Did you know that roughly one person in a hundred is clinically a psychopath? These individuals are either born with an emotional deficiency that keeps them from feeling bad about hurting others or they are traumatized early in life in a manner that causes them to become this way. With more than 7 billion people on the planet that means there are as many as 70,000,000 psychopaths alive today. These people are more likely to be risk takers, opportunists motivated by self-interest and greed, and inclined to dominate or subjugate those around them through manipulative means.
Last year, the Occupy Movement drew a distinction between the top 1% and the remaining 99% — as distinguished by measures of wealth and income. Of course, this breakdown is misleading since there are many top income earners who sympathize with the plights of others and are not part of the problem. Now the real defining metric reveals itself: 1% of the global population is comprised of people who exhibit psychopathic tendencies.
The global economy we have today is built on a deep history of top-down hierarchies that promote domination and control. There have been plenty of feudal lords, warrior chieftains, and violent dictators throughout the last 6000 years of burgeoning civilization. The modern era saw the ascension of “corporate personhood” as an amoral entity enshrined into law by an 1886 ruling of the US Supreme Court. This provided a new mechanism for mobilizing capital by the moneyed elites to deploy their wealth into the realm of public policy and civil society — creating the dysfunctional economic system we must now contend with as we struggle to address global challenges.
We find ourselves in a situation where economic philosophies that celebrate selfishness can be implemented through a web of legal and financial tools that elevate and reward those individuals with psychological tendencies toward self-interest — the same people who also have a predisposition to game social contexts to their advantage regardless of impacts on others. Thus the psychopathic corporation was forged as a Frankenstein monster that enabled the constant flow of psychopathic blood, continuously replenished by the 1% of the population born into psychopathy in each new generation, to rise into positions of power as stock traders, corporate executives, and corruptible politicians.
What can we do collectively to contain and manage this small minority of people who are driven by selfish motives with no concern for others? How must we include them in our plans so that global civilization can transition to a configuration of peaceful cooperation and environmental balance? This is the defining question for global financial stability and environmental sustainability. It runs right to the core of our inability to garner collective action on such systemic challenges as climate change, global poverty, and corporate corruption. It is the central issue of political power that has so far eluded our environmental and social justice movements.
We can start to sketch out the solution by drawing on cross-disciplinary research about human nature and our evolutionary past. The key questions are:
- What are the evolutionary advantages for having psychopaths in the gene pool?
- How did our ancestors keep their anti-social tendencies in check?
- What is the positive role for psychopaths that needs to be preserved in the new economic system?
Partial answers to these questions can be found in the pioneering work of anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, in his recent book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Professor Boehm has dedicated much of his career to the study of primates in an attempt to explain where pro-social behaviors originally came from. Along the way he realized that a critical piece of the puzzle was how hunter-gatherer tribes dealt with would-be cheaters and dictators in order to maintain an egalitarian ethos in their social groups. Every hunter-gatherer society has a long history of democratic governance that provided cohesion and stability to the small bands of humans who had to cooperate in order to survive long periods of climatic instability and changing landscapes.
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.
A sketch of the solution might look like this:
- Gather together the best knowledge we have about human nature — as it emerges from the cognitive and social sciences — to inform the design of institutional policy, legislation, incentive structures, and regulatory bodies. Employ it to critique long-standing assumptions about economic behavior and political power.
- Diagnose the current global economy to reveal pathways where psychopathic tendencies are expressed. Target these areas for policy reform as a “damage control” measure while engaging in broader debate about how to build replacement structures.
- Create policy-development frameworks that promote cooperative behavior amongst people and with the broader environments on which we depend for our survival. This includes new metrics of success (e.g. replace Gross Domestic Product with more systematic measures like General Progress Indicators or Gross National Happiness), greater investments in societal infrastructure (e.g. public education, medical research, Earth monitoring systems, etc.) that enable us to integrate our increasingly sophisticated knowledge about global change into the management of social and economic systems.
- Introduce incentive systems (with clearly defined and enforceable punitive measures) that enable our psychopaths to participate in society in a more beneficial and less disruptive manner. We need to recognize that people with these behavioral tendencies will likely always be part of the societal mix. Helping them find ways to participate as productive members of society will go a long way towards containing the harms they might produce and promoting social cohesion across our pluralistic societies where past harms remain to be fully healed.
I have intentionally set out these parameters at a broad conceptual level because this topic is too nuanced and complex for any one person to hold all the answers. Hopefully what I’ve written here will encourage you to think more deeply about what is happening in the world — and what role(s) you might fill in helping to create a new economic system that serves us all. It is safe to assume that I’ve made significant omissions and that much more needs to be brought into the conversation before we can begin to implement the solutions I recommend or any others which improve upon them.
For now, it is my hope that the ideas presented here create new insights for us as we struggle to articulate the path beyond the political impasse that has stalled action on financial reform and climate change in recent years. Perhaps these thoughts will also inform our next steps as we ponder how to improve upon the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring of 2011 to elevate and meld together the social movements of the world into a coherent new economic and political system capable of delivering complex outcomes for our interconnected and rapidly changing world.
Can we contain the 70 million psychopaths in the world today? Only if we come together and create effective sanctions on their destructive behaviors before it’s too late. The future still resides in the strength of our communities as we struggle together to find solutions that match the severity of existing threats during these turbulent times. As a recent political slogan decried, “Yes we can!”
And, ultimately, we must if we are to deliver our children into a livable world.