Monday, November 26, 2007

Psychopaths as Hawk Strategists

I recently stumbled on a year-old article about psychopaths. The article offers various explanations for why psychopaths exist, but this one I found most interesting:
Evolutionary psychologists regard psychopathy as an inherited personality style that has evolved because glib, deceitful individuals—as a minority within a larger population of trusting folk—often reproduce with much success.
So in other words, psychopaths are Hawks in the Chicken game of life. What’s nice about this explanation is that it not only explains why psychopaths exist, but also why we’re not all psychopaths. If there are few enough psychopaths in the population, then being a psychopath makes sense because you’ll mostly have winning confrontations with nice people. But if there are too many psychopaths, then the gains from taking advantage of nice people will be swamped by the losses from confronting other psychopaths. In equilibrium, you’ll get both psychos and nice folks, with each strategy generating approximately equal returns, and with the precise balance determined by the relative payoffs of different interactions.

With that explanation on the table, I found this one less plausible: “Other investigators ... regard psychopathy as the result of a still-unspecified genetic disorder. The inherited defect interferes with the workings of the brain's emotion system, which is centered in the amygdala, a structure especially concerned with perceiving dangerous situations.” Possible; but if psychopathy is a genetic defect, you have to wonder why it hasn’t been more completely weeded out of the population. Genetic defects can persist, of course, but usually because they produced some kind of balancing benefit in some evolutionary environment – e.g., the heterozygous form of sickle-cell anemia provides some protection against malaria. So when I see an alleged “defect,” I always look for the adaptive explanation.


Anonymous said...

I quite like the description outlined at this website quoting Stephen G. Michaud: "We know from the research that psychopaths have a core, aggressive narcissism that is fundamental to their personality. If you remove that narcissism, you don't have a psychopath."

If narcissism is one of the expectant products of the new media age (and McLuhan in particular was fond of warning us about the electric age 40 years before it fully arrived), but the problem is that it is very difficult to figure out who is and who isn't until its too late, and lets say it is byproduct of the emerging media culture - fairly impossible to bottle up or stop.

In any case, why should sensible people like you and me keep viewing the world as diseased place, when there are plenty of good people to focus our attention on. There is probably some really nice "hawks" if we retain an open mind about labels and realize that in reality that a large chunk of the human race has not really much developed beyond the hunter/gatherer state.

If only Darwin had written a book explaining how we could help ourselves to evolve rather than just focus on the mechanics.


PS Before solve the issue of psychopaths, we have yet to solve the issue of bad hair days.

Ran said...

I don't see that the two explanations are at odds. One explains how a genetic defect (defect from society's point of view, anyway) could lead to psychopathy, while the other explains how such a defect could, over evolutionary time-scales, continue to exist while always remaining rare.

Also, I think your statement "if there are too many psychopaths, then the gains from taking advantage of nice people will be swamped by the losses from confronting other psychopaths" is true, but probably not relevant; it doesn't seem that the proportion of psychopaths is anywhere near what you'd expect if this were the limiting criterion. Rather, I think the issue is that if there are too many psychopaths, then nice people will have more experience with psychopaths and will be less easily taken advantage of.

(We non-psychopaths may be saddled with these burdensome "consciences," but that doesn't mean we don't learn.)

Anonymous said...

When I read the response of Ran, it is still through the lens of looking at life as a defect or a disease.

The original post talked about the trust component and psychopaths can manipulate that and they do and we have in some ways fostered a society that permits psychopaths to succeed.

The question for me isn't why predators feed of a society that in general fosters an incredible amount of trust but whether I am one such predator (without considering what exists in the heart of another human being).

I am not being a dove by seeking the intelligence in beauty, nor am I being a hawk in trying to understand predatory instincts. I believe the answers we arrive at depend on what lens and filters we place on observing the world we exist in.

If the world was a homogeneous place there would be an answer that fits all. The answer isn't also in a rational explanation, for psychopathic behaviour exploits reason - far from being irrational, it is insidiously or insanely objective - devoid of any sensitivity to supporting intelligent social development.

I don't want to focus on my use of the words insidious and insane but open my heart and mind. Externally it is very difficult to spot the successful and well to do psychopath, the essential difference is on the inside and since we cannot assume to know what exists in other people's thoughts, it seems sensible to me these issues of life are best served as a Socratic reverse - what we observe in relationship to who we are. I therefore read and respond to the words here not to understand psychopathic behaviour but my own intelligence.