately ignored this agreement to expound on beliefs , held by some scientists and opposed by others, that neurological cognitive powers species-specific to apes have been empirically demonstrated that establish language acquisition and use by gorillas and bonobos.

    is entirely within your head, especially as I clearly distanced any of teaching languages to animals from the effortless acquisition by human kids.

    “Melvin strawman” is me uttering to you that yet again you seemed to think I was making claims for language when I was making claims about thinking as indicated by their utterences. (I have numerous times earlier on this site dismissed claims that language capacity in animals will be any more than what we see achieved by a great effort. The brain areas simply don’t exist in the associative corteces. Go look it up if you think I am being disingenuous.)

    animals on their journey from thinking (how they do these things) to articulating it

    as hominins or whatever.



    Report abuse

  • Trump’s supporters are filled with shame. He flatters them, blames others for their failures. They resent blacks and immigrants (legal and not legal). They are like Hitler’s brown shirts. I must say this: I have seen Trump’s rallies: his supporters wear tattoos, are uneducated, uncouth, boorish, enraged, violent, stupid, and deeply ashamed underneath. They are simply the scum of the earth, and are soaking in the flattery and the promises and the blaming of scapegoats.

    That was an attempt to partially answer this question raised by the OP.

    Phil, thanks for the interesting comment. Libertarianism will destroy this country if it is allowed to gain enough support. I don’t think it will.

    Great debate last night! She’s tough!



    Report abuse

  • I have numerous times earlier on this site dismissed claims that language capacity in animals will be any more than what we see achieved by a great effort. The brain areas simply don’t exist in the associative corteces.

    Thank you. Fair enough. Let’s move on. No hard feelings.



    Report abuse

  • @OP – Why People Fall for Charismatic Leaders

    They also seem to have a talent for picking deluded woo-heads as political leaders!!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-37795957

    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says he has promised God he will clean up his famously vulgar language.

    Arriving in his home city of Davao after a trip to Japan, Mr Duterte said God gave him an ultimatum on the plane.

    “I heard a voice telling me to stop swearing or the plane will crash in mid-air, and so I promised to stop,” he told reporters at the airport.

    Mr Duterte’s blunt speaking, often directed at the West, has contributed to his popularity at home.

    He called President Barack Obama a “son of a whore”, called the European Union “hypocritical”, threatened to leave the UN and accepted comparisons to Hitler, saying he would gladly kill three million drug addicts.

    All were responses to criticisms of his bloody war on drugs, that has seen thousands of alleged drug dealers and users killed by police and vigilante groups.

    Mr Duterte said he had promised God he would not “express slang, cuss words and everything”, and said a “promise to God is a promise to the Filipino people”.

    But he suggested his promise might have its limits. Whether he will stick to not swearing when talking about the US, EU or arch political foe Senator Leila de Lima, will depend on timing, local media quoted him as saying.

    Like most Filipinos, Mr Duterte is Roman Catholic, although he has boasted about his womanising and called the Pope a “son of a whore” for causing traffic jams during his visit.

    The president has spoken about being abused by an American priest as a child, saying that informed his political views.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.