Archive for May, 2014


Your Cheatin’ Heart: Who Can You Trust?

May 28, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Been cheating lately? Doubled over with gut-wrenching guilt? “As long as you didn’t think your cheating hurt anyone,” recent research tells us, “you may have felt great” or even” elated, thrilled, self-satisfied, superior and positive.”


Subjects in some experiments “adjusted” their scores upward when reporting them, and then felt a “cheater’s high” afterward. We’re supposed to be surprised that cheaters feel great. Conventional wisdom assumes that cheating is a function of your conscience—your “should” voice—like a memo from the boss in your head. A moral outlook, says traditional theory, is the default position in personality.


But deception is at work everywhere in nature. Among our primate cousins, marginal animals may have to cheat with one of the boss’s girlfriends to have a life—tell me they don’t enjoy “the cheater’s high.” And humans are social animals. We fib all the time to grease social life and get a little extra edge on others. Our evolutionary past as scavengers may show up in the slang for cheating: “to get away with something.”  In this way cheating is a bid for privilege and self-esteem that would lose its magic if cheaters talked about it.

Remember: the self’s not a thing—you can’t take it out to dry clean it. The self’s an event shaped by (ahem) “give and take” with others. We shape each other and ourselves as we go. We usually have a core sense of “what is right” that’s instilled in us from birth, long before we can remember. We spend most of our lives testing and sorting out “what is right” and “give and take.” That’s what culture is, and it’s always a work in progress.


Consider the experiment that discovered that subjects who doctored their scores enjoyed a “cheater’s high.” In cultural terms, the experiment itself is a test in hyper-competitive America, where tests increasingly govern school, business success, and self-worth. If tests seem like factory hoops to jump through, you might put your wishes first. After all, more self-esteem = more life; and being a “loser” = social death, so cheating, like food and sex, is a pretty basic motive. If a culture really rewards honesty as a heroic value, then “honor” can offer “more life” as cheating does. If you locate such a culture outside of books, let me know. Christian cultures have traditionally projected a melodrama in the beyond in which honesty = immortality and the cosmic Father’s love, whereas cheating = eternal heartburn. Not to worry: cheaters are not an endangered species.


So maybe everybody cheats a little. What’s the problem?


Well, cheaters enjoy the high when they believe nobody’s hurt. it’s a balance, an eco-system, of lies. But cheating has no natural limit. Fudge test scores today, doctor Wall Street books tomorrow. Before long paranoia howls at everything from climate science and food stamps to wedding rings. Who can you trust?


“Unethical behavior is increasingly studied by psychologists and management specialists,” says the report. They have their hands full. The same forces that are immortalizing billionaires and wiping out the middle class inspire cheating. If the alpha animals have all the power and are unaccountable behind blacked out limousine windows, you suspect they’re cheating. If you fear being on the bottom near social death, of course you’re tempted to cheat.


Research tells us that many CEO’s not only cheat: they qualify as psychopaths. In the 2008 finance scandals that nearly blew up the global piggy bank, nobody at the top was punished. Government fined criminal corporations, but investors paid the bill, not executives. As the world economy has rebalanced and US incomes have stagnated, the nation has suffered an epidemic of business fraud, from crooked banks to Enron, from Bernie Madoff to “liar loans.” With ”free market” ethics in the wind, business has been hoisting the jolly roger.


Complexity and global scale make policing business crime difficult. But alpha money has also put watchdogs to sleep. The mental hijinks can be baffling. “Conservatives” cut the IRS budget in order to make tax-cheating easier. The Chamber of Commerce lobbies to keep the bottom underemployed and hungry, and rationalizes that such cheating isn’t hurting anybody because “they don’t want to work,” etcetera. The fear of the bottom makes American justice hysterically brutal to the poor, with scandalous prison numbers, especially for poor black males.


How do we know when a little cheating is too much? A live question. If your sense of “what is right” is harmed, the world feels unfair and hostile. But the damage is not only to the world, but to you. If you can’t find work, can’t escape from debt, can’t—well, you get the picture.


The core example is the war veteran sickened by PTSD. I’m thinking of the PBS documentary “A Matter of Duty,” which follows efforts to heal returning veterans in Maine. They suffer from drugs, ailing economy, and war-induced demons. They’re soldiers, ordered to “suck it up,” silent about the leadership fraud that used phony pretexts to go after Iraqi oil, enriching “defense” corporations and losingskid pallets of the taxpayers’ shrink-wrapped fresh $20 bills (for real). Much of the country was caught up in “cheating a little” until suddenly it was a sticky nightmare of guilt and pain..


The veterans have seen and sometimes done atrocious things. They’re prone to chronic anxiety, rage, and jail sentences. They shoot up and drink, well-aware that they’re “self-medicating.” When Peter says, “I feel guilty,” he’s trying to square his sense of “what is right” with the suffering he caused. Peter died a few months later, with suicide suspected. A woman veteran who was raped (actually more men than women), feels shamed, dirty, helpless, and betrayed. She believed.


Here’s the sting: nobody in the film, not therapists or law enforcement, ever acknowledges the core of the suffering: the falseness. Bumper stickers call the men heroes, but they feel guilty and angry because they were saluting a lie, paid to invade a country not protecting family back home: betrayed by leaders and rapist “buddies.” If you sign up for heroism and are given guilt, there’s cheating going on, and you’re involved. No wonder the world seems full of predators to them. No wonder they mistrust themselves. No wonder they feel angry and crazy: even their supporters are having trouble with denial. The documentary ends with flags, a bugle playing taps at a cemetery, and the latest group of recruits being sent off to Afghanistan with a flowery speech to shut down some operations there.


The veterans, you can see, need to restore their trust. That sounds glib in a tragic world in which the word “hero” has been trivialized. Traditional wisdom says: understand, forgive, rebuild, help the stranger next to you. Raise the kids, tell the truth. Like it or not, we’re all signed up for that experiment.


Resources used in this essay:


“A Matter of Duty: the Continuing War against PTSD,” Jennifer Rooks and Charles C. Stuart, PBS.


Cheating Culture:   <<


Carrie Barron, M.D., “What’s Up With Cheating?” in The Creativity Cure, Psychology Today online <<


Cheryl Chumley, “10 Top psychopathic professions,” Washington Times, March 21, 2014.


Kirby Farrell, Berserk Style in American Culture


Jan Hoffman,  “Cheating’s Surprising Thrill” (NY Times, 10.07.13) <<


Timothy Noah, “The Justice Gap,” NY Times, April 10, 2014.


Nicole E. Ruedy et al, “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior,” The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology <<  (Nice bibliography.)


Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (New York, 1983)


Beastly Love: What Animals are Telling Us About Us

May 20, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

By chance I’ve been coming across a (ahem) flock of nature documentaries lately. As usual, the photography is more breathtaking than a bungee jump into the Grand Canyon. But what intrigues me more is how moving the films can be.  As you get less young, you’re more keenly aware of our creaturely vulnerability. You’re inclined to feel for a duck ambushed by a snowstorm, a mare struggling to squeeze out a colt, or bears gunned down like schoolchildren for their magic gall bladders.

But it’s more than that. Science and modernity make it clearer than ever that we’re animals too. We know more about the natural world than once upon a time, when we were blissful, obedient freeloaders in the Garden of Eden. And the Garden’s changed too: it’s suffering bizarre climate skew, whether that’s caused by the sudden release of millions of years of trapped CO2 or by planetary indigestion. In fact, the world outside the world outside Eden has changed too. News tidbits casually remind you that in a few billion years the sun will burn out. Meanwhile the bipeds are vandalizing the oceans and hacking up the rainforests while sneering at “tree-huggers.” It’s not Johnny Appleseed’s frontier anymore.

So you sympathize with critters that have to make a living out there, from frogs to monkeys. This is the theme of the heroic veterinarian show I mentioned last time, “The Amazing Dr Pol.” The episodes present hardworking everyday bipeds rescuing animals and people who care about animals (mostly farmers). In clinical terms, the show offers you transference, a chance to identify with a good-humored, plucky father-figure and his motherly hands-on sidekick Dr Brenda. But the kicker is that you get to see folks cry on camera when Fido or Flicker the horse dies. Or a farmer kissing her cow on the nose as it agonizes giving birth. Those moments of unscripted feeling come as a shock when you’ve been dwelling in the Lollipop Land of TV, facebook, and Googlia.

Now PBS is screening “Touching the Wild,” directed by David Allen, in which Joe Hutto befriends a small herd of mule deer over seven years at his ranch in Wyoming. In the past he’s identified with wild turkeys and bighorn sheep. In this outing the photography is so stunningly intimate that you can’t forget how artful the argument is. In culture, the bipeds compete with brute sneakiness, whereas the mule deer have a magical sort of integrity as well as gorgeous big ears. It’s what we mean when we sigh over “Nature.” Only when you get to know the deer do you begin to remember that nature is also brain worms and earthquakes, and sooner or later it kills everything, even gorgeous big ears. Not for nothing did settlers call the local turf “Dead Man’s Gulch.”

After two years of passively showing up among them every day, Joe Hutto finally has the mule deer matriarch (Raggedy Ann, he calls her) swap the equivalent of handshakes. Eventually he gets to know them all, their fawns, the pronged bucks, and their social arrangements. With increasing enchantment (yes, that’s the word), he studies their migrations, their winter torments, and the terrifying, equally hungry predators that slowly tear the unlucky ones to death. Oh, and hunters mastering nature with high-powered rifles and a space on the wall for antlers, including a buck known for years.

As for Joe, after seven years, fears for his surrogate family and losses “rock him to his very core; sharing their world so personally finally takes a toll that sends him back to his own kind” (PBS).

Here’s where things get (ahem) chewy. As a viewer, you understand how appalling the relentless awareness of predators and vulnerability is. The mule deer are beautiful surrogate children, like your teenager behind the wheel among drivers who want to eat her. You want to rescue them from the cosmic grind of mutual killing, which even the good ol’ doc Pol can’t do.

Yet we’re animals too, also trapped in dog-eat-dog life, chawing down herds of cattle and pigs, and chickens by the million. Hilariously, the comments on the PBS website begin with a heartfelt testimonial about affectionate tears over the deer and then turn into gentle sparring over who’s a vegetarian. The fact is, we all live by killing, chewing, and excreting other living things. We have no choice. It’s how we’re built. It’s one reason why you may feel queasy hearing that a concealed hunter has just bagged another biped in stand-your-ground Florida.

We depend on culture to rationalize such painful conflicts for us. We quibble about meat-eating while unconsciously weeping and snarling at a world organized around predation. We try not to look too far over the back fence, even as the film lures you into the imaginative wilderness. It does what the deer do: it invites you to feel vivid vicarious love for Raggedy Ann and the gang, and then makes you feel the terror and craziness of seeing that love torn to pieces by wolves, rifles, or blizzards.

We care partly because we see the mule deer in human terms, as families, fellow creatures. We give them life stories, and they seem to answer to their names and share basic emotions with us. Like the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, the philosopher Mary Midgley demonstrates that’s not unrealistic. In Raggedy Ann, the female leader of herd, you have everybody’s ideal mum—Bambi’s mum—looking after her brood and PBS viewers like you. When an orphan fawn bleats for her dead mother, your body is tuned to respond as it would to your baby in the next room.

Most industrial entertainment offers heroic rescue scenarios. The payoff is usually symbolic immortality fantasies. Heroism triumphs, symbolically forever. Or in grownup drama, heroism goes down in tragic sacrifice, but the ideal will live forever. The nature films can be more moving when they merely show you what is. The mule deer forage, nuzzle, mate, groom the kids, and survive. Or not. Either way, there’s no triumph, no trophies on the mantel. At best the deer achieve Hanging-Out-Munching-Together. Suckle the Kid. And maybe Not-Getting-Killed Today.

Stripped of heroic artifice, the mule deers’ experience is apparently pointless—as ours is once you screen out the greeting cards and frosting. In a sense, we’re all Just Getting By.

Ah, but that’s what makes the bond you feel so mysteriously meaningful. You can’t sum it up in words or in honks, squawks, and bleats. Its visceral, a gut feeling. Whether or not you get in a hug, you feel for the other critters. And because we’re symbolic animals, it’s maybe even more interesting, since what you feel suggests we’re broadcasting these animal stories to each other out of anxious fellow-feeling about a planet under stress, blurred cultures, and never enough oxygen and insight in the air. If you want to get fancy about it, you might muse that somehow the animals are signaling us to stand in the footsteps—or hoofsteps—of others and expand our sense of the world. And adapt.

And relish it.

*  *  *

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Mary Midgley, Beast and Man

Panksepp, J., and Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion.

Panksepp J (Ed.) (2004) A Textbook of Biological Psychiatry

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.