Does Our System Select for Incompetent Sociopaths?

What is the shelf life of a system that rewards confidence-gaming sociopaths rather than competence?

Let’s connect the dots of natural selection and the pathology of power.

In his 2012 book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, author Kevin Dutton described how the attributes of sociopathology are in a sense value-neutral: the sociopathological attributes that characterize a dangerous criminal may also characterize a cool, high-performing neurosurgeon.

As Dutton explains in his essay What Psychopaths Teach Us about How to Succeed (Scientific American):

Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. Far from its being an open-and-shut case–you’re either a psychopath or you’re not–there are, instead, inner and outer zones of the disorder: a bit like the fare zones on a subway map. There is a spectrum of psychopathy along which each of us has our place, with only a small minority of A-listers resident in the “inner city.”

While there is obviously a place for high-functioning sociopaths in professions which reward those characteristics, what about sociopaths who substitute deviousness and deception for competence? For some context, let’s turn to thePathology Of Power by Norman Cousins, published in 1988.

Cousins was particularly concerned with the National Security State, a.k.a. the military-industrial complex, which at that point in U.S. history was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Empire. Cousins described the pathology of power thusly:

“Connected to the tendency of power to corrupt are yet other tendencies that emerge from the pages of the historians:1. The tendency of power to drive intelligence underground;
2. The tendency of power to become a theology, admitting no other gods before it;
3. The tendency of power to distort and damage the traditions and institutions it was designed to protect;
4. The tendency of power to create a language of its own, making other forms of communication incoherent and irrelevant;
5. The tendency of power to set the stage for its own use.

In broader terms, we might add: the tendency of power to manifest hubris, arrogance, bullying, deception and the substitution of rule by Elites for rule of law.

Natural selection isn’t only operative in Nature; it is equally operative in human organizations, economies and societies. People respond to whatever set of incentives and disincentives are present. If deceiving and conning others is heavily incentivized, while integrity and honesty are punished, people will gravitate to running cons and embezzlement schemes.

What behaviors does our Status Quo reward? Misrepresentation, obfuscation, legalized looting, embezzlement, fraud, a variety of cons, gaming the system, deviousness, lying and cleverly designed deceptions.

Let’s connect the pathology of power and the behaviors selected by our Status Quo. What we end up with is a system that selects for a specific category of sociopaths: those whose only competence is in running cons.

No wonder we have a leadership that is selected not for competence but for deviousness. What’s incentivized in our system is spinning half-truths and propaganda with a straight face and running cons that entrench the pathology of power.

What is the shelf life of a system that rewards confidence-gaming sociopaths rather than competence? Unless we change the incentives and disincentives, the system is doomed.

Of related interest:

The Normalization of Sociopathology in America (October 16, 2010)

The Federal Reserve and the Pathology of Power (November 18, 2010)

The Banality of (Financial) Evil (November 9, 2010)

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  • Mar 26, 2014 Evicting the Arab Bedouin

    The Arab Bedouin minority of the Negev Desert faces harsh discrimination within the Arab population and within Israeli society as a whole. Last year, VICE News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky traveled to the Negev to visit the Bedouin communities as they fought the Israeli government’s decision to forcibly displace them. The plan, which the United Nations labeled as “ethnic displacing,” would have affected up to 40,000 Bedouins in the area. But when tensions reached a boiling point amid protests in December, the plan was placed on hold. Bedouins have been living in the Negev for centuries, and as they continue to be marginalized, they are now beginning to fight back.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW6T7l-HZEM

  • Phil

    Deming, who taught the Japanese American style quality control while our companies were cutting quality for cheaper prices, said, “The system you have is perfectly suited to give you the exact results you are getting.”
    In our case, we have spent several generations discarding our traditional emphasis on character & morals. What could go wrong?

  • ohioralph

    The single greatest scam of our era is the depreciating dollar. This monopolistic standard of exchange encourages dishonestly and corrupts the morality of everyone since it comprises 50% of every transaction we make among ourselves. It not only corrupts us domestically but globally as the dollar possesses world reserve status among all fraudulent central banks created to foster this scam.

    • Ronm1945

      You can talk disparagingly about the dollar just about everywhere but in several countries you might be arrested for speaking so about the Holocaust.

      • Libertymike

        Such countries, like all nation states, do not enjoy the rule of law.

        • Ronm1945

          According to Wikipedia :

          Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 17 countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Romania[176]—a country that denied the Holocaust occurred on its territory up until the Wiesel Commission in 2004.[177][178] The European Union’s Framework decision on Racism and Xenophobia states that denying or grossly trivializing “crimes of genocide” should be made “punishable in all EU Member States”.[179] Slovakia criminalized denial of fascist crimes in general in late 2001; in May 2005, the term “Holocaust” was explicitly adopted by the penal code and in 2009, it became illegal to deny any act regarded by an international criminal court as genocide. The Parliament of Hungary adopted the most recent legislation, which declared denial or trivialization of the Holocaust a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment, in February 2010.[180]

          I call that the rule of law especially since several deniers have been tried and convicted in a court of law..

          • Libertymike

            The rule of law is not about what the state says is law; to the contrary, the rule of law means and refers to a legal system in which the defense of private property and individual liberty are sacrosanct.
            Making it a crime to deny the holocaust is not the rule of law; rather, it is the rule of men who want to impose their views upon others through violence.

          • Ronm1945

            It seems that there is much disagreement concerning what ‘rule of law’ means but I like your definition because it’s about fairness, justness and individual rights.

    • Ronm1945

      You can talk disparagingly about the dollar just about everywhere but in several countries you might be arrested for speaking so about the Holocaust.

  • quivara

    “Political Ponerology” (the scientific study of evil) explains all this quite well. Check it out. It’s chilling, but true.

  • Yes. We’re “doomed”. The questions then, are, how long will our demise last and how painful will it be? Maybe important to ask, as well, is just how doomed are we? Total socio-economic collapse, major restructuring/transformation, or revolution/civil war? They all seem possible.

  • john

    thanks for sharing this great blog hguhf