Is elite athlete “arrogance” a performance hack? Part 3 (When hubris becomes sociopathy)

This week I’m going to continue the articles on athletic arrogance as a performance hack. Initially, this line of thinking came from my speculations about how we hack our neurological limitations, using behavioural ‘software patches’, to increase our ability to perform. In this case, I speculated that athletic arrogance in elite performers is a method for allowing their highly trained expert systems to function without interference from their conscious minds. I realised though, that athletes get specific and objective feedback, meaning that this ‘hack’ can be quite effective, even if it has a few behavioural side effects. In other areas of performance where feedback wasn’t as specific, immediate, objective or obvious, there is a danger that this ‘hack’ could become the basis for a behavioural pathology. In the last article in this series, I talked about how arrogance can become hubris – when a person generates an arrogance hack in an attempt to increase performance, but doesn’t get (or stops getting) objective feedback, the arrogance can become something a lot more dangerous than an annoying personality. Specifically, when a person starts basing his or her decisions on a system that (under the correct circumstances) is supposed to enhance performance, and these modifications become reinforced (and possibly entrenched) by a series of perceived successes (not necessarily actual), it is possible that, without some sort of intervention, he or she will trust the internal system more and more to the exclusion (both deliberate and unconscious) of any corrective feedback. This is when people start to behave like arseholes.

So, since then, I’ve been thinking about what can happen when this behavioural ‘hack’ is taken to the next extreme. I believe that the ‘arrogance hack’, left unchecked, and fostered in a specific environment of self-delusion and lack of objective feedback, combined with both perceived and actual power or influence, can become sociopathy.

The term sociopath is a tricky one. You’ve probably read about my dislike of psychological classification and diagnosis (here), but even the DSM shies away from terms such as sociopathy and psychopathy. Researchers in the area suggest that they are effectively the same thing, and the closest the DSM comes to describing these ‘conditions’ is in anti-social personality disorder. Simply though, sociopathic behaviour tends to incorporate a lack of conformity to social norms (or the belief that social norms don’t apply), chronic deception of others, impulsiveness, aggressiveness, disregard for the safety of self or others, irresponsibility, and a lack of remorse (combined with rationalisation and intellectualisation about any harm they might have done to another).

Now, before I go any further, I’m just speculating here. I’m not a researcher or expert in the area of sociopathy, and it’s possible that it is the end result of  a highly complex interplay between sociological, psychological, environmental and genetic variables. But as a potential trigger for sociopathic behaviour, I’m particularly interested in this notion that a simple performance hack could result in some pretty screwed up behaviour. Thinking about it, it doesn’t even have to be traditional notions of power that can encourage and feed the arrogance hack. Perceived power can come in a lot of forms and in each strata of society – from position in a gang, all the way to a seat on the board. Historically, moving up the ranks has required several factors: the initial ambition, an action that results in some sort of gain, the actions that sustain the new level, and the ongoing, sometimes cascading levels of action required to continue to move up the ladder. In a highly regulated situation like elite sports, that combines objective feedback with very distinct notions of success, the arrogance hack might simply function as intended, increasing performance by reducing conscious interruption of the execution of trained routine. In less structured environments, without clearly defined notions of success and with subjective or distorted feedback, this hack could become something a lot more unpleasant. In a worst-case scenario it could result in someone with no scruples, no compunctions against hurting or manipulating others for personal gain and, perhaps worst of all, the unshakable belief that his or her actions were both correct and justifiable.

Sometimes these behavioural mutations occur individually, but often, they can be enhanced by some sort of organisational assistance or tacit approval. Again, throughout history, groups have held themselves above others on the hubristic notion that they are somehow superior, encouraging sociopathic behaviour within their ranks, and almost insisting on its demonstration in order to climb those ranks.

There’s an important extra that needs to be taken into account here. In studies of sociopathy, it emerges that sociopaths seem to have a dysfunction in their fear processing centres. In these people, the amygdala, an area in the mid-brain that controls our avoidance behaviour, doesn’t appear to recognise high-risk situations, that regular people perceive as dangerous, in the same way, resulting in a reduction or minimisation of fear. In other words, their avoidance centres don’t make them avoid things that other people would find high motivation for avoidance (such as pain or perceived danger). Now, there’s a lot of criticism out there of brain localisation (as measured by brain scans), and there’s also an interesting suggestion that the brain can modify itself (plasticity) in response to a particular environment or set of repeated behaviours, a notion that could account for these observed changes. So, perhaps, these brain differences are actually the result of an extreme arrogance hack, rather than the cause…

So, we’ve established that it’s possible that there are situations and organisations that encourage sociopathy. Something as innocuous as a performance hack can, in the wrong environment, be morphed into something that can be downright dangerous, especially when combined with some changed neurological functioning. I wonder, however, whether these characteristics can ever be used for ‘good’ rather than ‘evil’?

Let’s put it another way: do sociopathic tendencies allow someone to be better suited, for example, to certain sports (along with a set of genetic traits)? That is, can the arrogance hack, taken to extremes, and combined with some neurological abnormalities or modifications  be a major advantage in certain areas? Well, let’s take the endurance sports for starters (BTW – I am NOT suggesting that endurance athletes are psychopaths). Anyone who’s ever competed in any type of endurance event will realise that the pain levels are off the scale. Endurance events really hurt, and it makes sense that someone with a low threshold for pain, and relative disregard for his or her own safety might excel in these sports. More interestingly, the type of training required to perform well in these sports, such as lactate threshold training, is in itself extraordinarily painful, and the ability to engage in this training for longer and harder is likely to result in a major advantage. So, without necessarily buying into all the recent media beat-up about a certain elite cyclist, his exhibited behaviours might well be the result of an arrogance hack gone wrong…

A similar argument could, potentially, be applied to the so-called ‘adrenaline sports’. I’ve long been against the notion of a specific, sensation-seeking personality. But there are certain advantages to a dysfunction in a person’s ability to feel fear in potentially dangerous situations. If you read my last blog post, you’ll know I love mountain biking. Unfortunately, my amygdala functions just fine on a steep descent; it’s very good at convincing me that I don’t really want to try that big drop, and it pretty much always wins. Of course, the downside of a lack of ability to encode danger as fear is the potential for serious injury, but if you’re not afraid of injury then it’s simply not a disincentive.

But here’s the thing, most people aren’t sociopaths, and many people do well without having to engage any type of arrogance hack. Nevertheless, as we’ve seen, it’s quite possible that given the right combination of environmental conditions and personal ambition, the arrogance hack can go horribly wrong (for us that is, in the mind of the person who’s been hacked everything is just fine…).

Maybe it just comes down to a phrase a friend of mine spawned the other day: egonomics. Unfortunately, moving ‘up’ in human society has long been about measuring dick length (OK, I’m talking metaphorically – just slapping out the old fella and a tape measure doesn’t seem to work very well) – so hacks, like the arrogance hack, are actually side effects of a broken system for human comparison. When (at the fundamental level Richard Dawkins likes to talk about) it’s all about who gets to propagate, it’s only natural that humans will invent ways to enhance their perceived survivability…

3 Replies to “Is elite athlete “arrogance” a performance hack? Part 3 (When hubris becomes sociopathy)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.