Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ol' Scratch Made Me Do It

Incoherent urges occasionally motivate action. "Why did you rabbit-punch Dennis during recess?" asks the school psychiatrist. A shrug of the shoulders and a mopey "I dunno" follows. "The Devil made me do it", if the brat is feeling impish. Some little spark way down in the amygdala or the hungry hungry hippocampus went awry, got processed poorly and manifested as assault. Or a neatly reorganized music collection. Or arson.

In normal adults, we don't typically accept the excuse of "the Devil made me do it." Poor impulse control is the currency of children and invalids. Violators range from harmless eccentrics to dangerous psychopaths. A person might be forgiven for going out on a Zolpidem (Ambien)- fueled bender, but for the most part, the seething beast that lurks deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe is expected to be corralled. Most of the time.

Related is the tendency of curiosity to commit felinocide. Properly channeled, curiosity yields science, art, language, even joy. Untrammeled, curiosity gets people stuck down wells, shocked by the unfortunate combination of urine and electric fence, poisoned by less-than-magic mushrooms, even mauled by lions*.

Think about one of the most dangerous predicate clauses in the English language: "I wonder what would happen if..." For folks in my profession, this is usually followed by "I regress log median household income on years of parents' education and 2D:4D ratio." For others, it might be "I dress up like Batman and break into the Best Buy on Boxing Day." Econometrics are mostly harmless (mostly), burglary isn't.

So how about it then? We know we can be nudged by our limbic system. That little reptile brain whispers horrible secrets to us there in the squamous dark. Does this count as a sort of coercion? What if our higher brain functions are impaired by chemicals, injury or illness? The law recognizes that contracts cannot be struck under duress, and that includes impairment: drunk people can't be held to the terms of a contract, implying some legal recognition of non-EE transactions when it's the primitive brain holding the reins. How about an impulse control disorder. I'm not especially familiar with the contents of the DSM-V, but I've met crazy people and I can tell you that there are folks for whom intoxicants are not needed for impulsive behavior.

Also, status seems important. A rich man is eccentric, a poor man crazy. Is there a distinction here based on BATNA? Rich people can afford to be a bit batty?

*Or bears. Or bears riding on the back of lions. Wielding chainsaws in one paw and flamethrowers in the other. Surrounded by bees. Angry bees with a taste for delicate pink human flesh.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?