Geeks, functional deviant behavior, and evolution

TR member dcolbert looks at the stereotypes between deviant behavior and antisocial nerds. He thinks it's possible that functional deviant behavior may even give some people an advantage by being more effective at their jobs. Do you agree?

I've been interested in the role of sociopath and psychopath for years, and I was reminded of this when I read Toni Bowers' recent article, "Your boss could be a sociopath, No, really."

About a year ago, there was a meme of sorts going around Facebook, "As your profile picture, put up a doppelganger or a picture of a celebrity you've been told that you look like." I put up a picture of Edward Norton, the Judge from Night Court, Dana Carvey, Reba McEntire, and finally, Beaker from the Muppets. I'm such a funny guy.

An associate I've known since early grade school posted on my wall, "I always think of you when I watch Dexter, but it isn't so much about how you look..." Hmmm. I always thought I kept my Dark Passenger better concealed.

Honestly, I've always had trouble with empathy, and certain social situations make me uncomfortable - just like Dexter is depicted. I'm sure this could be traced back to some childhood trauma or repressed memory, and we could rip off a 35-year-old scab and start the healing process - but you know, I'm good with letting sleeping dogs lie and being a little uncomfortable in situations where I'm supposed to feel an emotion that I really can't fully connect to. Seriously, I can't. Most of the time, I fake it because it makes people uncomfortable when someone doesn't act emotionally appropriate at a wedding, funeral, graduation, or other moving event.

I think knowledge industries that rely on higher intellect seem to attract more employees with these kinds of issues. Using Dexter as an example again, look at the two lab rats - Vince Masuka and Dexter. Vince has blatant deviant behavior, and he's an antisocial nerd. What leads writers to stereotype geeks in this manner? Well, I think it's partially that there are quite a few people in geek industries who fit this stereotype.

A lot of the time, the more brilliant the geek, the more present and less hidden the antisocial behaviors are. Take a look at Hollywood stereotypes, like Mark Zuckerberg's character as portrayed in The Social Network. High functioning autistic spectrum disorders, psychopathic and sociopathic behavior... and... Bill Gates rocking back and forth on a stool when he used to give presentations? How about Steve Jobs and his well-documented personality disorders?

I think the problem is that the science of mental health and study of mental disorders is still outrageously crude. They're still inclined to draw a line right down the middle between "sane" and "abnormal/deviant." Toni makes that mistake in her post when she says, "If your boss yells at you and then feels sorry later, they're probably not a sociopath." Sure, by a strict clinical definition, maybe... but maybe that strict clinical definition is what's wrong, not your feeling that your boss may be a high-functioning psycho or sociopath.

Science seems to approach these issues as binary - on or off - and that has caused a lot of stigma. People who feel that they may be different don't exactly want to come forward and say, "Yeah, that describes me! Maybe you should lock me up and cut bits of my brain out and study me at the worst, or treat me like I'm a freak at the BEST!"

From the perspective of anthropology, these traits exist in human populations because they have an evolutionary place and advantage. There are studies that show that sociopathic and psychopathic behavior is seen most frequently among males, and the peak of anti-social behaviors manifests between the late 20s and mid 30s. This is, not surprisingly, also the period when people contribute the most to the forward progress of society and in business. Executives are most productive in their late 20s and mid 30s, with performance starting to decline as they enter their 40s.

The lack of empathy, the inability to accurately draw a distinction between risk and reward, often leads to bold and rash decisions among psychopaths and sociopaths. The results might be a failure or tragic, but they just as frequently conclude with the subject being labeled a "hero." Once the sociopath gets into his 40s, the high risk behavior declines dramatically year after year, and - you know, you move him to the board of directors and replace his role as CEO with someone a little more brash and unconventional.

When you look back in history, prior to Jack The Ripper, the idea of a serial killer was less concrete. Is that because serial killers are a relatively modern development in the characteristics of mankind? I have a hypothesis that it's because the moral compass of modern society has made the serial killer chronically underemployed.

There are only so many tinpot dictatorships looking for a good royal torturer these days. But in the glory days of the Government Inquisition industry, there was a high volume of torture centers filled with employees who really loved what they did. They probably came home after a hard day of pulling out people's teeth and applying hot pokers in the dungeons, thinking to themselves, "I am the luckiest man in the world." Let that sink in.

Serial killers are like underemployed IT workers. They're a skill set looking for a niche in society where they can make a living - a niche that no longer exists. But nature knows that this personality disorder has a role in human evolution, probably since the beginning, or shortly after we decided to walk upright. Sure, we'd rather that nature put a hold on placing more serial killers in society, but nature is unlikely to listen to our wishes anytime soon.

The point is, there are degrees to these behaviors - and I think the line between a "normally adjusted" individual and a deviant one is probably far less cut-and-dried than psychologists would lead us to believe. There's a body of research that indicates that there are many more functional psychopaths and sociopaths in our society than we recognize, and that most of these go through life contributing to society. It's quite possible that their functional deviant behaviors may even give them an advantage at being more effective in their roles.

Your boss may have sociopathic traits, and that may indeed be why he or she has risen to that position in the organization. Those traits probably help make him or her more effective at what they do for your company. But we all know the truth - that there are people with really severe emotional issues and personality disorders in almost every company ... and those people inevitably work in Human Resources.

By Donovan Colbert

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...