The Psychopath Next Door

Modern societies are breeding grounds for psychopathy.

Posted Feb 13, 2018

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Source: goodluz/Shutterstock

If you’re like me, you probably don't have much fondness for psychopaths. Psychopaths are characterized by a suite of antisocial behavioral patterns, including cheating, stealing, and sometimes, far worse crimes. 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 as being especially “high” on the psychopathy dimension of the Dark Triad — a cluster of antisocial traits associated with an exploitive and uncaring approach to others.

From an evolutionary perspective, one obvious question is, if people have a strong repulsion to psychopaths, how do psychopaths survive? Shouldn’t social pressures against psychopathic behaviors ultimately extinguish them? And shouldn’t those who exhibit such behaviors as a function of their genetic and physiological makeup then fail to 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 the conditions that characterized the evolutionary environment that surrounded that kind of organism in the past. In our modern human social environment, evolutionary mismatch abounds. For the lion’s share of human evolutionary history, our nomadic ancestors lived in groups 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. That is an evolutionary mismatch.

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

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 fast in a context like that, 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. (In fact, much of our modern psychology is steeped in this fact.)

However, times have changed. And we now live in metropolises like New York City, London, Tokyo, and Mexico City. And in large cities, 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 losing one's ties with one friend group is maybe not as bad as it would have been 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).

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

Finally, for this theory to hold, there should be some clear adaptive benefits to being psychopathic. For example, perhaps people who score high on measures of psychopathy are also rated as more physically attractive than average. Well, 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 in 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 it. When our ancestors built cities and dropped their nomadic lifestyle for an urban lifestyle, there were all kinds of unintended consequences. The rise of the psychopath may well be one such consequence. Unfortunately, given the trend toward urbanization on a global scale, the prevalence of psychopaths in our society 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.