MachiavelliWhy are we evil? This short piece  asks how the “Dark Tetrad” of behaviours could have evolved.

The Dark Tetrad is an extended version of the Dark Triad of three negative personality traits/behaviours (test yourself here  – I scored ‘infrequently vile’). The original three are ‘Machiavellianism’ – selfishly deceptive, manipulative behaviour; Psychopathy – indifference or failure to perceive the feelings of others; and Narcissism – vain self-obsession. Clearly there’s some overlap and it may not seem clear that these are anything but minor variants on selfishness, but research does suggest that they are distinct. Machiavellians, for example do not over-rate themselves and don’t need to be admired; narcissists aren’t necessarily liars or deceivers; psychopaths are manipulative but don’t really get people.

These three traits account for a good deal of bad behaviour, but it has been suggested that they don’t explain everything; we also need a fourth kind of behaviour, and the leading candidate is ‘Everyday Sadism‘ ; simple pleasure in the suffering of others, regardless of whether it brings any other advantage for oneself. Whether this is ultimately the correct analysis of ‘evil’ behaviour or not, all four types are readily observable in varying degrees. Socially they are all negative, so how could they have evolved?

There doesn’t seem to me to be much mystery about why ‘Machiavellian’ behaviour would evolve (I should acknowledge at this point that using Machiavelli as a synonym for manipulativeness actually understates the subtlety and complexity of his philosophy). Deceiving others in one’s own interests has obvious advantages which are only negated if one is caught. Most of us practice some mild cunning now and then, and the same sort of behaviour is observable in animals, notably our cousins the chimps.

Psychopathy is a little more surprising. Understanding other people, often referred to as ‘theory of mind’ is a key human achievement, though it seems to be shared by some other animals to a degree. However, psychopaths are not left puzzled by their fellow human beings; it’s more that they lack empathy and see others as simply machines whose buttons can freely be pushed. This can be a successful attitude and we are told that somewhat psychopathic traits are commonly found in the successful leaders of large organisations. That raises the question of why we aren’t all psychopaths; my guess is that psycopathic behaviour pays off best in a society where most people are normal; if the proportion grows above a certain small level, the damage done by competition between psychopaths starts to outweigh the benefits and the numbers adjust.

Narcissism is puzzling because narcissists are less self-sufficient than the rest of us and also have deluded ideas about what they can accomplish; neither of these are positive traits in evolutionary terms. One positive side is that narcissists expect a lot from themselves and in the right circumstances they will work hard and behave well in order to protect their own self-image. It may be that in the right context these tendencies win esteem and occasional conspicuous success, and that this offsets the disadvantages.

Finally, sadism. It’s hard to see what benefits accrue to anyone from simply causing pain, detached from any material advantage. Sadism clearly requires theory of mind – if you didn’t realise other people were suffering, there would be no point in hurting them. It’s difficult to know whether there are genuine animal examples. Cats seem to torture mice they have caught, letting them go and instantly catching them again, but to me the behaviour seems automatic or curious, not motivated by any idea that the mice experience pain. Similarly in other cases it generally seems possible to find an alternative motivation.

What evolutionary advantage could sadism confer? Perhaps it makes you more frightening to rivals – but it may also make and motivate enemies. I think in this case we must assume that rather than being a trait with some downsides but some compensating value it is a negative feature that just comes along unavoidably with a large free-running brain. The benefit of consciousness is that it takes us out of the matrix of instinctive and inherited patterns of behaviour and allows detached thought and completely novel responses. In a way Nature took a gamble with consciousness, like a good manager recognising that the good staff might do better if left without specific instructions. On the whole, the bet has paid off handsomely, but it means that the chance of strange and unfavourable behaviour in some cases or on some occasions just has to be accepted. I the case of everyday sadism, the sophisticated theory of mind which human beings have is put to distorted and unhelpful use.

Maybe then, sadism is the most uniquely human kind of evil?


  1. 1. Sean says:

    Peter, My first thoughts as I was rounding your article down was that this ‘everyday sadism’ was a product of peculiarities of our psyche. So I think I agree with you; genetics doesn’t evolve us to have ‘good’ traits as much as just removes ‘bad’ traits. I find often enough I do things that are mean, if I was to blame something it would be perceived slights I have experienced; which are unavoidable. But whether they are unavoidable my mind feels justified in treating others as I have been, even though I would prefer to treat others as I would like to be.

  2. 2. Sci says:

    Interesting thoughts Peter, especially given sadism relies on qualia to work.

  3. 3. john davey says:

    What is the evolutionary advantage of a human appendix ? Of testicular cancer ? Does everything that exists in the biological world have to have an evolutionary advantage ? A grand darwinian slot ?

    Maybe that’s just the way the cookie crumbles : sadism is (after all|) classified as a mental disorder : it is viewed by the mental health fraternity as malfunction .

  4. 4. Callan S. says:

    Seemed a little click bait like, that quiz. A little Machiavellian…

    I think psychopaths are fallbacks to a solitary species time in human or pre human history. Plenty of species are solitary animals, after all. The social wiring just doesn’t form or doesn’t attach to the rest of the wiring.

    Narcissists I think appeal to the narcissist in those observing them. They appeal to others because they just do the things that others want to but instead bottle up inside. So they play this clown role in society, being funded as a surrogate outburst for closeted narcissists.

    Sadism is possibly primitive empire building. By negging others and hurting them, its a method of attaching them to the sadist by a sort of learned helplessness. Thus a sad little empire starts to form.

  5. 5. Christophe Menant says:

    The evolutionary origin of socially negative behaviors is an interesting subject. And it may be worth considering that evolutionary advantages can come from elsewhere than the satisfaction of survival or social constraints.
    As an example, looking at a possible evolutionary story for self-consciousness brings in unexpected constraints. One is anxiety limitation. When our pre-human ancestors began to identify with their conspecifics they were brought to cope with a huge anxiety increases resulting from identification with suffering or endangered conspecifics. Anxiety limitation then became a new constraint that had to be satisfied so the evolution toward human self-consciousness could continue. This positions anxiety management as part of an evolutionary engine interwoven with the nature of our human mind (
    Such a perspective can introduce new motivational frameworks to human nature. Socially negative behaviors then become related to anxiety management in an evolutionary background.

  6. 6. Jochen says:

    What is the evolutionary advantage of a human appendix ? Of testicular cancer ? Does everything that exists in the biological world have to have an evolutionary advantage ? A grand darwinian slot ?

    Yes, I think that’s a very good point—not every trait is advantageous in a Darwinian fitness-sense; it is enough to be not disadvantageous enough to be selected against. Also, natural selection operates at the level of a species, not at that of the individual. So it might make more sense to ask the contrapositive question here: why aren’t we all sadists? This seems to be more easily answerable using evolutionary analysis—it certainly seems imaginable that a species where all of its members take delight in torturing one another would be less fit than one with a sufficiently light sprinkling of sadist traits.

    This doesn’t exclude, of course, that sadism also might carry some fringe benefits—I remember reading some game-theoretic analysis arguing that a certain fraction of a population being psychopaths may actually lead to a more stable social equilibrium versus the case of there being none at all. Perhaps something similar might be at work wrt sadism (although I can’t offhand construct an argument for that).

  7. 7. Hunt says:

    Hard to say whether evil traits are evolved or so called “spandrels,” those qualities that exist but are not directly selected for. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that our psychologies are evolved, and evil traits are their natural byproduct. This reminds me of a debate Christopher Hitchens had with a group of theists. He was asked whether the Christian account of theodicy (the existence of evil with a good God) was at least consistent. He was forced to admit that it was, but that’s the characteristic of “just-so” stories as well. They’re constructed to make sense. It might be more revealing to approach the problem the other way; in an atheistic world could we ever expect the absence of what we call evil? Well, the moment animals started eating other animals, I doubt it.

  8. 8. Michael Murden says:

    Might Sadism operate somewhat like the gene that causes sickle cell anemia? The will to dominate has clear evolutionary advantages, especially for males. The ability to subject women to a man’s will gives the man the advantage of having sexual access to more women and the advantage of making those women less likely to copulate with other men. Given that physical violence is one of the most effective means a man has for establishing dominance over women it seems clear that the capacity for being physically violent to women conveys evolutionary advantage to men. Just as the value of the sickle cell trait in conferring resistance to malaria might be enough to keep it in the gene pool despite the adverse reproductive effects of sickle cell anemia, the value of the capacity for violence toward women might be enough to keep it in the gene pool despite the adverse reproductive effects of full blown sadism.

  9. 9. Christophe Menant says:

    Not sure, Hunt, that, ‘the moment animals started eating other animals’ can be the evolutionary indication leading to human related evil. Basic animals eat plants and fruits which are living entities. Looks close to animals eating animals.
    If we agree that human like violence is not seen in other animals, then human related evil is to be investigated relatively to human nature.
    In other words, what has happened during our evolutionary story starting with pre-human primates (comparable to today great apes) may be a thread leading to an understanding of that human related evil.
    As said in the previous post, an evolutionary scenario for human self-consciousness introduces anxiety limitation as a key human constraint (at a much higher level than for animals). Such human specificity has not been really taken into account so far. But some current research activities relating psychopathology to evolution may bring interesting threads. Psychology of motivation has a long way to go ….

  10. 10. john davey says:

    “Well, the moment animals started eating other animals, I doubt it.”

    Lions are evil ? Hmm.

    “Evil” is surely one of the most subjective notions there is. Christopher Hitchens masqueraded as an unbeliever – in reality, despite his british origins, he was a dogmatic american nationalist of the very worst kind. To feed that dogma, he needed the idea of “evil” just as much as any religious perspective. A real non-believer would just reject the idea of evil altogether.

    To have an objective discussion about subjective character assessments is surely a bit farcical .. you won’t find these terms in any psychiatric textbook. You might see words about the ability to empathise – but this is seen as a clinical disorder and (increasingly) as a malfunction of those aspects of the brain relating to emotion. The incidence of psychopathy and severe brain damage is high, so I’m told.


  11. 11. Callan S. says:

    Aww, if we’re giving up evil, then how can there be ‘dogma’? It’d just be text, wouldn’t it? >:)

    Whether ones own polarisations happen to match some universal compass or whether there’s a compass at all is a question.

    But calling something dogma is definitely exhibiting polarisation.

    I mean that’s probably the problem with Hitchens you see there – supposed giving up of belief instead means adhering to other beliefs, blindly, even more so than the previous beliefs were held. That’s the problem we’re going into with ‘enlightenment’ – the fervent religious belief of one not having religious belief.

    Keep your friends close and your beliefs closer.

  12. 12. Hunt says:

    Carnivorism seems as good a point of no return as any other, and no I’m not saying lions are evil. I’m just saying that we should expect human evil as a byproduct of our natural evolution. Evil should be ‘The Problem of Evil’ not used as evidence for religious belief as some do in an awesome attempt at turning a liability into an asset.

    john davey, I think there’s room for ‘evil’ in the atheist lexicon, even if it comes down to subjective definition. I can assert mine and you can assert yours, and we can all decide on generalities, if we want.

    No, you won’t find ‘evil’ in psychiatry texts, but psychiatrists themselves certainly use it. M Scott Peck was of the opinion that some disorders were caused by various degrees of demonic possession and even attended exorcisms.

  13. 13. Michael D says:

    I think the test is flawed. There were many things I left the slider at the center because I don’t even have opinions on those issues, and I believe that is the true meaning of “neither agree nor disagree”, as they put it. I’m pretty sure they rated those answers as half-way to evil, though.

    “Make sure your plans benefit you not others”? Why must a plan do either one of these to the exclusion of the other, for instance?

    “Most people can be manipulated?” Am I evil because I acknowledge this as a fact, or am I evil because I don’t? How can knowing a fact of information be evil?

    Sorry, this just a silly, stupid test.

  14. 14. john davey says:


    I never heard of M Scott Peck, he was an interesting man. He was religious so perhaps it’s no coincidence that he had a sympathetic view of religion.

    Interesting he defined “evil” as somebody who is :-

    i) Is consistently self-deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self-image of perfection

    ii) Deceives others as a consequence of their own self-deception
    iii) Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being apparently normal with everyone else (“their insensitivity toward him was selective” (Peck, 1983/1988, p 105[7]))
    iv) Commonly hates with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self-deception as much as deception of others
    Abuses political (emotional) power (“the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion” (Peck, 1978/1992, p298[6]))
    v) Maintains a high level of respectability, and lies incessantly in order to do so
    vi) Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency (of destructiveness)
    vii) Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim (scapegoat)
    viii) Has a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury

    When I read this I thought “Tony Blair”. Maybe he had a point.


  15. 15. Hunt says:

    john davey,
    I have to admit I’ve always considered Peck the archetypical psychiatric nut, the type of doctor who when consulted would ask if you’ve found Jesus, but yes, he did have some interesting insights, even if based in things I don’t believe. After all, truth can validly follow false premises.

    All the points of his description of an evil person also fit particularly un-selfaware psychopaths, of which I think there are many.

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