Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 2 – Cultural Adaptation

This post is the second in my series of posts about Sociopaths in our Culture.  The first post, concerning the definition and description of sociopathy, can be found here.

Continuing with my discussion of Antisocial Personality Disorder, we come to the question of how these people continue to survive in our present day culture.  In general, about half of our personality is based upon our genetics, while the other half is based upon our upbringing.

One of the most commonly used and widely accepted models for analyzing overall personality is the Five Factor Model (FFM) used by Costa & McCrae.  Their model assumes that personality can be broken down into the five factors of Neuroticism, Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.  The two that are relevant to this discussion are Agreeableness (A) and Conscientiousness (C).  Agreeableness is a measure of how well the individual cooperates with other people, while Conscientiousness is a measure of how hard people work as well as how much planning they put into a situation.  Generally a person who has been diagnosed with APD will rate very low on A & C as compared to the average of the population as a whole.

Like anything else in genetics, your personality isn’t simply going to be the average of your parents.  There is going to be some variation from your parents.  If you have parents who are fairly low on A & C, there is always a chance that you would end up scoring even lower on both measures.  The biggest issue with this is that having low A or C would seem like very poor personality traits.  This would lead you to think that over time these personalities would be slowly phased out of the gene pool.  So why are they still around?

The answer is simple, these are adaptive traits and in many circumstances people who possess these traits can be highly successful in society.  I know it sounds strange, but if you stop and think about it, it’s fairly easy to think of situations where it’s advantageous to be low on A, C, or both.

The clearest situation where someone low on A would be successful would be any situation where there is competition.  Lets look at sports for a moment.  (I’m watching the NBA playoffs as I type this, which is one of the reasons I’m using this as an example.)  One of the most highly regarded players in the NBA is Kobe Bryant, and in listening to analysts discuss his play, he is often described as having a killer instinct, or being ruthless.  To me at least, both of those adjectives sound like works that you could use to describe someone very low on Agreeableness.

So what about low C?  One of the clearest markers for low C is showing low remorse for other people’s well being.  The easiest situation to see where this would be advantageous (and oftentimes encouraged) would be in a time of war.  If you’re a general of an army, there are times when you have to be willing to send people into battle, knowing that in many cases they won’t be coming back.

It’s also very easy to see how it can be balanced in society.  A good example of this is the movie The Invention of Lying (which I have to confess I haven’t actually seen, but the previews got the premise across very well).  If you live in a world where everyone is honest and considerate, it can be quite advantageous for a single person who goes against these traits.  If no one ever lies, then the first person that starts to lie will be able to abuse that ability because people aren’t accustomed to anything other than the truth being told.  However, if too many people exhibit that behavior, more people become wary of it and it becomes a less adaptive strategy.  The constant cultural adaptation that we experience means that the level of people who exhibit dishonest and/or violent behavior will be fairly stable over time.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 3 – Sociopaths in Fiction

Leave a comment


  1. hannahrose42

     /  June 8, 2012

    Just a note — The Invention of Lying is worth a watch. It’s an interesting commentary on religion, surprisingly. Plus Ricky Gervais usually does pretty well at weird, sad movies.

    • Unfortunately, it’s not on Netflix right now. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

  1. Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 3 – In Fiction « Reviews and Ramblings
  2. Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 1 – Definition « Reviews and Ramblings

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