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If You Are Transfixed…There Are Good Reasons For That: Hyper-Rationality in Cleveland

The discovery that three women, all of whom had gone missing a decade ago from their neighborhoods in Cleveland, had spent that time enslaved to a seemingly average middle-aged man has dominated the news cycle since Amanda Berry’s brave escape with her six year old child on Monday. Her first act of freedom was to borrow a phone from a neighbor to call the police, ending their imprisonment and leading to the arrest of the suspected perpetrator.

The man who imprisoned Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight ruled his house like a tyrant, but appeared to be an average guy. If he had the intelligence and opportunity to control a country he would have been the equivalent of today’s most most malevolent dictators, characters like Hussein, Ghaddafi, and Kim Jong Il. All of these men were socially adept–charasmatic even. They also all routinely committed atrocities.

Knowing that these men could or do control nuclear arsenals provokes a heightened level of threat perception because they might actually be crazy enough to carry out a nuclear attack. As a result there has been a healthy debate about whether or not they are “rational” or “irrational” actors. However, there is another possibility: We perceive them as irrational precisely because they actually approximate the rational ideal. They are hyper-rational because they lack the capacity for empathy. There is something about their rational pursuit of self-interest that is actually inhuman.

He Had to Have Two Personalities
The 24 hour news cycle has picked up this story and is providing a constant stream of information and commentary, which is no surprise because the narrative is transfixing. It has all the elements of a procedural crime drama like Law & Order, Cold Case or CSI. It involves everyday people caught up in an extraordinary series of events, at the center of which is an unthinkable act carried out by an evil-doer masquerading as “one of us.”

Neighbors reported that the perpetrator appeared to be a “regular joe.” He played bass in local Latin bands and made small talk with them. He drove a school bus and was known to offer kids rides to the park on his bike. He had a Facebook page where he thanked god for the beautiful day.

Even though Grimalda Figueroa divorced him back in 1996 after he beat her repeatedly, no one suspected the extent of what he was capable of when there wasn’t anyone looking. Learning his secret came as a shock. How could someone other’s expereinced as normal turn out to be such a monster? It just didn’t make sense.

Trying to reconcile this kind of extreme asocial behavior with the image of someone who appears to understand basic social norms and rules is not easy. We want to think of these people as different from us in a fundemtal sense. As the perp’s uncle put it, “He had to have two personalities.” There had to be something more about him that makes him irrational, unpredictable, and crazy.

If You Are Transfixed…There Are Good Reasons For That
The details of this crime are horrific, the product of a deranged mind, and yet we don’t look away in disgust. Why is that? In her coverage of the story, Rachel Maddow repeatedly reassured her audience that “If you are completely transfixed by this story, if you are glued to the TV on this one, there’s no reason to feel guilty about that, there are good reasons for it. This is a genuinely transfixing and dramatic human story. The reason it is genuinely transfixing and dramtic is because it is objectively so rare.” As she explained just prior to making this statement, only 2% of the people in the US who go missing each year are kidnapped by someone unrealted to them.

Maddow’s message is reassuring on multple levels. First, she alleviates worry that there is something wrong with feeling obsessed with the details of the crime. She tells her audience that the feelings they are expereincing are normal. Second, she explains to them why they feel transfixed by the event. She says that they are interested because it is so rare. This explaination has the has the added benefit of reassuring her audience that this kind of atrocity is unlkely to happen to them.

The problem with this explanation is that it misidentifies what is so transfixing about this kind of crime. Maddow is correct that this specific kind of abduction is statistically rare, but there are lots of uncommon events that do not call our interest, much less glue us to our computers and TVs wanting to know more. Rather than telling her viewers the uncomfortable truth, Maddow, like any good performer, tells them what they want to hear: They are safe and there is no need to worry.

We are transfixed by what happened in Cleveland not because what happened is rare (although it is), but rather because the desire to do harm is a forbidden pleasure. We all have dark drives that arise unbidden from the depth of our subconscious. We also all live in a culture in which acknowledging that we have these drives (even to ourselves) is taboo–a taboo that is constantly reinforced by procedural crime dramas in which someone with those drives is exposed, hunted down and punished–so we develop the ability to behave as if these drives do not exist. We all act as though we never have asocial thoughts of agression, control and domination (directed at ourselves or others).

The brave escape of Amanda Berry revealed to the world the forbidden fantasies that existed in one man’s head. We are fascinated by revelation, which provides us with an opportunity to reassure ourselves that even in our darkest corners we are not that depraved. This crime is so absorbing for the same reason that procedural crime dramas that run in sindication 24 hours a day on TV–not because the perp is so different from all of “us,” but rather because he is so much the same.

Thus, a more satisfying (if less reassuring) way to explain our fascination with what happened in Cleveland is to answer a slightly different question. Rather than asking what the perp has that we do not (i.e. a second personality), the most fruitful way of approaching the discomfort this crime evokes is to accept that we all have dark drives and ask “What is it that I have, but that he is lacking?” or “Why do I choose not to act on these types of asocial drives, while he does?” There is something that stops us, which this man this lacking.

The answer to what stops us is different for different people. Sometimes it is simply fear of the consequences, but more often than not it is empathy. Most people are prevented from acting out violent fantasies by connecting with it might be like to be on the other end of their actions. For instance, you may fantasize about revenge killing, but ultimately you are stopped by the thought of the pain it will cause. This is why soldiers dehumanize the enemy. The same is true of engaging in torture. Americans were so shocked by the pictures that came out of Abu Grahib, yet that dehumanizing behavior that was put on display is exactly what “enhanced interrogation techniques” require of the perpetrators (at least as it was portrayed in the film Zero Dark Thirty).

Many people can tap into their dark side in order to carry out acts of domination and violence–and even enjoy it–if these behaviors are made socially acceptable in the name of the greater good. Far fewer people have the volition to act out these fantasies on their own. What makes a man like the perp in Cleveland different from others is that he is always motivated by narcisstic self-interest, regardless of whether his behavior is socially acceptable or not. Even when he is behaving “well,” he is never motivated by the kind of shared experience that would require him to be able to empathize with others.

The Rationality of Irrationality
The success of nuclear deterrence requires us to be able both to make a rational threat of nuclear attack, while at the same time knowing that actually carrying out that attack would be irrational. Although Schelling does not actually endorse a policy of appearing irrational to enhance the credibility of a deterrent threat, he does make the observation that appearing crazy enough to carry out a nuclear attack may offer a tactical advantage. If my conjectures are correct, the reason to fear these individuals is not that they are irrational, but rather that they are hyper-rational. Unlike the rest of us who allow human emotions, like empathy, to interfere with our ability to maximize our individual goals, these men may actually be capable of a level of rationality that is the very definition of psychopathic, asocial behavior. They will be better at deterrence that the rest of us (not withstanding imperfect information and strategic mistakes) because their threats will always be more credible, precisely because we interpret their hyper-rationality as irrationality. There is a reason to fear these individuals, but it is not because they are irrational, but rather because they are so inhumanly rational that they just may be able to beat us at our own game.

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