The Gervais Principle III: The Curse of Development

In the first two parts of this series, we talked about the archetypes that inhabit organizations (Sociopaths, Losers, Clueless), what they do (the Gervais Principle) and how (the four languages). In this part, we’ll use a somewhat unorthodox take on the idea of arrested development to explain why the three groups behave as they do, and use that to predict the outcomes of individual interpersonal interactions.

Series Home | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | ebook


For those who came in late: read Part I and Part II first, to avoid serious misunderstandings.

The Basic Prediction Problem

Along every learning curve, between the early, instant gratification (which I’ve been hawking so far) and useful mastery, there is a long hard slog; what Seth Godin calls the “Dip.” For the Gervais Principle series, we are now embarking on that  slog, and it will take us a couple of longish parts to get through. You’ve been warned. If you want to quit, now would be the time.


Let’s start with an example that illustrates why prediction is a non-trivial matter.

When Angela gets engaged to Andy, Dwight, who is still not over her, is stunned. He is hurting badly, but lacks the self-awareness to process his feelings, and the empathy to understand Angela’s. Phyllis, who possesses both greater self-awareness and greater empathy, tries to help:

Dwight: “Why is she marrying Andy?”

Phyllis: “Angela’s not really a risk-taker, and Andy’s not really a risk.”

Dwight (looking condescendingly at Phyllis’ lunch): “That’s really fattening”

Phyllis (recoiling in shock): “It’s lettuce!”

What exactly is happening here? Why the ingratitude on Dwight’s part? What does lettuce have to do with it? And how did the more evolved Phyllis lose the bout? How did an apparently win-win interaction change, without warning, into a win-lose interaction?

This is not a random outcome. Dwight can systematically prevail over Phyllis precisely because he is less developed than her.

Four major factors drive the outcomes of such interactions. They are: situational randomness (luck), situational information distribution (who knows what, and when), interaction history (which can be boiled down to interpersonal psychological debt and relative status at the start of an interaction) and relative levels of psychological development.  In this post, we’ll only look at the dynamics of the last variable, which hides the most subtleties.

The Curse of Development

We can state the root cause of the Dwight-Phyllis dynamic as follows: the depth of any transaction is limited by the depth of the shallower party. A trivial example: if you speak English and French, and your friend only speaks English, you will be forced to converse in English. Psychological development is more complex and continuous than the acquisition of multiple discrete languages, but the same principle applies.

So this isn’t a particularly subtle point, but it has complicated implications. This one in particular:

If the situational developmental gap between two people is sufficiently small, the more evolved person will systematically lose more often than he/she wins.

This is the curse of development. Here’s a picture: when you develop psychologically, and leave somebody behind, your odds of winning get worse before they get better.

The Curse of Development

If you have ever been manipulated by a baby, you’ve been on the receiving end. If you’ve ever poked fun at a French-quoting pedant by striking a mock-professorial pose and spouting some pseudo French, (le bleu blah), you’ve dished it out.

Manipulation by pets is perhaps the most powerful illustration, since your most powerful weapon, human language, is useless. Cesar “Dog Whisperer” Milan’s techniques are the only defense (they don’t work as well on cats). The South Park episode Tsst, where he teaches Cartman’s mom to use dog-obedience techniques to control Cartman, after various Nanny reality-shows fail, is a must-watch.

To explain and explore the Curse of Development, we need to wade through some theory before we can get back to entertaining examples from The Office.

Arrested Development and Well-Adjustedness

The term “arrested development”  is now deprecated by professional psychologists, and has been replaced by “developmentally disabled.” This is good news for us pop psychologists hawking crude over-simplifications about functional adults, since we can safely steal the term.  I assume you are not retarded enough to read this as a theory of clinical developmental-disablement.

At the level of abstraction that we are concerned with, all theories of developmental psychology – Freud’s, Piaget’s, Erikson’s, Maslow’s – say roughly the same thing about arrested development: you are born Clueless and clue up in fits and starts. Bits of you get stuck and left behind at different points, and eventually you exhaust your capacity for real change and stall (though you may retain an illusion that you are on a path of “lifelong growth and learning,” itself a pattern of arrested development). That trail of developmental debris and eventual exhausted stalling is your particular pattern of arrested development.

Social expectations are unforgiving though. If you are above the low threshold for “normal,” you are forced through all the early stages of development, regardless of how well you cope, until some arbitrary point where your particular society labels you “well-adjusted adult” (usually between the ages of 18-21) and leaves you to your own devices.

Well-adjustedness is a measure of the degree to which your worldview is socially acceptable and appropriate in a given environment. Since a messed-up personality can be well-adjusted with respect to a messed-up environment, well-adjustedness has very little to do with sanity and actual mental health.

The mental health industry  is designed to manufacture well-adjustedness, not cure arrested development. This is partly because lack of well-adjustedness is easier to detect, measure and fix. But that is a minor reason. The major reason is that well-adjustedness is a definable and economically useful commodity that is relatively cheap to manufacture. The fix for arrested development is none of those things.

Environments and worldviews really come down to a series of situations and situational reactions. If your situational reactions are generally appropriate but against your best interests, you are a well-adjusted Loser. If they are both appropriate and in your best interests, you are a sociopath. If your reactions are inappropriate (whether or not they are in your best interests — sometimes they are), you are Clueless.

William Whyte described well-adjustedness in rich detail a half-century ago. Dan McAdams’ excellent book on narrative-psychology, The Redemptive Self provides a detailed modern critique of well-adjustedness (though he does not call it that, preferring Erikson’s term “generative adulthood”).

What about true development and the notion of “self-actualization” and development free of arrestedness? We’ll get there later when we get to Toby. The news isn’t good, I am afraid.

The Three Laws of Arrested Development

So far this is trivial stuff, widely understood, and offers nobody any advantage. Here is the non-trivial stuff, compressed into three handy laws:

  1. Your development is arrested by your strengths, not your weaknesses.
  2. Arrested-development behavior is caused by a strength-based addiction
  3. The mediocre develop faster than either the talented or the untalented

An alternative way of looking at these three laws is to note that defense mechanisms emerge to sustain addictions even when the developmental environment that originally nourished it vanishes. Defense mechanisms though, are more useful as a partial catalog of phenomenology than as a foundational idea.

These then are the developmental psychology roots  of the Gervais Principle. Recall that Cluelessness goes with overperformance. That overperformance is caused by arrested development around a strength, which has been hooked by an addictive environment of social rewards. Mediocrity is your best defense against addiction, and guarantor of further open-ended psychological development.

And yes, for the alert among you who have spotted a connection, arrested development is the dark side of strengths in the sense of Positive Psychology. A strength in one situation is merely an entrenched piece of arrested development in another.

In our model, the three development stages – Clueless, Losers and Sociopaths  – correspond to different patterns of arrested development and different strength-addictions. Each pattern is based on a preferred, dominant variety of delusion:

  1. The Clueless distort reality
  2. The Losers distort rewards and penalties
  3. The Sociopaths distort the metaphysics of human life

You really thought the sociopaths were going to get a free ride to redemption? They may be realists, but we’ll see how they too, are eventually forced to suffer consequences of their delusions.

The Curse Revisited, the Lettuce Explained

We can now explain why you are likely to lose in the Curse of Development zone. Broadly, three forces are at work, and the Dwight-Phyllis example showcases all of them:

  1. The less-developed person does not know what he/she does not know, and is typically attempting to operate from their regressed comfort zone of strength, which to you represents a zone of unrewarding mediocrity that you are attempting to leave/have left behind. This lends your opponent confidence.
  2. Your own knowledge is fresh, unstable and not yet ingrained as second nature. You are acutely aware of, and anxious about, your beginner status in your new level. This makes you lack confidence.
  3. To win through persuasion, you must teach (a superior-inferior transaction) without first reversing the default unfavorable status relationship (you: not confident, low-status, he/she: confident, high-status)

The Duning-Kruger effect, which I’ve written about before, explains some, but not all of these dynamics. The fundamental role of status is better understood through improv theater, rather than psychology.  If the three reasons are not intuitive to you, I am afraid you are going to have to slog through these two references in detail, as well as the previous defense-mechanisms reference. I did warn you we were embarking on a slog.

Here is a trick to help you remember all this: it is always hard for a student to teach a teacher, even if the student is studying a subject that is more advanced than the one the teacher teaches. The content doesn’t matter. A rule of thumb in the teaching profession states that to be an effective teacher at a given level, you need to have studied five years beyond that level. This has nothing to do with subject-matter expertise, and everything to do with trying to exit the Curse of Development zone.

In the Dwight-Phyllis case, Dwight held back just long enough to get value from the transaction before reasserting the natural status relationship. Since he could not reassert it at the level of the actual interaction, he pushed the first button at his own level that he could recognize. Healthy living is a domain of strength for him and mediocrity for Phyllis (who is obese and self-conscious about it), so he pushed the unhealthy button. It didn’t matter that Phyllis was eating lettuce; the accusation still put her in her proper place. Dwight averted the threat to the favorable status quo.

But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. The Phyllis-Dwight episode is a Loser-Clueless interaction, and we don’t yet have all the tools to analyze those.

Let’s deal with just the Clueless.

Reality-Distortion by the Clueless

Let’s start with the reality distortions of Michael, Dwight and Andy.

The world is a dangerous, messy place. Yet infants survive. Their early environment is an abnormally nurturing one. So the first early, theories of the world children are tempted to form are based on the assumption that the world exists to provide for them.  Starting with the unconditionally nurturing environment of really early infancy (which, in the language of Thomas Harris’ I am OK, You’re OK is the unconditional I AM OK), the Clueless in The Office represent three sublevels of reality-distorting clueless delusions:

  • I am OK if Mommy applauds my performance (early childhood, Michael)
  • I am OK if I earn badges from teachers (pre-adolescence, Dwight)
  • I am OK if I can sit with the cool kids (adolescence, Andy)

It is no accident that the clueless totem pole is stacked in what seems like the wrong order: Michael is the boss, Dwight is Number 2 and Andy is Number 3. The sublevels of Clueless development are typically insufficiently separated to allow the more developed Clueless to dominate, so the Curse of Development kicks in.

Keep in mind that that the rough equation of individuals to “levels” merely represents the center of gravity of their most deeply-entrenched strength-addiction behaviors, to which they regress most easily when threatened. All three have a home level, to which they preferentially regress, but can function at all three levels.

Michael, the Child

The theme of being trapped in babyhood is a constant (and somewhat overworked) one in The Office:

  • On “Bring Your Child to Work” day, Michael initially resists (competition from other babies).
  • Oscar describes the Dundies as a child’s birthday party.
  • When one of the newly-relocated Stamford employees brings a baby to work, rather than acting parental towards it, he hides under the table and acts like a competing baby.
  • In the Golden Ticket episode, when Michael hides discount coupons in paper reams, it is clear that his scheme is primarily an excuse for him to act like Willy Wonka (an overgrown-child archetype)
  • At one point, Jan says it out aloud literally, “Michael, do I need to find a babysitter for you?”
  • When his birthday party, his one guaranteed and socially legitimate day in the spotlight,  is ruined because the office pays more attention to Kevin (who is waiting for the results of a cancer test), he goes, “this is a terrible day, for both of us.”
  • When he fails to get his way with his new Sociopath boss, Charles, he regresses through a series of increasingly infantile behaviors until he is reduced to  repeating everything Charles says, like a five-year old, and finally storming off to Wallace (running to Mommy to complain about older sibling). When Wallace placates him with Babytalk that is a little too obvious and lazy, it is too much even for him, and he quits (with a theatrical “you have no idea how high I can fly” parting line).

Little children in normal environments win their first victories through creative performance: reciting nursery rhymes, drawing pictures, and demonstrating creative play behaviors. If they succeed too much, they get addicted to the typical adult reaction: Wow, aren’t you cute/clever? and, to a lesser extent, to admiration from younger siblings. In learning to thrive in this particular reward/penalty environment, little children rely mostly on responding to the emotional content of what they hear and see, since they do not understand much.

With a few evolved defense mechanisms thrown in, to protect against adult realities that don’t conform to childhood environments, that’s exactly what it feels like to be Michael. When he hears somebody talking, all he hears is “blah blah blah good job, blah blah blah, how could you do this Michael?” in conjunction with facial expressions and body language.

Michael’s head is a massive library of childlike mappings between situations, canned phrases and reactions. He is not completely responsible for his actions and utterances because he genuinely does not understand them.  There is coherence in what Michael says though; he does not sound completely nonsensical because he reacts meaningfully to body language, facial expressions and emotional cues. “You talkin’ to me?” (borrowed from De Niro) is a belligerent line, and by pulling out  that line when he feels threatened, and then displacing the tension with laughter, Michael is able to derail the conversation. His trademark joke, “That’s what she said!” is an extreme example. It makes no sense in most contexts where he trots it out; its only purpose is to dissolve tension and displace threats. Either laughing with Michael or throwing up your hands in frustration is a victory for him. The only effective response is to calmly ignore his disruptive actions, wait for the reaction to die down, and continue the conversation in dominant mode, like Cesar Milan with his dogs. If you attempt to make sense of it, you’ve already lost. As Cesar Milan tells Mrs. Cartman, “Do not reason with it, do not argue with it, just dominate it.” Michael’s nemesis Charles Miner does this most effectively. His dealings with Michael are the least contaminated by engagement, frustration or compassion, which is why he triggers the most spectacular Michael meltdown on the show so far.

Around Packer, his boorish friend, insulting and objectifying ways of talking about women gain approval, so he trots out borrowed, misogynistic man-talk. Withering under the collective glare of his politically correct employees, phrases like “respect women” gain smiles and halt frowns, so that’s what he offers.

The Black characters, Stanley and Darryl, get this the most clearly. With one exception, neither takes any offense at his repeated stereotyping, and his unquestioned assumption that they know all about things like gangs and ghettoes. A typical example is when Michael, describing the office in what he imagines is “rich multi-cultural diversity” language (which his mental look-up table says will win approval from White adults), describes Stanley as lending an “urban vibe” to the branch. “What about me seems ‘urban’ to you?” asks the comfortably suburban Stanley.  But he is not offended. It is the tired, ritual response of a parent weakly disciplining a child behaving inappropriately (the Darryl-Michael “fluffy fingers” episode, has a similar, but more malicious dynamic).

The one exception occurs when Darryl is driving Michael and Holly from Scranton to Nashua. Somewhere along the way, when Holly starts crying over the impending end of their relationship, Michael whispers, “Did Darryl touch you?” The effect is interesting; a case of a conflict between two adult-pleasing impulses. Michael does not know how to resolve the conflict, in his library of things to say, between “get approval from white woman” situational responses (in this case by pandering to assumed and projected prejudices) and “get approval from black males” situational responses. This is not an accusation Darryl can afford to safely ignore, so he reacts sharply. On the drive back though, Darryl sings a lullaby (in the guise of a blues riff) to console a heart-broken Michael.

In Part I, I noted that for the Clueless, “The most visible sign of their capacity for self-delusion is their complete inability to generate an original thought.” Why is lack of originality a clear indicator of cluelessness?

Here is why: delusions are closed logical schemes, where reality is mangled into the service of a fixed script through defense mechanisms, with the rest of the meaning thrown away. To manufacture original thought you have to look at/listen to reality in open ways for data. That is why Michael’s database is so full of movie lines. Movies are goldmines of canned situation-reactions that don’t require much present-reality data to retrieve. When kids quote adults or movies, they seem precocious, and gain approval. In an era where more kids are raised by TV than by parents, parroting movie lines comes more naturally than repeating bromides learned from parental figures or at churches and temples.

Recall that social calendars force you through later stages whether or not you master previous ones. So what about later stages? Michael is not quite as enamored of medals and certificates as Dwight because (as a lousy student) he never got very good at earning them, and could therefore not get seriously addicted to them.

Finally, Michael  has poorly developed peer-affiliation drives. He wants to be the center of attention, not one among many equals in a huddle of peers. When Michael appears to be operating under a peer-affiliation drive (the sort that animates Andy), he is really casting child behaviors into a teen mould. He believes that specific people, rather than formal or informal groups, are cool or admirable (proxy parental figures, older siblings). If they are not cool or admirable, they must be made to view him as cool and admirable (younger siblings).

These twin drives – approval seeking from proxy-family superiors, and admiration-seeking from proxy-family inferiors, mixed with some profound sexual confusion, explains Michael’s relationship with Ryan. Ryan is at once the parental-approval figure (he has a college education, which Michael lacks) and in a position to applaud Michael’s pretensions to business acumen. He is also a younger sibling (less-experienced salesperson) whom it is important to impress. The collision of the two instincts creates one of my favorite lines: “Ryan is book smart. I am street smart…(uncertain pause)… and book smart.” That hesitant addition allows him to grab the spotlight. He is not comfortable being Ryan’s peer with a complementary skill.

Ryan also has the sort of androgynous good looks that young children look for in their best friends. It is this childlike attraction in a physically mature body, rather than any real bi-curiosity (which other characters like Kevin make jokes about), that explains Michael’s attraction to Ryan.

Dwight, the Pre-Teen

Dwight, with his stern German upbringing, lacked the normal encouragement of early-childhood creative-performance instincts (we see several glimpses of this, including his attempt to read horrifying medieval cautionary tales to the kids during bring-your-child-to-work day, and his own description of his childhood, which left his brother actually developmentally disabled).  He has therefore developed none of the addiction to childhood applause-seeking performance behaviors that have trapped Michael.

Instead, Dwight found relief in the graded, performance-oriented worlds of school and varied medieval-guild-like worlds, such as farming, animal husbandry and karate. His attempts to understand the world of management, which is decidedly not a world of grades or guilds, are based entirely on peripheral guild-like elements. He is the only one excited about the Survivor-style successor-selection event Michael arranges (in the bus on the way over, he asks, “Will there be business parables?”). When he attempts manipulation, his mind naturally turns to hidden microphones, doctored documents and other elements of tradecraft learned from spy novels, and only rarely to psychology.  He banks the occasional tactical victory, but cannot play or win the mind games required to beat the Sociopaths.

In Dwight’s world, everything worth learning is teachable, and medals, certificates and formal membership in meritocratic institutions is evidence of success. Even where play behaviors are concerned, the Dwights of the world can more easily get lost in points-and-rules worlds. It is significant that Dwight has never seen/read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which is about creative-performance play), but is obsessed with gaming worlds and sci-fi/fantasy universes.

Perhaps the clearest example of Dwight’s need for formal affiliation is his lame attempt at the insider stand-up comedy routine, The Aristocrats. To Dwight, everything is a formal contest, and there are always authority figures who provide legitimacy and rankings. He has no sense of humor (thanks to skipping early childhood), and has no idea how to actually evoke laughter, so he tries to ace the only formal membership test  he can see, the ability to tell the Aristocrats joke. Michael, by contrast, can at least tell juvenile jokes, and Andy can manage some bad frat-boy humor.

Let’s finish up the opening “lettuce” example. The rest of that episode has Phyllis (she never learns) continuing to help, with Dwight ungratefully accepting the help. Eventually though, nothing works. Phyllis, like any reality-anchored Loser or Sociopath, shrugs and tells him he needs to move on. Dwight fails to comprehend and impatiently dismisses the thought, “Yes, yes, I’ve moved on, what next?” When he finally gets that Phyllis has no “next,” to offer, he is livid.

“I thought you had some sort of big master plan.”

That is a significant line, and sums up Dwight’s entire personality.


In adolescence, young adults who have successfully, through mediocrity, weaned themselves away from familial and classroom sources of addiction, turn to their peers. Where Michael’s desperate attempts at seeming cool are mostly masked and repackaged early childhood behaviors, Andy is genuinely the perennially uncool teenager angling for a seat at the cool kids table.

Unlike Michael, who can only handle individuals, and Dwight, who is addicted to formal organizational affiliations, Andy sees beyond individuals and Gesellschaft. He is ready to be properly socialized, but has no idea how to go about it. Gemeinschaft – the world of Loser communities –glimmers invitingly just beyond his reach.

Andy’s situation is most clearly illustrated by his attempt to sidle into the “Finer Things Club.” It is noteworthy that none of the members (Pam, Oscar and Toby) is particularly worthy of serious cultivation for any reason. It is the soft-edged club, with its rituals of English tea sandwiches and book-reading, that he aspires to. Michael would only want to belong if specific people, from whom he sought proxy-familial validation, belonged. Dwight would only want to belong if it involved a hierarchy of skilled superiors and formal tests of prowess or craftsmanship. Jim is invited to join, but being on the cusp of sociopathy, is unable to take it seriously.

In adolescence, visible signs of acceptance aren’t formal medals and honors, but things like being given nicknames by peers, being  a wingman to alpha males, being appreciated for “cool” extracurricular skills, and the like. Andy has a whole list of nicknames (most of which he appears to have made up himself), and a distinctly uncool extracurricular skill (a cappella singing).

Between the last, adolescent stage of Clueless delusions, and the Loser stage, there is a deep chasm. Andy stands at the edge, unable to jump. Andy cannot be fully understood in terms of the Clueless spectrum alone, since he is in a can-look-but-can’t-touch relationship with the loser level. As we’ll see in the next part, his bottled-up anger and other traits are due to this condition.

Clueless-Clueless Interactions

Let’ finish with an example that illustrates the richness of the Curse of Development particularly well. Remember the “Dwight Applies to Cornell” episode?

Dwight correctly perceives Andy as a threat, and though he understands very little about Andy, he recognizes a Big Red pushbutton: Andy’s frantic attachment to his exclusive Cornell pedigree.

The two-day bout begins when Dwight applies to Cornell, shows up for work in Cornell gear, and stocks his desk with Cornell souvenirs. Andy  initially reacts with his trademark bottled-up frustration. Round One to Dwight, and a perfect Curse of Development exploit.

But then, Andy finds a way to fight back by getting himself appointed to interview Dwight. The interview begins with an open declaration by Andy that he intends to reject Dwight, and ends in the sort of farce only the Clueless can create:

Andy: Applicant is attempting to blackmail interviewer, showing low moral character.
Dwight: Interviewer is threatening applicant with an arbitrary review process.
Andy: Applicant is wasting everyone’s time with stupid and inane accusations.
Dwight: Interviewer has suspect motives.
Andy: Applicant has a head shaped like a trapezoid.

The day, and Round Two, ends in a stalemate. Though the opening move by Andy was good (Dwight does not question Andy’s arrogation of interviewing rights), his mistake was in playing his hand openly. If he had maintained the fiction of fair due process, he could have used Dwight’s need for formal affiliations to firmly establish his superiority. But it takes more of a developmental advantage to play a game at two levels. So Andy overplayed his hand and turned a win into a draw.

Round Three, which plays out the following day, is the most revealing. Andy shows up for work dressed as a country bumpkin (his idea of a country bumpkin seems to be drawn from period Huckleberry Finn illustrations), in a pathetic attempt to turn Dwight’s Round One tactic against him. The attempt fails miserably because the Curse of Development destroys the apparent symmetry and reversibility in the situation. Dwight’s “farming” button works very differently from Andy’s “Cornell” button. We’ll see how the farming button actually works later.

Note that neither Andy’s nor Dwight’s tactical choices were informed by this level of deliberate analysis. Dwight simply learned a basic trick: pushing the Cornell button in certain ways annoys Andy. Andy simply recognized instinctively that formal authority would work on Dwight (and failed to recognize that his identity as a farmer was a matter of pride rather than shame).

The Clueless Economy

Throughout this part, I’ve used economics terms like winning/losing, zero-sum, and interpersonal debt, but keep in mind that all this is Monopoly money unless a Sociopath is involved. The language of winning and losing and debts is useful for all interactions, but it is only consequential, and capable of causing power shifts, when Sociopaths are involved.

A great illustration of this point is the episode when Michael, playing Willy Wonka, puts golden tickets for a 10% discount into random reams of paper. Unfortunately for him, all the tickets are found by a huge customer, and David Wallace prepares to rain fury on Scranton for ruining margins.

Michael convinces Dwight to take the fall (playing on his Samurai-like sense of fealty). But then the situation reverses itself: the customer is so happy with the discount, they give Dunder-Mifflin a huge additional order. David Wallace is happy again, and prepared to believe that some marketing/sales genius was at work, and reward it appropriately.

When he comes down to Scranton, prepared to offer rewards, Michael clumsily attempts to take credit back from Dwight, who naturally resists. But the damage is done. The farce reveals to Wallace that the happy outcome was due to randomness rather than an inspired marketing/sales strategy. The line of real credit he is prepared to offer evaporates. He walks away with the proceeds from the lucky win. Did Michael win or Dwight? It does not matter.

A similar currency trade plays out when David Wallace, intrigued by the good performance of the Scranton branch, attempts to pick Michael’s brains for best practices, in a conversation that starts out with him using Powertalk. After listening to several minutes of vacuous Posturetalk, Wallace realizes that there are no best practices to be mined, and gently terminates the conversation in Babytalk. In economic terms, Wallace tested a hypothesis that Michael possessed real table stakes, and discovered that he had none.

The point: the Clueless economy is fueled by a worthless currency, but this does not mean transactions do not occur. Nothing ever changes with the three stooges, Michael, Dwight and Andy, beating each other up. There are wins and losses, but relative positions do not change.

In the next part, we’ll add another level of furious and meaningless economic activity, the world of Gametalk and inter and intra-group dynamics. We’ll also figure out how Loser-Clueless Babytalk works, and explain, once and for all, why The Office makes the Losers among you cringe. After that, we’ll finally get to the secrets of Sociopathy.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about losers distorting rewards and penalties. Having a different set of rewards and penalties, and compartmentalizing your life to a degree, such that your work is not the most important thing, makes a lot of sense.

    • Jan Dockx says

      Sure it does.

    • I believe the difference between your interpretation and the implied interpretation is analogous to the social vs economic loser distinction. By “having a different set of rewards and penalties … such that your work is not the most important thing”, this is a clear economic-loser type distortion: you believe you’re not playing the same game, because you’ve decided to focus on different measures of utility, but nonetheless you are a player in the economic game.

      It’s like losing at poker, but consoling yourself with the sentiment that “you’re only here to have a good time”; the others are not, and they’re taking your money.

      • Bilge Kisi says

        Dear Sociapath;

        Yes, we are players in economic game; just only to survive.

        You have to work to live, poker is not the same!

        You can compeletely understand and speak powertalk yet you may refuse to talk in case you find it humiliating for your self and/or the other party of conversation. And the previous sentence is not a distortion.

        And in that case 99.99% percent you’ll become a loser in the economic game.

        But allow me to remind you; you can’t lose what you have not.

  2. Wow…

  3. Some inaccuracies here:

    “A rule of thumb in the teaching profession states that to be an effective teacher at a given level, you need to have studied 5 years beyond that level”

    Like most rules, this is nonsense. I have personally had great success teaching concepts right after understanding them myself. For example, in a math class, where I would learn from the teacher, do the problems, and then teach the other kids in the class who didn’t understand the teacher. It’s not at all unusual to tutor other students in a class you yourself are taking.

    In fact, being 5 years BEYOND their level can be a liability, because you are so far removed from that lack of sophistication that you don’t understand where they are stumbling.

    Likewise, children learn quite well from people a single year older.

    “If your situational reactions are generally appropriate but against your best interests, you are a well-adjusted loser. If they are both appropriate and in your best interests, you are a sociopath. If your reactions are inappropriate (whether or not they are in your best interests — sometimes they are), you are clueless.”

    This is a false trichotomy. It’s also simply mistaken about what a sociopath is (socially appropriate actions means you AREN’T a sociopath). Taking actions in your best interest is also the complete opposite of cluelessness. You seem to be confused about “conformity”.


    Osho had some choice words about “well-adjusted” people, and society’s production of soldiers instead of sensitive individuals.

    • Folger’s: You didn’t get what the author was saying. The next sentence, after the one you quoted, is illuminating: “This has nothing to do with subject-matter expertise, and everything to do with trying to exit the Curse of Development zone.”

      Venkatesh is saying that anyone CAN teach anyone else, but social status levels prevent peers from formally teaching each other. Sure, you can help your classmates with their homework, but they would not accept you as someone coming into a classroom, which that are paying money to be in, and lecturing to them three time per week.

      • For this I think the most wonderful example is from the movie “Catch Me If You Can”, where DiCaprio seamlessly and perfectly integrates himself into the role of French teacher. Not only does he bypass the whole peer-to-peer teaching issues, but also takes the superior role to the actual substitute teacher when she shows up.

      • “Sure, you can help your classmates with their homework, but they would not accept you as someone coming into a classroom, which that are paying money to be in, and lecturing to them three time per week.”

        Actually they will – I’ve done it successfully several times – but you have to set it up properly, and it may have to be narrowly specialized knowledge. The trick seems to be in blowing up their expectations of “who you are” dramatically enough so they no longer see you as a peer.

    • The key issue in the teaching is relative status. As a fellow student, you have equal status with the people you are tutoring, so you are not really in conflict with them. Similarly, when talking with a student who took the class last year, the relationship is much more informal and there is no real status competition between you; its just one friend helping out another.

      However, a better example is if you learn a subject one semester and then are expected to teach that subject in an upcoming semester to students you do not know. On the first day of class, when the students and teacher do not know each other, there is much more of a status conflict. Among friends, you are not likely to try to take advantage of one another. But many times students try to get away with as much as possible – missing class, not doing homework, skipping an exam to get more study time – and relative status affects how likely they are to try this: the higher the teacher’s relative status, the more intimidating he is and the less likely a student will attempt something sneaky.

  4. Folger’s: You need to read part 1 to understand my definitions. They are not the usual ones.

    Barry: I haven’t gotten to the specifics of loser penalty/reward distortion yet. It isn’t about work/life balance or compartmentalization. It has to do with game transactions.

  5. This is getting even better. This stuff is really world class, I’m hoping the series can be turned into a book.

    I’m curious to explore methods to inventory my own strength addictions. I’m also excited about having a vocabulary for styles of interacting that are type-optimized.

    Can you suggest companion reading for this series that focus on interpersonal power dynamics? I’m not going to buy Milan’s book unless you give me a big time “I’m totally serious dude.”

    Thanks for shipping this one!

    • Milan’s book really is pretty good, though I didn’t get as much value out of it as dog-owners might. Worth at least a browse in a book store.

      Book… dunno. Blook, yes, that’s on the cards (will just polish a bit and throw into a quick-and-dirty volume). A true book will need to be separated from The Office as source, with all the material restated in more general terms…I’ll work on that if my first book does well, since this would be a sequel.

      Methods to inventory… just take the Clifton StrenghtsFinder, throw away the glowing descriptions of each strength, and just make up your own dark underbelly description of each of your strengths :). Mine are, in order, intellection, strategy, input, context, ideation. Or, in arrested development terms, long-winded pedantic story-telling and bullshitting :). This blog is the best evidence of my own arrested development.

      Rewriting the descriptions of all 34 of the Clifton strengths in negative ways might be a fun exercise.


      • “A true book will need to be separated from The Office as source, with all the material restated in more general terms”

        Why? Trademark issues? Afraid the tie-in would make the book look like crap due to bad company (“Seinfeld and Philosophy” )?

        Certainly it could make sense to make detailed reference to other depictions of work life as well, though I’m not sure what other show illustrates office relationships as poignantly. The Wire comes to mind, though it is more about the relationships between people and “institutions” — i.e. workplaces that also have a significant extrinsic identity function, like cops and journalists. Interested how you’d classify that show’s characters. I’d argue there are no “loser” characters in the spotlight because everyone seems to identify so much with their jobs. Several sociopaths though, often in both senses of the word simultaneously.

      • Sorry for repliarrhea on this post… just thought I’d mention that when I read your posted “strengths report” I was immediately disappointed in the lopsided presentation of traits as positives. I know it’s the “strengths movement”, not the “Achilles’ heel movement”, but it’s really important (for me at least) to understand what you DON’T have going for you, even if your goal is avoidance.

      • You might not need to separate from The Office. I’ve never seen the American version of the show and I’m following along fine. (Or perhaps I just think I am.) That said, one of the better books on the philosophy of personal behavior that I’ve ever read is called “The Gentleman in Trollope,” by Shirley Letwin that uses the works of Anthony Trollope to illustrate her ideas both about how a gentleman (of either gender) behaves and why such actions will lead to happiness. (If you ever decide to read it, make sure you get to the second part, which is far more interesting and concrete than the shorter first section.)

        • It is only partly an accessibility thing. My own main reason for wanting to decouple the ideas from the show if I ever do a book, is simply a matter of more rigorous testing of the ideas.

          I do think stuff can stand on its own even with readers unfamiliar with a reference. I myself have never been able to go beyond page 1 of any Trollope novel, but curiously, I frequently quote one bit from him very often (in fact I meant to quote it in this post… the description of Evrett Wharton, Trollope’s PM character, who sounds very like Michael, “he thought that he thought…”


          • Nooooooo…don’t decouple the book from the show! “The Office” has become infinitely more interesting because of the GP posts. ;) And while you’re posts are very solid, I don’t know if they’d be as accessible/’masaledar’ without references to the deliciously dysfunctional characters of this show. Please rethink!

          • “your posts”, not “you’re”. I hate when others do that. (But when I do it, it’s only mildly annoying. :P)

  6. Folger’s I agree with you completely. I think the issue is that the author uses “loser” “clueless” and “sociopath” without actually meaning the direct meaning of those words. It’s annoying, but as I read I remind myself that he’s not actually talking about a “sociopath” etc. I think a little work could have been done to either make unique terms or more accurate ones.

    loser = the checked-out
    clueless = well that ones okay
    sociopath = the powerplayer

    • Completely disagree. It is the marriage of the blunt real meaning of these words with Venkat’s subtle definitions that makes them fun and exciting.

  7. ” We’ll also figure out how loser-clueless Babytalk works, and explain, once and for all, why The Office makes the losers among you cringe.”

    What a complete bastard way to end the installment. Calling those of us who find The Office cringe-inducing losers, and making the defense of this allegation the cliffhanger. WELL PLAYED, SIR. More evidence that in a just world you would be a full-time writer.


    “You really thought the sociopaths were going to get a free ride to redemption?” Even laying aside your non-standard usage, I love how you anticipate *this* as the reader’s expectation. Ribbonfarm: where everyone dreams of becoming a sociopath.

    Encore! Encore!

  8. I have found this series very interesting.

    When I worked at IBM (various contract positions in vastly different parts of the company) they used to send up-and-coming managers on what were known as *management beauty* courses. My understanding of those courses (as a contractor I was formally a *loser*, not on this career path) was that it was intended to teach *power talk*, although I suspect they also generated a lot of *posture talk* out of them.

    I wonder how many other institutions have formalized these kind of programs?

  9. Fascinating reading and analysis. Loved all parts.

  10. The framework that’s being built with the mini-series posts is illuminating and useful for people to ponder. I know that this certainly helps reveal some insightful and relevant experiences that I’ve felt at various companies and, more importantly, with various groups of people.

    Who knew group dynamics could be this fun?

  11. pdw says:
    “I wonder how many other institutions have formalized these kind of programs?”

    The majority of institutions that have formalized such programs don’t really understand the underlying motivations; they believe that it simply produces “better managers” with little thought on measurable outcomes. Highly subjective and influenced by underlying motivations corporate program (usually HR) sponsors are only vaguely consciously aware of.

  12. Great shit, keep it running.

  13. Keep this going. Just keep it going. Absolutely fantastic. I agree that this could be a book. Each point that you hit is so full of meaning that you could expand on the material to an infinite level.

    Since I started reading these articles, so many things that I knew on a intuitive level about work relationships have become crystal clear. I’m going to send you some coffee money soon.

  14. Evil Rocks says

    I will slog with you, V, through this terribly rewarding stuff. More advice for budding sociopaths, though! Moar!

    (also the “Losers aren’t really losers, we just redefine our rewards system!” comments on every single post crack me up. There’s always one!)

    On a more serious note, in the professional workplace (coders, engineers, etc.), how does the human who’s skilled at making things/fixing problems (but doesn’t want to play power games) fit in? Heck, is it possible to find and work in teams where these sorts of power dynamics don’t play constantly? I’m quite interested in the answer to this, ’cause I wrap up my technical training in two years and need to evaluate employers for degree of psychopathy in the workplace.

    Another question: is there a correlation between professional fields and workplace mental health? Stereotypically advertising or fashion would be the most power-grabby, and the applied sciences the least. I can’t imagine that the real world is that clean, though, and would appreciate some protips.

    • “(also the “Losers aren’t really losers, we just redefine our rewards system!” comments on every single post crack me up. There’s always one!)”

      Hmmm. … posturetalk? I get the feeling you have the same misconception of the fellow you are mocking. The currency of the sociopath economy – the leverage of table stakes – isn’t exclusive to career advancement. It’s there in all relationships. Anyway, you only have so much time. I imagine a successful career is cold comfort next to a broken family.

  15. I’m with you till “Reality Distortion by the Clueless”. Excellent stuff. Reminded me of the Innovator’s dilemma and Toynbee’s cultural/civilizational plateaus – where strengths needed to achieve at one level are useless and even counterproductive to succeed at the next level or in a different environment. Again, there is a retreat to “strengths” (“Sacrifice more virgins!” or “Reduce bottom-line with layoffs and increase top-line by showing customers increased ROI!”)

    After that… I have two issues. First, I never quite resonated with the whole transactional thingy (and psychology in general. If you look for dicks everywhere, boy, will you reap a bumper harvest of dicks.) With this airy dismissal, I have proved your first point – I am not as developed as you, so I get to win, ha ha!

    I find it quite conceivable that another set of pretty explanations could be invoked to categorize Michael’s laundry list of behaviours differently. And at this point, I lack the discrimination to pronounce yours as the obviously right one.

    Secondly, I haven’t seen much of the American version. I watched a couple of seasons of the Gervais version and loved it, and caught a couple of episodes of the American version during the long gray of a transatlantic. Enough to let me know who Michael and Jan are, but little else. Beyond the “RD by the C” point, it goes into too much episodic detail. And unlike the previous articles, where I could easily find examples in my own experience to supplant the examples you supplied, I was unable to do so here.

    So I’ll wait for the more generic version you promised.

    I have other comments on this topic which have been gathering prodigious quantities of dust. Time for spring cleaning..

    • Evil Rocks says

      trengths needed to achieve at one level are useless and even counterproductive to succeed at the next level or in a different environment. Again, there is a retreat to “strengths” (“Sacrifice more virgins!” or “Reduce bottom-line with layoffs and increase top-line by showing customers increased ROI!”)

      Much like insect-eating plants in nature specials, I never tire of this refrain.

  16. I think your readers deserve full disclosure that you attended Cornell. And, if you grew up on a farm or belong the the Society for Creative Anachronism, you should reveal that as well.

    Great post, typos and all.

  17. “I assume you are not retarded enough to read this as a theory of clinical developmental-disablement.”

    Venkat, that line alone is worth the read. Good points on shadow-strengths as weaknesses, but I’m not sure I entirely agree. Given, our strengths are our default response approaches, but that seems to be different than the “content” of our responses. Those tend to be repetitive of our last success in a situation we conceptualize as similar. In other words, we don’t apply the pure strengths (or shadow) as much as the skills we applied successfully in the past. We are, as they say, continually fighting the last war.

    Very nice point on Monopoly(tm) money. That might have some bearing on “reputation” currencies, looking at other contexts

  18. With this post, I detect a tilt of scale in this series from a tongue-in-cheek, interesting intellectual exploration to a more serious and a more well-thought-out analysis.

    As many have commented, there are some killer statements here. Two I liked are:

    …you are born clueless and clue up in fits and starts.

    Since a messed-up personality can be well-adjusted with respect to a messed-up environment, well-adjustedness has very little to do with sanity and actual mental health.

    The above reminded me of J Krishnamurti’s quote: It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

    Your super-crisp summary of psychology seems either informed by or highly reminiscent of Tim Butler-Bowdon’s 50 Psychology Classics. His entire series of books is worth dipping into and admirable for having opinions but conveying them in a balanced tone–a bit too cautiously in my opinion.

    A lot of intriguing statements about strengths…

    The beauty of this article series is that one can enjoy it (with a fair deal of comprehension one supposes) without having watched the TV series that it is triggered from! Now that you have embarked on the ribbonfarm commercialization project, a potential revenue stream is as consultant to the show producers (tell me that is a deal already in progress)! If you do that would it be a case of sincerely-slogging-loser to powerful-winner-sociopath ascent?

  19. As much as I would like to like your analysis and model, considering how heavily laden it is with insight and zingers, I feel I must point out that you’re constructing the entire thing around a work of fiction. Sure, that fiction has a more-than-passing resemblance to reality, but the reasons why it works as entertainment is that it distills reality and reconstructs it in ways that resonate but frequently don’t work beyond its own construction. So as an idle exercise in entertainment criticism, you get high marks. As an actionable model for behavior in the real world, not so much.

    For example, your initial anecdote about Dwight and Phyllis assesses Dwight the subversive winner is a struggle for — what exactly? Controlling the conversation? So what? He blocks Phyllis’ astute observation from penetrating his ego armor, distracts her with a nonsequitur and puts her on the defensive, and brings her down to his level. Those temporary victories mean little or nothing unless those very temporary victories are mistaken to mean something, which many clearly do. The implication is that the only way for losers to win is to join the psychopaths by being even more psycho. What a world of perverse incentives and rewards that would be. (It’s clear that on Wall Street and to a lesser degree inside the Beltway, we have just that.)

    While it’s perhaps entertaining to watch these power struggles unfold in the show (I’ve never seen it), life is not a sitcom. There may appear to be lots of cachet and status behind climbing the supposed ladder of success, making piles of money, and stepping all over others, but it’s not at all clear that such cachet and status make anyone happier or lead to a fulfilled life.

  20. Excellent…

  21. RG: Getting more “serious” is probably bad for commercial ambitions :) If that tendency is there, I’ll have to correct it.

    Brutus: Re: “temporary victories that mean nothing,” we are in complete agreement. I say as much in the last section (you may not have gotten that far, since the piece is unusually long).

    Re: how much you can learn from fiction… I wouldn’t put it like that. The show merely provides me with crisp examples of situations and behaviors I’ve observed (as have others) in real life. I wouldn’t say my analysis is based on the Office so much as it is illustrated by it. I could easily come up with real-life examples corresponding to every Office example I’ve used, except that I’d have to tediously anonymize and explain context and character.

    tubelite: Re: transactional analysis…it almost sounds like you’ve on the whole met more mentally healthy people than I have in your life, which sounds impossible :) It has been fashionable in the last few decades to treat Freudian and neo-Freudian approaches as unfalsifiable bs, and to a large extent the charge is true. But I like the tools because the fact remains that for this level of psychology, it is the only thing around. Cognitive and behavioral psychology simply shed no useful light on these matters, despite their power in explaining things like grammar and salivating dogs.

    So in a sense, the entire family of Freudian approaches is like democracy. A lousy system, but the best we have. TA in particularly is a pretty broadly accessible version.

  22. Robert S. says

    A couple of things, in a jumble…

    First, Michael as a man-child. I read this post when it first came out but it really hit home in an Office rerun last night. In childhood, as we mature there’s a progression or hierarchy to joke telling. We go from finding pleasure in simple cooing noises, to knock-knock jokes and those on bodily functions to story-telling where there’s a structure. When Michael walks in on Jim and Pam laughing at Jim’s telling the Updog joke (I won’t retell it, a Google search will refresh people’s memories) suffice it to say, when Michael attempts at the retelling on others, he totally flubs the punchline again and again, and he doesn’t ever figure out why he can’t get it to work. Anyone with small children/nieces/nephews has seen that time and time again, when kids fail in their first attempts at telling a reasonably sophisticated joke.

    On a different topic, it seems that Michael has shown, situationally, he can be a sociopath. Perhaps it’s just needed for the storyline, or perhaps in the right comfort zone and scenario, people have flashes of other archetypes but they just don’t ‘live’ in them. But when Michael is on a sales call with Jan (who thinks Michael is totally blowing their chance with the client), Michael dominates and thinks nothing of shushing Jan and otherwise taking things over. And even though it looked like a disaster in the making, in the end he sealed a new deal (prompting Michael and Jan’s impromptu kiss in the parking lot). Again, when Michael negotiates his return to Dunder Mifflin via the buyout of the Michael Scott Paper Co., Michael out-sociopaths David Wallace even though he had all the wrong table-stakes. Random luck? Or just that he was in his comfort zone?

  23. Robert S.: I think the sales call was genuine skill (remember, he WAS an overperformer as a salesman), but it isn’t sociopathy I’d say… just learned and unexamined skills in persuasion.

    The other example, negotiating a return, you’re forgetting the backdrop of that episode, with Jim coaching them on the sly, while pretending to act as liaison, and running interference when Dwight finds out about their actual balance sheet trouble and that they’ve been calling up customers to ask for a higher price. Without the strong assist from Jim, he’d have failed. He’d have blurted out his true balance sheet status (Wallace suspects something fishy anyway, when he says something like “I know your costs, and I don’t know how you are selling at this price.”)

    But yeah, the idea of a home archetype with occasional performance in other skins is a necessary nuance if you want to apply these models in practice. I’ve never yet met a pure archetype.

  24. Your mind is too fertile. You are basically an Indian, not an American, but you hide this behind a smoke screen so thick it is nearly impossible to penetrate – once I think I have found one of your killer concepts, it has moved elsewhere.

    On the other hand, I can thank you for stimulating many of my latest postings – such as – about a Greek drama that is partly Eastern and partly Western.

    I would be interested in knowing if such a woman is in your life – your mother, perhaps?

  25. LOL@ Hal

    No, my mom is no Machiavellian Medea :) Quite the opposite. And no, I have had no major female figures in my life cast in that mold. I do have a soft spot for Lady Macbeth though.

    I agree with you that wanting to be seen as nice is a characteristically American trait. In lacking that trait, I am not so much Indian, as un-American. So the smokescreen, to the extent that I maintain one, is really ‘guy operating by Old World values’ pretending to be part of the New World. In that sense, I am not, and never will be, very American, though I’ve lived here for 13 years now.

    I think it is partly intrinsic to American culture (a genuine determination on the part of its people to construct a national self-identity based on ‘nice’) and partly due to the fact that it is now the sole superpower, and is anxious to avoid even a hint of ‘not nice’ (for the same reason Google needs ‘Don’t be evil’ while lesser behemoths can get away with some evil in their PR images). One of Obama’s smarter moves has been to tell the rest of the world that America can no longer ‘do it all alone’… which opens the door to a more self-interested national posture, and legitimizing of ‘not nice’ at the individual level. As its economic power grows, I suspect China will start feeling the ‘must seem to be nice’ pressure… India… not in this century I think.


  26. Stefan K. says

    Great insights, I’m hooked. Have been playing around with it for a couple of weeks now. It explains things like counterintuitive layoffs and the immature aura of strategy consultants. And I have had this thought about several managers: “How did that idiot get up there.” Now I know.

    But it’s a bit too flattering; losing those games because I’m *more* mature? I’m careful. But I indulge in the notion that mediocrity can save a soul.

    How should we interpret counterexamples like a classic frat boy alpha male at a middle-management position? Board members of corporations often *have* been middle-managers or high staff-employees; did they nurture their inner child for a while until they saw an opportunity? I can think of several middle-managers that seem like smart losers. So either I judge their type wrong or the model has common (systematic?) exceptions.

  27. Stefan: Good questions all, and I don’t want to provide flip answers. I am wary of too-quick assessments based on archetypes like “frat boy.” I’ve seen people who come across that way at all levels, and they range from razor sharp socios to terminally clueless. So that particular one, I think, is too broad.

    Also, remember that the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin is a small fictional office deliberately loaded with exaggerated and over-pure archetypes for dramatic impact. Real life, unfortunately, is a lot more confusing and noisy.

    Board members… here I have to admit plain old ignorance. I’ve known very few people at that level, and never seen them functioning within a board meeting. I imagine the dynamics are very similar to other such deliberative bodies that I do have some experience with, but I don’t want to speculate at that level without thinking about this stuff a lot more.

    Some of these intricate and interesting details I am hoping to explore through the be slightly evil email list.

  28. Fascinating! Just a quick logistical note: Gervais Principle IV isn’t linked as the next article in the “Trails” area.

  29. This series of posts is absolutely fascinating. I want to read the whole series through and then go back to analyze and leave comments. However, I’ll say at this point it is simply brilliant! Bravo zulu!

  30. I actually just found this series today, having arrived at this site maybe a week ago by way of one or another fairly influential curators of fine internet reading, and finding myself confused by Part V (I quickly figured that out). This is an excellent and thought-provoking series, and it captures modern capitalistic business power structures and interactions quite superbly. I am wondering, however, if organizations with a different sort of focus emphasize different mixes of these kinds of players, or if they foster different configurations entirely. The organizations I have in mind are not primarily capitalistic, even if they’ve adopted the modes and languages of capitalism. Consider, for instance, the military (any military), in which formal hierarchies are built on and reinforce the reward addiction (i.e., the structure is or seems to be populated by Dwights more than anything else). The primary drive is not the ostensible capitalistic mantra of “increase shareholder value,” so I am wondering how much of this we could expect to transfer.

    It’s really just an idle musing, but I think I might have some idea where the answer lies.

    • Welcome to ribbonfarm :)

      I definitely think the model needs modifications for different domains, and while I think in some form it probably shows up in every type of configuration, I wouldn’t bet on it yet. In the government for example, based on Yes, Prime Minister you could argue that the bureaucrats are the Sociopaths, the cabinet politicians the Clueless and the MPs the losers.

      In the military, check out the The Genealogy of the Gervais Principle and the Hammerstein-Equord model in particular. I’d say the S/C/L model applies and actually originated there, not in business. For an entertaining narrative about how to work the military hierarchy, the Robert Coram biography of John Boyd is excellent.