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

Dr Jeremy Sherman presents a plausible explanation for the way moral people follow immoral leaders.

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.

... 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.

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."

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.

... 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.*

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.

*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

                                                       [emphasis mine]

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Replies to This Discussion

This makes me wonder, Ruth: to what degree is humankind's bovine nature reinforced and encouraged by religion's tendency to want its followers NOT to think for themselves but to follow the dicta ex cathedra of one church or another?  How much of this is nature and how much nurture?

A couple questions I would LOVE to hear answers to!

It’s true, much of human behavior is bovine, but by far the more important aspect is primate.  Consider hierarchy for example, tree dwellers naturally strive for the higher branches—much more hygienic and healthy up there.  Like in the old joke:  the elite on the top branches look down and see a bunch of shit heads, while the wretches at the bottom look up and see a bunch of assholes. Pretty much describes modern society. 

Hierarchy pervades most aspects of behavior from the church, government, the armed forces, the mafia, even the local school or university. 

Not so much with ungulates.  The strongest stay in the middle of the herd where it’s safest.  The old and weak get pushed out to the periphery to face the hungry lions.  Doesn’t get much more complex than that. 

(Interestingly, humans often use this strategy:  the strongest run and control the largest institutions like the army, government, universities and banks.)



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