2012-07-17

Primary Sociopaths and Secondary Sociopaths

The social evolution of humankind has been a gradual process of working out social arrangements to allow us to escape from the prisoner's dilemma created when each of us is on our own to pursue our own self-interest -- social arrangements, that is, that allow for greater and greater levels of cooperation. Setting up a police force and a legal system, for example, is one step toward working out the conundrum. Establishing outside enforcement allows us to make contracts with some reassurance that we aren’t being suckered: there’s a system to enforce compliance.

In human evolutionary history, it turns out that about 2 percent of us will find noncooperation a viable strategy. There’s a social contract, and these are the people who cheat on the social contract. Around 2 percent. This is what research indicates is the equilibrium point. About two percent is usually the carrying capacity of the “cheater” niche in our social ecology. If the number of cheaters falls to much less than 2 percent, then the rest of us get very trusting and na├»ve, and we become a population ripe for con men and various ne’er-do-wells to have a field day with us, running roughshod over our trusting ways. In such a context, being a noncooperator has a high pay-off, which breeds more noncooperators. As the number of noncooperators goes up, the rest of us become increasingly aware of the threat. We put up our guard; we put energy into protecting ourselves from scams, and catching and prosecuting criminals. Then the benefit-to-risk balance doesn't favor noncooperation so much, and the number drops again. It settles into an equilibrium.

I’m not so much talking about modern society, but across the millions of years of human evolution, there tends toward an equilibrium at around 2 percent of the population noncooperating – that is, being sociopaths. And if sociopathy is your strategy, then it helps you carry out that strategy if you are genetically unable to empathize.

The reason we have sociopaths is that for millions of years that niche has been there for a small percent of the human population – a niche where anti-social behavior is a successful strategy for staying alive and having offspring. As a result, the human genome produces a small percentage of folks genetically equipped to occupy that niche. These are the “primary sociopaths” -- born genetically unable to empathize. They can feel the basic emotions – such as anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, joy, acceptance, and anticipation – but cannot feel what are called the social emotions. They don’t experience love, or guilt, or shame, or remorse.

Linda Mealey,
1955 - 2002
The genetic tendency to sociopathy is normally distributed – it’s not a simple on-off switch, all-or-nothing. Next to the primary sociopaths on the bell curve are people who might or might not fall into the sociopath strategy, depending on whether the environment teaches them that’s their best bet. These are the “secondary sociopaths.”
“Secondary sociopaths are not as gentically predisposed to their behavior; rather, they are more responsive to environmental cues and risk factors, becoming sociopathic ‘phenocopies’ or ‘mimics’ when the carrying capacity of the ‘cheater’ niche grows.” (Sociologist Linda Mealey. See here.)
We could call these people evil – implying that there’s an imperative to destroy them. But once we understand sociopathy, we can begin seeing other alternatives.

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This is part 4 of 6 of "Theodicy: Addressing Evil"
Next: Part 5: "Answer Evil with Justice and Community"
Previous: Part 3: "From Evil to Sociopathy"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Evil Thought-Stopper"