Reflections on Trump, Sociopaths and Evolution

At the risk of posing what has now become an all-too familiar and predictable question, how did a malignant individual like Donald Trump manage to catapult himself on to the national stage in the first place? Perhaps, we are led to believe, Trump’s surprise political emergence was spurred by aggrieved white male voters seeking to vent their frustrations and rage against a globalized, educated elite. Though explanations such as these contain a degree of truth, they fail to take other factors into account, such as the long-range persistence of cruel and psychotic traits. Defined broadly as the deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain on other living creatures, at times indifferently but frequently with a sense of delight, cruelty forms part of our common human past, and may go back even further in time.

Such questions are intriguing to me personally, not because I’m psychotic by any stretch of the imagination, but rather because I have recently begun to reflect on the role of so-called “neuro-minorities” throughout human evolution. As someone who falls on the autism spectrum, I’ve frequently struggled to relate to others within the “neuro-typical” majority, and though I don’t necessarily believe autists have always played the role of the victim, it seems fair to say that people like me face a number of unique challenges. And yet, as I discuss in a separate essay, autistic genes have been passed down throughout evolution, suggesting that certain traits may serve a particular purpose. The persistence of victim-like individuals, however, makes one wonder about the continuity of individuals who in many ways exhibit polar opposite behaviors, that is to say sadists who enjoy inflicting cruelty. In light of our current political predicament, I would argue that contemplating such questions is hardly a frivolous matter.

Psychotic and Narcissistic Animals

Going back in time on our evolutionary tree, experts have noted that all monkeys exhibit the capacity for “Machiavellian” conduct, that is to say, employing an intelligent strategy and cunning to gain power and advantages over a rival, with alpha males demonstrating threatening behavior accompanied by violent tactics designed to protect sleeping spaces as well as access to females and food. Dominant monkeys, meanwhile, employ unpredictable bursts of aggression to assert power, or alternatively form alliances with other dominant individuals. “It might come as a surprise,” notes the BBC, “but some animals seem to be genuinely unpleasant individuals,” with some monkeys displaying a “two-faced,” mean, deceitful and mendacious personality compared to a witch. Other chimpanzees display callousness, absence of emotion and fearlessness, and have been observed systematically cannibalizing infants, all of which suggests the animals could be true psychopaths, that is to say lacking a sense of empathy and guilt.

Turning to the oceans, dolphins have been known to attack porpoises, leaving scientists befuddled. Perhaps dolphins are competing with porpoises for prey, and therefore they are simply seeking to get rid of competing rivals. That theory, however, doesn’t explain why dolphins fail to go after seals, which have a similar diet. In less shocking cases, dolphins have been observed sneaking up on seagulls under the water and popping them off. Perhaps, the dolphins are engaging in a childhood form of play, which can ultimately descend into sadism, the opposite of empathy. There’s a fine line here, since animals who play with their victims don’t kill their prey but rather resort to torture. While it certainly follows that one must play first before becoming an adult animal, in some cases such play might carry over into adulthood, with certain individuals never relinquishing their formerly sadistic behavior.

Perhaps, humans don’t have an exclusive monopoly on other forms of behavior which similarly go back in evolutionary time. Take, for example, narcissism and an exaggerated sense of self-importance: does a male peacock with its beautiful tail illustrate how grandiosity may have emerged? “Can we draw any comparisons,” asks the BBC, “between the charm and charisma of a narcissist and the lengths some animals will go to in order to draw attention to themselves?” While some people believe they have overcome the narrow selfishness associated with narcissism, a more sobering thought is that all living things are “gene survival machines” intent on reproducing across the generations, regardless of whether such genes come at the cost of ostensibly more caring, cooperative or gentle traits.

From Animals to Humans

Needless to say, sadism is certainly present in human beings and .5% of the population, to be precise, are psychopaths. Experts note that sadism and psychopathic traits share a moderate to strong hereditary link, so it could be that a minority is simply born this way. Alternatively, it is also possible that parents pass such traits on to offspring by abusing their children, or perhaps seeing others act in so-called high “D-factor” or “dark factor of personality” ways can influence behavior. Defined as “the basic tendency to maximize one's own utility at the expense of others, accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications for one's malevolent behaviors,” D-factor traits may lead others to embrace sadism.

Just why sadism has persisted over time is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps, such behavior harks back to play in animals, which relied on sadism as an important method of hunting and killing prey. Some believe sadism may have provided an evolutionary advantage, in that it similarly helped humans to slaughter animals while hunting. Others argue that sadism helped people gain power, and to be sure such traits probably don’t hurt when it comes to winning wars and conquest. Killing one’s opponents in a particularly sadistic way or torturing people, which evokes fear, could have certainly been a way to deter competition. Vlad the Impaler, for example, intimidated his enemies by hanging bodies on the border of his kingdom as a stark warning.

Perhaps, sadism is designed to ensure survival when times get tough, or to “weed out” weaker individuals. When food becomes scarce, levels of serotonin in the brain may decrease, which makes people more willing to cause harm to others. It would seem to follow that if people observed their enemies being tortured, and this in turn was linked to the mere act of survival, then perhaps such sadistic spectacles came to feel rewarding. Not surprisingly, then, within competitive or harsh environments, psychopaths and Machiavellians may have had a reproductive advantage and engaged in promiscuity. Indeed, experts note, “the narcissist feels special and exudes confidence that people react to, and that provides opportunities for reproduction.” In a nutshell, then, the more unstable and more competitive the environment, the more likely psychopaths will be to thrive, since they are fearless, display impulsivity and are great manipulators and risk takers.

Everyday Sadism

Though sadism may conjure up associations with serial murderers and sexual crimes, as well as notorious characters such as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, milder forms of sadism live on, probably because such traits provided certain ancestral advantages. Today, sadism forms part of everyday life and a sadistic impulse is certainly evident in many settings ranging from prisons to schools to criminal gangs. What is more, the capacity to feel pleasure from other people’s pain and suffering is more common than many of us would care to admit. People might, for example, enjoy watching a fight outside a bar and taking in gory films, playing violent video games or observing cruelty in sports as well as suffering and torture.

Like autism, sadism is not a strictly binary phenomenon but rather exists on a spectrum, with those who score highly for the trait more likely to behave in obviously anti-social ways. Everyday sadists are rare, but not rare enough, with approximately six percent of undergraduates admitting they enjoy hurting others. Those who score higher on surveys which measure sadism are more likely to carry out vandalism, sexual aggression or to cyberbully and troll people online. Traditionally, psychologists envisioned a so-called “dark triad” framework incorporating personality types ranging from Machiavellians to narcissists and psychopaths. More recently, however, experts have argued that such a framework should be expanded to include everyday sadists as well. Studies have shown that sadists are so motivated to inflict suffering on others that they are even willing to incur a personal cost, which differentiates them from strict narcissists and Machiavellians.

Different Types of Psychopaths

As awful as this may sound, at least sadists may feel a pang of guilt after voyeuristically enjoying other people’s suffering. Psychopaths, on the other hand, don’t always harm people simply because they enjoy suffering, but rather because they want something. Psychopathy is characterized by egotistic behavior, boldness, and lack of empathy. Because they are less prone to feel pity, remorse or fear, psychopaths can grasp what other people are feeling without getting bogged down by such feelings themselves. Unlike autists, who can be guileless and naïve, psychopaths are crafty and blend in.

“We need to know if we encounter a psychopath,” experts note. “We can make a good guess from simply looking at someone’s face or briefly interacting with them. Unfortunately, psychopaths know we know this. They fight back by working hard on their clothing and grooming to try and make a good first impression…This is a seriously dangerous set of skills. Over millennia, humanity has domesticated itself. This has made it difficult for many of us to harm others. Many who harm, torture or kill will be haunted by the experience. Yet psychopathy is a powerful predictor of someone inflicting unprovoked violence.” Today, about eight percent of male and two percent of female prisoners are psychopaths.

From a scientific perspective, psychopaths are perplexing since their behaviors do not suggest an obvious evolutionary advantage, and most serial killers are childless when they are killed or apprehended. As with sadism, however, psychopathy is more complex than meets the eye, since not all psychopaths are necessarily dangerous. Indeed, so-called “anti-social psychopaths” may seek out dangerous thrills such as drug use, while “pro-social psychopaths” may channel their dark side into the pursuit of novel ideas. Reportedly, artists and creative types are predisposed toward pro-social psychopathy. Though they may be revolutionary and visionary pioneers, such individuals may come off as “discomfiting” and unsocialized. One neuro-scientist was surprised when a brain imaging pattern revealed him to be a full-blown psychopath, even though he happened to be married and professionally successful. When he asked his relatives what they thought of him, they reported he was cold, “superficially glib,” and lacked empathy. Despite this, his family enjoyed having him around, suggesting a diagnosis of pro-social psychopath.

Some researchers argue that psychopathy can be useful in moderation. Indeed, under certain circumstances, psychopathic traits such as charm, confidence, ruthlessness and staying cool under pressure can be an asset, particularly if one serves in the special forces or one works as a police officer. Similarly, if you’re a CEO, a nurse or a surgeon, or alternatively you occupy a profession which requires negotiating a power structure or wielding control over people, then psychopathic characteristics may come in handy. Some might wonder whether society should recruit empathetic surgeons, given that their work is so cold and calculated, or whether Green Berets should be empathetic, as opposed to dispassionately performing their jobs.

Ironically enough, both Buddhists and psychopaths share certain traits in common, such as the ability to be mindful and live in the present. Indeed, both are good at mind reading and they’re adept at picking up on micro-expressions, that is to say “lightning-fast changes in facial scenery.” Experts note that Buddhist meditators are able to pick up such micro-expressions, “probably because they are able to slow down their perception.” Other research indicates that psychopaths are also good at picking up on micro-expressions, perhaps because they spend more time scrutinizing others.

The Question of Empathy

It is very curious how empathy has evolved in different psychological types, and as an autist myself such matters are quite absorbing to me personally. It has been said that people falling on the autism spectrum encounter difficulties with something called “cognitive empathy,” which allows one to look into someone’s mind and automatically understand why they act in a certain way. Paradoxically, this may lead some to conclude that autists are future serial killers due to supposed lack of empathy.

Some researchers, however, believe autists display emotional or “affective empathy,” when one senses tension in the room and one can feel it without understanding why. In this sense, autists are the polar opposite of psychopaths and narcissistic sociopaths, who display cognitive empathy but lack affective empathy. By closely observing others, disturbed individuals can understand and predict future behavior, and psychopaths and sociopaths employ cognitive empathy to manipulate, coerce and deceive others.

Narcissistic sociopaths share many features with psychopaths, including above average intelligence, considerable social skills and adaptability. Both types are charming, outgoing, and fake interest in people and subjects, while also feigning sympathy and a moral conscience. To the extent that either expresses interest in charitable causes, this is merely designed to enhance selfish ends. Both psychopaths and narcissistic sociopaths are dangerous, since they learn from experience and show no allegiance to a set of moral principles. To the degree they admire anyone at all, it is other psychopaths and sociopaths. Lastly, both display a chilling lack of regard for the welfare of others and are effective liars.

Unlike psychopathic serial killers, however, narcissistic sociopaths displaying Machiavellianism and “narcissistic/anti-social personality disorder” have families and children whom they strongly support in a nepotistic manner. Whereas psychopaths have no conscience whatsoever, sociopaths may have one, but it’s weak. Moreover, while psychopaths are more likely to be violent and wind up in jail, narcissistic sociopaths are generally non-violent and quite capable of operating within the legal system. Though psychopaths don’t display any allegiances to family, community or country, narcissistic sociopaths exhibit “extreme in-group identification” such as racism, xenophobia and nationalism. Whereas psychopaths are focused on sadistic self-gratification, narcissistic sociopaths are more concerned with accumulating wealth and influence, though experts agree there may be some cross-over in the form of “malignant narcissists,” that is to say sociopaths who enjoy inflicting pain.

Diagnosing Trump

While diagnosing someone from afar is always questionable, it’s tempting to associate Donald Trump with many of these behaviors. To be sure, Trump exhibits “Dark Triad” tendencies, for example when he makes disparaging comments about Muslims and thereby fails to demonstrate empathy. Trump’s penchant to belittle fallen military officers and their families squares with psychopathy, and his tendency to name things after himself belies narcissism. Lacking a moral compass, he has frequently changed his political views while pursuing a nepotistic agenda for his family. Moody, impulsive, paranoid and even delusional, he is a compulsive liar who creates his own fantasy world.

Ultimately, Trump’s constellation of behaviors suggests he is not a psychopath, but rather a malignant narcissist or narcissistic sociopath. However, the president’s narcissism is particularly stark because he is out of touch with reality, and this suggests a truly sick individual. His sociopathic nature is underscored by a tendency to humiliate and treat others as if they weren’t fellow human beings, further hinting at serious mental illness. A deeply primitive man, Trump fails to demonstrate genuine loyalty to anyone, but wants everyone to be loyal to him. Despite these traits, his ability to attract devoted supporters is undeniable, and this suggests that Trump is able to size people up. However improbable it may seem, then, Trump may indeed possess a degree of cognitive empathy. It is sobering to think that it is precisely his Dark Triad characteristics, sociopathy, and fundamental meanness which have contributed to Trump’s mass appeal.

Persistence of Cruelty

The persistence of political figures like Trump forces us to confront the subtle conceit of civilization, which rests on the notion that we have moved beyond the primitive lizard brain. The uncomfortable truth, however, seems to be that narcissistic sociopaths aren’t made up of “a bizarre combination of traits,” but rather display “highly attuned social skills and behaviors aimed at increasing long-term biological fitness through wealth, status, power, and the future success of progeny. In order words, sociopaths are highly adapted.” But given how dangerous sociopaths can be to society, why can’t we stop them? Experts remark that narcissistic sociopaths only comprise one to two percent of the population, and are therefore difficult to detect. Or, perhaps people aren’t aware of the nuances between Machiavellians, narcissists, sociopaths and the like, and initially misjudge individuals like Trump or dismiss him as a harmless buffoon, until it’s too late.

This isn’t how things are normally supposed to work, since society should be able to detect dishonest or manipulative behavior, and to act accordingly by punishing malignant actors. Dozens of mammal species, in fact, display such complex social behavior, not to mention humans and our close relatives, who are particularly adept at identifying cheaters and liars. Most people share a common interest in maintaining social order and fairness, and because they are so rare, narcissistic sociopaths normally shouldn’t cause a problem. Once in a while, however, someone like Trump slips under the radar, and this highlights something called “frequency-dependent-selection,” which pits narcissistic sociopaths against all others who do not wish to be manipulated. But perhaps we don’t pass that threshold all that often, simply because narcissistic sociopaths are so rare. To the contrary, if the Trumps of this world were more numerous, and society became more aware of certain patterns of social deviance, then we could act more readily to neutralize such individuals.

Again, it would seem that normally evolution might act as a break, since narcissists tend to cancel each other out, and when they do encounter one another, they might be “willing to cooperate with each other in fickle and short-lived alliances, [but] ultimately their goals will collide and the relationship deteriorates into mutually self-defeating conflicts. This, too, acts as negative selection and maintains the low frequency of this peculiar phenotype.” This sets up a dynamic in which society gets blasé and inured to the threat of sociopaths, who aren’t all that numerous. This in turn leads to poor adaptation, but sociopaths become more highly adapted. “However, as the sociopath phenotype finds evolutionary success, the pressure flips back the other direction as the rest of society experiences increasing pressure, adapts, and then pushes the frequency of the sociopaths back down to the basal level. In human culture, this pendulum swings in both the long timescales of genetic evolution and the short timescales of cultural evolution. In both contexts, the conflict is cyclical.”

Overcoming Evolution

Is there an underlying reason why the “Dark Tetrad” of behaviors continues to exist? An unsettling thought is that dark personalities are like parasites designed to clean up less adaptive individuals, or those in the herd who don’t have the ability to contribute. In this sense, the parasites are “keeping the species fit, in a way.” “It is a morally troubling argument,” some have noted, “but perhaps Dark Tetrad behaviors are, paradoxically, beneficial to human and animal societies by encouraging other individuals to be on their guard and think carefully about their trust.” Whatever the case, the disadvantages of Machiavellian strategies and sadism may certainly outweigh the advantages, and society now needs an off-ramp. For every nurse or surgeon who’s good in a pinch, there’s also the flip side including Gordon Gecko, sadistic cops and homicidal members of the Special Forces, to say nothing of Trump and other would-be sociopathic dictators.

But if the persistence of dark behaviors is a given over time, what should we actually do about it? Prominently feature more psychologists on the media? Turn to master Buddhist meditators, who are more attuned and aware of psychopaths? Or perhaps promote mental health campaigns to more readily identify dark behaviors, and thereby head them off within families and the like? To be sure, genetics and brain structure play a role in deciding whether someone will wind up being a psychopath, but upbringing and early life experiences can serve to ratchet down such predispositions. If such measures seem admittedly far-fetched, it would seem even more unlikely we will promote necessary long-term societal change, however desirable this may be. To be sure, psychopathic traits may have served a purpose in hyper-competitive environments, but we are no longer living in small bands in the Paleolithic era, and in today’s world, a politically savvy sociopath can inflict suffering on a truly global scale. If the world somehow manages to get through the coming U.S. election, and people finally learn their lesson about dark personality traits, then perhaps we can start to dismantle competitive features in society to the greatest degree possible, which in turn might serve to tamp down the rise of sociopathic individuals.