The Gervais Principle VI: Children of an Absent God

And so here we are, ready for an assault on our Everest: the mind that lies behind the low-reactor Sociopath face. A face that gazes upon the worlds of Losers and the Clueless with divine inscrutability. It’s certainly been a long climb.

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With the resurrection of David Wallace and the ascent of Robert California to a richly undeserved heaven-on-earth, a harem of  young East European women, the crew at The Office teed up their final season, and presented us with our last and biggest challenge. And finally, we are ready to take it on.

Under the creepily steady gaze of Robert California, Jim wilts and chokes. Dwight blusters like a frightened dog, “Stop trying to get into my head!” But ultimately even that courageous Clueless soul cowers.

But you and I, we are going to break through. Our gaze may flinch. We may lose the staring contest with Robert California. We may fail to perturb the preternatural poise of David Wallace. But we will figure out the minds that lie beneath.

As The Office winds its way to a satisfyingly redemptive American series finale this week, the remaining questions in our own little sideshow tent will be answered in deeply unsatisfying and empty ways.  

Here’s a brief recap of the series so far if you need it. Welcome to the finale of the Gervais Principle.

Power from Emptiness

In the grand, operatic world of the Titans, a Sociopath has fallen. Dunder-Mifflin is now Sabre, and the once-mighty CFO David Wallace skulks in his lair, unshaven and somewhat drunk, spiraling down into a personal hell under the increasingly worried gaze of his wife. His normal preternatural poise has temporarily collapsed. He looks out at the world with a crazed gleam in his eyes.


Fallen and disgraced, rocking to the manic beat of his son’s drumming, Wallace yells defiance at the universe:


Raging at an absent god — one who does not talk back or otherwise provide proof of his presence — is the sign of a recurring liminal passage in the Sociopath life, marking the start of yet another Sisyphean effort to extract a sliver of meaning from existence.

For Wallace, “Suck it” is not just a cry of despair and defiance. It is also the name of the product that returns him to grace in the human world. And it is a product that not even the prodigiously gullible Michael believes in at inception.

Rather appropriately, Wallace’s Suck It! is a vacuum cleaner. Originally developed for use as a toy, and later sold to the military for millions, allowing him to buy back Dunder-Mifflin. An amoral device that generates power from emptiness.

That is what Sociopaths ultimately do with their lives if they survive long enough: generate amoral power from increasing inner emptiness, transforming themselves into forces of nature.

As a side-effect, they also manufacture transient meanings to fuel the theaters of religiosity (including various secular religions) that lend meaning to lives of Losers and the Clueless. This meaning is achieved via subtraction, through withdrawal of complexities that the latter are predisposed to ignore, leaving behind simpler, more satisfying and more tractable realities for them to inhabit.

When Sociopath stories end, the Loser and Clueless stories that continue become bereft of meaning; sound and fury signifying nothing. When Sociopaths turn their attentions en masse to new frontiers, they leave behind complete cargo cults that continue to function for a while. The Office in its last season is such a world, with its major Sociopath stories complete, and its borderline Sociopaths, Jim and Darryl, busy flirting with the full-blown kind in Philadelphia. The show never really jumped the shark during its nine-year run (though it came close with the PB&J wedding). The Sociopaths merely left the building.

The Quest for Unmediated Realities

The Sociopath journey begins with what is essentially a religious dissatisfaction. A dissatisfaction  that awakens the first time Sociopaths contemplate their situation in life.

On the one hand, they find the contemporary account of reality to be suspiciously convenient for those with power: it explains the prevailing social order as a necessary and natural one a little too neatly.

On the other hand, they find themselves facing the intolerable expectation that they accept powerless stations, defined by scripted actions and fixed rewards within that order.

Whether they dismiss prevailing accounts as rationalizations and begin a search for deeper meanings, or defy expectations and reach for power beyond their station, Sociopaths begin their unscripted journeys to rid themselves of that fundamental dissatisfaction; the sense that reality is more complex than whatever is being presented to them. That important things are being hidden from view, and not for their own good.

They are not entirely sure what they are looking for, but they do know that they are looking to engage reality directly, without mediation by other humans. To turn the famous line from A Few Good Men around, they are looking for the truth about social realities because they think they can handle it.

Sociopathy in our little conceptual universe derived from The Office is not about hatred for other humans. It is about this seeking of unmediated realities, a process in which ultimately other humans, including mentor Sociopaths, only get in the way.

The Sociopath’s journey, mythologized to serve the religious needs of the Clueless, is what gives us the Hero’s Journey.  Mythologized in a different way to serve Loser religiosity, the Sociopath becomes the priestly agent of larger intangible forces, offering absolution for sins and unpredictable signs of grace.

To the Sociopath, the very same journey, lived from the inside, is a nihilistic journey into emptiness, a gradual abandonment of the possibility of ultimate meanings.

The first sort of possible meaning to be abandoned is moral meaning.

Finding Amorality

In The Office, we never see an instance of the emergence of amorality. We encounter fully-formed Sociopaths already in an amoral state of being.

But examples can be found elsewhere.

In the Yes, Minister episode Whiskey Priest, we find this illuminating exchange between Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Sociopath Permanent Secretary, and the Clueless Minister,  Jim Hacker. The exchange follows a disagreement over an issue that Hacker is attempting to address with morality, and Appleby with pragmatism:

My arguments had clearly left him unaffected. “You are a moral vacuum Humphrey,’ I informed him.

“If you say so, Minister.” And he smiled courteously and inclined his head, as if to thank me for a gracious compliment.

Of course,  Hacker is soon persuaded to get off his moral high horse and pursue the expedient course indicated by Sir Humphrey, as the personal political costs become clear to him.

Later, when Hacker’s private secretary Bernard Wooley comes to Sir Humphrey with the worry that he too might turn into a moral vacuum, the latter manages to enlighten Bernard and turn his worry into an aspiration. The moment of enlightenment is also the moment Bernard casts asides his Loser doubts and turns into a committed Sociopath, on the fast track to the top job.

Amorality is merely the first step. As the journey proceeds, Sociopaths progressively rip away layer after layer of social reality. The Sociopath’s journey can be understood as progressive unmasking of a sequence of increasingly ancient and fearsome gods, each reigning over a harsher social order, governing fewer humans. If morality falls by the wayside when the first layer is ripped away, other reassuring certainties, such as the idea of a benevolent universe, and predictable relationships between efforts and rewards, fall away in deeper layers.

With each new layer decoded, Sociopaths find transient meaning, but not enduring satisfaction.

Much to their surprise, however, they find that in the unsatisfying meanings they uncover, lie the keys to power over others. In seeking to penetrate mediated experiences of reality, they unexpectedly find themselves mediating those very realities for others. They acquire agency in the broadest sense of the word. Losers and the Clueless delegate to them not mere specialist matters like heart surgery or car repair, but control over the meanings of their very lives. 

So in seeking to unmask the gods, they find themselves turning into the gods.

When they speak, they find that their words become imbued with divine authority. When they are spoken to, they hear prayerful tones of awe. The Clueless want to be them, Losers want to defer to them.

Gods Who Talk Back

To understand the theaters of religiosity inhabited by the Clueless and Losers, it is useful to start with a quote usually attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.

The divide between theism and atheism is a divide for small and average minds. Whether or not you mythologize your metaphysics by adding gods and divine events is ultimately irrelevant.

The important distinction, for the great mind of the Sociopath, is whether or not the god talks back. This is why we began this series, four years ago, by characterizing Sociopaths with an interchangeable pair of adjectives: Darwinist/Protestant Ethic.  One is nominally an atheist perspective, while the other is a theist perspective. But in neither perspective does the divine talk back.

That the gods do not talk back when we address them, is a realization that is as old as humanity itself. But conscious acceptance of the fact has always been rare, and eagerness to believe the opposite common. William James was the first to really get why:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

Anchored as they are in thoughts about social realities — people and events —  the religions of Losers and the Clueless are ultimately religions of happiness. Heaven is simply the part of the social order deemed sacred, and contemplated in private. Even in solitude, they are never truly alone, because they seek exactly the socially mediated relationship to reality that the Sociopath seeks to escape. Their gods are present with them even in their solitude, talking back in comforting tones through social memories chosen for review.

This inability to experience being alone is what James called the religion of healthy-mindedness, which we recognize today, a century later, as the social well-adjustedness of Losers and the childlike obliviousness of the Clueless. We examined these in detail in previous parts.

The gods of the Sociopaths, by contrast, are absent meanings and voices. Theirs is a true aloneness. Their religions are the opposite of healthy-minded. They are, for the most part, recipes for neurotic self-destruction, but with a shot at freedom.

When Sociopaths accept the divine roles that the Clueless and Losers eagerly thrust upon them, they find themselves ruling the realities of others. But any human stand-in for an omnipotent conception of divinity must ultimately betray the believer.

The key, when betraying the Clueless, is to get them to blame themselves. With Losers, the key is to get them to blame each other. Each pattern of blame redirection gives us a particular theater of religiosity, and specific role for the Sociopath within it. Each also rewards the Sociopath with a specific kind of agency.

The Rankable Hero-God

Small minds discuss people. In Jamesian solitude, the minds of the Clueless turn to contemplation of their idols.

The gods of the Clueless are idealized organizations and unreconstructed idols. In what is perhaps the finest soliloquy in The OfficeDwight reveals his hidden passion for table tennis by reciting the names of a pantheon of minor gods:

All of my heroes are table tennis players. Zoran Primorac, Jan-Ove Waldner, Wang Tao, Jorg Rosskopf and of course Ashraf Helmy. I even have a life-size poster of Hugo Hoyama on my wall. And the first time I left Pennsylvania, was to go to the hall of fame induction ceremony of Andrzej Grubba.

The urge to give expression to religious feeling by reciting the names of rankable gods is a deep and primitive one. To recite the names with Dwight-like unreconstructed ardor is to create farce. In our godless times, the urge finds expression in any sort of unexamined taxonomic urge. In its mature form, this instinct creates the satisfying rituals of rosaries and metered hymns.

What is notable about Dwight’s table-tennis religiosity is the far-removed but familiar nature of its object. Though he is good enough to beat Jim, what makes professional table tennis a useful heavenly realm for him is that it is legible but almost unattainable. It is a large, but finite and countable number of steps away. His heroes are very distant, but a countable number of medals and rankings away. The heroes themselves can be ranked on the upper rungs of a stairway to heaven.

The Clueless seek idols to emulate. Their gods are heroes they want to be like, and whose lives and stories they contemplate in private. The rules of the Clueless heavens are not fundamentally different from the rules of Clueless Earth.

It is not just the gods who are finite and countable in number, everything in Clueless religion is legible. Nothing is intangible. Sins are countable as points docked. Rewards and punishments are also countable. When Dwight attempts an office coup for instance, Michael punishes him by making him do his laundry for a month.

Serving as high-ranking heroic god in this legible religion is easy. So long as Sociopaths stay sufficiently distant, and hide the elevator they took to heaven, their status is secure. They are perceived as being too high up to directly compete with. Even failures do not tarnish their divine images. When gods fail, they merely drop a few rungs, shuffling heavenly rankings.

It is a fundamentally innocent, child-like religiosity. And as we saw last time, the programmed organization exists primarily to protect this innocence, for use in sacrificial betrayals, when failures are blamed on their incompetence.

Moments of Sociopath betrayal, for the Clueless, are also their rare moments of unscripted autonomy. But mostly, they do not take advantage of such moments. Instead, they react with either a misguided sense of honor and loyalty, accepting punishment for incompetence, or ineffectually attempt to dodge blame. Occasionally, they might try a Clueless kind of revenge, such as Michael’s attempt to start his own paper company.

In rare cases, the reaction to betrayal is a loss of innocencean event that the Sociopath cannot entirely control.

If the Sociopath is lucky, the betrayed Clueless will catch an unmediated glimpse of illegible realities, successfully process the terror, get beyond revenge motives, and turn into into an amoral new Sociopath. A potential ally or competitor, but always a welcome source of new energy and scarce companionship in the Sociopath world. This is very rare. Direct Clueless-to-Sociopath transitions, without time spent in Loserdom, is unlikely.

If the Sociopath is less lucky, blame for betrayal will be directed at an existing group of Losers, where it will diffuse harmlessly as general resentment and disappointment that cannot be processed within Clueless frames. This outcome might lead to the Clueless graduating to Loserdom themselves, where they turn into less useful, checked-out pawns.

The latter outcome can be engineered, as we saw last time in our Golden Ticket counterfactual example, but not very reliably. The former cannot be engineered at all. Enlightenment can always be encouraged, but never scripted.

Wrangling Loser Spirituality

Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events. In Jamesian solitude, the minds of Losers turn to endlessly reliving social events and the associated churn of status and emotions. The banal sorrows and pleasures of group life, which we saw in Part IV, are endlessly reviewed for significance in private.

The external consequence of such private processing of intangibles is emotional resolution that heals or creates rifts.

The  internal consequence of such private processing is that Losers see themselves as spiritual, not religious. 

They may still participate in the theater of temples and icons, especially if those external objects are suitably aestheticized to symbolize their inner experiences. But they ultimately look inwards for significance. So to Losers, there is a distinction between the symbolically meaningful gravitas of organized religion and the meaningless absurdity of table-tennis or Star Trek religiosity.

Their “spirituality” manifests as a yearning to be indivisibly part of something bigger than themselves. They satisfy this yearning by looking for pools of positive collective emotions into which to dissolve their sense of self.

So their heaven is not a pantheon of heroes, reachable via a long ladder of achievement. Instead, it is an abstraction derived from emotional experiences shared with others. Atheist Losers call it belongingness. Theist Losers might describe it as oneness with the divine, but it is not the non-social self-dissolution of the Sociopath mystic. It is just regular belongingness with some theological flavors added. 

It is this capacity of intellectual abstraction from “religious” to “spiritual,” and the emotional capacity for dissolving identities into groups, that allows Losers to convince themselves that they are more evolved than the Clueless.

This difference between Clueless (ritualistic) and Loser (spiritual) moral calculi, appropriately exaggerated, is illustrated in the episode The Job, where Dwight tries to teach a course on paper manufacturing for the staff during a temporary tenure as manager:

Dwight: Good! Now, let us discuss precipitation. Stanley! When rainfall occurs, does it usually fall in a liquid, solid, or gaseous… state?
Stanley: Liquid.
Dwight: Very good! You have earned one Schrute Buck.
Stanley: I don’t want it.
Dwight: Then you have been deducted 50 Schrute Bucks!
Stanley: Make it 100.
Dwight: We — Don’t you wanna earn Schrute Bucks?
Stanley: No. In fact, I’ll give you a billion Stanley Nickels if you never talk to me again.
Dwight: What’s the ratio of Stanley Nickels to Schrute Bucks?
Stanley: The same as the ratio of unicorns to leprechauns.
Dwight: Okay…

Instead of such farcical calculations, Loser resolution-seeking works by balancing illegible emotional experiences against each other, in a process of null-seeking. So the anger caused by an act of betrayal might be soothed by a symbolic act of contrition that restores emotional balance to the moral universe, and perceived relative status.

But by their very nature, emotions overweight social behavior over material substance. Having a $100 bill thrown contemptuously at you hurts. Being politely handed $10 feels good. The Loser mind, predictably, sees the first act as a slight and seeks revenge, and the second act as nice and seeks to repay it.

We saw an example from the The Office last time. In the sales-commissions episode we find that for the support staff, sharing in the salespeople’s commissions and being thrown a thank-you party are emotionally equivalent. Both heal the emotional rift, but one leaves the salespeople vastly better off.

The Sociopath as Priest

It is this strangely incomplete calculus that creates the shifting Loser world of rifts and alliances. By operating with a more complete calculus, Sociopaths are  able to manipulate this world through the divide-and-conquer mechanisms.  The result is that the Losers end up blaming each other for their losses, seek collective emotional resolution, and fail to adequately address the balance sheet of material rewards and losses.

To succeed, this strategy requires that Losers not look too closely at the non-emotional books. This is why, as we saw last time, divide-and-conquer is the most effective means for dealing with them, since it naturally creates emotional drama that keeps them busy while they are being manipulated.

Sociopaths encourage this mode of processing by framing their own contributions to betrayal situations as necessary and inevitable. They also carefully avoid contributing to the emotional texture of unfolding events, otherwise their roles might come under scrutiny by being included in the emotional computations.

This is a crucial point. This is the practical reason for the low-reactor affect of Sociopathy.

For theatrically skilled Sociopaths, other non-vanilla affects are possible. “Divine anger” (Jan),  “charming but firm elder” (Jo Bennett) and “unpredictable demigod” (Robert California) are examples. These framing affects are designed to shape outcomes without direct participation, in ways that cannot be achieved by neutral low-reactor affects.

Any apparent participation in Loser/Clueless processing, such as David Wallace’s guest participation in the office charity auction, or Jo’s invitation to Michael to visit her in Florida, are strictly nominal and not meant to be taken seriously (Michael of course, does not get this, and attempts to cash in the invitation, at which point Jo rebuffs him).

These non-vanilla personalities operate by adding to, or subtracting from, the net emotional energy available to go around in Loser emotional calculations, but without intimate involvement. Sociopaths basically create the emotional boundary conditions of Loser life in simple or complex ways, depending on their skill level.

In the theater of Loser spirituality, the Sociopath must add only inevitable-seeming events that have material consequences, and non-participatory emotional boundary conditions.

So to the Loser, the Sociopath effectively presents a priestly mode of divine but constrained agency, accompanied by non-involved emotional power. This puts them in the position of being able to grant absolution to Losers for their sins.

Here’s how this happens. Whatever emotions Losers cannot resolve among themselves remains as unprocessed, private negative emotions. These they are naturally inclined to view as sinful, since their god is shared positive emotions. Looking around, in the Sociopaths, they find trusted sources of non-involved, healing emotional capital.

And so with every divide-and-conquer betrayal, instead of blaming the Sociopaths who govern the social order, they look to them for absolution and emotional healing. Guilt is the one emotion that Losers cannot always resolve for themselves, since it sometimes requires quantities of forgiveness that mere humans cannot dispense, but priests can, as reserve bankers of the fiat currencies of Loser emotional life.

But as with betrayals of the Clueless, the moment of betrayal presents unscripted danger for the Sociopath. This is especially likely if the Sociopath demonstrates a failing that breaks the priestly character.

Losers are usually collectively, rather than singly betrayed, but Sociopaths are created one at a time. The danger is that some individual Loser just might catch an unmediated glimpse of reality during a divide-and-conquer move, assign blame correctly, and turn into a competing Sociopath, instead of seeking absolution.

Unlike Clueless loss of innocence, which is an awakening to the illegible side of the social order, Loser disillusionment is a loss of faith in shared emotional experience as the central social reality of life (in other words, they awaken to the thought that love is not what makes the world go around, and is not all you need).

The newly minted Sociopath might even acquire agency over the group’s desire for collective action, and achieve enlightenment and power at the same time. But as with Clueless enlightenment, this is often a welcome development for Sociopaths, despite the immediate competitive threat. New free energy is always welcome. A mob cannot be reasoned with. A union with a Sociopath leader can.

And as with the Clueless, enlightenment can be encouraged but not scripted.

Meaning and Power through Withdrawal

Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas. And in Jamesian solitude, Sociopaths find ideas contending in their minds. The creative destruction they script in the world of Losers and Clueless is mirrored by a creative destruction in their minds.

This process creates power, but destroys meaning, especially the meanings of social realities. The result is increasing inner emptiness and external power.

It is this very emptiness that allows the Sociopath to play hero for the Clueless and priest for Losers. Recall that Sociopaths create meaning for others through the things they subtract, rather than the things they add. This is something conspiracy theorists typically don’t get: manufacturing fake realities is very hard. But subtractive simplification of reality is much easier, and yields just as much power.

From the persona they present to the Clueless, they subtract human fallibility and imperfection, presenting an illusory ideal of heroic perfection for the Clueless to identify with, and hopelessly strive toward.

From the persona they present to Losers, they subtract all participatory emotion, turning themselves into detached priests, bearing messages and gifts of emotional capital from hidden benevolent realities.

In each case, the Sociopath’s role is marked by a withdrawal of information from the scene: information about their own personalities and inner lives, and information about specific situations and material realities.

It helps that the moral calculi of both the Clueless and Losers are incomplete, so they are primed to not notice what is being withdrawn.

The former cannot process anything that is not finite, countable and external. They can only process the legible. 

The latter cannot process the material aspect of anything that involves strong emotions, or unresolved private negative emotions. Where the material cannot be separated from the emotional — intense financial negotiations are a prime example — they cannot process reality at all.

What the Clueless and Losers cannot process, the Sociopaths withdraw from the scene. What is left behind is more meaningful by virtue of being simpler than unmediated, uncensored reality. From the Loser and Clueless points of view, Sociopaths are merely removing noise that they don’t know how to deal with anyway.

The Clueless can process the legible, so a legible world is presented to them.

Losers can process a world where emotional significance is the only kind of significance, so a world pregnant with emotional significance is created for them.

Which means that the power of Sociopaths derives from the things they remove from the scene: illegible, emotionally charged material realities that are potentially infinite in their complexity.

In other words, the raw material of power.

Over these withdrawn realities, Sociopaths exercise agency on behalf of others. They do not grab power. Power is simply ceded to them.

Power Literacy

This process of carving out, via subtraction, finite and tractable realities for the Clueless and Losers to inhabit, can be repeated ad infinitum, creating layers of social realities for evolving Clueless and Losers to journey through. If the first layer is a morality theater run by the amoral, other theaters involve other comforting social realities. If this sounds like gamification, it’s because it is.

It is possible to progress through these layers without discovering the Sociopath world at all. Losers and Clueless can discover and decode specific bits of social reality, like the idea of amorality. Such discoveries do not automatically turn them into Sociopaths.

Sociopathy is not about ripping off a specific mask from the face of social reality. It is about recognizing that there are no social realities. There are only masks.  Social realities exist as a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated and specialized fictions for those predisposed to believe that there is something special about the human condition, which sets our realities apart from the rest of the universe.

There is, to the Sociopath, only one reality governing everything from quarks to galaxies. Humans have no special place within it. Any idea predicated on the special status of the human — such as justice, fairness, equality, talent — is raw material for a theater of mediated realities that can be created via subtraction of conflicting evidence, polishing and masking.

Mask is an appropriate term for any social reality created through subtraction, because an appearance of human-like agency for non-human realities is what the inhabitants require. By humanizing the non-human universe, we make the human special.

All that is required is to control people who believe in fairness, is to remove any evidence suggesting that the world might fundamentally not be a fair place, and mask it appropriately with a justice principle such as an afterlife calculus, or a retirement fantasy.

So the process of ripping away masks of social reality and getting behind them ultimately turns into a routine skill for the Sociopath: game design. Once you do it a few times, it becomes second nature, a sort of basic power literacy. An understanding of the processes by which the fictions of social reality are constructed, and growing skill at wrangling those processes.

But the acquisition of this skill comes with a cost.

Reality Shock

When a layer of social reality is penetrated and turned into a means for manipulating the realities of others, it is automatically devalued. To create medals and ranking schemes for the benefit of the Clueless is to see them as mere baubles yourself. To turn status-seeking into a control mechanism is to devalue status.

To devalue something is to judge any meaning it carries as inconsequential. In terms of our metaphor of masks of gods, the moment you rip off a mask and wear it yourself, whatever that mask represents becomes worth much less. So the Sociopath’s journey is fundamentally a nihilistic one.

The climactic moment in this journey is the point where skill at manipulating social realities becomes unconscious.

Suddenly, it becomes apparent that all social realities are based on fictional meanings created by denying some aspect of natural, undivided reality. Reality that does not revolve around the needs of humans.

The mask-ripping process itself becomes revealed as an act within the last theater of social reality, the one within which at least manipulating social realities seems to be a meaningful process in some meta-sense. Game design with good and evil behaviors.

Losing this illusion is a total-perspective-vortex moment for the Sociopath: he comes face-to-face with the oldest and most fearsome god of all: the absent God. In that moment, the Sociopath viscerally experiences the vast inner emptiness that results from the sudden dissolution of all social realities. There’s just a pile of masks with no face beneath. Just quarks and stuff (it is interesting that we have chosen to label the Higgs boson the “god” particle; our mask-seeking is truly desperate).

This is reality shock: the visceral experience of the fact that there is only one reality, with no special place for humans. This is the shock that sends David Wallace across the last threshold into fully-realized Sociopathy, as his entire theater of manipulative game-designer authority crumbles around him.

This moment is visceral, not intellectual. It is again possible to get to a merely intellectual appreciation of the “this is all there is” raw physicality of the human condition. That is not the same thing.

That is why, when Robert California explains his detachment from the power struggle between Andy Bernard and usurper Nelly Bertram, nobody really gets what he is talking about:

“All life is sex, and all sex is competition, and there are no rules to that game. There is one person in charge of every office in America. That person is Charles Darwin.”

Darwinism here is merely a motif for an experienced reality, not a description of it. It is a way for a Sociopath to explain his condition to others using the categories of our times.  A thousand years ago, an awakened Sociopath might have used any of a hundred theological motifs for the same idea: the absence of god, the absence of deeper meanings beneath visible social realities.

This is why the term absent god is more appropriate than atheism. For Sociopath philosophies to be coherent, there is no need to postulate the non-existence of god (though that is the Occam’s razor choice). He merely needs to be divinely Otherwise Occupied and absent from our little universe.

The ultimate parent merely needs to be away. That’s enough for Sociopaths to play. This is why some of the greatest Sociopaths in history have actually been sincerely religious (Rockefeller for instance, was a committed Baptist).

The reality shock really is a shock for the Sociopath. Jan does not ever recover from it. Ryan never gets far enough to encounter it. On The Office, only three characters  weather the shock: David Wallace, Robert California and Toby.

To weather the shock is to first process the sheer terror of a viscerally absent god, and then suddenly awaken to the deep freedom the condition represents.

Free as in Speech, Free as in Lunch

Once the Sociopath overcomes reality shock and frames his life condition as one defined by an absence of ultimate parental authority, and the fictitious nature of all social realities, he experiences a great sense of unlimited possibilities and power.

Daddy and Mommy are not hereAnything is possible, and I can get away with anything. I can make up any sort of bullshit and my younger siblings will buy it. 

The sense of freedom is one I like to describe as free as speech, and as in lunch. 

Free as in speech describes the Sociopath’s complete creative freedom in scripting social realities for others.  Cherished human values are merely his crayon box.

Free as in lunch describes the Sociopath’s complete freedom from accountability, in his exercise of the agency ceded to him by the Losers and Clueless, via their belief in the reality of social orders.

Non-Sociopaths dimly recognize the nature of the free Sociopath world through their own categories: “moral hazard” and “principal-agent problem.”  They vaguely sense that the realities being presented to them are bullshit: things said by people who are not lying so much as indifferent to whether or not they are telling the truth. Sociopath freedom of speech is the freedom to bullshit: they are bullshit artists in the truest sense of the phrase.

What non-Sociopaths don’t recognize is that these aren’t just strange and unusual environmental conditions that can be found in small pockets at the tops of pyramids of power, such as Lance Armstrong’s racing team, within a social order that otherwise makes some sort of sense.

It is the default condition of the universe. The universe is a morally hazardous place. The small pockets of unusual environmental conditions are in fact the fictional realities non-Sociopaths inhabit. This figure-ground inversion of non-Sociopath world-views gives us the default perspective of the Sociopath.

Non-Sociopaths, as Jack Nicholson correctly argued, really cannot handle the truth. The truth of an absent god. The truth of social realities as canvases for fiction for those who choose to create them. The truth of values as crayons in the pockets of unsupervised Sociopaths. The truth of the non-centrality of humans in the larger scheme of things.

When these truths are recognized, internalized and turned into default ways of seeing the world, creative-destruction becomes merely the act of living free, not a divinely ordained imperative or a primal urge.  Creative destruction is not a script, but the absence of scripts. The freedom of Sociopaths is the same as the freedom of non-human animals. Those who view it as base merely provide yet another opportunity for Sociopaths to create non-base fictions for them to inhabit.

Sociopath lives, lived under these conditions of freedom, are incomprehensible to non-Sociopaths. So they imagine hidden social realities governing the lives of Sociopaths, turning them into forces of nature.

That is the ultimate imaginative act for non-Sociopaths: filling the inaccessible world of Sociopaths with convenient extrapolated social realities. Fictions that they can use to explain free Sociopath lives to themselves as being caused by some mysterious, hidden social order.

So Sociopath hero-god-priests come to inhabit entire universes imagined for them. And from these universes, a peculiar sort of Sociopath sometimes descends. One who seems to play neither hero, nor detached priest. One who strives, but fails, to participate in the emotional realities of non-Sociopaths. One who seeks to protect the innocent and help the disillusioned rediscover faith.

We are finally ready to explain Toby.

The Birth of the Messiah

Of those who weather reality shock, most simply accept their life and their permanent estrangement from non-Sociopaths. They have ascended to freedoms they cannot explain to those who do not possess them. They are somewhere between contemptuous and mildly indulgent towards those who inhabit the realities they create. Indifference is the default middle-ground attitude.

In other words, most Sociopaths learn to creatively exercise and enjoy their freedoms.

Some freely emulate other Sociopaths. Others carve out more imaginative paths. Morality becomes a matter of expressing fundamental dispositions rather than respecting social values. Kindness or cruelty, freely expressed. Those who are amused by suffering use their powers to cause it. Those who enjoy watching happiness theaters, create them through detached benevolence.

But freedom can also be a scary condition. It offers no canned reasons to do one thing instead of another, or even do anything at all. It offers no fixed motivations. There is nobody to blame for failures, no meaningful external validation for success. If physics allows it, you can do it. The consequences mean whatever you decide they mean.

So for some, freedom becomes a burden rather than a source of power. Life without scripted purposes and roles, instead of being viewed as a canvas for creative expression, becomes intolerably meaningless. The visceral knowledge that every act is a free choice, for which one can only hold oneself accountable, with nowhere to direct blame and nowhere to seek solace or absolution, becomes something they yearn to un-know.

The dissolution of social realities leaves behind only the cryptic material universe that must be painstakingly decoded through that supremely nihilistic behavior, scientific inquiry. But without a social order within which to value and make sense of decoded realities, such inquiry comes to seem like a worthless endeavor. Is a dinosaur fossil more meaningful than the Higgs boson? It is a meaningless question.

Freedom gained becomes paradise lost: the paradise of finite realities, mediated meanings and a comforting social order.

And so some Sociopaths reject the freedom and attempt to rejoin humanity.

And fail.

What is known cannot now be un-known. There is no way to reverse the effects of the red pill of Sociopathy.

So instead, such Sociopaths turn into compassionate Messiahs, protecting the innocence of the Clueless, restoring the faith of Losers, using their Sociopath powers to guard the exits of paradise lest some unwittingly walk out. Unlike Sociopaths at peace with their freedom, who generally welcome enlightened new company, Messiahs send them home to paradise when they can.

They continue hopelessly to try and participate, especially in collective Loser emotion. But the experience is empty for them, knowing what they know. So despite themselves, they subtract emotional content rather than adding either positive or negative content. They become social black holes.

Michael gets this instinctively. His hatred of Toby is the most rational of all his behaviors.

But the redeemer Sociopath, seeking to preserve paradise for those who have not yet lost it, is ultimately human too. Despite himself, he too must ultimately fail to guard the exits.  This is why Toby has piles of unprocessed Loser complaints in his office. Unredeemable emotional IOUs handed to a priest offering meaningless absolution.

And so we have the story of Toby. A theist Sociopath born as a Seminary drop-out. An ineffectual Messiah who wanders off to Costa Rica to find peace, but finds himself crucified in a ziplining accident. Resurrected, he returns unhappily to Dunder-Mifflin, where he continues to fail to protect paradise.

His story ends with him screaming disconsolately at his own absent god, in an empty church:

Why you got to be so MEAN to me?

Certainty of Nothingness

So here we are, at the end of our long journey of over 30,000 words. We visited the worlds of the Losers and the Clueless and learned to speak their languages. We pondered the workings of Clueless arrested development and the Loser stock market. We talked about the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose world of organizational sins.

And now we’ve toured the worlds of the free, unsupervised children of an absent god who commit those sins, leaving others to suffer the consequences.

We’re left, at the end of our journey, pondering the human condition according to The Office. Is the human journey one of creative progress scripted by gods. Or one of accumulating social costs created by the unsupervised and indifferent free children of an absent god?

Do we have any ultimate answers? Did we learn anything?

I can do no better than to close with the final scene of Burn After Reading.

After the colossal political mess that is the subject of the movie winds down, leaving behind a trail of dead bodies and ruined careers, we find a jaded CIA officer, played by J. K. Simmons, taking stock with an underling:

CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?

Palmer: I don’t know, sir.

CIA Superior: I don’t fuckin’ know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.

Palmer: Yes, sir.

CIA Superior: I’m fucked if I know what we did.

Palmer: Yes, sir, it’s, uh, hard to say

CIA Superior: Jesus Fucking Christ.

Thank you Office fans, you’ve been great. Writing this series has been the most pointless, yet simultaneously the most rewarding, undertaking of my life.

I am glad to report I learned nothing other than to not do it again.

Enjoy the series finale tonight.  An e-book version will be inflicted on you shortly.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. David Brent-Walker says

    Strange, I was just watching Burn After Reading last night. Truly it is an excellent film. It’s tempting to say that Osbourne Cox is merely clueless, but in some moments he appears to exhibit some expanded understanding. It may just be posturetalk.

    Although it occurs to me that the earlier installments of this series were more actionable, and also I was hoping for more illustrated examples of Toby’s pastoral beneficence, I can say that I very much enjoyed the series. Bravo.

  2. I think a lot of cynical losers will come to realize that they are much farther from sociopathy than they thought after reading this.

  3. nazgulnarsil says

    This got dark fast, as it had to. But that the human condition is the sum of competing narratives does not have to be nihilistic, unless you let your narrative get outcompeted by nihilistic ones.

  4. “Sociopath lives, lived under these conditions of freedom, are incomprehensible to non-Sociopaths. So they imagine hidden social realities governing the lives of Sociopaths, turning them into forces of nature.”

    This paragraph brilliantly puts into context the idea of “The emperor has no clothes.” When this line is uttered, it is a Loser/Clueless getting a glimpse of the core truth of a Sociopath. Previously, the Loser/Clueless was unable to understand the Sociopath’s life so they projected all sorts of social realities and mythologies onto him or her. But when the facade is broken for whatever reason, this is the lesson learned. Unfortunately for the Losers/Clueless, if I am understanding the GP principle correctly, the emperor/Sociopath never has any clothes.

    Also want to also say bravo. This was a truly outstanding series and a satisfying conclusion. Ribbonfarm readers need to get a Kickstarter fund going to force you to write about our favorite Sociopath shows under the GP perspective :)

  5. JiaoNing says

    The hollow core is an important point. I never thought of seeing that as being the stepping stone into Sociopath-hood. I think that when people glimpse the fundamental truth of their own emptiness of self (as you eloquently described), it’s shaking…

    For the loser, the closest they every come to reality is when they’re all depressed and lamenting that everything is meaningless. They just keep wanting to attach self-pity and self-importance, I guess, to make THAT meaningful, in some social way or in a personal emotional way. Losers, thus, probably have a chance to get OUT. But everyone treats anyone who points at the meaninglessness of social reality and emotional responses as if they are “sick.”

    I feel that you made some VERY good insight, and I’ll have to take a lot of time to think it through. To cherish and despise what you’ve said.

    However, at first blush, I think it’s worth saying this. I am coming to see being a living entity as more torus-like, where the core is hollow, but something is defined in the aggregate movement of the whole thing.

    There is not a squishy middle to derive happiness from, but if everything is taken as an opportunity, SOMETHING is created by one’s will. Also, there still may be objective Truths to discover. Meaning can be had in the discovery.

    • If there is hope, it lies in the mirror neurons of proles. Does that express what you’re saying?

      I’ve never seen any but trivial surface readings of Karl Rove’s statement re the ‘reality-based community’, though, imho, w/o mentioning it, this series comes closest.

      • JiaoNing says

        Thinking about it further, a lot of what Venkat has shown us is that there are artificial consequences and natural consequences. As a teacher, I’m constantly called upon to create artificial consequences. Examples: Stickers and smiles when someone does something “good” and time outs and unpleasant extra work when someone does something “bad.”

        Note that here, “good” and “bad” are entirely relative to the structure of a classroom. Ultimately I think every teacher would rather mastery of the subject matter and the experience of learning just be their own consequences. These are long, ambiguous, difficult, and complex games. All of those qualities probably register as “boring” in the minds of most kids (and parents).

        Maybe the clueless person internalizes artificial consequences and thinks that they’re nature. I think the loser internalizes emotional content of artificial consequences, even if he thinks the consequences are bullshit. The sociopath wants to interact with real world-consequences. For him, the artificial social structures are only important if they give a specific desired benefit or punishment. For instance, You can go to jail for confessions, possessions, or paperwork. (Incidentally, if I understand correctly, the amoral and cold quality of the legal system would be more offensive to people who believe there is some substance to artificial consequences)

        I don’t exactly understand Toby and the “hope may be found in mirror neurons of the proles” yet. I guess the priest who lost his faith may think there was something beautiful about the faith once had. It seems this is tainted by a lot of self-importance and self-pity though. Given that the sociopath is trying to have a DIRECT, UNMITIGATED experience of reality, what’s the purpose of romantic naivety?

        Remember, there are still natural consequences. There is still reality. Even stripped of social-emotional meanings, all of this remains to be explored.

        • I like this:

          “Maybe the clueless person internalizes artificial consequences and thinks that they’re nature. I think the loser internalizes emotional content of artificial consequences, even if he thinks the consequences are bullshit.”

          I think that is probably the clearest way to think of it.

    • Torus? Really? I see it more like a sphere. Empty inside but with a shell of many layers.

      • JiaoNing says

        The key point of a torus is that it’s a field defined by motion, at least in every instance I am aware of. If the movement stops, it disappears. That’s why I chose it. There’s nothing inside.

        But we see something defined in the overall doing.

    • Sociopaths find themselves endlessly interesting. That is why they sometimes mistake themselves for Nietsche, or someone worth reading. But it’s pretty common knowledge that whatever sociopaths may think, do or believe, they can’t experience love (with another human being, that is), which is really quite pathetic.

  6. Your description of the Sociopath reminds me of . It’s strange to think that nerds on the internet and C-level sociopaths result from basically the same process, but I have trouble not drawing that conclusion. The key difference would seem to be *when* they start trying to see through social reality.

    • I think the difference is willingness to act in consequential ways among real human beings, and affecting their lives. It isn’t all that difficult to see through a few layers of reality. Trading in artificial realities with those who believe them to be real is much harder to do. It is easier to associate mostly with others who you consider equally clear-sighted.

      Imagine the life of a person for whom every interpersonal interaction feels like lying to a child about Santa Claus, but who still does not retreat to solitude in a monastery. Instead s/he puts on not just a convincing act, but is able to do big things through the lying.

      • The one who starts relentlessly deconstructing in their teens has a higher chance of guiding themselves into an environment where they’ll be surrounded by peers, so they have a shot at lasting happiness. One who starts relentlessly deconstructing after they’ve entered the working world they were aiming for before they started their journey of deconstruction might not be able to transition to such an environment (at least not easily), and they’re also in a good position to use their newfound interest for massive personal gain and a somewhat-smaller chance of still meeting similar people. I know plenty of rationalist nerds talented and focused enough to acquire the skills to become C-levels in traditional business, but they mostly seem to see greater opportunities elsewhere.

        It’s not that I couldn’t trade in artificial realities–I do it all the time, in my interactions with family and most of my friends from before a certain point in my life–but I find it deeply unsatisfying when I have to do it, and would rather it not be most of my life. The Santa Claus thing is very relatable and describes the feeling far better than anything else I’ve yet to hear.

        • Einstein once said that the reason he made his breakthroughs was because he thought about child-like questions about the nature of space and time, but when he was old enough to think about them correctly.

          I think something like that holds true here. I don’t believe teen deconstruction is the real thing. It’s naive cynicism that arises out of raging hormones, disenchantment with specific parental authority (their own) and very limited experiential data to draw on, beyond novels and high-school drama. This is why so many fall in love with Ayn Rand. It is deconstruction for teenagers.

          There is a qualitative distinction between this kind of theoretical deconstruction and deconstruction that is based entirely on real-world data where your actions have bigger consequences with none of the parental underwriting of your learning mistakes that sustains you through college.

          Sure, you can “break bad” as a teen in bigger ways, but then you lack the more sophisticated and trained mind required to process your better data (hence the interesting relationship in the show Breaking Bad).

          Bottomline, I think the slower the trajectory and the older you are when you hit different breakthrough, the more viscerally (as opposed to Ayn-Randly) you appreciate them. Trading in social realities with “family and friends before a certain point in my life” is not the same as juggling grand narratives for entire corporations and nations. It really is not. The two are as different as a “hello world” program in BASIC and writing code to run data centers.

          In other words, I am deeply skeptical that any of your “rationalist nerds, talented and focused enough to acquire the skills to become C-levels in traditional business, but they mostly seem to see greater opportunities elsewhere” could pull it off. They may be good connoisseurs of the action, but that doesn’t make them competent to script it. It’s not a skill, learning or talent issue so much as a “battle hardening” issue. That takes time.

          Mutatis mutandis, the same thing applies to a lot of technical/engineer types who experience deep realizations that “everything is a Bayesian optimization problem” (or various equivalent frames — math and logic offer many). Perhaps a good aesthetic for appreciating the action. Not the same as battle-hardening via actual years spent manipulating social realities that affect real lives in consequential ways.

          • I wasn’t trying to draw a direct equivalence between telling less intelligent people I know half-truths about their social reality to avoid uncomfortable conversations and telling employees half-truths about their working reality to keep them working. The latter is obviously much, much harder–I was trying to say that I predict the discomfort would still be there, and doing more of it consistently and at a much greater level would probably only add to the discomfort. I hold no illusions that my exceptional rationalist friends in their 20s are *currently* capable of managing simulated realities for a large group of intelligent employees. They would have to become much better at the skills that this series is about first, and the only real way to do that is by lots of practice. Instead of going to all that effort just to risk being deeply unsatisfied with their lives because it mostly consists of manipulation, they’re aiming toward paths to security that look compatible with a sense of legitimate purpose (I’m open to the possibility that that’s necessarily loser talk).

            Teen rebellion is of course mostly crap, and I wasn’t referring to that. There are occasionally teenagers who are capable of participating in the adult social world several years before most of their peers, even if have fewer opportunities to do so. Do you think that if someone learns some kind of real social deconstruction at a sufficiently young age, they must be at no advantage or at a disadvantage at turning it into money/whatever they want compared to those who learn it later in life?

            Incidentally, I’m currently writing an open source tool that tries to use Bayesian statistics on real data to assist in decision-making. It sounds like you predict such a thing wouldn’t be the most effective means to that end. Is that accurate?

          • I think learning some version of this stuff precociously at a young age has unpredictable effects basically. It’s a crapshoot. You can end up in cynical loser-dom, get to a perverted kind of vicious cluelessness or get a headstart on sociopathy.

            I think what the pro game does to you is actually remove the discomfort and force you to find ways of breaking free of it. This is why I identify the breakthrough moment as the one where the skill in game design becomes unconscious. You can still feel deep discomfort later (Toby/messiah), but the chances of breaking free of the discomfort are higher. I don’t think many casual dabblers ever get to that breakthrough because they never practice enough. That’s why it remains a spectator sport.

            As for your tool… if it is a sufficiently narrowly circumscribed domain which can be boxed up neatly, then sure. Many such good tools around. I am sure there are poker playing training programs that work. But if you’re talking generalized, messy “game of life” decision-support then yes, I think such a venture is misguided. Not just because formal modeling would be intractable, overkill, or both, but because there are so many more effective levers that should be tried first.

          • Would you advocate preventing people from reading the Gervais Principle series/eventual book until they reach a certain age or measurable level of maturity, to maximize its expected effect?

          • Lol, I don’t take myself *that* seriously. This stuff is mostly recognition based rather than exposition/explanation based. I think all I do is allow people with certain experiences recognize and label those experiences from raw material I supply. If you don’t have the experience, you’ll simply miss the relevant bits I am cueing. Which means you’ll recognize more if you have experienced more.

            There’s probably a minimum level of experience below which these posts have too low a signal-to-noise ratio to be worth reading, and such people will simply not read it. The problem solves itself.

            In other words, I don’t believe in the idea of “memetic hazards” really. If this stuff seems like a revelation to anyone, those people have already had those revelations. They’ve just been unwilling to label and accept them. They’re in denial sort of.

    • No. It’s not a question of timing. TVFH is examining nerd-dom as a pathology in its own right. The Gervais principle operates because of sociopathic manipulation of the social realities of others. To be a good sociopath, you first have to start out with a strong experience of social reality. What TVFH is getting at here is that certain individuals have trouble perceiving social realities in the first place.

      Nerds operate somewhere outside the Gervais Principle — they don’t function well within it. Nerds don’t make effective Sociopaths because they lack the subjective experience of social reality required to be any good at manipulating it, and they are constrained to the margins of Loser communities because they have difficulty acquiring and contributing social capital. Think “IT Crowd” or “Big Bang Theory”, rather than “The Office”.

      I am also reminded of BBC’s Sherlock. In this modern retelling, both Sherlock and Moriarty are sociopaths in the conventional sense. But Moriarty is also a Sociopath in the rainbowfarm sense, while Sherlock is a Nerd in the TVFH sense. What separates Sherlock from Moriarty is that Moriarty understands and manipulates social reality, while Sherlock is usually baffled by it (though he’s learned a few cute tricks). This gives Moriarty his edge, because he possesses what Sherlock lacks. Both characters are cruel in the pursuit of their own ends; however, Sherlock is less dangerous to us than than Moriarty: Sherlock’s need for insight usually aligns his interests with those of society, while Moriarty actually derives pleasure from disrupting society.

  7. I was thinking about uses for this post. I have thought of these points (which may be incomplete or totally wrong) so far:

    1. Gods do not talk back. (Key insight that needs to be grasped at the instinctual level or else all the other steps will fail.)
    2. When dealing with clueless, subtract away emotional realities to gain advantage in material realities (i.e. structure the deal in your advantage.) (Easier said than done. Hard to do naturally every day if you do not embrace point 1.)
    3. When dealing with losers, add/manipulate the emotional realities to gain advantage in material realities (i.e. structure the deal in your advantage.) (Easier said than done. Hard to do naturally every day if you do not embrace point 1.).
    4. When dealing with socialpaths, you are negotiating what deals to offer the clueless and losers. When there are no rules, value to sociopaths involves deals to alter the realities for losers and clueless. To sociapaths, money and status itself only has meaning to sustain their personal needs and services (food water clothing, luxurious) and to alter the realities for others.

  8. Klepacio says

    After all is said and done, I’m still clueless.

    And I suspect all narratives are nihilistic in nature, but we fill the void by putting instrinsical values into them.

  9. Beautiful. I could comment a lot on the final piece of your tragic theory of The Office but I better leave it as is and enjoy the artistic quality of the whole. This has become a rare experience for me, unfortunately.

    I would like to see GP in print, on paper, good paper, which is worth to be gifted to others, not just e-book store- and forgetware.

  10. Alexander Boland says

    What I’m still wondering is where that organizational dark matter went. I assumed that what you were getting at is that eventually an organization, like an organism, dies under the weight of its own collective debts; but when you brought up Toby as a “savior” I assumed you were going to suggest that like Jesus, all of that “dark matter” was directed at him as an outlet. Did that actually happen in any way? I know he had some bad luck, but it doesn’t quite sound like the same thing.

    • Yes, he’s a failed redeemer. His piles of unprocessed complaints that he gets as HR guy represent the sins and debts, but since he doesn’t actually pay them off in any sense, the org still dies under the weight of its debts.

  11. Excellent conclusion! Something that stood out to me particularly was your use of the word, “visceral,” when facing the absent god. I wonder how much variability there is in the intensity of that “visceral-ness”. For me, it was a specific experience that lasted for 4 hours of absolute terror. Perhaps it varies proportionally to the emotional investment in the now absent god-paradigm?

    • I think the intense de-conversion is the most common mode. It’s hard to see how this sort of transformation could be gradual. Small revelations and insights have a way of cascading and compounding into bigger ones.

  12. A long awaited finishing piece, worth the wait. Thanks Venkat!

    When reading through it, the “game” parts reminded me of James Carse’s “Finite and Infinite Games: ” ( I wonder if you know it?

    I see some parallels here: to me, it seems that sociopath “game design”, up until that moment of reality shock, looks like a mere finite game (according to Carse), with the clueless and the losers and the sociopaths playing by the finite rules. But once the sociopath crosses that line, his game “design” and gaming becomes one of a/the infinite game – the last and only reality. As the losers and clueless still cling to their different social realities, they’re stuck in the finite game, less they get the “glimpse” of the sociopath’s reality of an infinite game.

    And then, I might just be completely clueless and talking to myself. :)

    • Thanks, that book looks interesting. I thought it was about game theory, but looks like it’s a more philosophical thing.

      • The fun thing is: you already pick up some of Carse’s ideas in “Tempo” (I only read it now). Open and closed worlds, the chapter on “Death by entropy” take a slightly different but still somehow coherent angle on the ideas on infinite vs. finite games. Fascinating. :)

  13. Thank you for your blog, and this series in particular. Like many other punters, it was the Gervais Principle that got me interested, and I really didn’t see this finish coming. Maybe I should have after all this time, but in any case I’ve loved it, as it rings true in some fashion. I haven’t watched The Office, but I must also thank you for reminding me of Yes, Minister. That series deserves some recognition. It was like putting Groucho Marx in a political office with british understatements and brilliant dialogue.

  14. shiva1008 says

    The actionable item that I got from this is that you have to be careful not to upset the emotions of Losers. For example, if you’re dealing with a low level administrative person, don’t do anything to tick them off. Seems obvious, but emotions are sacrosanct to Losers, even more so than most people. If you create negative emotions in them, they will make you pay for it. I learned about this at my first full time office job. A true sociopath, or one mimicking a sociopath for the purpose of advancement, should always keep their emotions guarded. Create positive emotions in people, not negative ones — although, in the scheme of things, criticism is necessary for healthy society. But we aren’t mature enough as a civilization anymore to have a mechanism for this. Save yourself.

    By the way, who were the sociopaths in the original Office? I don’t remember there being much discussion of the higher-ups on that show.

  15. dogcomplex says

    I’ve been binge reading this series since I discovered it, and I must say it’s one of the most fascinating pieces I’ve read in a while. Your writing style and interest in decision making sciences has inspired me to buy your ebook as well, and I can’t wait to read it. It’s clear you’ve put everything into your writing, and it’s a marvelous achievement for a theory derived from a comedy show. You’ve hit some amazing points and sliced corporate reality into a 3-piece puzzle that I recon I’ll be using internally for some time after this.

    That said… I think this piece may have treaded a bit too far up its own ass in this last installment. While I can respect taking the theory to such a meta level as a commentary on religion, spirituality and nihilism – perhaps even in a way that remains consistent with the characters (many of the sociopaths did crack under the pressure eventually) – I think your conclusions may be a bit of a stretch to the theme. I’m not saying they’re badly conceived, and I’m not saying I necessarily even disagree with them – I’m just saying I’ll be taking those with a heaping tablespoon of salt, as should anyone reading these, lest they fall prey to your highly persuasive line of thought.

    (And yes, this is a total “Toby” move)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but even Nietzsche himself did not believe a nihilistic worldview derived of meaning was the highest fate one could aspire to. Sure, all meaning is culturally created and culture can be sociopathically manipulated, but that doesn’t necessarily imply it’s meaningless. Even if it doesn’t lie in ANY culturally-created artifact or organization, and you can do anything you want without it mattering whatsoever – there’s still the discovery to be made of what exactly you want. And therein may lie the meaning. “We can do as we will just not will what we will.”

    In Clueless terms, the path to enlightenment may reside inside you – and only by removing all external realities with your inner Sociopath can you see it. (And let’s not discount the possibility that path might ultimately lead to deep connection with your fellow Losers, who could always sense it but never dared articulate/live it)

    My apologies for focusing on the metaphysical aspects and ignoring the rest of your great theory – I just felt you’d opened a door here that needs addressing (if not closing. Man you nailed the messiah complex part). Although this last installment may be a bit too reminiscent of Abed Nadir’s overly-meta movie “Abed”, I have great respect for what you’ve done here. Using TV shows to illustrate such grand ideas is as addicting to read as it must be to write. Thanks for a great piece!

    (P.S. if you ever tackle the post-postmodern masterpiece Community I so want to hear about it)

    • :)

      I haven’t watched much of Community.

      I don’t know Nietzsche well enough to figure out how consistent I am with him, but if it helps, I wasn’t shooting for consistency with his ideas. General keeping with the spirit and method of his thought, more like.

    • Taryn Fox says

      I agree with what you’re saying here. I like this quote at the end of the webcomic, The Locked Maze:

      […] some people acquire great power by experiencing something truly awful, and coming through it: broken, grieving, liminally stranded between the naive world of the optimists and the cold world of the dead. And in that between-state, they can accomplish things no one else can do. Holly’s story is about that. She was broken, and she took it and used it as her power to defeat someone no one else could touch. She will never belong, anywhere she goes, but her outcast existence will also take her places no one else has been and teach her things no one else knows.

      Replace “optimists” with “clueless” and “dead” with “losers” if you like.

      The word “sociopath,” here, really just seems to mean (as my boyfriend put it) “people who have high awareness of themselves and the people around them and very high ambition”. You could replace it with “Slytherin” and probably capture the meaning better.

      And while some of these people manipulate others by constructing fantasies which leave out crucial data, the article itself creates a fantasy in which all social meaning is worthless. In which people who eschew all social meanings and construct from their lives, are somehow more authentic, for either being ignorant of them or pretending that they don’t exist.

      But at some point this way of thinking becomes a useless solipsism, where you’re dismissing other people as valueless just because you feel that they’re valueless. Even the people used as an example in this article — nonhuman animals — often have very complex societies, which most humans are oblivious to. Saying they aren’t relevant isn’t a revelation of Pure Unvarnished Reality, it’s making a value judgment, which is yet another social construct.

      Asking whether a social construct is “real” or not is pointless, compared to asking whether it’s “humane” or “useful.” I think the best secular and theistic religious leaders are the ones who help ask these questions; who lead people to consider parts of reality which they hadn’t, and suggest humane and useful ways to consider them.

      I feel that this article is lacking with that regard.

  16. anonymous says

    I have been waiting for this final installment for a year and a half, and in spite of my high expectations, I am completely stunned. This essay is one of the most insightful expositions I have ever read. My outlook in my life has now completely changed, as questions that I have struggled with for years have finally been answered. Let me echo those who have encouraged you to turn this series into a book, and thank you so much for taking the time to share your ideas. Kudos!

  17. This is an awesome series!

    The one thing that seems missing when I get to the end is the article on straight talk. You skip over it because it doesn’t happen much, but thinking about it, isn’t the lack of loser-sociopath interaction the heart of the issue, the reason that the hierarchy needs to exist in the first place? You allude to it as being unbearably naked in its power dynamics, but unbearable to who? Or that it leads to a”nuclear reaction”, but what does that actually mean?

    It feels like it’s the mystery of the dog in the night… The secret core around which the whole corporate system rotates.

    I’m re-reading Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton right now, which puts forward the idea that naked communication is at the heart of psychological development. It makes an interesting complement to your thoughts on the sociopaths’ spiritual journey towards nothingness…

    • hef19898 says

      That’s what I thought, too. Thinking back, the best working expierence i had involved some form of straight talk. Or maybe I was just clueless and misinterpreted the whole situation.

      Yet, I think that’s also the reason why organiations with to much clueless in them collapse. They are simply running below a certain threshold of necessary sociopath – loser interaction, which inevitably is replaced by some sort or other of bureaucracy. Fascinating enough, organizations can stay in this mode infininatly as long as no outside force shows up.

    • I don’t think Straight Talk is that mysterious. It’s just rather raw and bruising to Losers, due to the lack of emotional involvement, so for routine everyday communication needs, the Clueless buffer layer helps. The “priestly absolution” mode of 1:1 Loser-Sociopath interaction is a special case type of communication used in more exceptional situations. It is like Straight Talk but with an emotional subtext of Babytalk.

      Mass communication to mixed groups of Losers and Clueless is actually the bigger missing piece I didn’t cover in the series (speeches and such). Its dynamics don’t follow in any obvious way from the 1:1 languages.

  18. This essay, I think is the final nail in my loser coffin. The struggle of reconciling emotional motivations is a lot easier when its written out in such clear prose. However, it does immediately makes me question the influence of this piece as yet another rung in loserdom. An idea that is not originally mine is troubling to accept, but does that hold true for ideas that spark realizations, because any realization that ties things up so neatly are usually flashing lights leading to yet another prepackaged savior. But, maybe this is really it. This is the top of the ladder, the acceptance that there is no ladder.

  19. Well done, sir. You’ve managed two things no other author has:
    – writing nonfiction so compelling that I re-read it from start to end, to make sure I’d gleaned everything, and
    – saying things about a cringe-comedy show (my Loser-brain still dislikes those) that make me want to watch it.

    I hope that, once the pain of the slog fades, you won’t feel your work here quite so pointless. Or, to be more precise: I hope that the meaningless you’ve found in writing this is as powerful as the meaningless you describe within this portion. It’s certainly had powerful effects on my understanding of (corporate) politics, and I doubt I’m alone in this regard.

  20. Two questions (as I’m only 30 with 6 years work experience, I won’t claim enough self-awareness to tag myself as either Loser, Clueless or Sociopath, but I do recognize the patterns of behavior.)

    First, is part of Sociopathy the ability to feign Cluelessness, at least when among the Clueless? Especially for emerging Sociopaths with little formal power. Babytalk could go beyond being a communication tool and hide a Sociopath identity until the right opportunity arises.

    Second, to what extent is there a Bank of Sociopathy where favors are liquid, easily stored and traded, and can we access it? If not, we’re stuck bartering on the spot – we can only trade what we hold in a given meeting, and only for what others are holding.

    Enjoyed the series – discovered it less than a week ago and am selfishly glad it took you so long to finish, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to comment. Thanks for the enlightenment and entertainment.

  21. I suspect you could have become a much better thinker had you experienced deep and prolonged pain in your life. (I’m talking Auschwitz-level pain) I find it unlikely that you have. You talk about freedom of non-human animals. Does that include the freedom to be eaten alive? There’s an unfanthomable number of conditions which allowed you, from the moment you were born till this day, to be able to sit in front of your computer and write this piece. And then you turn around and imply this all must carry no intrinsic value whatsoever. Just because we can’t see, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  22. Some nice interesting stuff to go through here, but I have an early criticism/development:

    The loser sociopath religious connection strikes me as unlikely, given that a “religious but not spiritual” framework generally specifically operates in a vacuum of any possible impending judgement.

    What sociopaths would provide would be certainties, around which losers can commiserate. Indirectly they would produce possibilities, which the clueless would transmute into probable hope, (though usually on an undefined timescale).

    This would provide a common orientation within the organisation, a kind of language of worldview, allowing anchoring of some amorphous spiritual/aesthetic worldview.

    In your formula of subtractions, they subtract uncertainty and risk, given that a lack of risk is the very incentive of a job to the loser, even being in a job and facing certain reductions in income because of market realities is better than facing the uncertainty of the job market alone.

    This becomes the ominous version of leaders needing vision, with that clarity being simplicity for the clueless (an attractive cipher into which they can pour their aspirations), and plausible solidity to the losers.

    The sociopaths then face facts, so that others don’t have to, and in that gap lies their power.

    • With a bit more detail, I think the “absolving sins” is a slight over-reach of a natural progression of the model.

      In my head, your model had two economic actors taking different attitudes to complexity and risk, with one working on working within persistent structures where hits can be accommodated or spread, insurance style, and the other focusing on taking risks but offloading them on to other people, with the organisation as a kind of multipurpose body double.

      The tension between these approaches is resolved by the clueless, and so the whole game of symbolism and hinges on that, all the sociopaths offer the losers directly is the fact that they have a job. That’s the basics.

      I can see alternatives to this, where the sociopaths do giveaways, incentive structures etc. Token gifts of low-cost, high-emotional-value prizes or resource incentives (although “access to resources” has messy side effects; it’s not ad-hoc enough and is more likely to encourage actual cost/benefit maths). There would be various other “affect technologies” that could be applied like office parties, sending flowers etc. and I’m sure more will be invented. All of these outsource human connection and positive emotion so that it can be applied as a tool, in increasing subtlety.

      Now this does start to come into more psychological territory, but it’s far from the depth of “absolving sins”. And in fact, I’d say that absolving sins is the last thing you’d want to do; guilty people make good clueless, because of the denial and internal tension you can play off. You can get people to try to make it up to you, but hold off on exact calculations of when debts are paid off, via making the absolution tasks outside of their full capacity to complete, but still useful when partially completed. Keeping your employees indebted is a classic trap, especially if they are willing to create their own debts.

      Instead what functional and psychologically valuable roll you can play is that of the independent party. In any functioning organisation, there needs to be information transfer and objection handling. Directly acting as the adjudicating judge in personal matters is risky, as it requires you to have a deep understanding of the relationships involved, but if it’s not really your job, and you dabble a little, then you can build good-will.

      And of course, only dabbling at it means that you can keep the office culture simmering at the right level of infighting, such that people are just divided enough to make many of their personal non-work interactions awkward, but their work interactions functional. When followed through to it’s limit this encourages a byzantine structure of departmental and physical walls that avoid the unpleasant social interactions via procedure, and also allow for lots of opportunities for information to get lost. It’s not exactly flexible, but great for scapegoating.

      Privately, this dispute/injustice handling information channel can be one of the two basic methods for information bypassing the clueless layer, the other being budding sociopaths, and it’s generally a much lower cost one. Dealing with the right people’s complaints can in fact not be a gift to them at all, but a way to minimise your exposure to bad ideas, or to get more involved with good ones. It’s also a basic way to keep a company actually functioning, in an informational/organisational sense, depending on how much you care about that!

      I think this channel does the same as what you were talking about, but it becomes a “judge priest”/”higher authority” role, relying on projection of monklike detachment or invulnerability, rather than moral importance or particular access to the infinite.

      Kings tended to pull this off very well historically, focusing on the stability of divine right over any particular access to god. And then by acting selectively on the appeals of his people based on that position, the king could often maintain it.

  23. Your blog scratches some deep, long-held, emotional itch for insight-dense metaphysical thought. It’s like a diet version of Academia, without all those pesky citations and that tedious intellectual rigor. It’s satisfying to the point of addiction, And the pleasure is enhanced by the fact that, since I’m not forced to take it seriously, I can move on with my life once the euphoria of understanding fades. What’s more, you’ve managed to untangle some of my mental knots for me. So, if the Gervais Principle seems a little too neat and tidy, that’s quite alright. After all, you have merely been manipulating my social realities by subtracting emotional content.

    Verkat, are you able to watch “The Office” without cringing?

  24. Dylan captures this sentiment beautifully in the lyrics of All Along the Watchtower. He appears to divide the sociopaths into Jokers – the unemotionals and Thieves – the amorals. The lyrics are not in chronological order either, almost as if he was setting up a loop.

  25. I have come across a paradox in your work. The Sociopaths, by merit of their communication methods (Powertalk and Babytalk), cannot/will not directly communicate the machinations of their minds to others; however, your writing contains extensive details on the machinations of Sociopath minds. Therefore, you, the writer, must be a Sociopath yourself to intimately understand the working of a Sociopath mind. However, given my first point, you would/could not communicate the machinations of your own mind to others. Thus, I conclude that this work is either false or itself another layer of control invented by one or more Sociopath parties.

    • I’m not sure if that is a paradox. He does talk about compassionate Messiahs towards the end.
      I think you underestimate the extent of the loser/clueless shackles. The Sociopath journey/identity is known to everyone, protested by everyone, but very few are willing to give up the comfort of guided paths and presumed outcomes. I’d say Nietzsche was perhaps the the most vocal of the Sociopaths in trying to pass the machinations down to the masses, but the only ones who heard or understood him, were the other sociopaths who looked upon him in pity of futility, not in fear of their secrets becoming public.

  26. Reading this the third time today has clarified a little splinter in my mind.

    Moby Dick’s Ahab is a fine example of mature sociopathy. Utterly amoral and nihilistic, Ahab’s story is the story of one man striking through every mask he could find eventually the same mask Venkat attempts to strike through with this article.

    Attempting to see into the mind of an absent god.

    Goddamnit, now I have to read Moby Dick again too see how the cast stacks up vs the Mcleod hierarchy.

    Starbuck is more organizational man than clueless. Prior to the Pequod’s final voyage his pragmatic nebbiness was a rational asset and there’s no equivalent to the corporate world’s meta-firm logic to require baffling him.

  27. If you found this chapter interesting, as I did, I think it would be worth your while to read the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, linked here: It deals with similar issues of the apparent absence of God and of meaning in a screwed-up world. A very readable study guide is “A Life Well Lived”, by Tommy Nelson.