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How Will the 99% Deal with the Psychopaths in the 1%?

A lot of the world's misery can be traced to people who lack the wiring for empathy. What can we do to contain the damage they cause?

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These small bands had particular difficulty with their psychopaths when it came to hunting big game.  They depended heavily on the wealth of nutrients provided by large animals, yet were unable to successfully acquire meat without cooperation.  It was in this context that the cheaters and bullies had to be suppressed — through a consensus process amongst tribal members with the power to ostracize or, in extreme cases, execute these (typically male) would-be upstarts.  They did this to keep them from disrupting the social order that enabled the group to survive and thrive.

Things changed with the invention of agriculture and its associated patterns of human settlement and increasingly sophisticated economic structures.  The rise in population size, combined with a division of labor into social castes, enabled the would-be upstarts to sow division in the ranks and rise in power through physical and political domination.  The checks-and-balances of tribal society no longer held them in place.  And so it happened that the psychopaths in our midst were able to begin the process of consolidating power and manipulating the masses for personal gain.

But why were there psychopaths in the first place?  What possible advantage could they bring to the genetic mix that promotes human flourishing?  It is vital that we keep in mind that being psychopathic is NOT the same as being violent or criminal.  A psychopath is simply a person whose brain does not register stressful feelings when they observe harms inflicted on others.  Someone with this characteristic might be more likely to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain, but they quite often are aware of social sanctions (and the punishments that follow) and so constrain their behaviors accordingly.

On the positive side, a person who experiences less emotional angst about harm to self and others is well suited as a risk taker whose attempts to ‘rise in the ranks’ of material wealth bring pioneering innovations to the group.  They also handle the hardships of war and stressful negotiations with other tribes without the compounding harms of emotional trauma that would be inflicted on a more sensitive soul. In today’s context, such a person would be a great fit for working as a field medic during times of war (or in the aftermath of a natural disaster), since they could operate on many people without accumulating post traumatic stress disorder.

Such benefits to society may be small in comparison to the harms they inflict upon us all when their power goes unchecked. But the stubborn fact remains that they comprise a persistent part of our progeny — regardless of their perceived worth to the whole — and must be included in our thinking about how to build robust political and economic systems in the future.

With this goal in mind, I’d like to offer some preliminary thoughts about how we can make use of insights like these to both accurately diagnose our root problems and engage in active redesign of global civilization to enable humanity to cooperate on the scales necessary for our long-term survival.  First, a few reflections on the nature of the problem:

  • The primary issue of concern is one of design oversight that failed to include psychopathic tendencies as a parameter for political and economic systems.  We simply did not know how to handle them when civilization began 6000 years ago, and have yet to update contemporary global systems to mitigate the potential harms they might cause.
  • In recent centuries, a set of legal instruments were put in place that encourage and reinforce psychopathic tendencies through a system of incentive structures that reward selfish behaviors. This enabled the misguided philosophies of neoclassical economics and neorealist politics to gain undue influence over our thinking about social policy and institutional design.
  • A profound gap now exists between what needs to be done to ensure a prosperous future for humanity and the current trajectory of civilization.  We must contain the innate psychopathic tendencies that comprise a small portion of the human gene pool if collective action is to be taken that harnesses real economic and political power to tackle global challenges like climate change, human insecurity, and corruption.

Taken together, these observations begin to paint a picture for what the solution looks like.  Not only must we stop celebrating greed (and enabling it to run rampant through our policy choices), we also have to provide supports for pro-social cooperative behaviors that embody the altruistic and compassionate aspects of human nature that are expressed through the remaining 99% of us.

 
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