TPHeinz / Pixabay
Source: TPHeinz / Pixabay

If you’re like me, then you don’t really have much of a liking for psychopaths. Psychopaths are characterized by a suite of anti-social behavioral patterns, including cheating, stealing, and killing. In short, these are people who exploit others for their own gain as a matter of their general life strategy (see Figueredo et al., 2008). Psychopaths may be thought of being especially “high” on the psychopathy dimension of the Dark Triad - a cluster of anti-social traits associated with an exploitive and uncaring approach to others. Real jerks, right?

From an evolutionary perspective, an obvious question, then, is this: If people have a strong repulsion to psychopaths, then how do psychopaths survive? After all, shouldn’t social pressures against psychopathic behaviors ultimately extinguish such behavior? And shouldn’t those who exhibit such behaviors as a function of their genetic and physiological makeup, then, fail to survive and reproduce? In short, what is up with psychopaths?!

Psychopaths Flourish in Mega-Cities

A key to the success of psychopaths in the modern world is found in evolutionary mismatch - a concept that speaks to instances in which an organism finds itself in conditions that do not match conditions that characterized the evolutionary environment that surrounded that kind of organism in the past. In terms of the modern human social environment, evolutionary mismatch abounds. During the lion’s share of human evolutionary history, our nomadic ancestors lived in groups that were no larger than 150 (see Dunbar, 1992). Under modern conditions, many of us live in cities with populations that number in the thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Now THAT is an evolutionary mismatch!

In a careful analysis of the evolutionary origins of psychopaths, A. J. Figueredo and his colleagues (2008) argue that modern large-scale societal conditions have, unwittingly, paved the way for psychopaths. Or, as these authors write, “psychopaths flourish in mega-cities” (Figuredo et al., 2008, p. 346)

Think about small-scale social conditions. Think about living in a group of 150. And envision seeing only those same people day in and day out - for your entire life! Trespassing against someone would be risky. You could lose friends really fast in a context like that, right? And losing a few friends in such a context might well be quite dangerous - because ostracism under ancestral conditions would have often been fatal. So being an exploitive jerk could have had very adverse consequences for a nomadic ancestor of ours. And, in fact, much of our modern psychology is steeped in this fact.

However, times have changed. And we now have places like New York City, London, and Mexico City. Metropolises! And in a large city, people have the opportunity to skate by in anonymity. In a large city, someone has a large pool of others to connect with - so perhaps cutting ties with one friend group is maybe not as bad as it was under ancestral conditions.

Evidence for Psychopathy as Resulting from Evolutionary Mismatch

Figueredo et al.’s (2008) theory that modern social conditions have paved the way for the flourishing of psychopaths is scary, for sure. But what’s the evidence?

For this theory to hold, for starters, psychopathy would have to have a documented heritable (or genetic component). Based on carefully conducted twin research, it does (see Figueredo et al., 2006).

For this theory to hold, psychopathic behavior would have to have a clear set of physiological underpinnings. Well guess what? Psychopaths regularly show “deficiencies” in brain systems related to such outcomes as startle response, empathy, and fear (see Blair, 2003).

For this theory to hold, there should be some clear adaptive benefits to being psychopathic. For instance, perhaps people who score high on measures of psychopathy are also rated as more physically attractive than average. This is exactly what Lalumiere and colleagues (2001) found in a study on this question.

Bottom Line

Why does bad behavior exist? This is one of the core questions that underlies the field of psychology. While there are, in fact, many answers to this broad question, it strikes me that the evolutionary perspective provides a powerful basis for answering questions like this.

When our ancestors built cities and dropped a nomadic lifestyle for an urban lifestyle, there were all kinds of unintended consequences. The rise of the psychopath may well be one such unintended consequence. Unfortunately, given the trend toward urbanization on a global scale, the prevalence of psychopaths in our world may well be on the rise.

Want to help work toward a better understanding of the world? Don’t ignore the implications of our evolutionary heritage.

References

Blair, R. J. R. (2003). Neurobiological basis of psychopathy. British Journal of Psychiatry, 102, 5–7.

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.

Figueredo, A. J., Vásquez, G., Brumbach, B. H., & Schneider, S. M. R. (2006b). The heritability of life history strategy: The K-factor, covitality, and personality. Social Biology.

Figueredo , A. J. , Brumbach , B. H. , Jones , D. N. , Sefcek , J. A. , Vasquez , G. , & Jacobs , W. J. ( 2008 ). Ecological constraints on mating tactics. In G. Geher & G. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system (pp. 337–365). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lalumiere, M. L., Harris, G. T., & Rice, M. E. (2001). Psychopathy and developmental instability. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 75–92.

Srivastava, K. (2009). Urbanization and mental health, Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 18, 75-76.

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