On Drama

Epistemic Status: Loose but mostly serious

One of the things that’s on my mind a lot is the psychology of Nazis.  Not neo-Nazis, but the literal Nazi party in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s. In particular, Adolf Hitler.  What was it like inside his head? What could make a person into Hitler?

When I read Mein Kampf, I was warned by my more historically-minded friends that it wasn’t a great way to learn about Nazism. Hitler, after all, was a master manipulator. His famous work of propaganda would obviously paint him in an unrealistically favorable light.

The actual impressions I got from Mein Kampf, though, were very similar to the psychological profile of Hitler compiled by the OSS,  (h/t Alice Monday) the US’s intelligence service during WWII and the predecessor of the CIA.

Here’s what Hitler was like, as presented by the OSS:

  • Lazy by default, only able to be active when agitated
  • Totally uninterested in details, facts, sitting down to work, “dull” things
  • Dislikes and fears logic, prefers intuition
  • Keen understanding of human psychology, especially “baser” urges
  • Very sensitive to the “vibe” of the room, the emotional arc of the crowd
  • Strong aesthetic sense and interest in the visual and theatrical
  • Highly sentimental, kind to dogs and children, accepting of personal foibles
  • Views human interaction through the lens of seduction and sadomasochism
  • Eager to submit as well as to dominate, but puzzled or disgusted by anything which is neither submission nor domination
  • Sensitive to slights, delighted by praise, obsessed with superficial marks of rank & respect
  • Fixated on personal loyalty
  • Suicidal (and frequently threatened suicide long before he actually did it)

This is all very Cluster B, though the terminology for personality disorders didn’t exist at the time and I’m obviously not in a position to make a diagnosis.  Hitler’s tantrums, impulsiveness, inability to have lasting relationships, constant seeking of approval and need to be at the center of attention, grandiosity, envy, and lack of concern for moral boundaries, are all standard DSM symptoms of personality disorders.

In his own words, Hitler was very opposed to rule of law and intellectual principles: “The spectacled theorist would have given his life for his doctrine rather than for his people.”  He disapproved of intellectuals and of logical thinking, had contempt for “Manchester liberalism” (classical liberalism) and commerce, and instead praised the spiritual transfiguration that masses of people could attain through patriotism and self-sacrifice.

He said, “A new age of magic interpretation of the world is coming, of interpretation in terms of the will and not of the intelligence. There is no such thing as truth either in the moral or the scientific sense.”

He believed strongly in the need for propaganda, and repeatedly explained the principles for designing it:

  • it must be simple and easy to understand by the uneducated
  • it must be one-sided and present us as absolutely good and the enemy as absolutely bad
  • it must have constant repetition
  • it should NOT be designed to appeal to intellectuals or aesthetes
  • it should focus on feelings not objectivity

He believed in the need of the people for “faith”, not because he was a believing Christian, but because he thought it was psychologically necessary:

“And yet this human world of ours would be inconceivable without the practical existence of a religious belief. The great masses of a nation are not composed of philosophers. For the masses of the people, especially faith is absolutely the only basis of a moral outlook on life. The various substitutes that have been offered have not shown any results that might warrant us in thinking that they might usefully replace the existing denominations. But if religious teaching and religious faith were once accepted by the broad masses as active forces in their lives, then the absolute authority of the doctrines of faith would be the foundation of all practical effort. There may be a few hundreds of thousands of superior men who can live wisely and intelligently without depending on the general standards that prevail in everyday life, but the millions of others cannot do so. Now the place which general custom fills in everyday life corresponds to that of general laws in the State and dogma in religion. The purely spiritual idea is of itself a changeable thing that may be subjected to endless interpretations. It is only through dogma that it is given a precise and concrete form without which it could not become a living faith.”

In other words, the picture that is emerging is that Hitler himself craved, and understood other people’s craving, for a certain kind of emotionally resonant experience. Religious or mystical faith; absorption in the crowd; mass enthusiasm; sacrifice of self; and sacrifice of the outsider or scapegoat.  Importantly, truth doesn’t matter for this experience, and critical thinking must be absolutely suppressed in order to fully enact the ritual.

I’m pretty confident, despite not having much knowledge of history, that this was a real and central part of Hitler’s ideology and practice.

If you watch Triumph of the Will, it’s very clearly a mass ritual calculated to produce strong emotional responses from the crowd.

In particular, the emotion it evokes is certainty. The crowd looks to their leader for validation and assurance; and with great confidence, he gives it to them, assuring the German people eternal glory.  One can safely lay down one’s burden of worry and anxious thought.  One can be at peace, knowing that one has Hitler’s love and approval. One can rest in the faith that Hitler will take care of things.

Repetitive call-and-response rituals, endless ranks of soldiers, flags and logos and symbols, huge crowds, rhythmic beats, all give a sense of a simple, steady, loud, bold message. It is cognitively easy. There is no need to strain to hear or understand.  It will be the same, over and over again, forever.

What the OSS report suggests, which Nazi propaganda would never admit, is that Hitler himself craved external validation, and was distraught when it was not supplied.  He understood how badly the people wanted to be led and to be annihilated in the worship of a ruler, because he longed for that submission and release himself.

There is nothing particularly unusual about what I’m saying; the standard accounts of Nazism always make mention of the quasi-religious fanaticism it engendered.  And the connection to ritual is obvious: mass events, loss of individuality in the collective frenzy, the heightening of tension and its release, often through violence.  This is the pattern of all sacrificial festivals.

You can see a modern reconstruction of the primitive sacrificial festival in the Rite of Spring (here, with Nijinsky’s choreography and Roerich’s set design, which captures the atavistic character of the original ballet in a way later productions don’t).

You can also see a version of this in the coronation scene from Boris Godunov, which is a very beautiful expression of quasi-religious mass worship for a state leader.

There’s an important connection between drama, the drive for emotional validation and stirring up interpersonal conflict, and drama, acting out a play to produce a sense of catharsis in the audience, originally as part of a religious ritual involving both sacrifice and collective frenzy.

Both drama in the colloquial sense and the artistic sense are about evoking emotions and provoking sympathies.  Drama requires an emotional arc, in which tension rises, comes to a head, and is released (catharsis).

Why is this satisfying?  Why do we like to lose our minds, to go up into an irrational frenzy, and then to come down again, often through sorrow and sympathetic suffering?

Current psychological opinion holds that catharsis doesn’t work; venting anger makes people angrier and more violent, not less so.  This isn’t a new idea; Plato thought that encouraging violent passions through theater would only make them worse.

It’s possible that the purpose of drama isn’t to help people cool down, but quite the opposite: to provide plausibly-deniable occasions for mob violence, and to bind the group closer together by sharing strong emotional connections.  Emotional mirroring helps groups coordinate better, including for war or hunting. Highly rhythmic activities (like music, dance, and chanting) both promote emotional mirroring and make it easy to detect those individuals who are out of step or disharmonious.

(In the original Nijinsky choreography of the Rite of Spring, the girl who is chosen to be a human sacrifice is chosen by lot, through a “musical-chairs”-style game in which the one caught out of the circle is singled out. In both Greek and Biblical tradition, sacrifices were chosen by lot. “Random” choice of a victim is often an excellent, plausibly-deniable way to promote subconscious choice.)

Ben Hoffman’s concept of empathy as herd cognition is similar, though humans are more like pack predators than true herd animals.  Emotions are shared directly, through empathy, through song and dance and nonverbal vibrations.  This is a low-bandwidth channel and can’t convey complex chained plans ahead of time.  You can’t communicate “if-then” statements directly through emotional mirroring.  But you can communicate a lot about friend and foe, and guide quite complex behaviors through “warmer, colder, warmer”-style reinforcement learning.

It’s a channel of communication that’s optimized to be intelligible only to the people who are in harmony at the moment — that is, those who are feeling the same thing, are part of the group, are acting in roughly the same way.  This has some disadvantages. For one thing, it’s hard to use it to coordinate division of labor. You need more explicit reasoning to, for instance, organize your army into a pincer movement, as Shaka Zulu did.  Emotion-mirroring motivates people to “act as one”, not to separate into parts.  For another thing, emotion-mirroring doesn’t allow for fruitful disagreement or idea-generation, because that’s inherently disharmonious, no matter how friendly in intent or effect; suggesting a different idea is differing from the group.

The advantage of emotional-mirroring as a form of communication is precisely that it is only intelligible to people who are engaging in the mirroring. If you are coordinating against the people who are out of sync or out of harmony, you can be secretive in plain view, simply by communicating through a rhythm that they can’t quite detect.

It makes sense, in a sort of selfish-gene way.  A gene which caused individuals to become very good at coordinating with others who had the gene, to kill those who didn’t have the gene, would promote natural selection for itself.  It would make it feel good to harmonize and “become one with” the crowd, and elevate rage to a fever pitch against those who would interrupt the harmony.  Those who didn’t have the gene would be worse at seeing the mob coming, and would not be able to secretly coordinate with each other.

(This idea is not due to me, but to a friend who might prefer to remain anonymous.)

Only a small portion of the population can be antisocial in the long run, where antisocial means impulsive aggression, in the sense of “people who are more likely to drive at the oncoming car in the game of Chicken”; evolutionary game theory simulations bear that out.  Aggressive or risk-seeking behavior can only be a minority trait, because while it does result in more sexual success and more short-term wins in adversarial games, people with those traits have too high a risk of dying out. But the more sensitive, harmony-coordination-mob trait, might be better at surviving, because it’s usually quiescent and only initiates violence when there’s a critical mass of people moving in unison.

There also may be the “charismatic” or “Dionysian” or “actor/performer/poet/bard” trait: the ability of an individual to activate people’s harmony-sensing, emotional-mirroring moods, the ability to make people get up and dance or cheer or fight.  People with borderline personality disorder sometimes are better than neurotypicals at reading emotions and inferring people’s feelings and intentions in social situations.  Hyper-sensitive, hyper-expressive people may also be a stable minority strategy; minority, because getting people worked up increases risk, though not as much as unilaterally seeking conflict oneself.

High drama is, obviously, dangerous. It is also powerful and at times beautiful. Even those of us who would never be Nazis can be moved by art and music and theater and religious ritual.  It’s a profound part of the human psyche.  It’s just important to be aware of how it works.

Drama is inherently transient and immediate. It’s like a spell; it affects those within range, while the spell is being sustained, and dissipates when the spell is broken. If you want to enhance drama, you create an altered environment, separate from everyday life, and aim for repetition, unanimity, and cohesiveness.  You rev people up with enthusiasm.  You say “Yes, and…”, as in improv. If you want to dispel drama, you break up the scene with interruptions, disagreements, references to mundane details, collages of discordant elements.  You deescalate emotions by becoming calm and boring.  You impede the momentum. 

If you have a plan that you’re afraid will fail unless everyone stays rev’ed up 24/7 and unanimously enthusiastic, you have a plan that’s being communicated through drama, and you need to beware that drama’s nature is typically transient, irrational, and violent.

Denotative language, as opposed to enactive language, is literally opposed to role-playing. When you say out loud what is going on — not to cause anyone to do anything, but literally just to inform them what is going on — you are “breaking character.”

If I am playing the role of a sad person, it’s breaking character to say “I’d probably feel better if I took a nap.”  That’s not expressing sadness! That’s not what a Sad Person would say!  It’s not acting out the arc of “inconsolableness” to its inevitable conclusion. It’s cutting corners.  Cheating, almost.  Breaking momentum.

By alluding to the reality beyond the current improv scene, the scaffolding of facts and interests that lasts even after passions have cooled, I am ruining the scene and ceding my power to shape it, but potentially gaining a qualitatively different kind of power.

Breaking flow is inherently frustrating, because we humans probably have a desire for flow for its own sake.  Drama wants drama. Flow wants flow.

But ultimately, there’s a survival imperative that limits all of these complex adaptations. You have to be alive in order to act out a drama. The “scaffolding” facts of practical reality remain, even if they’re mostly far away when you’re well-insulated from danger.  Drama provides a relative, but not an absolute, survival advantage, which means it’s more-or-less a parasitic phenomenon, and has natural limitations on how much behavior it can co-opt before negative consequences start showing up.



16 thoughts on “On Drama

  1. Isn’t it more likely than there being some kind of selfish gene specifically for the purpose of occasionally enabling anti-social behavior we are instead looking at something which was largely pro-social in the evolutionary environment that is put to a different use, e.g., maybe a capacity to organize the tribe for warfare or other dangerous endeavors where success and survival depended on individuals not breaking and running or holding back (if you all rush a large animal simultaneously you quickly overpower and kill it quickly while if many members hold back out of fear/hesitation many might die).

    Also I’m skeptical of your claim that the communication involved is in any way secret. It is merely DENIABLE and thus hard to explicitly criticize or force others to recognize not secretive. For instance when it is used to attack/demonize some class of people members of that class usually have the sense that things are getting bad (of course since it is deniable they will sometimes ignore or try to rationalize away this sense).

    • Deniable might be a better word than secret.
      I don’t think witch hunts are antisocial. They can maintain social cohesion! I’ve heard that in some Inuit tribes, a guy who makes trouble will just be pushed — a little — onto the ice during a hunting trip and will be said to have had an “accident.” Rates of murder in modern-day hunter-gatherer societies are very high.

      I could buy music/ritual as a hunting adaptation. I think there’s no reason why it can’t be *both* an animal-hunting and witch-hunting phenomenon.

      • The story I heard was that this is specifically used for people who regularly take stuff and never give stuff, in a gift economy, who clearly could give stuff. So, while there’s no public punishment for not giving, if one person is off with taker-not-giver on a hunting trip, taker-not-giver is likely to be murdered in a plausibly deniable “accident”. This is because everyone hates taker-not-giver’s guts for reasons, not a communal frenzy.

      • that draws an interesting parallel between jews as scapegoats and occupy wallstreet. Similar scapegoating by opposite ends of the political spectrum where the giving back of financial services are mostly invisible/second order benefits

      • I took the term “witch hunt” to mean something like a disproportionate search for traitors/disloyalty that isn’t responsive to evidence. I fully admit that punishing some kinds of conduct can be both evolutionary beneficial and pro-social. However, the particular kind of response you suggested in the post didn’t seem to be of the “punish people from breaking social norms” kind (whether or not it is evolutionary favored is the discussion below).

        But however, we characterize it I don’t think you’ve offered much of a reason to believe that this behavior was actively selected for rather than merely the side effect of behavior which is selected for. On reflection, I probably shouldn’t have used the term anti-social as I didn’t intend to refer to the moral status of the behavior. Merely the issue of whether we are talking about a behavior that actually increases overall group survival/reproduction or a selfish-gene style scenario where the overall effect on the group is negative but genetic content is selected for because it favors carriers to a greater extent than it hurts overall group survival/reproduction.

        In particular, given the small group size for most of evolutionary history (so less benefit from deniable subgroup animosity) and the ease of coming up with non-selfish-gene style selection pressures that could favor this kind of behavior I would tend to lean in that direction.

  2. I think I don’t experience following the logic of an argument – including digressions to firm up a point – as disruptive. I experience it as natural flow, and building momentum past what reason can sustain feels jerky, like someone in an improv game jumped from mild annoyance to blind rage with no buildup. For me, a temporally smooth buildup that isn’t supported by accumulation of evidence and justified certainty feels similarly jarring: it’s a sharp deviation from the baseline of having beliefs for reasons.

    For instance, my response to EA funds at first was “cautiously optimistic with some skepticism on details” but when I found out that GWWC had stopped recommending other charities and was not exclusively recommending EA Funds, my immediate response was “HOW IS THAT OK???” (exact quote), because they had blatantly stepped out of harmony. I think this was surprising to other people because my tone had suddenly changed in response to only a moderate escalation from things I hadn’t challenged at all, but from my perspective it was a huge jolt to see that rather than conducting a tentative minimum-viable-product experiment to see whether there was demand (which is what they’d said), they’d effectively yanked the steering wheel off and thrown it out the window, going all-in on this direction. Hence my most recent post.

    • While it is true that people differ in the extent to which they find evidentiary digressions, supporting information etc.. to be disruptive. Some of us don’t have any problem with a discussion that pushes a few items on the stack as it explores subissues like evidentiary support. However, human minds are pretty limited in the extent to which they can do this and once you get any decently complex argument one can only follow it by explicit conscious effort.

      My evidence for this claim is just how difficult it is to present a mathematical proof in a purely verbal form. The individual statements aren’t a problem (assuming the audience is familiar with the subject) but unlike your normal political argument a proof has a great deal of depth (many elements in the proof themselves need to be justified). Even professional mathematicians find it extremely difficult to simply relate a proof verbally without resorting to paper to keep track of the argument flow.

  3. The advantage of emotional-mirroring as a form of communication is precisely that it is only intelligible to people who are engaging in the mirroring. If you are coordinating against the people who are out of sync or out of harmony, you can be secretive in plain view, simply by communicating through a rhythm that they can’t quite detect.

    This straightforwardly suggests that it is often adaptive for people like me to read attunement/rhythm cognition that doesn’t seem to be trying to induct us at a comprehensible rate as THREAT, no matter how “friendly” it is coded.

  4. >If I am playing the role of a sad person, it’s breaking character to say “I’d probably feel better if I took a nap.” That’s not expressing sadness! That’s not what a Sad Person would say! It’s not acting out the arc of “inconsolableness” to its inevitable conclusion. It’s cutting corners. Cheating, almost. Breaking momentum.

    Pattern breaks are one of those double edged things like counter signaling. If done poorly it just makes you illegible and thus cognitively demanding and therefore unlikeable to others. Past a certain critical threshold (CHA roll?) it makes you *more* interesting.

  5. I get quite a different impression of Hitler from reading the memoirs of a couple of generals who worked with him, Manstein, Guderian, and to a lesser extent Balck.

    “He undoubtedly had a certain eye for operational openings, as had been shown by the way he opted for Army Group A’s plan in the west. Indeed, this is often to be found in military amateurs – otherwise history would not have recorded so many dukes and princes as successful commanders. In addition, though, Hitler possessed an astoundingly retentive memory and an imagination that made him quick to grasp all technical matters and problems of armaments. He was amazingly familiar with the effect of the very latest enemy weapons and could reel off whole columns of figures on both our own and the enemy’s war production. Indeed, this was his favourite way of side-tracking any topic that was not to his liking. There can be no question that his insight and unusual energy were responsible for many achievements in the sphere of armaments. Yet his belief in his own superiority in this respect ultimately had disastrous consequences. His interference prevented the smooth and timely development of the Luftwaffe, and it was undoubtedly he who hampered the development of rocket propulsion and atomic weapons.”

    -Manstein, Lost Victories

    In general, one gets the impression of someone who was *too* energetic, vaguely frenetic, and overly concerned with details and logic. A representative sample of Hitler’s reasoning is – you need coal to produce steel, you need steel to produce tanks, and the USSR’s main source of coal – and one of their main industrial regions – is the Donbass. Therefore, we must take the Donbass, and once we do so their ability to produce tanks will be severely curtailed. This sort of black-and-white reasoning is a common failure mode in war, because it underestimates the ability of people to find new routes to their objective, as water finds even the slightest gap to trickle to ground.

    And the endless recitation of production figures and statistics mentioned by Manstein and others complete the picture. Germany would probably have been better off with a leader less inclined towards hard-edged black and white logic, and more inclined to be intuitive and fuzzy. War has its hard-edged logical parts, but as Napoleon said – “The moral is to the physical as three to one.”

    To not be a straw-Vulcan in applying logic to war you have to account for large uncertainty factors in what the enemy’s capacity for action and inclinations are, in every dimension, and you have to admit the utter primacy of direct combat in determining the result. Once you do this you have a chance of being useful, and you also put hard limits on how useful you can imagine your logic will be. War nerds like to imagine that war is chess, and with sufficient intelligence and foresight guiding the moves of their forces and the R&D + production of their war economies victory is assured. In the real world the importance of the most brilliant of moves is less than the vigor and skill with which it is carried on the ground.

    Part of Hitler’s problem, certainly, was that he did not realize this. I think it’s a problem shared with essentially all modern thinkers on war, and the only people you can read to find a reasonable attitude are those who have extensive experience leading large groups of men in battle.

    But I believe it is part of a more general problem, an overestimation of the importance of intelligence, compounded by the smearing of the concept of ‘intelligence’ into all sorts of places where it doesn’t belong. Ender Wiggin crushes the opposition at fistfights and computer games and war. In the book, that’s because he’s smart. In real life the computer games part is because he is smart, the war part is partly because he is smart and partly coincidence, and the fistfight part has nothing to do with him being smart. We have a good idea of what intelligence is. There is a single factor that predicts your ability at basically all ‘intellectual’ pursuits. Besides that, it doesn’t do jack – it doesn’t ‘bleed over.’ There’s some correlation with other stuff (say, lifespan) because of overlap between stuff that fucks with your intelligence and stuff that fucks with your everything – but there’s no more than we’d expect from that alone.

    That’s strange, because you would think that being smaht would lead to you being a better fighter, a better hunter, a better socializer – etc. Certainly it *feels* like all those benefits should accrue. In books they do accrue, and thinking about how to fight makes you a much better fighter. The power of reason manifests, the hero thinks – when he punches like this I shall move like that, then my arm will reach up like this – and kaPOW! Yet in real life – no. There’s a reason why hunter-gatherers, and for that matter wolves, are spectacular hunters, fighters, and socializers, but don’t have a very high IQ. *General* intelligence is *specific* to intellectual pursuits.

    There’s a huge blind spot, an underestimation of the older systems that underlie general intelligence. I think it’s accurate to say that general intelligence is a slow and clumsy tool whose purpose is to make itself obsolete – that is, I figure something out so that I can somehow embody that knowledge and not have to think of it anymore. If I constantly have to think about what to do next, I am slow, and that’s not where the payoff is. The payoff is when I understand sufficiently to put the matter ‘in the back of my mind’ and move quickly.

    I think the hysteria about artificial intelligence owes itself in large part to people not understanding this.

    In conclusion if you’re interested in Hitler, then for God’s sake woman read the memoirs of his colleagues in his most important enterprise! To understand Hitler it is most important to understand the great patriotic war and his place in it, and there can be no better guide than the memoirs of his most talented generals, preserved and translated for your edification!

    Panzer Leader – Heinz Guderian
    The Rommel Papers & Infantry Attacks! – Erwin Rommel
    Lost Victories – Erich von Manstein
    Order in Chaos – Hermann Balck

    These will leave you with a strong impression of the tangled and thorny problem of the external pressures, but perhaps more importantly the internal administrative battles which eventually swallowed the Nazis whole. All the details about war might bore you if you’re only interested in the human resources/relations part, but really understanding the latter is probably impossible without understanding the former.

  6. Your post reminded me of this paper about politics and sentiment coordination, which I have always admired despite disagreeing with the author’s politics and its conclusion that people are broken because they don’t conform sufficiently to libertarian assumptions.

  7. I have this strong ongoing sense of frustration, which I think could be expressed as “dismay that, to adhere to my principles, I keep having to interrupt the flow of my internal dramatic narrative.” Stuff like the “I’d probably feel better if I took a nap” thing plays out in my life multiple times a day. It’s necessary for my well-being and to my identity that I seek out/take advantage of narrative-breaking ways of making things better, but it doesn’t feel great to some parts of me and contributes to the sense of frustration.

    Despite the research on venting, I want to try something like improv so as to have a time- and context-boxed way of getting the drama out of my system so it won’t leak out sideways. I’m also interested in other ideas people have re. how to respect the parts that want this.

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