We look at heroes and do-gooders as a special sort of breed: people who possess extraordinary traits of altruism or self-less concern for the well-being of others, even at the expense of their own existence. On the other end, sociopaths also have an extraordinary set of traits, such as extreme selfishness, lack of impulse control, no respect for rules, and no conscience.
As crazy as it sounds, there may be a closer link than than most people would think between the extreme-altruistic personality and sociopathic personality. Would it shock you to know that two people, one with the traits of extreme-altruism (X-altruism) and the other the traits of a sociopath, could be related? Even siblings? And that their personality traits are very similar, with only a few features to distinguish them? Research by Watson, Clark, and Chmielewki from the University of Iowa, “Structures of Personality and Their Relevance to Psychopathology” [pdf], present a convincing argument in which they support the growing push for a trait dimensional scheme in the new DSM-V to replace the current categorical system.
Personality has consistently shown to be extremely heritable. However, the same genetic material arranged and weighted in a slightly different way, may at times express as vastly different phenotypes: the “extremely good” and the “extremely bad” individual. How is this possible?
At a first glance, one would be compelled to put the sociopath and the X-atruistic person on opposite ends of a personality scale. After all, the chances of a serial killer running into a burning building to save a child are pretty slim, right? And wouldn’t a hero-type be one of the last people likely to break rules? WRONG!!!!
Someone who goes out of their way to help others, even at the expense of their own welfare, is actually more likely to break rules than the average person. Think of Dr Ross from the early days of the TV show ER. He was constantly pushing limits, breaking the rules, throwing caution to the wind, all for the sake of the child-patient, even when it ultimately meant getting fired. On 9/11, after it was apparent that the buildings were about to collapse, teams of firefighters were called back, yet they disobeyed orders and pushed on anyway, only to perish in the quest to possibly save even one more life. Those are the actions of a hero, or an X-altruistic personality type. But consider the type of rule-breaking that the X-altruist engages in—would you classify it as criminal, or even unlawful? How does motive factor in?
People whom we consider to be heroes (or X-altruists, as I am referring to them here), while among some of the most admired individuals, they possess many of the same traits as the sociopath. However, there is a fundamental difference in the motivation behind their actions that distinguish them from their nasty cohorts. Incidentally, that one difference is vitally important in determining if someone turns out to be the comic book hero or more like his archenemy.
X-altruists are compelled to good, even when doing so makes no sense and brings harm upon them. They cannot tolerate injustice, and go to extreme lengths to help those who have been wronged, regardless of their personal relationship to them. Now, I am not speaking of the guy who helps an old lady cross the street. I am speaking of the guy who throws himself in front of a speeding bus to push the old lady out of the way, killing himself in the process. The average, kind, thoughtful person does not take these kinds of extreme personal risks on a regular basis.
If you asked someone with an X-altruistic personality why they take the actions they do (and I have personal knowledge of at least one person like this), they would tell you that they couldn’t help themselves. When they are faced with that moment, they just act. Compulsively. Barely considering any other course. The lack the impulse control to stop themselves from doing “the right thing” when it comes to the welfare of others, yet ironically, it almost always results in some form of negative consequence for themselves. They have no problem breaking the rules when it means helping an innocent, yet they highly value the importance of obeying rules in other contexts. That’s crazy, you say? Now you’re getting the idea.
The word “altruism” conveys images of people like Mother Teresa or Gandhi, passive, extremely self-less people. They are altruistic, sure. But the X-altruistic person is anything but passive or meek. They are often feisty, argumentative, independent, idealistic risk-takers and convention-breakers. Sound sort of like the sociopathic personality? Let’s take a closer look at some similarities and differences between the two.
- low impulse control
- high novelty-seeking (desire to experience new things, take more risks, break convention)
- no remorse for their actions (lack of conscience)
- inability to see beyond their own needs (lack of empathy)
- willing to break rules
- always acts in the interest of himself
- low impulse control
- high novelty-seeking
- little remorse for their actions (would “do it again in a heartbeat”)
- inability to see past the needs of others (very high empathy)
- willing to break rules
- acts in the best interest of others, or for the “common good” (because it is the right thing to do)
Both X-altruists and sociopaths have high impulsivity, need for novelty, and the tendency to break rules, but there is a fundamental difference in the motivation driving their behavior. Someone who is altruistic is always looking to the idealistic good situation, or the way things should be in a fair and just world. They are able to empathize—feel what the other person is feeling, or imagine themselves in another’s shoes. This empathy is the force that moves them to engage in heroic behaviors. They have a need to live in “a fair and just world”, and will go to great lengths to try and maintain that. They are driven by factors outside of themselves, externally motivated drives, such as aiding the plight of society or serving the “greater good”.
The sociopath, on the other hand, is motivated by internal factors; selfish desires and the advancement of their own cause, rather than the causes of others or society as a whole. They don’t have the ability to empathize, so they see no logic in acting in any way other than selfishly, since they cannot imagine themselves in anyone else’s position. Everything they do is driven by their quest to satisfy their own needs, rather than (and often at the expense of) the needs of another person.
If an altruistic person is able to empathize, and thus is motivated to help others, the X-altruistic person has too much empathy for others, driving them to break rules and put themselves in harms way in order to alleviate the suffering of others or bring fairness to the world. That extreme empathy, combined with a lower impulse control, the need for novelty, and an intolerance for injustice, is the trait formula of the X-altruistic personality. Because this type of person often engages in such extreme behavior that results in harm to self on some level, he earns a spot on the dysfunctional end of the personality scale, nearing psychopathology.
Interestingly, these two type of individuals, the sociopath and the X-altruist, may appear similar in their displays of behavior, and at times, even confused for the other type. If an X-altruistic person is compelled to break rules without remorse in order to help a disadvantaged person, is may seem as if he is acting rebelliously, especially if the motives behind his behavior are not known. On the other hand, a sociopath may donate a large sum of money to a charity, a seemingly altruistic behavior, but his actions may have been motivated by his selfish need to appear better than or more generous than a colleague. The defining characteristic that separates the two personality types is their ability to empathize, either not at all or too much, which then drives the extreme behavior of each.
So while the X-altruistic person indeed acts for the good of the people, he often violates laws, breaks rules, or otherwise causes ripples in the order of society. To be a good citizen, we are required and expected to follow laws at all times. But we can all agree that the world needs extreme heroes; they are the ones who consistently go above and beyond the call of duty, for self-less reasons, even when it could mean losing their job, receiving hefty fines, or even serving time in jail.
But are they really criminals? Or do we need to bend the rules at times in order to allow for these types of do-gooders to continue on their path, bringing righteousness and justice to an otherwise corrupt world? Where do we draw the line between criminality and heroism?
Here’s an even better question:
How exactly do we support necessary rule-breaking for virtuous intent, yet punish malicious rule-breaking for ill-intent? Can it be done? Maybe someday we will be able to write public policy that actually serves the best intent of the people, even if it means that once in a while, some rules need to be broken in the process.
I want to send a message out to all of those heroic, X-altruists out there, continually putting their butts on the line for our well-being: Thank you. The world is a better place because you dare to do good… even when it seems crazy to do so.
Andrea Kuszewski, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, lives in San Francisco and works as a researcher and manager with VORTEX Research Group. She investigates the neurocognitive factors behind human behavior.