A lot of the world’s misery can be traced to people who lack the wiring for empathy. What can we do to contain the damage they cause?
Did you know that roughly one person in a hundred is clinically a psychopath? These individuals are either born with an emotional deficiency that keeps them from feeling bad about hurting others, or they are traumatized early in life in a manner that causes them to become this way. With more than 7 billion people on the planet that means there are as many as 70,000,000 psychopaths alive today. These people are more likely to be risk takers, opportunists motivated by self-interest and greed, and inclined to dominate or subjugate those around them through manipulative means.
Last year, the Occupy Movement drew a distinction between the top 1% and the remaining 99% — as distinguished by measures of wealth and income. Of course, this breakdown is misleading, since there are many top income earners who sympathize with the plights of others and are not part of the problem. But the real defining metric reveals itself: 1% of the global population is comprised of people who exhibit psychopathic tendencies.
The global economy we have today is built on a deep history of top-down hierarchies that promote domination and control. There have been plenty of feudal lords, warrior chieftains, and violent dictators throughout the last 6000 years of burgeoning civilization. The modern era saw the ascension of “ corporate personhood ” as an amoral entity enshrined into law by an 1886 ruling of the US Supreme Court. This provided a new mechanism for mobilizing capital by the moneyed elites to deploy their wealth into the realm of public policy and civil society — creating the dysfunctional economic system we must now contend with as we struggle to address global challenges.
We find ourselves in a situation where economic philosophies that celebrate selfishness can be implemented through a web of legal and financial tools that elevate and reward those individuals with psychological tendencies toward self-interest — the same people who also have a predisposition to game social contexts to their advantage regardless of impacts on others. Thus the psychopathic corporation was forged as a Frankenstein monster that enabled the constant flow of psychopathic blood, continuously replenished by the 1% of the population born into psychopathy in each new generation, to rise into positions of power as stock traders, corporate executives, and corruptible politicians.
What can we do collectively to contain and manage this small minority of people who are driven by selfish motives with no concern for others? How must we include them in our plans so that global civilization can transition to a configuration of peaceful cooperation and environmental balance? This is the defining question for global financial stability and environmental sustainability. It runs right to the core of our inability to garner collective action on such systemic challenges as climate change, global poverty, and corporate corruption. It is the central issue of political power that has so far eluded our environmental and social justice movements.
We can start to sketch out the solution by drawing on cross-disciplinary research about human nature and our evolutionary past. The key questions are:
What are the evolutionary advantages for having psychopaths in the gene pool?
How did our ancestors keep their anti-social tendencies in check?
What is the positive role for psychopaths that needs to be preserved in the new economic system?
Partial answers to these questions can be found in the pioneering work of anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, in his recent book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Professor Boehm has dedicated much of his career to the study of primates in an attempt to explain where pro-social behaviors originally came from. Along the way he realized that a critical piece of the puzzle was how hunter-gatherer tribes dealt with would-be cheaters and dictators in order to maintain an egalitarian ethos in their social groups. Every hunter-gatherer society has a long history of democratic governance that provided cohesion and stability to the small bands of humans who had to cooperate in order to survive long periods of climatic instability and changing landscapes.
These small bands had particular difficulty with their psychopaths when it came to hunting big game. They depended heavily on the wealth of nutrients provided by large animals, yet were unable to successfully acquire meat without cooperation. It was in this context that the cheaters and bullies had to be suppressed — through a consensus process amongst tribal members with the power to ostracize or, in extreme cases, execute these (typically male) would-be upstarts. They did this to keep them from disrupting the social order that enabled the group to survive and thrive.
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Can we contain the 70 million psychopaths in the world today? Only if we come together and create effective sanctions on their destructive behaviors before it’s too late. The future still resides in the strength of our communities as we struggle together to find solutions that match the severity of existing threats during these turbulent times. As a recent political slogan decried, “Yes we can!”
And, ultimately, we must if we are to deliver our children into a livable world.