The Cognitive Perspective

Although the cognitive perspective and the interpersonal perspective inform each other through their emphasis on the internal models of self and others, the cognitive perspective is also concerned with beliefs, expectations, attributions, appraisals, and the unique and highly subjective ways in which individuals construe their worlds.

Like all personalities, antisocials run the entire range of intellectual ability. Some, like Gary Gilmore, have near-genius IQs; others suffer mental retardation (Hurley & Sovner, 1995). Many antisocials and psychopaths are capable of both clarity and logic, an observation made in Pinel's (1801, 1806) earliest writings. Nevertheless, their failure to plan ahead, to anticipate the consequences of their actions, often shows much less foresight than would usually be expected on the basis of their intellectual ability alone. For them, right and wrong are irrelevant abstractions. Morality is a ponderous and boring issue that complicates and constrains free action. Shapiro (1965) provides an interesting discussion of impulsiveness considered as a cognitive style, with specific attention given to psychopathic insincerity and lying. The following discussion draws on his work, but also profits from more recent developments in the cognitive tradition and from advances in research on psychopathy.

The cognitive style of the antisocial is best described as deviant, egocentric, and impulsive, characteristics that derive from the mental architecture of the breed. For contrast, consider the stream of consciousness as it exists in the normal person. Over the course of everyday life, the events of the day naturally populate the stream with any number of chance associations and images, all which appeal to the person and suggest some immediate course of action. For example, a pizza delivery ad is intended both to crystallize desire and to suggest the object of its satisfaction. If the ad works, the ongoing flow of activity is interrupted with a spike of hunger, causing a commandment to be issued from the frontal lobes: "Go to the phone, order it, and they will come." Not all such impulses are as dramatic. Some live out a moment of fleeting awareness and then evaporate forever. Others are considered to some depth but found to be incongru-ent with overarching long-term life goals or moral ideals and are rejected. Still others are superseded by competitors that promise to be even more rewarding.

In normals, life events often suggest possibilities that require extended deliberation. When dropping or adding a class, for example, students must examine how future job opportunities and the timetable for graduation will be affected, as well as whether the class will prove interesting or boring and how much work it might require. Because the short term feeds into the long term, such possibilities must be assessed in the context of an entire system of higher level, more intangible self-actualization goals, such as "feel financially secure and start a family," even though their fulfillment lies at some indeterminate point in the future.

Higher order goals thus serve an important function: They guide short-term action and help the organism manage what would otherwise be an indefinite number of competing lower level possibilities. When conscious reflection is engaged, attention moves back and forth between higher level considerations and the practical considerations of the immediate context, selecting, ordering, and fine-tuning subgoals and possible actions to optimize some overall set of purposes. Instead of adding that interesting class now, you might wait until next semester, when your overall load will be easier to manage and the professor teaching it is one who doesn't give pop quizzes and cumulative final exams, for example. Considering everything, immediate gratification should be deferred. In the work world, for example, sending out a business letter to valuable contacts helps secure profitable orders for the company, which helps in getting promoted, which leads to a larger salary, which increases the money available to the family, which makes the birth of another child reasonable.

For the antisocial, however, such overarching layers of higher order goals and moral constraints, the contents of what would be called the ego ideal and conscience from the psychodynamic perspective, are only vaguely developed, if not absent. After all, both depend on the internalization of values derived from parental models. As such, it is the egocentric significance of the moment that grips the antisocial mind. Largely devoid of self-actualization goals and moral values, their stream of consciousness is populated mainly by associations and imagery related to possibilities of immediate gratification and potential frustrations to immediate gratifications. Both Toni and Oscar exemplify this point. Any action that seems satisfying is free to be pursued in any way permitted by the laws of physics. For normal individuals, the presence of higher order goals gives substance and continuity to life. For the antisocial, however, the stream of consciousness consists of a discontinuous series of fixations and frustrations (Shapiro, 1965) that have for their horizon mostly the considerations of the moment, hence, their lack of insight, poor behavioral controls, and self-indulgent, predatory actions.

Even where their actions are not always flagrant or extreme, antisocials often suffer frequent setbacks. Life gains may evaporate quickly as superordinate goals succumb to the gratification of some comparatively concrete, lower level pleasure so salient that its stimulus pull fills the mind and eclipses everything else. Despite a poor work history, for example, an antisocial might charm his way into a desirable job, only to be dismissed for thieving some trivial item temporarily left unattended. Asked to explain, he might reply, "I just wanted it, so I took it." This is apparently what is happening to Oscar. Despite somehow making it into a supervisory position, he is consumed by the idea of avenging himself on his supervisor and coworkers. Whether he might have real problems has not yet crossed his mind.

Such incidents strongly suggest that antisocials are either deficient in creating mental models that relate actions and consequences or such models are highly vulnerable to the influence of immediate rewards and gratifications. They cannot detach from their own egocentric desires long enough to process potential consequences. They cannot be planful or considerate, and, more important, they cannot accumulate wisdom, which assumes a capacity to profit from experience. Instead, they are at the mercy of the moment. Asked to appraise his actions in retrospect, for example, Gary Gilmore replied, "Until I got caught or shot by police or something like that... I wasn't thinking, I wasn't planning, I was just doin'" (quoted in Hare, 1993).

Two other cardinal traits of the antisocial, intolerance of boredom and a need for excitement, can also be understood through this framework. For normal persons, much of life consists of activities that ultimately serve higher order goals, yet antisocials know only their immediate circumstances and their immediate desires. When the moment is empty, life is empty. For normal persons, boredom sets in after the parameters of a given situation have been explored, be it a career, a relationship, or a new video game. For an-tisocials, boredom refers to any time period lacking short-term stimulus opportunity. This may explain why substance use is so attractive to the antisocial mind. A "good buzz" is relatively instantaneous and provides internally generated sources of stimulation that either distract from the emptiness of the present or fill the present through artificially generated perceptions.

Not surprisingly, then, many antisocials find that the best way to relieve boredom is to stir up some excitement themselves. Callous and predatory acts, flagrant violations of social norms, and outrageous deceits are all diversions that help them create a sense of excitement that saturates the moment with sensation. Others read such actions as irresponsible and morally reprehensible, but to antisocials, this is the only thing that makes life meaningful or at least as meaningful as it can be to them. Otherwise, the moment would be empty, and life nihilistic.

Although the cognitive style tradition examines the interplay between cognitive architecture and thinking style, the cognitive therapy tradition holds that thought mediates behavior. To explain behavior, you must look at the actual beliefs that a person holds. Beck et al. (1990) distinguish three types of beliefs: core, conditional, and instrumental. Core beliefs usually function below the level of conscious awareness with an absolute, enduring validity that mediates views of self, world, and future. Core beliefs are a powerful influence in organizing other beliefs, especially in predicting the consequences of various courses of action, called conditional beliefs. Such if-then statements relate behavior to probable outcomes. Instrumental beliefs, in turn, refer to action that should be taken on the basis of core and conditional beliefs (Beck et al., 1990). Instrumental beliefs are beliefs about what the person should do.

Congruent with the interpersonal perspective outlined previously, Beck et al. (1990) hold that the core beliefs of antisocials are organized around a need to see themselves as strong and independent. Because the world is seen as an intrinsically hostile place, survival demands survival-oriented core beliefs, such as, "I must look out for myself," and "If I am not the aggressor, then I will be the victim" (Beck et al., 1990, p. 55). To justify their actions, antisocials appeal to a stunted sense of morality, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If someone harms you, you harm him or her back; if someone infringes on your turf, you have a turf war. Retaliation becomes a moral imperative. Ordinary persons may be viewed by antisocials as weaklings just begging for exploitation. Core beliefs here include, "It's okay to take advantage of someone who allows it."

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