The title of this post suggests an insane line of inquiry, which makes it perfectly appropriate for Thought Distiller. Whether sociopaths can be pro-social or benevolent has a huge impact on society. This is the pivotal question here: (a) are sociopaths capable of social good, broadly defined, and (b) if so, are they better at doing good than neurotypical people?
What is a sociopath? First, it’s important to note that the interchangeable terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” have rapidly lost their clinical significance in favor of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-sanctioned term “Antisocial Personality Disorder”. However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to sociopath, as it has important social connotations, and accounts for both one’s genes and one’s surroundings.
So again, what is a sociopath? Robert Hare, one of the foremost experts on psychopathy, created a checklist of common traits:
Factor 1: “Aggressive narcissism”
- Glibness/superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
- Callousness; lack of empathy
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Factor 2: Case history “Socially deviant lifestyle”.
- Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
- Parasitic lifestyle
- Poor behavioral control
- Lack of realistic long-term goals
- Juvenile delinquency
- Early behavior problems
- Revocation of conditional release
Traits not correlated with either factor
- Promiscuous sexual behavior
- Many short-term marital relationships
- Criminal versatility
None of those traits make dealing with a sociopath particularly appealing. However, most of the meaningful research behind Hare’s checklist was done between the 1970s and 1990s. Re-examining it with a critical eye might shed light on popular misconceptions regarding sociopaths.
Why do we immediately associate the word “psycho” with serial killers? It might have something to do with pop culture, including Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name. More of the blame should fall on Robert Hare‘s shoulders, though. His test was developed based on studying prisoners, and he noted that the target group for the PCL-R is convicted criminals. Most people neglected that fact and took the PCL-R’s characteristics of interest as a spotlight for all sociopaths. Obviously, those who tend to get arrested are socially deviant. What about the sociopaths who never get arrested and exhibit no criminality?
We turn to Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, for the answer. He states that the two most deep-seated myths about sociopaths are: “Firstly, that they’re either all “mad or bad.” And secondly, that psychopathy is an all-or-nothing thing, that you’re either a psychopath or you’re not.” Dutton shows that not all sociopaths are crazy or criminal, and that such behavior falls on a spectrum:
When psychologists talk about psychopaths, what we’re referring to are people who have a distinct set of personality characteristics, which include things like ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, charm, persuasiveness and a lack of conscience and empathy. Imagine that you tick the box for all of those characteristics. You also happen to be violent and stupid. It’s not going to be long before you smack a bottle over someone’s head in a bar and get locked up for a long time in prison. But if you tick the box for all of those characteristics, and you happen to be intelligent and not naturally violent, then it’s a different story altogether. Then you’re more likely to make a killing in the market rather than anywhere else.
Dutton essentially argues that low-functioning sociopaths are those that are more disposed to criminality. They are driven by baser desires and tend to be less intelligent. On the other hand, sociopaths in high society are generally quite intelligent; they tend to have Factor 1 traits, but not Factor 2 traits. This means that they aren’t socially deviant, so they can use their lack of emotion to get ahead in society. The following chart illustrates that perfectly:
Clearly, there is evidence that at least some sociopaths are intelligent & talented, avoid criminality, and can deal with social behavior quite well. Our next question: why is this the case?
Might it be possible that sociopathy isn’t a disorder but an adaptation? In the general populace, sociopathy exhibits at a consistent rate of about 1%; in business settings, that rate can increase to about 4%. It seems that, as long as the overall incidence of sociopathy remains low, it proves evolutionarily advantageous.
John Craig says that “sociopaths make great first impressions. They are exciting, dynamic, charming, even electrifying. No one is better at seduction than a sociopath.” Sociopaths can use their skills to secure resources for themselves, find willing mates, and thereby ensure their own survival and that of their genetic line. In previous eras when survival rates were lower, it seems probable that sociopathy was a boon because it enabled men to have lots of children (most sociopaths are men) and, in the rare case of a female sociopath, enabled her to secure resources to provide for herself and her children.
Today, low-functioning sociopathy seems to provide less of an advantage. Such people seem to end up in jail; Hare claimed that 20% of prison inmates were sociopaths. So why does hasn’t this behavior been weeded out by natural selection? Mainly because high-functioning sociopaths still receive huge benefits from it.
A smart, socially typical, high-functioning sociopath can use his/ her lack of remorse, cunning, etc. to get a phenomenal job (see the chart above) and thereby attract a higher quality mate as well as secure more resources to ensure survival. A highly-educated, successful, attractive person is more likely to marry someone similar to themselves; that’s why apps like The League exist. High-functioning sociopaths find it easier to acquire the necessary traits to attract those sorts of mates.
Given the above, a high-functioning sociopath cannot afford to be antisocial. Social deviance would erase the benefits conferred by the condition. Returning to Dutton, their “personality traits—charm, confidence, ruthlessness, coolness under pressure—can, in the right doses, be a good thing. Not all psychopaths are violent, he says, and some of them are just the sort of people society can count on in a crisis.” Venkatesh Rao, author of Be Slightly Evil and one of the subjects of Freakonomics, says this about sociopathic morality:
First, sociopaths are driven by unsentimental observation of external realities, no matter how unpleasant. Second, they use the information they acquire through reality-grounding in skilled ways. Third, their distrust of subsuming communities and groups leads them to adopt personal moralities. Whether good or evil, the morality of a sociopath is something he or she takes responsibility for. Finally, and most importantly, sociopaths do not seek legitimacy for their private morality from the group, justify it, or apologize for it.
Rao characterizes sociopaths as Nietzschean will-to-power people: they ambitiously strive to reach the highest possible position in life. Thus, they eschew group morality, which often serves to keep people down. Most intersectional views of culture indicate the negative effects of large-scale, organized ideals. To skirt around such counterproductive ideals, sociopaths create their own moral systems. This is another factor that likely contributes to the idea of social deviance (e.g. Why aren’t you doing what we do?)
In any case, Rao continues:
Sociopaths can be compassionate because their distrust only extends to groups. They are capable of understanding and empathizing with individual pain and acting with compassion. A sociopath who sets out to be compassionate is strongly limited by two factors: the distrust of groups (and therefore skepticism and distrust of large-scale, organized compassion), and the firm grounding in reality. The second factor allows sociopaths to look unsentimentally at all aspects of reality, including the fact that apparently compassionate actions that make you “feel good” and assuage guilt today may have unintended consequences that actually create more evil in the long term. This is what makes even good sociopaths often seem callous. The apparent callousness is actually evidence that hard moral choices are being made.
When driven by compassion, therefore, sociopaths prefer small individual kindnesses to joining large-scale world-hunger solving efforts. The good sociopath is more likely to ask: how can I make a modest and cautious effort to improve the life of this person I am with right now, as opposed to participating in something lofty and dangerously abstract, like a signature campaign.
When a sociopath has the resources for (and feels the imperative towards) larger scale do-gooding, you get something like Bill Gates’ behavior: a very careful, cautious, eyes-wide-open approach to compassion. Gates has taken on a world-hunger sized problem, but there is very little ceremony or posturing about it. It is sociopath compassion.
Ultimately, sociopath compassion seems very different from neurotypical compassion. It’s not driven by guilt, remorse, or a desire to feel warm and fuzzy inside. Indeed, such compassion might stem from norms of reciprocity, the psychological concept that if you do something nice for someone else, they will eventually feel obligated to repay you. Perhaps sociopaths are better judges of who would be a valuable investment of their effort.
Additionally, large-scale social problems are attacked as if they were business problems, with data and rationality. Since sociopathy is highly reward-driven, sociopaths do not engage in behavior that (a) is inefficient or (b) does not produce results. Based on all of this, I would argue that high-functioning sociopaths are capable of good and are better at executing on their efforts than neurotypical people.
Also published on Medium.