Psychopaths Thrive in Large, Complex Societies

Psychopaths Thrive in Large, Complex Societies. By Jonathon Goodman.

When you start to notice them, psychopaths seem to be everywhere. This is especially true of people in powerful places.

By one estimate, as many as 20 percent of business leaders have “clinically relevant levels” of psychopathic tendencies — despite the fact as little as 1 percent of the general population are considered psychopaths.

Psychopaths are characterized by shallow emotions, a lack of empathy, immorality, anti-social behavior and, importantly, deceptiveness….

Cheating works, for some:

Trust further encourages cooperation, which has helped us to develop tools, build cities and spread across the world — even to the most inhospitable environments. No single other species has achieved this, making human cooperation a wonder of the natural world.

Yet once our cultural groups became too large to know everyone individually, we needed to find ways to ensure the people we met were likely to be cooperative. It’s easier to trust a parent or sibling when hunting in the wild than to trust a stranger — the stranger might attack you or refuse to share any meat with you. …

Cheaters who pull this off will be at an advantage: they’ll have more food and probably be thought of as good hunters by other, unsuspecting people. So cheating posed a problem for non-cheaters. …

It is thought that cultural groups developed powerful tools, such as punishment, to dissuade cheating in cooperative partnerships. Evolutionary psychologists also argue that people evolved what’s called a cheater detection ability to tell when someone is likely to be a cheater. This put cheaters at a disadvantage, especially in groups where punishment was strict.


This approach relied on the ability to trust others when it is safe to do so. Some people argue that trust is just a kind of cognitive shortcut: rather than making slow and deliberative decisions about whether someone is trustworthy, we look for a few signals, probably subconsciously, and decide.

We do this every day. When we walk by a restaurant and decide whether to stop in for lunch, we choose whether to trust that the people running it are selling what they advertise, whether their business is hygienic and whether the cost of a meal is fair. Trust is a part of daily life, at every level.

Why so few psychopaths?

Yet this presents us with a problem. As I suggest in my research, the more complex society is, the easier it is for people to fake a proclivity for cooperation — whether that’s charging too much at a store or running a multi-national social media company ethically. And cheating while avoiding punishment is, evolutionarily speaking, still the best strategy a person can have.

So, within this framework, what could be better than being a psychopath? It’s effective, to misuse a popular modern phrase, to “fake it till you make it”. You garner trust from others only insofar as that trust is useful to you and then betray trust when you no longer need those people.

Viewed in this way, it’s surprising there aren’t more psychopaths. They occupy a disproportionate number of powerful positions. They don’t tend to feel the burden of remorse when they misuse others. They even appear to have more relationships — suggesting that they face no barriers to successful reproduction, the defining criterion of evolutionary success.

So what inhibits the proliferation of cheating?

There are a few convincing theories about why these disorders aren’t more common.

Clearly, if everyone were a psychopath, we’d be betrayed constantly and probably completely lose our ability to trust others.

Curious. Maybe societies with too many psychopaths break down or lose out to competitors due to lack of trust, so there is group selection.

Some of our political leaders are almost certainly psychopaths. Not naming names here…