Morality, Compassion and the Sociopath

by Venkat on November 21, 2009

Again, the response to the Gervais Principle II seems to require a response to key themes that have emerged. There are several that I am going to touch upon in the next part, and some I am not touching, ever, but one deserves note and a serious response, since I hadn’t planned on addressing it. This is the question of good and evil. For those of you who want the elevator-pitch version, the short position is this: my entire thesis is amoral; there are good and evil sociopaths; more sociopaths is a good thing; the clueless and losers are exactly as likely to engage in evil behaviors as sociopaths. Details follow. Keep in mind that this is a very rough sketch, and a sidebar to the main series that I really don’t want to pursue too far.

The Word “Sociopath”

A large number of commenters have objected to this term, and it has also led to some unnecessary confusion. Néant Humain, in a precise comment, pointed out that my use of the term does not square with the clinical use (actually, the term is no longer considered clinically precise at all, and has been replaced by phrases like “antisocial personality disorder”).

But let’s step back here. I am using the word in its everyday, loosely overloaded sense.  As in, you telling your friend, “you are such a !@##$ sociopath.”  I want to stick to the term for two good reasons. One: Hugh Macleod’s original cartoon which inspired this series is too good to give up. Second, distrust of communities and groups, and a stubborn individualism, are the main personality characteristics here (and this position is not original to me; it is derived from William Whyte). Words like “player” or “enlightened” (two suggested alternatives) don’t cut it.

I originally characterized “sociopath” as will-to-power people. Let me add a few more characteristics.

First, sociopaths are driven by unsentimental observation of external realities, no matter how unpleasant. Second, they use the information they acquire through reality-grounding in skilled ways. Third, their distrust of subsuming communities and groups leads them to adopt personal moralities. Whether good or evil, the morality of a sociopath is something he or she takes responsibility for.

Finally, and most importantly, sociopaths do not seek legitimacy for their private morality from the group, justify it, or apologize for it. They may attempt to evade the consequences of their behavior. In fact their personal morality may legitimize such evasion.  Equally, they may, out of realistic and pragmatic assessments, allow themselves to be subject to codified group morality (such as a legal or religious system), that they privately disagree with. So they might accept consequences they feel they do not deserve, because they assess attempts at rebellion to be futile. But in all cases, they reserve for themselves the right to make all moral judgments. Their private morality is not, in their view, a matter for external democractic judgment.

So yes, this entire edifice I am constructing is a determinedly amoral one. Hitler would count as a sociopath in this sense, but so would Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

In all this, the source of the personality of this archetype is distrust of the group, so I am sticking to the word “sociopath” in this amoral sense. The fact that many readers have automatically conflated the word “sociopath” with “evil” in fact reflects the demonizing tendencies of loser/clueless group morality. The characteristic of these group moralities is automatic distrust of alternative individual moralities. The distrust directed at the sociopath though, is reactionary rather than informed.

The Morality of the Clueless and Losers

The opposite of the morally-responsible sociopath is what somebody called “evil clueless” in a comment, an archetype we haven’t met in the Office universe. The classic example is the petty, tyrannical bureaucrat of the “I was only following orders” variety. A category that includes the over-zealous Nazi concentration-camp guard. This example too, came up in the discussion, and in one comment, Harold Smith noted that the Nazi rank-and-file often viewed their actions through a bizarre moral compass:

Your comment about how the loser role fits most people is apt. I am reading They thought they were free, about the Nazi era in Germany. The author, an American Jew, interviewed ten ex-Nazis in depth, all of them self-styled Little Men, who thought the Nazi era was the best part of their lives. They had no idea what was going on, and didn’t want to know. The Nazis took care of unemployment, and that was all they were interested in.

Other than characterizing these people as clueless, rather than losers, I completely agree with Harold here.

If the clueless often go “evil” in the “we were only following orders” mode, losers often go “evil” in bystander mode, like the Seinfeld characters in the incident that got them hauled into court under Good Samaritan laws. As Douglas Hofstadter said, “apathy at the level of individuals leads to insanity on the level of civilizations.” It is loser-apathetic “somebody else’s problem” mode thinking he was talking about. Since the very idea of “collective action” (ranging from AIDS walks to signature campaigns) relies entirely on clueless and loser moralities, it is fair to ask: if responsibility-abdicating moral apathy is the characteristic of the loser group (which is the largest), is “collective action” a sham?

The answer is yes, and it has been well known in philosophy for a while as the Free Rider Problem (originally studied by Olson). In most cases of collective action, a few pay the costs for the many, in bringing about social change. The ones who pay are usually the benevolent clueless (Michael-like people with altruistic, but still delusional, grand narratives).

The key here is that the clueless and losers often externalize their moral sense, into some sort of collectively (and ritually) adopted code, thereby abdicating responsibility for the moral dimension of their actions entirely. You don’t have to think about the morality of what you do if you can just appeal to some code (religious texts are the main kind, but there are others, such as Hippie or Joe the Plumber codes). The morality that they defer to is always a codified communal version of the views of some charismatic sociopath, but it is the abdication of responsibility, as a group, by the clueless and losers, that amplifies the impact of both the Hitlers and Gandhis of the world. Without this group dynamic, Hitler would have been a random local psycho, perhaps serial-killing a dozen people. Gandhi might have been no more than a friendly neighborhood do-gooder.

Which implies, by the way, that organized religion is incompatible with sociopathy.

This entire view can be disturbing to some of you, so take a step back here. What do you fear most?An evil group or an evil person? Read Shirley Jackson’s thoroughly scary story of group insanity, The Lottery. Watch Children of the Corn. Would you rather live in a town where there is a sole vampire terrorizing the population, or be the sole non-zombie in a town that has gone all-zombie? Ask yourself, who scares you more — Hitler or the mindless army he inspired? Would you prefer the tyranny of a dictator or the tyranny of an illiberal democracy, where a mob tramples over individuals? Dictators can be overthrown. Can an evil group culture be as easily displaced?

I don’t want to offer flippant and easy solutions to these age-old moral conundrums. I just want to point out to those who are equating “sociopath” with “evil” (modulo any semantic confusion) that morality needs to be looked at in more complex ways.

Compassion, Sociopathy and Reluctant Messiahs

Let’s talk a little about the Good Sociopath. When people engage in actions that are broadly recognized as “good,” the defining quality of their behavior is usually the value of compassion. Yet, compassion plays out very differently among the three groups.

Sociopaths can be compassionate because their distrust only extends to groups. They are capable of understanding and empathizing with individual pain and acting with compassion. A sociopath who sets out to be compassionate is strongly limited by two factors: the distrust of groups (and therefore skepticism and distrust of large-scale, organized compassion), and the firm grounding in reality. The second factor allows sociopaths to look unsentimentally at all aspects of reality, including the fact that apparently compassionate actions that make you “feel good” and assuage guilt today may have unintended consequences that actually create more evil in the long term. This is what makes even good sociopaths often seem callous to even those  among the clueless and losers who trust the sociopath’s intentions. The apparent callousness is actually evidence that hard moral choices are being made.

When driven by compassion, therefore, sociopaths prefer small individual kindnesses to joining large-scale world-hunger solving efforts. The good sociopath is more likely to ask: how can I make a modest and cautious effort to improve the life of this person I am with right now, as opposed to participating in something lofty and dangerously abstract, like a signature campaign.

When a sociopath has the resources for (and feels the imperative towards) larger scale do-gooding, you get something like Bill Gates’ behavior: a very careful, cautious, eyes-wide-open approach to compassion. Gates has taken on a world-hunger sized problem, but there is very little ceremony or posturing about it. It is sociopath compassion. Underlying the scale is a residual distrust of the group — especially the group inspired by oneself — that leads to the “reluctant messiah” effect. Nothing is as scary to the compassionate and powerful sociopath as the unthinking adulation and following inspired by their ideas. I suspect the best among these lie awake at night worrying that if they were to die, the headless group might mutate into a monster driven by a frozen, unexamined moral code. Which is why the smartest attempt to engineer institutionalized doubt, self-examination and formal checks and balances into any systems they design.

The clueless are not capable of much compassion, unless they can very strongly identify with the person. The one time Michael displays this sort of compassion is when he attends Pam’s painting exhibition. In his other “charitable” efforts, Michael is clearly posturing.

Losers, by and large, engage in apparently compassionate actions to feel good about themselves, assuage guilt, and other sorts of purely pathos-driven motivations. Mostly, they are apathetic due to a rational realization that there isn’t actually a whole lot they can do. Ethos and logos can only enter into compassionate action when there is, to begin with, an acceptance of individual responsibility. So loser-morality is ultimately either derivative or flawed, and therefore uninteresting.

This is not to say that all loser/clueless attempts at compassionate action must fail, backfire or otherwise mess up. The group morality in favor of which they abdicate responsibility may be a good one. And since all moral codes must be invented by someone, and only sociopaths accept the individual moral responsibility necessary for invention, it follows that the clueless and losers must be good or evil in roughly the same proportion that the sociopaths are good or evil.

Why Am I Doing This?

I am staggered by the number of people who seem to react (either with glee or horror) as though I were revealing some deep secrets of an inner-circle cult that runs the world. There are those who react like I am revealing some secret pragmatist manual, whistle-blower style. One commenter, RC even suggested that I ought to look at the morality of writing this series the way hackers look at the morality of revealing exploits: good because it might clue-up losers, bad because it might encourage more people to become sociopaths.

Come again?

This particular class of criticism breaks down into two kinds. First, some of you disagree with me at a moral/philosophical level about the nature of sociopathy, and that’s the “do we need more [assumed evil] sociopaths?” critique.

I hope my explanation of the amorality of the sociopath stance makes a response mostly unnecessary: I disagree with the premise that “more sociopaths is bad.” More people taking individual moral responsibility is a good thing. It is in a sense a different reading of Old Testament morality — eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and learning to tell good and evil apart is a good thing. An atheist view of the Bible must necessarily be allegorical, and at the risk of offending some of you, here’s my take on the Biblical tale of the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve were clueless, having abdicated moral responsibility to a (putatively good) sociopath: God. Then they became sociopaths in their own right. And were forced to live in an ecosystem that included another sociopath — the archetypal evil one, Satan — that the good one could no longer shield them from. This makes the “descent” from the Garden of Eden an awakening into freedom rather than a descent into baseness. A good thing.

But I realize a lot of you will disagree (with various degrees of violence) with my personal moral code as I have articulated it here. In that case, if you liked the two Gervais Principle articles, you must ask yourself — did you badly misunderstand what I was saying, or did you understand, but haven’t faced up to the disconnect between what your gut resonated with, and the actual logical structure of these arguments?

The second kind of criticism here  is based either on acceptance of my moral framework or obliviousness to the moral dimension. This is the source of the “why are you sharing tactical/playbook secrets from the inner circle?” question.

For this kind of criticism, I frankly have low patience. If you don’t get that reading a playbook and being a good player are entirely different things, then to quote that fascinating sociopath, Eric Cartman,  “somebody please put that retard out of his misery.” You are putting the cart before the horse. Kasporov was, in a sense, a great chess player before he read up the rulebook and learned the major openings. If he hadn’t learned Chess, he’d have learned some otherrelated  game, say Go, and become good at that.

Finally, some have asked me what I consider myself. I am surprised that is not clear. Morally, I am a sociopath and have been for maybe 10 years. Before that, I oscillated between cluelessness and loserdom. Whether I am an effective sociopath, and actually good at playing the game (as opposed to describing it with an anthropological eye) remains to be seen. I am not dead yet, and so far, the other sociopaths in my world haven’t yet bankrupted me of table stakes.

That moral stance, by the way, should make it clear that I didn’t particularly enjoy writing this post, since morality is a personal thing for me. But I figured I ought to put this out there. And remember, I am not looking to legitimize, justify or apologize for these views. Do with them what you will. If this makes you want to stop reading the series, so be it.

That’s all for now. Gratified though I am by the popularity of this series, I don’t want it taking over my blog, so I probably won’t get to Part III of the main series till January. I promise at least one other meaty piece on some other topic before the holidays though.

Dug Steen November 21, 2009 at 12:44 pm

One thing I’m afraid has been blurred, particularly in this sidebar, is the work/life distinction. When I read the first Gervais Principle post, I (like most others, I’m guessing) immediately thought about how I fit into my own office classification system, and how I would like to fit, and was torn between wanting to be a sociopath and being okay with being a loser. In the latter case, it seemed to me that deciding to put in the minimally necessary effort to earn a paycheck and/or feel satisfied with my work life would be a completely rational decision for someone who’s interest might lay outside my field or company of employment. I followed your reasoning with interest, but applied it directly to my experience within a corporate environment.

In later posts, however, it feels like you’ve been conflating power/success/fulfillment at work with the same outside of work. This last post particularly seems to indicate that loser/clueless/sociopath is something you are at heart, in all areas of life. Is that your intent? Do you think a person be a loser in one sphere and a sociopath in another? It seems to me that a few of the Office characters exhibit this, even: Stanley is a quintessential loser at work but doesn’t seem so in his love life; and who knows in what odd circles Creed might actually be a sociopath?

Or, to pick an obvious example from real life, Einstein might be described as both a “loser” patent office clerk and a “sociopath” scientist.

Venkat November 23, 2009 at 6:23 am

You are right, I AM blurring the lines here. I’d say at the level of overall moral/philosophical stance, a sociopath would be a sociopath anywhere. But at the level of skill required to play domain-specific games, he/she may or may not have skills in a given domain.

A good pair of domains is work vs. romantic life. Several masterful sociopaths at work are fumbling schoolkids in the romance department, and vice versa.

I suspect sociopaths-at-soul recognize when/where they lack competence, and simply don’t pick those battles. So within those domains, they may look like checked-out losers. The difference is that their sociopathy is being revealed elsewhere, whereas the true check-out loser probably does not take sociopath level risks anywhere.

But these are zeroth order thoughts. Probably a lot more here.

Josh W December 31, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Are you going to tie all your positive attributes to that one name? Replace “fulfilled, creative, questioning, honest-with-self person” with “sociopath”? I ask this because I would suggest it undermines your ability to express opinions to others; a single word is just a word, and so making a word stand for too much, compressing sentences down into a word, especially one with existing connotations, risks obscuring inside a black box the very thing you want to reveal the structure of.

So perhaps it’s better to define sociopath as an extreme of many of the qualities you admire, in such a way that you accept and contextualise many of the criticisms people have, but show how when mitigated slightly they are actually parts of something very good.

In my understanding of the sociopath, mixing advantages with failings, the sociopath is someone who looks at things rather than listening to people. This can be a great strength, creating new views of a situation rather than just sticking with what other people say, but taking on board what people say can also be very useful, because you can benefit from their experience, even as you risk being limited by their own cognitive limits.

So I take sociopathic behaviour to be an orientation towards the world, (one particularly selected for in classic organisations) and being morally creative and reflective is not necessarily tied to it exclusively. Now I could go into moral creativity that is based predominantly on listening to people, but I won’t unless you want me to ’cause it’s a side issue, I’d rather explain how I feel that self-reflection and sociopathy can be unrelated:

If someone creates their own morality in response to their experience of the world, there is no guarantee that they will do it again, just as people can become dogmatic about what they internalise from others, they can be dogmatic about their own ideas, but as long as they get kicked out when their ideals (and associated strategies) prove untenable to the whole organisation, it can continue. In other words a company (or similarly constructed society) doesn’t need to have creative/reflective sociopaths to operate, it just needs a steady stream of sociopaths who have generated different views, but in a way that makes them compatible with the structure of the org.

As to the other moralities you suggest, I’d say that only the clueless really have a moral state directly relating to their place in the organisation, because for them the organisation itself is a moral good, a present ideal, and participation in it a sense of self-worth.

Hang on, does that mean that other people can’t consider their work morally good? No, but only the clueless considers their position itself to be a moral good, anyone else will be able to see past “my awesome job” to see what they are actually doing for/to people.

In other words I think clueless are very well defined by this organisational model, because where they stand in the organisation is such a huge part of their life. I don’t think the same is true for the other two categories, where being reflective, dogmatic, guilt-motivated, empathic/compassion-motivated, aesthetic/ideal-motivated, aversion/fear-motivated and whatever else can all occur in varying amounts.

So where does that leave the moral justification for these posts? Is a reflective compassionate sociopath at a tactical advantage compared to the sociopath that isn’t? If so then you can advocate it with good conscience to everyone, if not, then the bull headed and cruel will just take your tricks and use them and not be swayed by any moral component, and you may be helping them do damage. Fortunately I suspect the former is largely true, just because of it’s flexibility and capacity to form lasting and fruitful alliances. So carry on! Just insure that you always can see a compassionate application of the stuff you’re talking about.

Venkat January 2, 2010 at 6:39 am

The short response is: yes, I AM constructing the sociopath as a sort of idealization of “perfect human.” As a result, the construct has all the problems of any idealized perfection archetype.

We’ll see how much trouble this gets us into :)

Chip November 21, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Great series to date. The Gervais Principle, *talk types and MacLeod/Whyte frameworks are excellent viewpoints to analyze my own company and the dynamics of folks within it.

JLD November 21, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Without this group dynamic, Hitler would have been a random local psycho, perhaps serial-killing a dozen people.

This is a very bad argument which casts serious doubts on all your other analysis.
Hitler’s killings where only subsidiary to his demented delusions of grandeur about the German people, as a local psycho he probably would not have done much harm beyond ridiculing himself.
You even seem to rejoin this view later on in the text:

Ask yourself, who scares you more — Hitler or the mindless army he inspired?

So?

JMH November 21, 2009 at 11:58 pm

His delusion of grandeur you are talking about where nothing but “baby talk” to the looser and clueless.

Dean Longmore November 26, 2009 at 11:27 pm

Yes, this one (possibly) misplaced statement has tainted every piece Venkatesh has written.
Move along please.

calvin November 21, 2009 at 6:27 pm

What a great article. I want to weigh in on your argument for the use of sociopath as anti-group. I think that is false. In my own “sociopathic” experience, my disdain is not to shun the group, but rather to honestly consider the group NARRATIVE. Group generated morality is often driven by, or structured according to a narrative. And it is the narrative that is accepted by the group. Narratives are useful and powerful tools, that when followed can produce many unintended or unanticipated consequences. Those consequences lie outside of the narrative structure.

Secondly, there is no group morality. Rather there is an accepted shared morality. This is an important distinction because groups do not create moral structures, individuals do, and then many individuals accept that set of moral behaviors, attitudes, and ideas.

But mostly I find that individuals accept a “group morality” because the underlying narrative(s) for that morality are sufficiently coherent for the problems they experience, or because there is no narrative alternative available to them.

For instance, most people born into a religion and culture tend to stay in that religion and culture. I think the reason for this is that it’s very difficult to see “outside” their narrative experience.

One thing to note about your “good” sociopaths is that their “good works” are driven by an alternative narrative.

For instance, I have always been confused by the problems of the palestinians. Certainly they have faced abuses by the israelis. But the repeated path they choose to deal with those abuses is with conflict and violence. If palestinians chose non-violent protests, the israelis would be faced with directly with the moral dilemma of being occupiers, whereas under conflict and terrorism and uprisings and violence, the israelis try to manage the conflict and opposition in fairly predictable ways.

I think the reason Palestinians and other arab communities struggle is they do not have the wherewithal to construct narratives that would give rise to non-violent approaches to their problems.

the way problems are described leads people to consider certain types of solutions. And it can make other types of solutions or behaviors invisible. Consider how the bible describes social order and sin. Using biblical narratives is nearly impossible to make an argument for democracy or for continuous improvement and moving beyond blame. Because the in the bible we have kings and rulers as the only kinds of government structures, and we have a sins as a permanent mark on people, and paying for sins by Christ as the only way to be liberated from sin. sins are treated as permanent debts.

both these sorts of narrative ways of thinking are detrimental to democracy and to entrepreneurship. The democratic process and entrepreneurs just don’t fit into the biblical narrative structure.

I don’t think your idea of a sociopath is necessarily opposed to the group, what I think is that your sociopath is sensitive to the problems of a groups shared narratives, or has a different narrative sense about a problem, or even a different set of narrative which lead to different outcomes or conclusions.

although, I think your sociopaths are sensitive to the problem of narratives, if even unconsciously, and that is where the amoral, or stand apart, quality comes from.

yes, hackers must be sensitive to narratives. user interface is all about narrative. As is database development. Programming and languages have their own intrinsic methods and narratives. What programmer hasn’t gone back and completely fixed a crappy bit of code because they just were not thinking about the problem that code addressed in the right way?

and perhaps more tellingly, programmer development is about being able to create better and better abstractions. the act of making an abstraction looks very much like making a narrative.

Daniel Newby November 21, 2009 at 7:18 pm

“Sociopaths can be compassionate because their distrust only extends to groups. They are capable of understanding and empathizing with individual pain and acting with compassion.”

This is why “sociopath” is such a poor word for your ideas. The defining trait of sociopathy is low empathy at all scales, whether for individuals or groups. The prototype sociopath spent his childhood gleefully torturing small animals to death (seriously), and would grow up to do the same to humans except he learns that humans have effective objections to that sort of treatment. Sociopaths also tend to have a general difficulty learning from unpleasant outcomes, so they habitually seek out excitement and drama despite obvious (to normals) painful repercussions for themselves.

As pointed out by a previous commenter, the most apt English word is “Machiavellian”, a person who fights political contests based on pragmatic rather than sentimental concerns. Outside the scope of political contests, Machiavellian can and do allow themselves to indulge in other concerns. Indeed the public indulgence of difficult-to-fake sentimental expression can often be pragmatic, as with a politician who sheds honest tears over a murdered child.

Denis November 28, 2009 at 11:03 am

Daniel, I think you are mixing up “sociopath” and “psychopath”. The two are distinct and here’s an article that goes into details: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1013712/sociopath_vs_psychopath_there_is_a.html?cat=72

I agree that “Machiavellian” would have been a more accurate label, but it doesn’t mean this would be a better label. The labeling scheme itself is a component of the power-talk – it allows sociopaths to talk to each other without interference.

Let me elaborate. What does a loser or clueless do when confronted with these labels? There are few choices:

1) get offended, then either stop reading or stop understanding due to being all riled up.
2) become very gleeful about him being master and others being inferior. the outcome is the same as #1 – being all emotional about it precludes proper understanding and thus effectively shuts the poseurs out of the conversation.
3) start nit-picking, get all involved into it and thus miss the point

Language proficiency is the key trait of a sociopath and thus one will never have a problem abstracting from the labels.

Therefore labels make effective filters, which may be better than being precise or accessible, depending on the goals Venkatesh pursues.

Netsp November 21, 2009 at 7:44 pm

I’ve said this to you before. I definitely think that there is the makings of a book in this series. I have never before been even mildly interested in this sort of writing, but I am enjoying this series a lot.

Personal observation. Following the first two series I saw myself squarely in the loser category. Reading this addition, I am seeing myself as a sociopath. Self categorisation is of course not to be trusted, but it is perhaps informative nonetheless.

Netsp November 21, 2009 at 7:45 pm

One more thing.

Again I urge you to consider Orwell’s characters & societies.

Venkat November 22, 2009 at 6:34 am

I read 1984 and Animal Farm like 20 years ago, so I am left with only a very blurry sense of the details. But I think there is definitely a mapping to his worlds (I think the connection to Animal Farm may be clearer – pigs = sociopath, horse = clueless, everyone else = losers).

But I think I am going to leave it at that as far as exploring the Orwell connection goes. Re-reading Orwell when a bunch of other entirely new recos have been rained on me is going to be tough :).

Venkat

Netsp November 22, 2009 at 7:01 am

I am actually very surprised. I expected you to be an Orwell fan.

Almost everything he wrote could be examined using the Gervais Principle in several layers. In 1984 you have the three classes corresponding to the three Gervaisian archetypes. Within each of these classes there is clear intended pressure of moulding individuals into their archetype. More interestingly, the class that is examined in depth (the clueless outer party) contains all three Gervaisian characters with losers & sociopath struggling to hide their unorthodoxy.

Orwell was also a journalist & essayist. Below is Orwell’s take on Gandhi. Orwell shares your characterisation of him as a sociopath.
Reflections On Gandhi: http://www.readprint.com/work-1260/Reflections-On-Gandhi-George-Orwell

justin November 24, 2009 at 9:22 am

Venkat,
I have seen the same idea/dynamics expressed elsewhere… someone used a Larry-Curly-Moe dynamic.
I would guess you don’t need to read every expression of what you are getting across here for validation, but this one also uses a television show to illustrate the points…

Omnipresent November 21, 2009 at 8:45 pm

We’ll buy you more coffee but please stop with the ‘flat belly’ infomercials on the side :)

jb November 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Excellent series. I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s a bit like finding out what would have happened if Nietzche had liked The Office. A couple things:

1) @calvin – your impression of the Palestinians is inaccurate. Google “Mohammad Othman” to learn about Palestinian non-violent resistance and what happens to it.

2) @venkat – I’m definitely with Netsp, Orwell is great on this stuff. You might also consider checking out Kevin Carson’s work on Organizational Theory. It’s a bit more macro, but it is very interesting work on the pathology of hierarchical organizations. I think you and he would disagree that “all organizations are pathological”. Or perhaps they are, but the pathologies of egalitarian horizontalist organizations might be preferable.

The organizations you describe are hierarchical and, as you accurately note, founded on a master-slave dynamic of domination, stabilized by a layer of clueless bullshit. I think your analysis of these sorts of organizations, the overwhelmingly predominant kind in our society, is spot on. However, it would be worth considering different organizational forms.

3) Your assertion that systems of morality originate with or are designed (solely?) by exceptional individuals is highly problematic and contradicted by a vast amount of anthropology. I think if you look at the historical record, you’ll see a lot more “systems” having come about as a result of a gradual process of emergence involving the collaborations, wittingly or no, of several individuals and groups over time.

This is related to your distrust of groups and the sham of “collective action”, but I think this too bears reconsideration. The free-rider problem is old, but also notoriously ideological. Elinor Ostrom’s recent Nobel-winning work on this demonstrates an alternative way of viewing the ‘tragedy of the commons’, a variant of the free-rider problem. As it turns out, people are in fact capable of solving collective action problems without the aid of sociopaths or the organizations they lead.

4) Your above discussion of the difference between reading the playbook and being a player reminded me of the “pickup artist” subculture that’s recently been proliferating. I had the misfortune to witness a friend sucked in by these “playbooks” on how to pick up women. The whole thing is a paradigm example of sociopaths separating the clueless from their cash with the promise of being able to teach Powertalk.

Please keep up the series though. The commenter who suggested it would work as a book was right. I’d love to read more.

Xianhang Zhang November 21, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Interesting. I wonder if you’ve ever read The Stranger by Albert Camus and if so, how you would interpret it in light of these definitions.

Max Battcher November 21, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Another good article in the series, Venkat! I feel like I’ve kept up from the beginning, but I too am a fan of MacLeod’s “cube grenades” at this point. For instance, a lot of what you speak of morality seems to correspond to my inferences from MacLeod’s recent “evil plans” kick, and I’m curious how well his next book (apparently to be title “Evil Plans”) will reflect those themes of “how to be a small scale sociopath”…

The section on compassion in this article certainly brought up several examples of Jack Donnaughy of 30 Rock, to bring another Thursday-night NBC program (back) into the discussion… That character certainly despises most group forms of compassion, but it’s interesting whenever he takes on Liz Lemon as his pet compassion project.

Tom Shaw November 22, 2009 at 12:09 am

Hi Venkatesh

Have you read any of the research by David McClelland? He hypothesizes three primary needs: power, achievement and affiliation.

Your description of the sociopath type corresponds well with a low need for affiliation and a high need for power. Through field surveys McClelland found that this combination was strongly associated with success in traditional leadership roles, although perhaps less success in modern roles that demand more flexibility and team skills.

In your analysis I also see a few parallels with the Keirsey-Bates (Jungian) INTJ type. Well worth reading up on – personally I’ve found more to gain from the Jungian analysis than from the (perhaps more widely accepted and fashionable) OCEAN big-5 analysis. As a first rough comparison: NT = sociopath, SP = loser, SJ = clueless, and NF = doing something else a bit more meaningful!

As a criticism though, I think you’re allowing your own self-idealized personality type to leak into your description of your sociopath. My intuition is that the type you’re describing in the real world has less of a need for achievement than you, and more of a need for power: more manipulation, less personal output.

Cheers
Tom

Tom Shaw November 22, 2009 at 12:35 am

Hmm actually ignore my criticism in the final paragraph – on reflection clearly you haven’t done that. I still stand by the rest though. By the way, a need for achievement is nothing to be ashamed of, so don’t lose that drive and please keep writing!

Netsp November 22, 2009 at 12:59 am

“Gratified though I am by the popularity of this series, I don’t want it taking over my blog, so I probably won’t get to Part III of the main series till January.”

I’m afraid this position is unacceptable.

Actually, I am one of those people who found you via the Gervais Principle I, so I admit I am part of the problem. I do think you are really on to something though.

"Somepath" November 22, 2009 at 8:46 am

I would like to point to one thing of importance. You (and perhaps lot more others) make a mistake amalgam. What you describe here about “sociopath” is not sociopath but Antisocial … The two words are close but there is one important difference. Individualism, distrust of communities, own morality is the definitions of the Antisocial too. But the one that can have real compassion to one single person outside groups is only the Antisocial. There is a main difference with the sociopath in that. The antisocial can have empathy, the sociopath can’t. Even if the sociopath can have actions linked to empathy, it’s only a “mimic” of empathy. Empathy is not something you can see in actions, but something you can only feel inside, in an empathic way … And the sociopath is not capable of feeling it. Some searchers shown how the brain of sociopaths under MRI work differently about empathy.

(about “antisocial personality disorder” see “criticism” : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisocial_personality_disorder#Criticism )

Where the mistakes grow, is that the antisocial hate groups. So he can’t be searching to have power or to lead them. Usually the antisocial is mostly on an ironical description of life, and more “anarchist” way of life. So what is spoken in Gervais I/II about corporates and leaders of enterprises are about sociopaths and not antisocial ones. But what you write in this text is about antisocial and not sociopath.

Some similar about responsibility. The sociopath only “mimic” acts of responsibilities. But in the end when they are on front of them they always try to avoid them, or pass them to others. So in the end nobody takes really responsibilities … Not more the sociopath than any clueless or loser. And in that it’s the reason of consequences of crashs.

About the amalgam you make between antisocial and sociopath. Either it is intentional. So in that you show you really are a sociopath. Sociopaths always try to use little mistakes and amalgams between meanings trying to construct traps so others can fall in. Either it is not intentional. So perhaps in your long ways of life you lost a little yourself, believing you were a sociopath, but you really are only an antisocial …

Eric Pepke November 22, 2009 at 9:02 am

Thanks for the articles. A friend of mine turned me on to them. I am pretty sure that he would not mind being mentioned, but as I have not had a chance to ask him, I shall refer to him as “F.” F said that this article has many parallels to my alpha/beta/gamma terminology. (Some people use “omega” instead of “alpha.” I use “gamma” because to me “omega” is too self-deprecating.) My terminology is by analogy with social structures in mammals. It is imperfect, as most that has been written about this represents a beta view of being alpha. The concept of a gamma is often ignored, which is a shame, because the gamma pool is an important source of alphas.

The correspondence with the terminology that you use is alpha/sociopath, beta/clueless, gamma/loser. I shall use such slashed terms henceforth, and I shall refer to the system of categorization as the trichotomy. The following also rambles a bit.

My relationship with F is interesting. A long time ago, I was making the transition from situational gamma/loser to alpha/sociopath in the context of overcoming shyness. This was many years ago. He effectively used some of what I had written to help himself make the transition from gamma/loser status to alpha/sociopath status. Fortunately, years later, F got in touch with me again. We’ve been great friends ever since.

The transition between gamma/loser and alpha/sociopath is, I have found, far easier to make than a transition from beta/clueless to either category. Betas/clueless tend to remain so. In the terms of the Firesign Theater, they tend to “clone.”

There is also the issue of essential attributes versus roles. Roles are labile, but there are patterns. Alphas/sociopaths can be thrust into the position of being situationally gammas/losers. Fortunately for me, there exists a photograph of me at about age two, in which it can be clearly seen that my nature was even then that of an alpha/sociopath.

One thing that I see as missing is reference to the work of Nietzsche. He basically wrote all the time about the distinctions between alpha/sociopath and beta/clueless. The concept of an alpha/sociopath creating morality and beta/clueless defining a reactionary morality is prominent.

I shall have to cut this short, as a rather promising woman has invited me to dinner, and it is more important for me to flirt with her.

Nick November 23, 2009 at 8:01 am

Go, Nard dog!

Eric Pepke November 23, 2009 at 11:17 am

OK, I’m back. That’s better. Great gal; quite lubricious. Also, Farhat told me I could use his name. He went to the same undergraduate institution as you, Venkatesh. Very hoopy frood.

It is fascinating to read the criticism, because almost all of it, in precise detail, can actually be derived from an understanding of your thesis. That is, these kinds of criticisms are exactly those that one can expect from betas/clueless against alphas/sociopaths. (Gammas/losers don’t write that much.)

I find criticism of the term “sociopath” quite interesting. You correctly point out that alphas/sociopaths inherently distrust the groupthink of betas/clueless, and the betas/clueless inherently distrust alphas/sociopaths. Since there are far more betas/clueless, and they write books and do anthropology, ethnography, and sociology, almost everything written about alphas/sociopaths represents the beta/clueless view of them. Getting an accurate picture is about like getting an accurate pictures of Druids (who didn’t know how to write) from Romans (who wrote rather well).

The definitions and connotations of words themselves are determined largely by betas/clueless with some input from gammas/losers. Even so, they came up with the word “psychopath,” which as my ex the psych nurse used to say is a sociopath with a criminal record. To a sociopath that is also a good person, there is another term from psychology: “self-actualized.”

Your thesis implies that there is a deep commonality between psychopaths, sociopaths, and the self-actualized, that the internal experience is essential the same. I like the use of the word sociopath, because it continually points out this thesis, and if it offends, sometimes offense leads to thought. I don’t think there is much real semantic confusion. It is more that the beta/clueless do not care about the sociopath, at all, except inasmuch as it affects them.

As the slave fears and hates the power of the master, generalizing power as bad, and yet yearns for it, the beta/clueless fears the power of the alpha/sociopath.

There seems to be conflation with another term: “psychopath.” My ex the ER nurse used to say that a psychopath was a sociopath with a criminal record. Originally, the term “sociopath” was promoted as a more neutral term than “psychopath,” but it picked up the negative connotations of the earlier time. Now another term is being used: “antisocial personality disorder.” It’s kind of a futile game, but people keep doing it. Consider Negro, Afro-American, Colored, Spade, Black, and now African-American, even Nigger. At some times and in some contexts, these were/are all considered appropriate terms for People of High Melanine Content by People of High Melanine Content. Yet as long as there are a lot of People of Low Melanine Content who do not like them, each word will eventually become ugly.

Also note that “disorder” can effectively be defined as “apart from the shared morality and behavior patterns of betas/clueless.” There is an order, and if you are outside of it, you are disordered.

Another possible set of names for the trichotomy could be Creator, Defender, and Follower. Defenders maintain the established order, and they distrust creators for rocking the boat.

Harold D Smith November 22, 2009 at 9:42 am

Thank you for this update; it took several sittings for me to digest it, and I haven’t begun to read the comments for it – which, as usual, are voluminous. You and your readers are definitely literate – and I intend that as a compliment.

Thank you for referring to my comment about the Nazis – but I also want to comment on your comment. You said the Nazis had a “bizarre moral compass”. This was not the case for the low-level Nazis in question, and you are simply reacting as most Americans have, who had been made all-too aware of the horrors of the holocaust. They had no awareness of this: of millions of Jews dying in death camps. This was just too bizarre to be believed, which was the Allies initial reaction when they heard of it. These people had a normal moral compass: the beliefs of their neighbors.

One of these men, in the last days of the war, answered the call for emergency troops. He got on his bicycle, rode to the front, was captured, and spent two years in jail, because he was an ardent Nazi. I imagine my brother, who is an ardent conservative , would have done the same.

Netsp November 22, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Harold

What exactly are you protesting?

I think you agree with Venkat that most Nazis got their morals like anyone else, social & normative. The reason they are interesting is that these tendencies were harnessed to do things that when viewed without the societal lens (eg through history), seem immoral to a degree we usually only see in psychopaths.* This is instructive because it demonstrates how our moral compass is malleable.

Are you arguing for a categorisation of the bicycled defender of Berlin as a losers vs a clueless? In this case I disagree. That Nazi, your brother, Kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers & many other war time archetypes exhibiting this level of “buy-in” are very much in the clueless category. Totalitarian & militarist organisations tend to encourage growth of the clueless segment. This is beautifully predicted by the cartoons in part I.

*I would have preferred to say sociopath, but considering how much I am enjoying this series I am willing to cede this term to Venkat to do with as he sees fit.

Harold D Smith November 23, 2009 at 5:12 am

We seem to be arguing about definitions here. You want to classify anyone active in a totalitarian state as a Clueless. I want to point out that most are only involved at the lowest levels, even if passionately; they have no input to high-level decisions; and don’t even know who most of the high-level decision-makers are – who make great efforts to remain secret.

By my definition, the Clueless are involved in the middle-level decision-making process. They have a lot of power at that level – even if it is only in implementing high-level decisions. They have a much better idea of who is really in power.

The tricky part is deciding where on the hierarchy people reside. There are lots of gray areas. But the fact remains that the vast majority are on the bottom: Losers. They are what constitutes the party, by their very numbers, but they are not in control of much of anything.

Netsp November 23, 2009 at 5:41 pm

You’re right. We have gotten to the point of definitions. I don’t think we disagree on anything substantive.

Duke November 22, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Fascinating series. This concept sociopath as a neutral term appears to dovetail with recent work in psychology.

For an overview of current research, check out this article:
“Addicted To Being Good? The Psychopathology of Heroism”
http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/kuszewski20091117/

It discusses a recent paper by Watson, Clark, and Chmielewki from the University of Iowa, “Structures of Personality and Their Relevance to Psychopathology.”

The gist of the paper is that extreme altruists (referred to as “X-altruists”) and sociopaths have remarkably similar personality profiles (low impulse control, novelty seeking, willingness to break rules, etc.). The main difference between them is that the altruists are externally motivated (feel empathy) while sociopaths are internally motivated (lack of empathy).

The Gates example (along with similar cases such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, etc.) supports the idea that a sociopath can oscillate between these modes. I wonder what would trigger such a shift in motivations?

In any case, thanks for the great posts. I look forward to more.

grunt November 22, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Interesting blog series. I don’t agree with everything, but I like it and find it educational. I’ll agree with what others have said, that you have simply picked the wrong word when you say “sociopath.” Sociopath does mean anti-social personality disorder. The defining characteristic is no capacity for compassion. People can’t become sociopaths. Sociopaths basically never admit what they are (not that they engage in much introspection). Just about no one likes or respects a true sociopath if they understand their behavior (and that definitely includes other sociopaths).

Also since sociopaths care only of social dominance and status, the kind of morality they can embrace is exactly the kind you say they can’t. While you and I might wear masks to serve our purposes, they have nothing underneath the mask. They will embrace and encourage group think and take pride in being “good” in accordance with the group morality. They are not at all individualists, even though it wouldn’t be accurate to call them conformists.

I believe that this why they find fewer sociopaths in Eastern cultures. The true biological sociopaths are probably there in the same quantity. But the fact that pride is so much taken in the group twists their sociopath pride around on itself undermining the expression of their nature.

Since you believe what you call “sociopaths” are good and the rest not so much, it would seem that by sociopath, you really mean Nietzschian Ubermensch. The clueless and losers are those how embrace slave morality.

Now different organizations have different levels of dysfunction, but I would say management is disproportionately filled with sociopaths. The high level with driven sociopaths (your sociopaths) and lower levels with lazy sociopaths (the clueless).

I don’t watch The Office that much, but I do get the impression that Micheal Scott is phony, callous, and less clueless than he lets on. He ends up/allows himself to be the tool of people like Jan because he’s too lazy to push further ahead. Jan recognizes that his ineffectiveness makes him a non-threat and makes her more valuable to the organization because he’s less valuable. But he’ll manipulate the situation enough to keep things settled and not a problem for her.

Venkat November 23, 2009 at 5:46 am

Some quick responses all around, including some fresh comments on Hacker News

1. For all those who are spotting the Nietzsche connection (will-to-power, the obvious relation between the ubermensch concept and sociopaths): yes there is one. I didn’t belabor it because it would be obvious to those who are familiar with Nietzsche and obscure to those who are not.

2. Myers-Briggs mapping (Tom Shaw): Hadn’t thought of this at all! But yes, there is likely some correlation. Prima Facie, INTJ=sociopath seems like a high correlation mapping. I am an INTP :). And yes, I have taken some of those other tests, and score pretty low on community feeling/affiliation etc.

3. Duke: thanks for the refs. Will read ‘em up.

4. Xianhang: no, I haven’t read “the stranger” (sisyphus is the only camus I’ve read)

5. Harold/Netsp: Let’s leave the i-dotting and t-crossing on the Nazi question alone. I understood Harold’s clarification (and the point that bizarre as it may seem to us, there was a class within the Nazis who hadn’t heard about the concentration camps), and I think we can let the details go :)

6. Eric Pepke: Re: your alpha/beta/gamma model… yeah, I believe this sort of conceptual framework is routinely reinvented by different people at different times viewing the world with different conceptual categories. At some level, this is all rather obvious stuff, and I guess we all try to say things relevant to the zeitgeist.

7. grunt: interesting east/west thought here. I don’t think I agree, but I don’t have an easy counter either.

And finally, on terminology… if I ever turn this stuff into a book, I might bow to the wisdom of the crowd, bracket MacLeod’s cartoon, and restate everything around alternate terminology. But backward compatability would be too much work at the moment within this blog series, so let’s live with S/C/L.

Venkat

Dave November 23, 2009 at 11:36 am

Part of the charm of this series is in the labels, I’m afraid. Changing the labels would remove one of the fascinating and unique unforeseen connections. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, then any misunderstanding about the labels becomes the reader’s responsibility.

Also, if you don’t generalize too much beyond the pathology of modern corporations, and if you portray the labels as belonging to selected roles rather than genetically determined Borg functions, then the moral conundrums are easier to parse.

This could be marketable as “Beyond Dilbert.” Like Nietzsche, you will seem to be making controversial claims that nevertheless correlate to baffling social realities.

Well, social realities that are baffling for certain kinds of people, anyway.

Eric Pepke November 23, 2009 at 3:19 pm

I still think that the main objection that is ostensibly about the terminology is really about the concepts, and the connotations of words follows the concepts. You could call them “sweethearts” and, if your book were influential, in a few years “sweetheart” would be an insult. Better probably to make use of the provocative language and use it to irritate people into thought. Either way, people will argue with you, but at least this way they are more likely to think about why they are arguing.

"Somepath" November 24, 2009 at 1:43 pm

A comment about Tom and Venka point 2. I just made the Jung and Myers-Briggs tests by curiosity. And I got on all tests the INTJ profile. But I feel myself everything else except a sociopath (nor have wide experiences acting like it) … Reading other forums about people comments on Jung profiles trying to link to personalities disorders, it seems most of people are going too fast in hasardous and hasty conclusions. Panel of personalities is far more wide and complex than a few simple links. But descriptions here are interesting in showing dynamics on the wide (labels must be shown as metaphors and not on first level).

Another point I don’t read here. One aspect of sociopathy/psychopathy is tendency to paranoia. So one important aspect of paranoid is the feeling of self “master of the world”, “best and stronger than everyone else”. But it’s a distortion or reality. Often realities are far less glorious than sociopaths can feel or want to think (even concerning themselves) …

Dan Welygan November 23, 2009 at 9:03 am

Looks like the creator of Dilbert might be a fan of the “Gervais Principle” series of posts – http://dilbert.com/2009-11-23/.

Not much else to comment on right now – but love your work here and have referred it to quite a few of my colleagues and friends.

Efrain November 23, 2009 at 9:52 am

First off, this has been the most interesting series of blog plosts, and related comments, that I have come across in quite a while. Keep it up.

Regarding the “don’t give out the playbook” arguments, whenever you give someone without the ability to use the tools access to the tools, the results are seldom anything more than pathetic. Much like toddlers with power tools, those attempting to use “active” or “sociopathic” conversation tools without an inherent ability to do so just end up outing themselves quite quickly and dramatically. If your office has ever been subjected to a motivational speaker or likewise you can attest to the newly empowered posture-speakers badly attempting to power-talk.

Dave November 23, 2009 at 11:20 am

Yes, the playbook is only useful to the unsettled Loser, and only because it helps him realize that he may be a proto-Sociopath.

Josh M November 24, 2009 at 6:59 am

Starz’s Party Down (pretty great show) also seems to be built off the Gervais principle

Ben November 24, 2009 at 9:43 am

“Which implies, by the way, that organized religion is incompatible with sociopathy.”
I am curious why you suppose sociopaths are less likely to be found in organized religion than in other organizations. In my experience every organization has clueless who speak of loyalty and sacrifice to the organization – which amounts to a moral code. A religious organization is like any other organization of people – you will find sociopaths working their way up for whatever personal reasons they have.

Venkat November 24, 2009 at 11:17 am

Good point. I’d refine the point as: “belief in organized religion is incompatible with sociopathy.” So sociopaths who climb religious orgs are either in it for non-religious reasons, or mentally separate a private/personal religiosity from the canonical/institutionalized version.

I guess religious sociopaths would be more likely to suffer megalomania. I don’t know what to make of the Ewan McGregor character in Angels and Demons for instance.

Marc November 24, 2009 at 2:38 pm

This philosophical distinction is less interesting to me than the previous post, but through incredible coincidence, I just came across this on a screenwriting blog, which links to an academic paper:
“As crazy as it sounds, there may be a closer link than than most people would think between the extreme-altruistic personality and sociopathic personality. Would it shock you to know that two people, one with the traits of extreme-altruism (X-altruism) and the other the traits of a sociopath, could be related? Even siblings? And that their personality traits are very similar, with only a few features to distinguish them?”
http://www.gointothestory.com/2009/11/psychopathology-of-heroism.html

Venkat November 24, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Seems in the vein of my evil twins post.

I am not surprised at all. A previous commenter, Duke, posted the same paper :)

Jim November 25, 2009 at 9:31 am

I’d recommend Genealogy of Morals for a deeper reading on the difference between sociopath (as used here) morality and the “good and evil” morality of groups. If you start to realize that the author is anti-semitic, stop reading: You’re Doing it Wrong.

Tony S November 30, 2009 at 11:00 am

Great series, and I loved this piece as well, but I do have to tune out for a second when you say “Organized religion is incompatible with sociopathy.”

Indeed, I am a Christian, and in my interpretation of Christ’s teachings, he spent most of his time training 12 other guys to go out and do exactly the same kinds of things that you here ascribe to sociopathic compassion, driven by his dis-trust of the two ruling factions of first-century Judaism.

More to the point, whenever I’m faced with a moral decision, it is because of my faith that I carefully consider my actions relative to my own moral code (derived from what I believe is in the best interests of everyone, including myself) before acting. I’m aware that too many people on both sides of the religion argument have abdicated personal responsibility for their actions, but those people are doing it wrong.

So, yeah… if you’re an atheist, awesome. But that doesn’t mean one can’t be religious and a “sociopath” under the definition you put forth here.

Venkat November 30, 2009 at 11:44 am

Point taken. I’ve seen a few blog reactions that suggest that religious organizations aren’t very different from corporations (unlike governments and universities, which DO need a different model).

Venkat

Tony S November 30, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Hey, thanks for the response!

What little dealings I’ve had with the power structure of religious organizations (and it makes me shudder just thinking about it) is definitely just like corporations. But then again, my experience is limited to one particular Protestant denomination. Your mileage may vary considerably in looking at the Catholic church, Judaism, Islam, etc.

And on a personal note: I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to hear someone else lamenting the fact that the vast majority of the populace will do anything to have their own lives be “not my fault.”

Ian December 10, 2009 at 8:54 am

Oy vey, please just stick to your profession. This entire blog piece is a good example of the Rand-esque libertarian pseudo-philosophical bullshit that pollutes the engineer/tech type community so often (and not surprising, since it’s a group notorious for being chock full of people with bonding issues).
You might want to at least take note that “sociopath” isn’t even a term used in psychology anymore.

ASG December 10, 2009 at 1:05 pm

I really enjoyed your close reading of The Office in the original article, but I’m losing interest the more you go into the realm of bland generalities. I think that it takes real skill to dissect popular culture in a way that illuminates “real life” (whatever that is); it takes less skill to write yet another Facebook-quiz-style classification of all humans into homemade categories. So, for what it’s worth, consider this a request to continue with reservations: an eager Yes to clever analysis of whatever you’re watching these days in light of life in the cubicle, a shrug and a No to buzzwords and pop psychology (to say nothing of the gratuitous Godwinning that seems to have taken root in every comment to an already-Godwinned post).

To the topic at hand, I ask whether you’ve ever read Max Weber. He’s made most of the points you’re making here, including the comparison between the evil demagogue and the morally upright revolutionary. Weber’s observations on the styles of authority (his “charismatic” roughly corresponds to your “sociopathic”) and their consequent hardening into institutions is worth reading.

Venkat December 10, 2009 at 2:10 pm

A very fair critique and I appreciate it. It bothered me to write this piece for exactly the reasons you mention. It was primarily meant as a response to the comments that insistently either misread the moral assumptions of the original pieces, or demanded that I clarify my own position.

And yes, I’ve read Weber (basic… only the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). Too long ago to connect the dots though, so thanks for highlighting potential connections.

“Clever close reading”…The Office will sustain at least 1 more part, but beyond that, it depends on what raw material interests me enough to be worth this level of scrutiny.

Nancy February 13, 2010 at 8:31 am

I became aware of the Gervais Principle material via another source and have spent several hours devouring a significant portion of your ouvre. My personal work situation has forced a crash course in just this type of knowledge so I’m very grateful to whatever serendipitous spirits led me here.

This question, however, is of a more non-work variety. With regard to an individual’s “business” classification (S/C/L), what are the projected results on a personal level with those types?

For example (with regard to work), if I recognize myself as a Sociopath, but my spouse/partner is a Loser, what are the relationship odds? Can anything be extrapolated on this level? Are such parallels impossible to derive?

What if I used to be a Loser but have changed over time? Can a Sociopath and a Clueless ever find true happiness? Maybe it depends on how much/how little one tends to “bring work home with them.”

I guess I am tacking on another question- Is true S/C/L change/progression/(descent?) even possible, or are we all inherently one or the other (and only manage to mask the reality before it bites us in the ass)? Or can a cataclysmic event or other major shift in circumstances push us into a new classification?

Venkat February 13, 2010 at 10:26 am

A lot of people have been asking me to extrapolate and extend the ideas in this series to the world at large, as well as to the world of personal relationships, friendships and family.

I am very reluctant to do so. The ideas look temptingly generalizable, but there are enough serious differences when you shift to these other contexts that you need to rethink things from scratch. I have some notes with some rethinking of this variety, but am nowhere near ready to share.

One question though, I can answer with definitively:

“Or can a cataclysmic event or other major shift in circumstances push us into a new classification?”

A definitive Yes.

I have personally experienced shifts through all 3 stages, and know plenty of others who have. In fact, Eric Cartman aside, I would wager that there is no such thing as a born sociopath in my sense of the term. You can only grow into one, and you can easily regress. And I believe your hunch, that it takes a cataclysmic event to cause a shift, is also correct. All examples I know of have been cataclysmic. The math guy in me expects that, since being in any of those 3 modes of thought is a ‘local optimum’ of sorts, and those typically require discontinuous jumps to break out of. Or to put it less geekily, whether you are in a rut (C/L) or a groove (S), you need to be jolted out of it. By definition you cannot get out smoothly. In the latest season of the Office, we see David Wallace in his jolted-out-of-his-groove state, having fallen from sociopathy into cluelessness.

Relationships: I am very reluctant to speculate here, since sex and gender differences (for heterosexual couples), always complicate things a lot. But I will say, without comment or opinion, that I’ve encountered examples of all 18 possible types of mathematically feasible relationships (count ‘em) that seem to have endured long enough to say that none of them is “impossible.” Are some likely more unstable than the others? I would imagine so. But I don’t want to speculate wildly since I fumble as much as anybody in this realm, and make no claim to greater insight.

Venkat

Ho-Sheng Hsiao January 12, 2011 at 11:26 pm

I think “asura” is the most precise word for what you are trying to describe, but I doubt it is nearly as recognizable or effective as “sociopath”.

I’m looking forward to Part V.

Venkat January 12, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Wow, you seem to have powered through quite a bit of this blog very quickly :)

Hmm, “asura” is an interesting suggestion.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao January 13, 2011 at 12:11 am

I seem to do something like this every winter. Hole up after the autumn harvest.

“Asura” also implies “deva”, but like discussions of strategy, I got a small group I discuss religion and spirituality with too. I’ve talked with a couple of my friends, one of them mentioned your Abacus post. The Gervais stuff really resonated with me, explains to me why I have little patience with trying to maintain social status long-term.

Amusing story one of my friends mentioned to me a while back. In middle school, he fell in with an … alliance that set out to manage the administration and gain extra perks. They got enough people to each manage one person on the staff. He mentioned the qualities the not-group looked for: the intelligent lone-wolf. He didn’t have your lexicon to fully describe it.

Hey, is it too late to beta test your upcoming book?

Dee November 5, 2011 at 11:50 am

Ha ha ha ha ha. This is a fantastic interpretation of what it feels like to be a sociopath. I haven’t been so amused since the last time I dropped acid. The Adolf Hitler, Dr. King comparison was a frivolous twist, yet neatly justified. This definitely answers the question regarding the possible levels of severity concerning sociopathy. This writer is a true genius.

Dee November 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Excuse my ignorance. I only read the cliff note version. As to the religion and corporation comparison: The only 2 things needed to constitute a religion is scripture and tradition. That is one thing all religions have in common. And a corporation is only a legal entity bound by a piece of paper filed away in a filing cabinet down at city hall. They are both social constructs that serve it’s creator. Much like this blog…

Martina December 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Dear Venkat! I would like to ask you: Am I a sociopath, if my morals (according to psychological tests) are 50/50? I also have only five percent empathy, but I AM very much able to feel love, THO not to majority of people, just to my family members and one friend. Other people and their problems mean almost nothing to me. If somebody would tell me that their mum is seriously ill, I would act like I care (it is somehow natural, but not with a bad intention), but I could not care less. I would feel NOTHING. Do these thing make me a sociopath? When I did psychological tests, I always got these results: narcissistic personality disorder was the highest, closely followed by sociopathy. The problem is, that I don´t TOTALLY fit to any of these descriptions (in all points), YET I find myself in them. And I know they are right. I guess I could actually be a compensatory narcissist, yet I hate being in the center of attention but I fit other descriptions of the disease. It is the same with sociopathy. I fit most of the points, minus the TOTAL lack of morals (like I said, they are 50/50) and TOTAL lack of being able to love somebody, because I am able to love some selected people. I also used to hurt animals when I was little, but I stopped with it when being an adult and never contemlated it ever since. But I sometimes love hurting people, playing with their emotions and winning over them. Do you think that I could possibly be a sociopath, then? I mean, when I have some morals, and the sociopathy is measured by not having any. Just asking. I need to know to be able to sleep better. Thank you.

niop October 30, 2012 at 5:14 am

this sounds very similar to the work of Chris Hyatt, was he an influence on you?

Jackson LaRose October 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm

I found this on Disinformation. Epically awesome, and up to Part III of the original “Gervais Principle”.

I’ve considered myself Nietzschean “Evil”, or Stirnerite “Egoist” for a couple years now, and boy, accepting inclinations I’ve had since grade school really helped put my life into focus. It was almost like coming out or something!

Nihilistic pragmatism coupled with karmic/Austrian causality has really changed my life, and kudos to you for discovering this phenomena, or at least distilling it into such a concise theoretical social framework.

If you haven’t I implore you to read “The ego and it’s Own” by the young Hegelian philosopher Max Stirner. This is the book that finally dissolved all of the silly psychic reifications, abstractions, and constructs that had kept me stuck in loserville.

Well done, good sir.

Modernist January 5, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Do you think there is a non-trivial biblical connection between the Jewish requirement to never say “Yahweh” (“I am that I am/I will be what I will be”) and the instruction not to consume knowledge of good and evil? Could it perhaps be an encrypted mission statement of a conspiracy to maintain a non-sociopathic culture? What do you make of Albert Einstein’s statements on pretending that free will exists?

Ken January 15, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Very interesting series.
I got here from a dispassionately dissectory approach to articulating what I didn’t like about The Office, which, frankly, was just about everything.
Having watched several interviews with Gervase I deduced the character Brant [in the UK version] is actually Gervase himself, with a very unsympathetic slant.
Gervase spent many years trying to perfect his craft and is [even now] probably privately scathing of his own shortcomings. The humour of The Office is entirely based on tension and awkwardness and the lampooning of people with limited interpersonal skills.
I came across an article which suggested it was making people more accepting of Capitalism whilst not hiding its shortcomings.
Personally I think its message is about happiness and communications and about how their levels go up and down hand in hand.
Maybe the ‘lovers’ are the only genuinely happy people on the programme.
I like the S/C/L pyramid very much. Interesting.

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