Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Psychopath Cowboys; Sociopath Herds: A New Theory of How Evil Happens

Psychopath Cowboys; Sociopath Herds: A New Theory of How Evil Happens

This post is in response to
Fourteen Surefire Signs That You're Dealing With A Sleezeball

If you want a simple but accurate explanation for why civilization so often veers toward evil, here's a theory worth considering: Psychopaths are overrepresented in positions of power and they make sociopaths out of large numbers of us.

Robert Hare, psychology's most famous expert on psychopaths distinguishes psychopaths from sociopaths as follows.

Psychopaths are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves ... Sociopathy is not a formal psychiatric condition. It refers to patterns of attitudes and behaviors that are considered antisocial and criminal by society at large, but are seen as normal or necessary by the subculture or social environment in which they developed.

After WWII, many people suspected that there might be something about the German temperament that made them so willing to comply with Hitler's orders to hurt fellow humans. In one of psychology's most famous experiments Stanley Milgram demonstrated that most of us, regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality will readily comply with an authority figure's instructions to hurt fellow humans.

In Milgram's experiment a man in a white lab coat instructed subjects to administer what they believed to be successively intense electrical shocks to another person. Coaxed only by such statements as "Please continue," and "The experiment requires that you continue," 65% of subjects inflicted the maximum 450-volt shock and none of the remaining 35% insisted the experiment be terminated or left the room to check the health of the victim without requesting permission to leave.

All right so it's not just the Germans. More generally then, what would make any of us sociopathically deferential to a Hitler-like psychopath? Are we all subconsciously sadistic?

No, we're subconsciously bovine. We become herd animals and follow the leader.
Once we have determined that someone is in a position of moral leadership, we shift from moral autonomy to moral deference.

We don't shirk responsibility so much as surrender it to a higher power and it's understandable that we would. A true moral leader deserves our allegiance and support. Aligning with moral leadership lends our leverage to his or her righteous cause. Think of where we would be today without the allied soldiers' deference to moral leadership in WWII. We survived Hitler because the Greatest Generation sacrificed their moral autonomy to true moral leaders. Theirs was not to wonder why; theirs was just to do or die.

The problem isn't in our deference to moral leaders but in how lousy we are at determining who is a moral leader. Hitler wasn't one and yet masses of people thought that he was.

Our deference explains why psychopaths are over-represented in positions of power. By their nature psychopaths have no conscience and will fight as dirty as they can get away with fighting. This gives them an enormous edge in competition.

Just think how your fortunes would rise in any game if you could cheat and your opponent couldn't. A psychopath's fortunes would rise in game play too but not nearly so much as they rise in politics.

In games the line between fair and unfair play is well defined so it's easy to spot cheaters. In politics the line is fuzzier which makes it harder to spot cheaters, easier to cheat, and easier for the psychopath to defend himself by pleading ignorance and self-defense saying, "I don't think I crossed the line and anyway I think my opponent crossed it so, if I got close to the line it was merely in self defense."

Also, clearly the object in games is to win and therefore deferring like a herd animal to a moral leader would be absurd. You probably haven't done that since you were cowed at seven into teaming up with your big brother to beat your little brother at Monopoly. As an adult you're not suddenly going to assist your opponent in some play-to-win game just because he professes moral authority.

But in the political arena you might well defer. Politics for most of us is not just played to win, but to do what's right. In games winning is everything, in politics most of us think winning is means to a higher end. Because politics isn't just about winning, our guards are down and paradoxically it becomes easier for a psychopath to win. Our deference to moral leadership is the psychopath's secret weapon. In politics, the moral leader says move and we moo.

So how does someone look like a moral leader? One way is through deeds, to live clean and let your works be seen, for example the way, Nelson Mandela did (Happy 93rd birthday today, Nelson).

But that's labor intensive and by no means the most efficient way, especially for a psychopath. Remember his aim is to get away with as much dirty fighting as possible, an aim at odds with demonstrating moral leadership through deeds. There's a much easier way.

Samuel Johnson said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." A patriot out-moralizes his opposition. He says "I love my country more than you do." He acts like the ultimate judge of who is the most patriotic and then claims himself the winner.

Patriotism is but one of a great many ways to claim the moral mantel by assuming the role of ultimate moral judge and condemning others. More generally and more to the point, moral condemnation of one's opponents is the first refuge of a psychopath.

To look like a moral leader a psychopath need only follow a simple formula. Project your psychopathy onto your opponent. Simply inventory the list of dirty tricks you would be willing to play on your opponent and accuse your opponent of employing each one. If you lie, call your opponent a liar. If you slander accuse him of slander. If you corrupt public debate accuse him of corrupting public debate. If you don't care about the downtrodden, accuse your opponent of not caring about the downtrodden.

Isn't such hypocrisy easily detected? Not if the hypocrite is first to accuse. Projecting from normal moral sensitivities, he who casts the first stone must have a damned good reason, because it's such an audacious thing to do. The seconded to accuse, we assume needn't have a good reason. A retaliator is just trying to weasel out of the hot seat the first to accuse rightfully put him in.*

"I know you are but what am I" works well enough for kids, but by adulthood the hypocritical deflection is matured to a more sophisticated, "Sir I have kept silent as long as I could but your moral depravity forces me to speak."

Freud called it projection but it needn't be as psychodynamically intricate as he envisioned it. A simple formula does the trick, especially because once the psychopath applies the formula, decent if indiscriminately bovine humans will flock to his aid.

Hitler accused his opposition of conspiring to take over the world. Stalin purged millions of opponents for being self serving and morally corrupt. Joseph McCarthy accused people of undermining our Democracy. I'm confident that every psychopathic leader in modern history has employed the formula.

Milgram's experiment shocked us into the recognition that no one is exempt. It's not just that a few of us might go sociopathically bovine and follow a psychopath masquerading as a moral leader. All of us might.

To this I would add the reverse. It's not just that a few psychopathic leaders masquerade as moral leaders by hypocritically accusing their opponents of their own crimes. All of them do. How then should we live?

More discerningly about moral leadership, taking much more seriously the evidence of hypocrisy in our most strident self-proclaimed moral leaders.

This article was inspired by listening to Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them, Al Franken's highly informative (though also entertaining) detailed analysis of corruption among those who have taken over the Republican Party in the past few decades.

*Karl Rove makes a point of attacking opponents not on their weaknesses but on their strengths, for example when Bush, a draft dodger was at a disadvantage against Kerry, a decorated military hero, Rove attacked Kerry on his military record. For a more detailed analysis see, Karl Rove’s Playbook summarized here:

1. Take the Offensive
2. Attack Your Opponent's Strengths
3. Accuse Your Opponent of What He/She is Going to Accuse You Of
4. Go Negative, Then Cry Foul
5. Tell One Big Lie
6. Appeal to Moral Values
7. Sell on Persona
8. Sell an Adolescent Worldview
9. Exploit the Media
10. Create Straw Issues
11. Employ Surrogates
12 Use Emotional Appeals
13. Rely on Expert Testimonials
14. Use Rhetorical Devices