By JP Sullivan & Joe Ahmad
First, refresh your knowledge of Saint Augustine’s Confessions with this helpful rap video:
In the second book of Confessions, St. Augustine relates to us how he and his friends stole pears from a neighbor’s grove. What bothered Augustine was not the act of stealing, but the pleasure he derived from the act. In fact he and his companions had no practical use for the pears, for they were not hungry, and they threw most of them away. Frustrated, he writes,
But it was not the pears that my unhappy soul desired. I had plenty of my own, better than those, and I picked them so that I might steal. For no sooner had I picked them than I threw them away, and tasted nothing in them but my own sin, which I relished and enjoyed. (II.6)
For the rest of the second book, Augustine wrestles with the question of why he and his companions felt pleasure in stealing the pears. He makes two conjectures. The first is that he felt pride from the thrill of breaking the rules. He writes,
Since I had no real power to break [God’s] law, was it that I enjoyed at least the pretence of doing so, like a prisoner who creates for himself the illusion of liberty by doing something wrong, when he has no fear of punishment, under a feeble hallucination of power? (II.6)
By attempting to break God’s law, or more generally, the natural law, Augustine remarks that he was trying to imitate God, by showing that he was God’s equal and free from the jurisdiction of his law.
Augustine’s second conjecture is that his friends greatly influenced the pleasure he felt from stealing. He writes,
I must have got [pleasure] from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin…This was friendship of a most unfriendly sort, bewitching my mind in an inexplicable way. For the sake of a laugh, a little sport, I was glad to do harm and anxious to damage another…all because we are ashamed to hold back when other’s say “Come on! Let’s do it! (II. 8,9)
Had Augustine’s friends been absent, there is no doubt that he would not have thought of stealing the pears. However the presence of bad influences enkindled his desires. Together, these provoked him to action.
The Neurobiology of Stealing
Modern research in psychology, and the brain specifically, sheds some light on Augustine’s conjectures.
In general, thrill-inducing behavior is pleasurable because of the brain’s reward systems, which release neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. When these systems are functioning normally, the “brain reward systems serve to direct the organism’s behavior toward goals that are normally beneficial and promote survival of the individual (e.g., food and water intake) or the species (e.g., reproductive behavior)” (Bozarth, 1994). These systems reward thrill-inducing behavior because this behavior is tied to evolutionary relevant gains, such as sex or getting food.
However, these systems can be abused. With regard to stealing, the most extreme example of this is kleptomania, wherein one compulsively steals, sometimes unknowingly. Like all addictions, the act is voluntary at first, until one begins to crave the pleasurable experience wrought by the neurotransmitters Dr. Jon Grant, a director of the Impulse Control Disorder clinic at the University of Minnesota Medical School, says, “Kleptomaniacs might have started stealing on a dare as kids, but it becomes so pleasurable that the addiction takes over their actions” (Labi, 2002).
Although we all have reward systems in our brains, different personalities will react differently to thrill-inducing behavior. That is, some will find it pleasurable, while others will dislike it, considering it an ordeal. The habitual roller coaster rider, ready for his next ride or even a bungee jump off the Sears Tower, characterizes the former. The latter, meanwhile, would watch safely from the ground.
In order to discover why these differences exist, psychologists Jane E. Joseph, Xun Liu, Yang Jiang and Thomas H. Kelly from the University of Kentucky, and with Donald Lyman of Purdue University, performed a study wherein they administered questionnaires regarding thrill seeking behavior to volunteers to gauge their personalities, and then they showed images of arousing or emotional scenes (such as erotic and violent ones) along with mundane ones, while performing MRI scans of the volunteers’ brains.
Results showed that in high sensation seekers (thrill-seekers) the insula, the seat of emotion, was most active when the arousing imagery was displayed. In low sensation seeking individuals, the frontal cortex, which reasons and regulates emotion, was most active.
Being more emotionally free and extraverted than their counterparts, high sensation seeking people often coerce low sensation seeking types to “release their inhibition” and follow through with whatever risky behavior they wish to engage in. This, mixed with peer pressure, forms a potent cocktail.
Augustine refers to these types when he says, “[W]e are ashamed to hold back when other’s say ‘Come on! Let’s do it!’ ” A more recent example can be seen in the film Friday, wherein Chris Tucker’s high sensation seeking character, tries to convince Ice Cube’s low sensation seeking character to smoke marijuana.
Susceptibility to Peer Pressure
But why are we so susceptible to peer pressure, or the mob mentality? William Bonner and Lila Rajiva cite five main reasons why we follow mob mentality. Of those reasons, two are universal. Humans prefer to stay with a group, no matter what they are doing, and we tend to allow ourselves to be bullied into following the mob.
We see both of these points in Augustine’s account. His statement, that he found thrill from having “partners in sin”, is related to the first point that we like to stick with the herd. Likewise, his description of those shamed into committing the deed, is related to the second point, in that these kids had no real reason to feel shame, except that they were bullied.
Overall, St. Augustine’s anecdote in which he finds a thrill in stealing pears without any real purpose is very similar to the type of thrill-seekers today who enjoy roller coasters and bungee jumping. These thrill-seekers are able to manipulate more conservative people into doing something risky just for the adrenaline rush that comes along with it. St. Augustine realizes the power of groups and how they can force members of the group to act similarly.
From Flow to Good
In light of all this evidence, how much control do we have over what we do in our everyday lives? For the most part, we have the final decision regarding what we do. However, we do tend to concede control under peer pressure. We go “with the flow.”
Knowing all these things, we can come to a better understanding of human behavior, allowing us to overcome negative external influence, and, like Augustine, become a force for good in the world. For as he said:
The good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but — what is worse — the slave of as many masters as he has vices (City of God IV, 3).