Does Our System Select for Incompetent Sociopaths?   (March 26, 2014)

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 the Pathology 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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