There is a thing in psychology, which I believe gets taught pretty early on in undergrad courses, called “the fundamental attribution error“. Wikipedia describes it as “the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior”, but basically what it means is: when you act like an arsehole, it’s because you’re an arsehole; but when I act like an arsehole, it’s because I’m struggling under difficult circumstances.
The point is that we all behave very differently in different situations. That is so obvious it barely needs saying. But we think of ourselves as complete, whole selves, while in fact, we’re large, we contain multitudes. We can and do contradict ourselves. There is no single “me” that is continuous throughout every situation.
Damian McBride is all over the telly at the moment, being oddly polite and diffident and contrite: last night on Newsnight he apologised so much and so readily (and so apparently sincerely) that Jeremy Paxman couldn’t lay a glove on him. He’s also spent the last few years working first for his old school, and then for a Catholic charity. It’s difficult, at times, to associate this rather gentle and humble – almost broken – figure with the swaggering bully of political legend. Which is the real McBride?
In his book Incognito: The secret lives of the brain, David Eaglemen talks about Mel Gibson, who was pulled over in 2006 for drunk driving, and who muttered to the policeman who stopped him: “F**king Jews… Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” (The policeman was, as it happened, Jewish.) Shortly afterward, Gibson issued two lengthy apologies, one for his drunken behaviour and one for the anti-Semitic speech.
Eagleman asks: which is the real Mel Gibson? Is he “really” a vicious racist who has learned to hide it (“A drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts”), or is he “really” a decent man who behaves appallingly when drunk?
As Eagleman says, as keen as we are to divide people up into their “real” and “false” characters, it’s really not that simple. We can be both “really” a racist and “really” not. The mind, the brain, is not one thing. It is a collection of competing subroutines – or, as Eagleman puts it, a representative democracy, different factions of which gain control of the “parliament” at any one time. The part of me that wants a third beer after work is as much the “real” me as the part of me that knows I don’t want a hangover tomorrow, and which of those parts wins the struggle depends on an infinitude of other factors, from how appealing the company is to how tired I am (and the effect that has on my willpower).
The drunk me has made some awful decisions which I would hate to think represent the “real” me: the inhibitions and restraints imposed by my sober brain are an important part of me. The part of Mel Gibson that has horrible, anti-Semitic thoughts is really him, but the bit that is appalled at that behaviour is really him, too.
On Desert Island Discs recently, the Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman told a story of his youth as a Jewish child in occupied France. He was out after the Jewish curfew, and had turned his jumper inside out to hide the yellow star, when he was approached by an SS officer. He feared the worst, but the officer picked him up, hugged him, and showed him a picture of his own child, about Kahneman’s age, and sent him on his way. The SS officer and the family man were both “real”.
The multitudes within us are particularly chillingly demonstrated by two stories Eagleman retells of people with undetected brain tumours. One, a happily married family man, suddenly developed powerful paedophilic urges, and visited a prostitute; when the tumour in his orbitofrontal cortex was found and removed, his sexual appetites returned to normal. Another, tragically, was not found until too late: Charles Whitman wrote a note, saying that something had changed within him (“I do not understand myself these days… I have become a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts”). He murdered his wife and mother (“It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight… I love her dearly… I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this). Then he got a powerful rifle – he was a former marine – and climbed to the top of a tower in the University of Texas in Austin, from where he shot and killed 13 people, including a pregnant woman and the ambulance drivers who came to help. The end of his note asked for a post mortem examination to be carried out on his brain. His intuition was correct: he had a glioblastoma in his amygdala, a part of the brain associated with fear and aggression
As Eagleman puts it, Whitman’s “cooler, rational parties were battling his reactive, violent parties”, but it was “no longer a fair fight” due to the tumour. These sort of inner battles, outside the reach of our consciousness, are going on all the time, but for most of us they never get near the surface because other “parties” hold sway. (I should stress, of course, that there’s no indication in his book that McBride has ever been on the edge of climbing to the top of Millbank and opening fire on the crowds below.)
It is, of course, possible that, as an extremely skilled PR man, McBride realised that total self-abasement is the only available way to rebuild some scraps of reputation. But the point is that it is also possible that he is sincere: he really is a cruel, brutal destroyer of people’s careers, and that he really is someone who thinks that sort of behaviour is morally unacceptable.