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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Psychologically Healthy Terrorists

Investigations into the recent terrorist attacks in Britain have revealed that a number of suspects are medical professionals.

Now that's a shocker.

Even a dyed-in-the-wool cynic like myself raised a quizzical eyebrow.

The possibility that highly educated professionals can be involved in terrorist activities is not that surprising for me, because these people ought to be really smart if they are not noticed or caught.

In addition, there have been precedents.

In Singapore, for example, a qualified lawyer who studied at a top junior college and graduated from a local university was arrested when he was about to travel to Afghanistan and join the Taleban. He was "self-radicalized" by extremist websites on the Internet.

But, doctors... not quite the same...

They are healers. We trust our lives with them.

Don't they have to take the Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm?

How can anyone hold such conflicting beliefs and still remain sane?

Perhaps these are especially evil doctors who went to Evil medical school?

Actually, no.

I don't know what new details will emerge from the investigations, but I'll bet that the doctors involved in the attacks are completely normal and psychologically healthy people.

You are thinking: "Psychologically HEALTHY? Are you joking?"

Heh, I joke often.

But not this time.

Years ago when I was studying neuroscience as an undergrad, I took an introductory course about human personalities and social psychology.

I recall that my professor (who is an expert on the interpersonal circumplex) taught us that people who can quickly adapt to the rules of different situations - are the most psychologically healthy individuals.

In contrast, people who use a fixed, consistent set of rules to deal with all aspects of everyday life often have psychological, even neurological problems.

For example, people with mild social phobia may function fine in the presence of friends and family, but are unable to adjust to the new rules of interacting with unfamiliar faces.

At the extreme end, some people with autism are unable to learn any social rules at all.

The lecture ended and everyone went home.

But I felt disturbed by its implications.

I was thinking to myself:

"Does that mean that a two-faced, super-slick, slippery-snake hypocrite is more psychologically healthy than a person of consistent principles and actions?"

At that time I was quite opposed to my professor's opinion, but years later I realize that he is mainly correct.

Only people who are psychologically very healthy can hold two absolutely opposing beliefs and feel no conflict at all. They adapt quickly to the rules and demands of a wide variety of situations, because they feel no need to think consistently or standardize their behaviour.

They are happy, confident and well-adjusted wherever they go.

The best candidates to become terrorists.

When they are playing their role as healers, they are compassionate and dutiful healers. When they are playing their role as killers, they are ruthless and decisive killers.

Lesser people would have cracked under the intense pressure of inner conflict, self-doubt and anxiety. The security forces would have noticed these jittery nervous wrecks from miles away and thwarted their plans.

Everyone loves people of great confidence and charisma, which is why they can do so much good - or do so much damage.

Or even both.

At the same time.

Would you like to know more?

Terror suspects not brainwashed
Why do extremists exist?


The Flying Trilobite said...

This would seem to suggest that when religious scientists compartmentalise their faith from their education, they are healthy also. Interesting that it can lead to critical conflicts depending on the situation.

You've given me things to ponder, Lim, thanks. Hmm. I suppose some of it depends on the definition of health. I remember hearing (I think it was in a sci-fi novel) that people who are flexible and adaptable are more healthy than the inflexible ("You are NOT Napoleon!" "Ok then.").

The Flying Trilobite said...

Oh, I *loved* the Dr Evil bit too.

I grew up not too far from Mike Myers, so you can see that the charm and good looks comes from the water in Lake Ontario.

Elia Diodati said...

hmm... did you happen to read this WSJ article?

It's an interesting economist's perspective that complements what you've presented.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Glendon:

I've met people who hold deep, self-contradictory beliefs (one of them can even contradict himself within the same sentence) but are completely unaffected by what others would perceive as irreconcilable conflicts.

They tend to be rock-solid in their mental constitution - stable and unflappable. I say that they are "healthy" from the perspective of DSM-IV; you're right that there may be other definitions of health, but these individuals don't appear to suffering any mental distress.

As for Mike Myers - not just charm and good looks, he also acquired unique dancing feet!

"Dance Gunther, Dance!" (obscure SNL quote)

And look what water from the North Saskatchewan River did to me.

NOOOO! Evil Canadians are trying to take over the world by turning everyone into lovable nutcases!

*pops a Timbits*

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Elia:

I get an error page. Maybe reading the article requires subscription?