We’ve had a pretty good run as a species: We overwhelmingly dominate the other species on the planet, and for the most part even the strongest of natural forces. Most of us are now relatively happy, relatively safe, and relatively comfortable, at least by historical standards, or the standards enjoyed by any other species.

Of course there have been failures, including countless millions killed in wars and countless more millions in various acts of genocide. Add in millions more who have died of starvation and disease due to mismanagement of resources, and millions on top of that due to preventable accidents, murders, and suicides. And all of these things continue to occur at rates that should astound, and dismay, any rational and compassionate being.

But all these premature deaths are arguably not even our greatest failure: For every premature death listed above many other individuals have failed to live up to their potential, many living longer, but unhappier and less successful lives than we’d all prefer they have.

Why are we so incompetent at managing our affairs? Our species has existed in its current form for tens of thousands of years, and our species itself is something over a million years old. Why even after all this time have we still not developed a system that will prevent these atrocities and enable at least the majority of individuals to achieve something near their potential?

One possibility is that these types of failures are an inevitable consequence of the fact that our political, economic, and social systems are a poor match for us. In particular, the type of hierarchical leadership-based political systems that have been standard fare since agricultural technology enabled settlements larger than a few dozen individuals may actually be the social-technology equivalents of lead-based paint, DDT, chlorofluorocarbons, or a wide variety of other seemingly useful chemical compounds that our technology has provided us but that we’ve only recently discovered are poisoning our environment and our bodies. As is the case with those toxic chemicals, there is now considerable evidence to support this hypothesis.

Bob Altemeyer’s 2006 book The Authoritarians (a free PDF, and well worth reading!) provides an overview of research on people who have been classified using personality tests as Authoritarians or Social Dominators (or both). For Authoritarians (which in his research he calls Right Wing Authoritarian because they are much more common and the group usually in power vs. Left Wing Authoritarians), his RWA scale measures an individual’s tendency to support “traditional” values and leadership (i.e., strongly hierarchical government). For example, high RWA individuals tend to agree more than average with the following types of statements (p11):

It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds

Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the “rotten apples” who are ruining everything.

Women should have to promise to obey their husbands when they get married.

For assessing the frequency and characteristics of social dominators (Social Dominance Orientation, or SDO), a similar kind of test and scale was used (p160), which had statements like the following on it:

To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups.

We should strive to make incomes as equal as possible

According to research by Altemeyer and others, a significant percentage of the population scores highly on one or both of these tests, a percentage that is higher among politicians and other leaders (p200) because people with these characteristics are more driven toward leadership roles. This in itself is a serious problem because there are characteristics of both groups that render them less competent decisionmakers than average people (p187) including a penchant for hypocrisy, double standards, and other illogical behavior (p75-95). They have also been shown to be much more susceptible to corruption and other immoral behavior (p167, p220).

Unfortunately, those are but a small part of the problem: The far larger issue is that both of these groups have characteristics that make them especially dangerous to “outsiders”, and that both groups tend to be preoccupied with these distinctions. This inevitably leads them to commit acts of aggression toward people they perceive as being different from themselves (p169). Combined with their inherent tendencies toward immoral and unethical behavior, they are far more successful at achieving their goals of marginalizing other groups than their peers that lack these characteristics are at preventing them from doing so.

It is important to keep in mind during this discussion that these tests produce a continuous and normal (i.e., bell-curved) distribution, so where you draw the line to define “types” is essentially arbitrary. For example, in Altemeyer’s experiments he defines the upper 25% of scores as “High RWAs” and the lower 25% as “Low RWA”. The problem of identifying authoritarians is particularly difficult because the characteristic is highly dependent on context, threatening environments greatly increasing the level of authoritarianism. Stenner’s 2005 The Authoritarian Dynamic claims that more than 50% of the population has significant authoritarian tendencies, the distinction being that the RWA scale measures actual attitudes at whatever level of activation the individual happens to be in. By experimentally manipulating this level of activation Stenner and Lavine, Lodge, & Freitas 2005 provide a more complete picture of the dynamics of authoritarian behavior.

Stenner also found (p132) that roughly a third of individuals that have authoritarian tendencies also have socialistic tendencies, further emphasizing that authoritarianism is not strictly a right-wing phenomenon. Right wing authoritarians are more common, however, and apparently have a higher resting activation level which would explain why the lefts don’t show up so commonly in RWA measures taken in the absence of a threatening context. Since all authoritarians, regardless of their resting level of activation and their left/right political tendencies, pose similar risks to those they perceive as outsiders the term “Authoritarians” rather than “High RWA” will be used to refer to them here.

It is also important to keep in mind that these are psychological definitions which are often more specialized than the usage of those terms in everyday language. For example while “authoritarian” is most commonly used to describe dictators and other leaders or their governments, the psychological use of the term applies to those leaders but more commonly (and more importantly) to the people who have similar personality characteristics who tend to support these leaders (i.e., authoritarian followers). For “social dominators”, which is not a common term in everyday language, you might think “alpha male” or “bully” (or in many cases, just “asshole”).

There is one other classification that we need to be particularly concerned with: Sociopaths and psychopaths (the difference being primarily the origin of the condition, psychopaths being mostly born that way, sociopaths made that way by emotional trauma experienced as a child or changes in brain chemistry or anatomy as the result of disease or injury). Note that although the latest version of the DSM (the APA’s diagnostic manual for mental disorders) has stopped using these terms in favor of a spectrum-based classification system for antisocial behavior, they are still widely used by mental health practitioners and the public at large and so are useful shortcuts for classifying behavior patterns.

While most people associate this category with serial killers and other criminals, in fact there are a significant number of “high functioning” (sometimes called subclinical) psychopaths living successful and productive lives all around us. While some of them do eventually cross the line into overtly anti-social behavior (Bernie Madoff and Mao Zedong being notable real-world examples, and Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards series and Dexter being textbook fictional examples), there are a great many who actually perform very well in some specific fields where they are highly overrepresented. For example, while they only make up 1 or 2 percent of the population as a whole, they are far more likely to be found among the ranks of CEOs, stock traders, lawyers, politicians, and surgeons. And while they may not be as over-represented in government bureaucracies as a whole, they can be powerful people with a large influence on overall operations.

Next: RWA and SDO