Archive for the psychopathology Category

Attachment – Chapter 5

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby, psychoanalysis, psychopathology on January 3, 2011 by Steve

In this dense chapter, Bowlby expands on and describes the nuts and bolts of behavioural systems (see point 2. in Chapter 3 post), provides some important definitions, and introduces the idea of working models of the world and of the self.

First of all, Bowlby distinguishes behavioural systems which do not have set-goals from those which do, with a set-goal defined as long- and short-term goals concerning how an organism’s behaviour should relate to the environment. Thus, behaviour which is highly stereotyped and which follows its course to completion regardless of the environment (e.g. sneezing, yawning) is termed a fixed action pattern.

Fixed Action Pattern

By contrast, goal-corrected (or goal-directed) behaviour is that which is constantly corrected by reference to discrepancies between performance and a set-goal. Such behaviour constitutes the majority of our intentional activities.

Goal-Corrected Behaviour

The two main mechanisms involved in goal-corrected behaviour are: (a) the receiving and storing of instructions regarding a set-goal, and (b) the comparing of discrepancies between performance and set-goal instructions, which is achieved through the use of feedback and cognitive maps. Cognitive maps, also known as working models, are schematic representations of the environment and of the self, will be explained below.

Bowlby then outlines 3 major principles by which behavioural systems can be co-ordinated:

1.  Simple chain-link

Here, each behavioural system involved in a behavioural sequence may be connected in a way that each is contingent on the one previous to it. The example given is a bee collecting honey. The sequential stages of this activity is: (1) Visual identification of a suitable flower, (2) After flying within 1cm of such a flower, smell is assessed for suitability of this flower, (3) Next, the bee assesses from the tactile stimuli of the flower (shape, size) whether or not to begin sucking nectar.

Simple Chain-link

The simple chain-link organisation of behaviour is limited because, if one link fails, then the entire behaviour fails. As a result the environment must conform exactly to the environment of evolutionary adaptedness for the animal to survive and flourish. However, chain-links can be made more flexible by (i) alternate pathways in the chain being available, or (ii) goal-corrected links being added into the chain.

2.  Causal Hierarchy

According to this principle , a number of behavioural systems share a common causal factor, thus allowing for multiple responses to a certain trigger (Tinbergen, 1951; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974). Thus, the activation of any one of multiple behavioural systems may be appropriate when, for example, a particular level of a certain hormone is reached, or when a particular object is sighted.

Causal hierarchy

3. Plan Hiearchy

In this “master plan structure”  for co-ordinating behavioural systems, an overarching goal is reached by executing multiple sub-ordinate behavioural systems. Overall, this plan is goal-corrected since it allows for feedback and variation within its organisation. Furthermore, the Plan Hierarchy principle applies to behaviour which lies anywhere on the continuum of being environmentally stable (instinctive) or labile (sensitive to environmental influences), and which uses a simple or highly sophisticated map of the environment (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974).

Plan Hierarchy

An example of a common hierarchical plan of behaviour is that of “Getting to work”. Each behavioural system can be broken up into its components, which, in turn, can be further broken down into specific actions. In this plan, it becomes clear that the organisation of behavioural systems is not a chain, because the activities could be re-ordered and varied to some extent.

"Getting to work"




Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.



The Social Network reminds us of our need to feel connected

Posted in emotions, Facebook, loving people, psychopathology, self-acceptance with tags , on November 26, 2010 by Steve

I just saw The Social Network and was blown away by how compelling it was and how it ‘worked’ at so many levels, especially at a psychological level.

I think there are two reasons why this movie is so interesting and engaging. First, the topic of the movie – Facebook’s ascendancy to fame (as well as its founder’s notoriety) – touches everyone who uses or knows about Facebook. We relate to the movie because Facebook pervades our modern lives: ‘Are you on Facebook?’, ‘Facebook me when you get home’, etc. Yet it is baffling to think that this online social connection tool actually had to be thought up, designed and be made popular. Just as we can’t imagine meeting someone without using our mobile phone, so Facebook seems to have become an essential aspect to communication and friendships. So, in a way, all of us who have used Facebook have contributed to its success. We are part of the Facebook story. Thus, we each have an individual connection to the movie.

Second, the themes of the movie reflect common, everyday experiences which we can all relate to. Ultimately, the movie is about what drives us as human beings: ambition, jealousy and the yearning for friendship. The main character, portraying programming nerd and founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is socially awkward and lacks the ability to communicate warmth to those closest to him. Yet his lack of empathy seems to result more from apathy than from a narcissistic intent to hurt others, and so we pity him. However his intellectual brilliance also makes him arrogant. We thus simultaneously marvel at and despise him. He is the typification of the autistic savant whose hyper-intelligence and social awkwardness leave him misunderstood and emotionally vulnerable.

Fittingly, an interesting  sub-theme which develops is that of the powerful influence of the charismatic personality. Played by Justin Timberlake, the extroverted and suave Sean Parker is the embodiment of persuasion by enchantment. Through his crafty story-telling, apt one-liners, and hypnotic authoritativeness, Parker plays on Zuckerberg’s psychological woundedness, to his own advantage. In meeting Parker, Zuckerberg is changed: his aspirations for grandiosity and absurd wealth are activated, and he enters into Parker’s world of pleasure and madness. Yet, at a deeper level, Zuckerberg remains unchanged; he stands outside Parker’s world looking in: a stranger, confused. It isn’t wealth or parties he desires. It’s a deeper sense of connectedness that he desires. He is still lonely.

Most notably, The Social Network captures brilliantly some of the different motives which people have for their behaviour. In Zuckerberg’s case, money and worldwide fame are not the motives, although he does compete vehemently with those who desire the prestige of success and wealth. Rather Zuckerberg seems to be driven by a need for self-validation and the sense of self-worth derived from how significant others think about him. By the end of the movie, it has become clear that Zuckerberg’s deepest desire is to be reassured that he’s not “a bad guy”. In the final scene of the movie, this longing for acceptance and friendship is powerfully brought home. It is a fitting end to a movie which so perceptively mirrors and critiques what drives us.

Tragically, and ironically, the founder of Facebook just wants someone to be his friend.

Evil, suffering and the original psychopath

Posted in evil, loving people, loving your neighbour, psychopathology, Satan on April 15, 2009 by Steve

We know about the destruction and hurt inflicted by those who are cruel, cold and deeply hurt. Psychologists describe psychopathy or sociopathy – an existence which seeks self-gratification at the expense of others’ comfort, exhibited in behaviours such as remorseless cruelty, violence or rape. Sadly, those who have been cruelly treated as children often become the ones to inflict cruelty onto others. The humiliated seek to gain power over others. The abused become abusers. Thus, the cycle of abuse continues generation after generation, seemingly impossible to break. Whole family and cultural patterns may be responsible for the continuation of such pain-filled existence.

On one level, such behaviour seems motivated by a ‘pay-back’ mentally: “If I can’t have what I should’ve had when I was a child (love, kindness, warmth), then I will won’t let anyone have it. Instead, I’ll treat them how I was treated (cruelly, coldly, un-humanly), because that’s fair.” Of course, there are much deeper psychological realities operating, but it seems that, on one level, these people believe they are justified to hurt and mistreat others.

This sort of behaviour (cold-blooded murder, programmed torture and genocide, calculated repeated rape) is often described as ‘evil’, since no other language seems to quite do justice to the horrors of it. Furthermore, such a label seems appropriate since many would believe this type of behaviour is beyond explanation: it must be of another world, of the devil. Such postulations may well be true, since it is so difficult to understand what motivates the rapist, murderer, etc. Yet, out of love for neighbour, we must strive to understand, for the sake of the offender, the victim and for the prevention of future crimes of the same type. Inconceivable as it is, psychopathy and sociopathy seems to make sense; it is the product of a cruel and emotionless upbringing…

All this now leads me to pose some questions: “Is there a  place for interpreting spiritual forces of evil psychologically? If so, how do the spiritual realities of the devil and evil spirits intersect with the findings of psychological disturbance? What is Satan’s psychological state? Is Satan is the original psychopath? Is he purely evil, or has he somehow been deeply hurt? Lastly, if psychopathically disturbed people are simply hurt, not evil, then what happens to the concepts of guilt and culpability? How does God judge those who have sought to re-pay the cruelty they suffer as children?” I do not intend to try to answer these questions, but more so I want to dare to ask them.

I think it is worth considering the psychological make-up of the powerful spiritual forces around us.  Indeed, Biblically it appears to me that Satan may display some psychopathic motivation: “[T]he devil has gone down to [the earth]. He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12), “The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Perhaps Satan feels that it is unfair that he should suffer, but not others with him. Biblically, it does not appear that Satan has ‘suffered as a child’, something which might have explained his behaviour. Perhaps he simply belongs to the category of “evil” by himself, having nothing which has caused his behaviour (psychopathically woundedness) such that we can understand him as we try to understand those who suffer cruelly in this world.

Indeed, those who struggle with the desire to “repay” others with suffering do need to be desperately understood and loved for all the ways in which they themselves have suffered. But it is also right to perceive the evilness of such behaviour and to lovingly to hold each other accountable for our actions, as much as our knowledge of this allows. I think it is appropriate to apply the following verse in a psychological way: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48) Some will have been abused so greatly, that a godly life for these people will consist of simply struggling to not hurt others, to such a degree perhaps that others may not even be able to perceive it. But we know God does.

So now we live in a world which has the potential for much cruelty and suffering, which is most probably one of the prime activities of Satan. In Satan’s final short moments, he is wanting to take down as many people with him as he can. He is angry because he knows he has been conquered and will soon be eternally condemned and punished. At Jesus Christ’s  return, all suffering and evil will finally be put an end.

So, whatever the exact relationship of evil, suffering and responsibility, we all are in need of a Powerful Rescuer and Righteous Judge who has promised us vindication and justice against our humiliators, as well as psychological wholeness and emotional vitality; the experience of overflowing fullness of joy and pleasures of the God’s presence (see Psalm 16). We all have the offer of forgiveness, renewal and hope, knowing that “His mercies begin afresh each morning”.

1 I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.

2 He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light;

3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.

4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.

5 He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.

6 He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.

7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains.

8 Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.

9 He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.

10 Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help.

12 He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.

13 He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver.

14 I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long.

15 He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall.

16 He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust.

17 I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is.

18 So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.”

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.

20 I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.

21 Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.

23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;

26 it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.

Lamentations 3:1-26

Underbelly, Sex & Psychopathy – The case of Terry Clark

Posted in children's sexual development, John Bowlby, Narcissism, parenting, personality, psychopathology on March 24, 2009 by Steve

terry-clark-alison-smallerHaving been watching this series of Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, it has been facinating, enthralling and disturbing to see qualities in the relationships between characters such as trust, fear, respect, cowering, allegiance and power working themselves out in such an interesting period of Australian history (1970s-80s).

So far the main character – Terry Clark – has been revealed as the devious drug trafficking-boss; the persuasive and empassioned two-faced person-user; the brilliant and calculatingly cruel mastermind; the perfectly charming seducer and womaniser. Last night’s episode gave particular insight into the psychopathic and narcissistic aspects of his personality. Not knowing any of the true story apart from this series, I am basing my observations entirely on the character of Terry as revealed by the Channel 9 TV series.

Firstly, Terry is characterised by a cold, calculating attitude and remorselessly cruel treatment of anyone who threatens his drug importing schemes. He uses people for his own ends, buttering them up with praise and flattery, only to turn on them when they fall out of his favour. Superficially, he is warm and generous, lavshing money, parties and praise on his “friends”. However, without much warning at all, these so-called friends soon discover the daker side of Terry’s personality, and his perfectionistic standards don’t permit second chances. The result is that those failing to perform or “cracking” under police pressure don’t last long, usually ending up savagely murdered, battered and buried.

The underlying issue seems to be Terry’s incapacity to genuinely feel the reality of another’s emotions – an inability to empathise. This particularly came to the fore on last night’s episode when Terry threatens to kill his ex-girlfriend over her taking their son back to New Zealand: “If you take him away from me, I’ll kill you.” She aptly replies: “What do you think that will do to him? You don’t know how to love him. Until you can feel somebody else’s pain, you don’t know how to love.” Here, Terry’s obvious emotional coldness is verbalised in terms of his inability to feel another’s pain.

Interestingly, this comment seems to make an impression on Terry, since it stops him for a moment, catching him off guard. Momentarily aware of his emotional deadness, it saddens him, thus experiencing a genuine emotion. His super-cool façade is prized open, revealing a instance of grief and perhaps anger over his lost, emotionless existence. This momentarily living in his ‘heart’ rather than in his ‘head’ reveals that he is not simply a purely evil monster after all. He is not a monochrome Dr-Evil-carboard-cut-out villain of darkness. Some part of him is still emotionally alive; he is hurt – with a deep sense of powerlessness – and trying desperately to hide this pain behind his perfectionistic strivings, coldness and accomplishments of power and prestige.

Another facet of Terry’s narcissistic disturbance is reveal in his intimate and romantic exploits – particularly in his performance of sex acts. As revealed in the series so far, Terry has an appetite for women – particularly for having sex with them (the series is very intent on showing us this!). Having impregnated his first girlfriend from New Zealand, Terry is quick to move  in on a younger, more available girl – Alison – while the first is back home preparing to give birth. His lack of genuine attachment is seen in his inability to remain loyal for any lengthy period. Indeed, being alone is probably too painful a reminder of some past abandonment that Terry must find someone to share his lonely nights (bed) as soon as it is empty.

Nevertheless, Terry is an intense lover, and it may seem to stand in contrast to the earlier observations that Terry is emotionally cold to see such a passionate and romantic side to Terry’s personality. Indeed, Terry has the ability to charm and seduce. He knows how to put on sincerity and empathy when it comes to obtaining the sex he wants. He plays his smooth-talker cards and woos the woman with the body he desires. Ultimately, though, the sex is sought as a reflection of his ability to achieve, and the woman who provides the sex meets his narcissistic need to be successful in all areas to which he sets his mind. That he will later decide to have Alison killed reveals the true nature of his “love” for any of these romantic pursuits.

Furthermore, if the intimate relationship for Terry is not a genuinely emotional bond of mutual trust and respect, then the sex itself is not something he is emotionally engaged in – it is but a performance. Terry’s passion and intensity in the relationship is not directed towards her as a prized lover, but it is directed towards himself as a triumphing, accomplished performer. It is a show of his “success” at getting a woman respond positively to him. As Alexander Lowen explains in his book Narcissism about one of his clients, “Being emotionally dead, Erich derived little bodily pleasure from the sexual act. His satisfaction stemmed from the woman’s response… his lovemaking was more a servicing of the woman than an expression of passion.” (pp. 3-4)

However faithfully Underbelly portrays Terry Clark as a ruthless criminal, cold-blooded murderer and grandiose lover, it points us to the reality of the deep emotional disturbance which makes him a tragically fascinating case study from recent Australian history. Many books have now been written about the roots of psychological disturbances, but I would like to refer to one by John Bowlby, a psychoanalysist and attachment theorist, which I happen to be reading at the moment. The book is particularly remarkable since it was written with so much clarity on the topic and yet was written so long ago. Child Care and the Growth of Love is a summary of a World Helath Organisation report prepared by Bowlby in 1951 and details the psychological impact of deprivation in childhood and the importance of love from the primary carer (usually the mother). Written in the context of hospitalisation and institutionalisation of abandoned or unwell children, Bowlby revealed that an absence of motherly love in the critical period of a child’s first years of life will frequently result in depression, excessive demanding, superficial socialising, sexual promiscuity, lying, stealing and aggression, as an adult.

In one example Bowlby described the child who has withdrawn himself emotionally from others, due to the previous intensity of pain of having had his heart broken by the loss of loving relationships (mother, nurses, carers). He wrote (p.63):

To withdraw from human contact is to avoid further frustration and to avoid the intense depression which human beings experience as a result of hating the person whom they most dearly love and need. Withdrawal is thus felt to be the better of two bad alternatives… But experience shows that once a person has taken refuge in the relative painlessness of withdrawal he is reluctant to change course and to risk the turmoil of feeling and misery which attempting relationships brings with it. As a result he loses his capcity to make affectionate relationships and to identify himself with loved people… Thenceforth he becomes a lone wolf, pursuing his ends irrespective of others. But his desire for love, repressed though it is, persists, resulting in behaviour such as promiscuous sex relations and the stealing of other people’s possessions. Feelings of revenge also smolder on, leading to other anti-social acts, sometimes of a very violent character.

Tragically, though such knowledge has been circulating for so many years and though we have more resources and support, we still seem to be unable to escape the cycle of neglect-pain-repression-coldness that continues on throughout the generations. Indeed, until we can find the healing that comes from warm acceptance and unconditional tender love that God wants us to give to and receive from each other, this cycle of pain will go on. Sadly, there will be more Terry Clarks.

So we long for mercy now, and for the healed, whole, resurrection-life to come when Christ returns.