Mythology, science fiction and comic books are chock full of stories of heroes and their battles against the ills of society—the eternal struggle between good and evil. We are meant to view these two main characters—the Hero and the Villain—as opposites on the spectrum of ethics and morality. But are they really so different when you look at their individual traits and behaviors?
Contrary to popular belief, right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical—are not always on opposite ends of the spectrum of good and evil. In addition, the people who fight for the cause on either side may not always look or act like the one you would expect. Science may finally give some support to the old saying: There is a fine line between good and evil.
What is Heroism?
In the days following the devastating earthquake in Japan, word quickly spread about heroism displayed across the region—from the 50 brave nuclear workers, "The Fukushima 50" who stayed behind after evacuation in a valiant attempt to prevent further disaster, to a man who donned scuba gear and went into the tsunami to rescue his wife and mother, as well as other (sometimes a bit tall) tales of men and women who fearlessly put themselves on the line to help others in the midst of that tragedy.
Would we consider all of these people heroes, or were these just ordinary men and women who rose to the occasion? Is there something else that plays a role—a specific personality type—that makes people more likely to engage in very heroic acts?
While in the case of Japan it is likely a combination of factors, such as culture and situational rise to heroism, there is a specific personality type that is more likely to engage in extremely heroic behavior. Interestingly, this type of person is also very likely to be the kind of impulsive, argumentative person that readily breaks rules, acts impulsively, challenges authority—but all for the sake of good. These extreme heroes do not fit the image of the kind, peaceful, non-aggressive hero, like the Dalai Lama—in fact, they may not always be the most pleasant people to be around; they tend to be the ones who always stir up trouble or rock the boat, the whistleblowers. But they are the most important types of heroes to support, because they have the highest potential to do extremely good works.
Am I saying that the world’s greatest heroes are also some of the most hard-headed, rebellious, not-necessarily-law-abiding rule-breakers by nature? Yes, I am. Not only that, there may be a genetic link between these extreme heroes and those least expected to act heroically—the Sociopath. This person is called the Extreme Altruist, or X-Altruist.
Heroism to the Extreme
A hero is someone who goes out of their way to help others at the expense of their own safety and well-being. This could mean getting fired from a job, arrested, injured, or even facing death. More than just an altruist, who has selfless concern for the welfare of others, a hero takes action—usually bold action.
Right now I prefer to use the term "Extreme Altruist", or X-Altruist, rather than "Hero", because a person can rate very high on a scale of altruism without ever engaging in a heroic act; I am speaking here of the personality type, not necessarily the actions committed by the person. The X-Altruist is the most extreme type of hero; the one who takes the highest risks, with a lot to lose, putting their safety and welfare on the line—and does it time and time again. To an X-Altruist, heroism is a way of life, a daily state of being, a temperament.
Looking at mythology, Prometheus is the ultimate X-Altruist—stealing fire from the all-powerful Zeus to give to mankind—a true act of rebellious heroism that earned him a lifetime of torture: chained to a rock as an eagle repeatedly ate his liver over and over, for all of eternity. It takes a certain kind of fearlessness, driven sense of purpose, and unnaturally high empathy for the plight of others to live your life this way—and do it without hesitation.
X-Altruists and Sociopaths: A Genetic Link?
A few years ago, I wrote an article titled, "Addicted to Being Good? The Psychopathology of Heroism", in which I first discussed the potential genetic link between Sociopaths and Heroes, or X-Altruists. In theory, their genetic make-up is very similar—same basic group of extreme traits in each personality—with a few important exceptions, one being expressed empathy. This notion was hinted at in 1995 by Behavior Geneticist David Thoreson Lykken  in his book, The Antisocial Personalities, when he said, "the hero and the psychopath may be twigs on the same genetic branch." It is very possible that two members of the same family—even brothers in a shared home environment—could end up as seemingly polar opposites; one doing extreme good: the X-Altruist, the other doing extreme bad: the Sociopath.
The difference between the sibling with X-Altruism and the one with Sociopathy could come down to the presence or absence of a few crucial regulatory mechanisms that affect expressed empathy.
Lykken claimed that the ability to feel and express empathy was the main feature that defined psychopaths from heroes. He defines a psychopath as different from a sociopath, in the sense that psychopaths are born with a "defect" that disallows them to feel empathy, and sociopaths are a product of ill-rearing or a result of extreme negative trauma. The environmental misfortune then triggers impulsive hostility and the closing off from emotions, thus experiencing zero guilt or remorse for one’s actions. Essentially, Lykken claims one is genetic (psychopathy) and one is primarily the result of environmental experience (sociopathy), but they are both under the umbrella of Antisocial Personality Disorder. This point regarding etiology is debatable, and I won’t be getting into that here, but it is relevant to mention.
The point is this: there is more than one path to the dark side of morality, resulting in the manifestation of an Antisocial Personality Disorder. However, the more we learn about the brain and neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change in response to behaviors or conditions we expose ourselves to, the less "inevitable" psychopathy or sociopathy seems as an unchangeable condition. Meaning, empathy can be taught to some degree. The amount of change that can be made to the empathy circuit is more individually determined and based on specific circumstances, but movement in the proper direction is possible.
But there’s more to it than just "empathy or no empathy" that describes the difference between these two personalities—the X-Altruist has a few other handy traits up his sleeve as well, which allows him to have the bold, intense traits of the Sociopath, but with a very different, very beneficial outcome.
So the big questions are:
- What are the traits that separate Sociopaths and X-Altruists?
- Can an X-Altruist become a Sociopath, if they faced the right unfortunate conditions? (Can heroes "turn evil"?)
- Can a Sociopath be rehabilitated and steered into heroism instead? (Can villains be "turned back to the side of good"/heroism?)
- How can we prevent Sociopathy from emerging in the first place and promote X-Altruism? (How can we ensure we raise as many heroes and as few villains as possible from childhood? Are the genetic factors changeable?)
The Traits of the Sociopath vs the X-Altruist
The two basic personality types, the Sociopath and the X-Altruist, appear very similar when you look at the individual traits, but with some important exceptions:
- Low impulse control
- High novelty-seeking needs (desire to experience new things, high need for arousal)
- Shows no remorse for their actions (lack of conscience, no experienced guilt)
- Inability or unwillingness to see past own needs in order to understand how another feels (lack of exhibited empathy)
- Detached emotionally from situations, personal relationships
- Willing to break rules, defy authority
- Always acts in the interest of himself, in whatever fashion ultimately serves him best (selfish, self-protective)
- Extremely fragile or unstable ego, or self-identity
- Extreme emotional sensitivity
- Low impulse control
- High novelty-seeking needs (desire to experience new things, high need for arousal)
- Little remorse for their actions (while they may feel guilt over causing harm, they would still do the heroic act again "in a heartbeat")
- Inability to see past the needs of others and experience/understand their pain (very high exhibited empathy)
- Able to emotionally detach from situations temporarily when necessary, such as during a crisis; engages in Flexible Detachment
- Willingness to break rules and defy authority (will redefine what the rule should be)
- Acts in the best interest of others, or to serve the common good, because it is "the right thing to do" (self-less, puts self in frequent danger during acts of heroism)
- Very resilient ego, or able to repair quickly after damage or threats to identity (Ego Resilience)
- Extreme emotional sensitivity
Ego, Empathy, Emotion—Why do they matter?
First, let’s be clear on what I mean by "ego", and why it’s relevant in discussions of personality and emotional stability. The ego is basically your sense of self. It is your identity, your self-concept, your reality check. Ego strength is "a person's capacity to maintain his/her own identity despite psychological pain, distress, turmoil and conflict between internal forces as well as the demands of reality."  So the ego is pretty much the glue that holds you together, and ego strength is what you need in order to maintain emotional stability.
Strong ego = good; this means you can roll with things as they come—you handle stress well, you are confident in your abilities, and even major disappointments don’t fracture your self-identity or make you question your value as a person, at least not permanently. Fragile ego = not so good; experiencing stressful situations, disappointments, or even mild criticism causes your whole world to fall apart, destroying your self esteem.
While the expression (or lack) of empathy is seen as the defining feature that separates the X-Altruist from the Sociopath, there are other underlying traits that majorly affect the ability, willingness, or tendency to express empathy, and these are markedly different in X-Altruists as compared to Sociopaths. These are: the ability to engage in Flexible Detachment from emotion or stress, and possessing high Ego Resilience. Flexible Detachment enables the X-Altruist to buffer their ego from intense emotional damage during times of crisis, and high Ego Resilience helps them repair and rebound quickly in the event damage does occur.
The Sociopath lacks these two superpowers, which makes all the difference in the world when you are making a distinction between those who strive for the promotion of good or evil, or their ability to do so effectively. Why are they so important? I’ll answer that question more fully as we look deeper into the personality components of the X-Altruist.
The X-Altruist: A Personality Disorder, or Optimal Gene Expression?
"Some people are subject to a certain delicacy of passion, which makes them extremely sensible to all the accidents of life, and gives them a lively joy upon every prosperous event, as well as a piercing grief, when they meet with misfortunes and adversity. Favours and good offices easily engage their friendship; while the smallest injury provokes their resentment. Any honour or mark of distinction elevates them above measure; but they are as sensibly touched with contempt. People of this character have, no doubt, more lively enjoyments, as well as more pungent sorrows, than men of cool and sedate tempers." —David Hume, 1742, Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion
Reading this passage by David Hume, written back in 1742, one can imagine he might have been describing the emotional sensitivities of Bipolar Disorder, characterized by displays of mania (elevated or irritable mood) alternating with periods of depression. However, Hume could also have been describing the temperament of the X-Altruist.
To experience such extreme highs and lows is seen as a bad thing—it can be exhausting, or at least mentally taxing to live this way, with no control over how or why, or at what level these feelings come and go. The havoc such intensity could unleash on a person’s life is immense (One look at the celebrity gossip pages could give you all the convincing information you’ll need in that regard). But what if you had the ability to experience all that intensity, the pushing and pulling of joy, motivation, sorrow, elation—but had the ability to control it?
What I’m saying is, one can have expression of extreme traits, even drastic swings between extreme highs and extreme lows—given they are able to exhibit some type of control over them—and still be perfectly functional. Maybe even ideally functional. This is what we see with the X-Altruist.
Don’t get me wrong—X-Altruists are generally not displaying the kinds of huge, self-destructive behavioral swings that are identifiable as Bipolar Disorder. On the contrary, their behaviors are reasonably controlled on a day-to-day basis, but the deep emotions they feel and the drive (compared to the mania-like feeling) to act is quite intense. They feel the intensity, they just don’t act on them in the way someone with Bipolar Disorder would—that’s where their unique and very necessary regulatory traits come in, allowing them to keep that intensity, but harness it and channel it into a mandated mission.
The intentions of the X-Altruist may not always seem to be heroic to the outside observer; they may appear to be a person bucking the system out of stubbornness, selfishness, or greed. But that’s hardly the case. They are driven to act with a self-less purpose, fueled by their abnormally high empathy, striving to "do the right thing". But I must also mention that the terms "right" and "wrong" are to be taken in the context of the action. The right moral action may not be following the law, which is where the rule-breaking tendency comes in. The X-Altruist is totally fine with breaking rules, as long as the purpose serves the greater social good. Are you beginning to get a mental picture of the X-Altruist? Sort of like Robin Hood. Only more tempermental.
Why is the intensity necessary?
The fact is, in order for the X-Altruist to be so incredibly in-tune with the needs of others and feel compelled to seek justice at every turn, they need that extreme emotional sensitivity. The "depressive" moods are necessary to feel empathy, and the "manic" moods drive the X-Altruist on their mandated mission. Granted, absolute uncontrollable expression of these emotions and moods would be disastrous. But that’s where X-Altruist’s pretty fantastic traits allow for the expression of extreme emotions, while still maintaining relative control over them. On the outside, they appear cool, collected, and purposeful in times of crisis. But on the inside, they are harnessing great energy. In a sense, they can be thought of as an optimally functional Bipolar Personality . The traits that make them optimally functional: Ego Resilience and Flexible Detachment.
Ego Resilience and Flexible Detachment: The Superpowers of the X-Altruist
I’ve mentioned these terms a few times now without fully explaining them, but it was important to first emphasize the extreme emotional sensitivity of the X-Altruist before you could really appreciate the vital importance these traits play in keeping that intensity in check, and what that means for emotional stability.
Imagine a superhero charging into action. Or better yet—just a regular guy (who happens to be an X-Altruist) who steps up in a time of crisis—say a natural disaster— taking control of the situation, saving people’s lives, generally being pretty awesome doing his heroic stuff. What is the one thing you would notice about his demeanor?
The X-Altruist shows no immediate fear. Fear, along with other intense emotions, are of no use in a crisis—emotion disrupts the cognitive pathway, and renders the hero useless. Extreme emotional sensitivity is necessary to get a person to want to act in the first place, but once you are in-progress of your heroic act, fear and emotion is a hindrance. So how does he experience intense emotion, then instantaneously turn it off in order to function at his heroic best, calm and focused? That’s where Flexible Detachment comes in.
Flexible Detachment is the X-Altruist’s shield that protects the ego from harm when entering battle. Detaching emotionally from a situation allows you to focus clearly on goal-directed behavior, without suffering the negative consequences to your ego. In situations of major trauma, it is common for victims to emotionally shut down—it is out of ego preservation. This is why we often find that the Sociopath has been a victim of some sort of abuse and neglect, resulting in emotional detachment. Because of this detachment, they have no ability to feel empathy.
The Sociopath detaches permanently. The X-Altruist is able to detach emotionally when the situation demands it, but is able to immediately reattach emotionally following the crisis situation. That’s why I call this is a superpower. It’s pretty amazing, virtually automatic, and the single most important trait of a hero. Blocking key emotional pathways during times of great stress with Kung Fu precision, Flexible Detachment allows cognition to do its work without interference from the emotional arousal that would otherwise be flooding those sensitive networks, preventing logical thought. But detachment doesn’t last too long—only long enough to let the mind do the cognitive work it needs to. Once the immediate crisis is over, the shields go down, releasing the emotional flow back into the empathy circuit, in contact with the ego, but now at much safer, controlled level. If the X-Altruist can’t temporarily set emotion aside, the intensity would be deadly. But he absolutely needs to reengage with it to maintain his high-empathy personality.
During times of great stress, engaging in Flexible Detachment might be akin to going up against a dozen opponents, with only a sword and a shield to protect you as you make your way through the battle—eventually you will get struck, even if in some small way. It isn’t a perfect system. As skilled as someone may be at compartmentalizing, there are going to be times when you don’t see an emotional strike coming. As sensitive as X-Altruists are, this is extremely painful. The ego is bound to be damaged by this, considering how intensely they feel pain. However, enter Ego Resilience—the second most important superpower.
The X-Altruist’s ego is not made of stone—it is not impenetrable. However, it does seem to have the ability to heal very rapidly following damage. Just as the mythological Prometheus’s liver regenerated itself after being devoured by birds, the X-Altruist’s ego has an almost unfathomable regenerative quality as well, and after years of regeneration and repair, Ego Resilience develops.
Could an X-Altruist "turn evil"?
Whenever you have that much intensity (or power) inside one person, the question always is: Could it be used for evil?
The answer: Probably. But it would take something pretty spectacularly horrendous, hitting at a very vulnerable time, in order to make that happen. But it doesn’t seem impossible. As Harvey Dent famously says in Dark Knight, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
What this means is, an X-Altruist is constantly putting himself in the presence of extreme danger—either physically or emotionally. Do that time and time again, your chances of suffering a crippling blow are greater. So ironically, the greater the hero (performs higher number of heroic actions), the greater chance for suffering a devastating blow—purely based on statistics. Additionally, the more heroic you are, the more likely you are to meet adversaries or people attempting to thwart your mission, thus increasing likelihood of planned malicious attacks.
Every hero has their weakness, and for the X-Altruist, their weakness is also one of their greatest gifts—their power of empathy. Because they have the ability to develop such strong emotional attachments to things and people, they practice and master Flexible Detachment in order to prevent the overload of emotional input, especially of a negative nature, which could cause severe, and possibly permanent damage to their ego if struck at the wrong time.
Because they have the capacity to feel emotions so intensely, they have the ability to form very deep attachments. This can be to a person, a group, or a cause. Being betrayed by someone or something that they currently hold a deep attachment to can be emotionally devastating.
The X-Altruist’s ego strength is their essential asset that holds all of the extreme traits together, allowing them to express at their fullest and most functional state. Damage their ego, and the whole tower begins to crumble.
Think back to Star Wars: When Anakin Skywalker was both betrayed by the Emperor and lost his wife at the same time, he started down that road of permanent emotional detachment. That kind of traumatic emotional hit, involving people and organizations he was so emotionally embedded with, was just too much of a blow for his ego to withstand. He shut down his empathy circuit, his impulsivity and aggressiveness took over, and Darth Vader emerged.
Now, that’s science fiction, and we want to know if it is possible in real life, but the analogy is still applicable. Suffering a devastating personal loss or betrayal may make someone feel they need to personally detach, just in order to survive. Do this long enough, it becomes difficult to reverse—your brain starts changing as a result of the extended drastic switch in arousal. Having all of the other traits of an X-Altruist, but without the empathy, sends a person down the road to the dark side. The longer you remain, the harder it is to come back.
With that said, it may be possible to return to your former, more empathy-expressing self following deep trauma, but the key there would be gradually reconnecting with people with whom you could form meaningful relationships. Trust is very important, for minimizing the risk of future damage. Deep emotional commitments involving a high level of trust could be a step in the right direction, in order to trigger those empathy circuits once again.
The Sociopath: A Less Hardy X-Altruist?
The fragility and lack of resilience of the ego is probably the biggest liability to the Sociopath, and why he tends to go down the path of evil after a major emotional trauma. He has the impulsivity and novelty-seeking behaviors that make him likely to get into harm’s way, but for him it’s like going into battle naked, getting ambushed, with no way to recover.
The Sociopath may seem tough as nails, but in reality, he is just a broken, closed-off emotionally damaged result of being in the worst possible situation for what he is biologically and neurologically capable of handling. The outward appearance of toughness and strength in an attempt to hide his frail ego makes the situation worse; instead of getting the support he desperately needs to build confidence and strengthen his identity at a young age when intervention is more effective, he appears untouchable and bulletproof, while acting selfish and cruel. Meanwhile, he grows more volatile by the day, in a self-perpetuating cycle of detachment, which leaves him cold and unfeeling towards others.
Unless the risk factors of Sociopathy are identified early, the person with this set of personality traits doesn’t stand too much of a chance of a good outcome if forced into battle. He started out with the foundations to be a potential X-Altruist, but without the superpowers to allow him to survive and manage the intensity, steering him towards good, rather than evil. In a way, the development of Sociopathy following environmental trauma is an adaptation, an automatic psychological survival mechanism that ends up detrimental to the whole world, including the Sociopath.
And that leads us to the question: Can a would-be Sociopath be steered into X-Altruism, thus having potential to be a great hero instead? It may be possible, if they are identified early enough.
How can we prevent X-Altruists from becoming Sociopaths?
Here’s the good news: If we know the main elements in play that distinguish functional X-Altruists from dysfunctional Sociopaths, then we know where we need to target behavioral or psychological training, and what efforts will have the greatest positive impact. So given what we know about the weaknesses of Sociopaths, the traits that prevent them from being fully functional X-Altruists, what are some things that could be targeted? We know resilience is important, as well as a strong ego, or self-concept, and emotion regulation.
So in addition to the obvious effort to avoid extreme psychological trauma, what variables do we know we have some element of control over?
Past and more recent research has told us:
- Resilience can be trained and strengthened, through successfully dealing with early life stress in a supportive environment.
- We know empathy can be strengthened, as evidenced through the many, many children on the autism spectrum (who are often characterized as lacking empathy) that have built at least one trusting relationship with another human being. I don’t need to cite any research on this; look around you at the countless live examples.
- Egos can be strengthened. By getting kids involved in activities that are esteem-building, and give them a sense of self-confidence, accomplishment and courage, you are strengthening their ego.
- Emotion regulation can be trained. I have mentioned this before here in an article about Chess-boxing, plus other studies have shown gains in emotion regulation using various other techniques, ranging in success. There is a current effort to use emotion regulation training as a preventative measure for mental illness in general, which should tell you something about how crucial it is.
If we know we have some element of control over these things, it does seem possible to create conditions in which we can steer potentially risky kids into a much more advantageous psychological situation. If they have the intense and extreme behavioral traits already, we can help teach them control over them. Think about it as Jedi Training for kids.
How do we encourage X-Altruism?
Which then leads us to this final point: How do we, as a society, encourage X-Altruism and support them on their quest to make a better society? This is probably one of the more important questions that is also the most difficult to answer. By definition, X-Altruists are rule-breakers. But they break rules in order to promote the social good. Is there a way to take these kinds of situations into account when considering our current legal system? How do we separate out the criminals from the heroes?
Some X-Altruists are more obvious about their mission, such as the group that calls themselves the Real Life Superheroes. They make it clear that they are out to create real social change, even if it starts in their own neighborhoods. But most X-Altruists are not so forthcoming with their identities, so it is up to us to be more aware and observant. Even if we don’t support their exact cause, respect that they are doing something bold, brave, and heroic—to create positive change.
One thing we can do as a society is recognize that some rules may be broken, some rules should be broken, and some rules need to be broken. When we see this happening, and it is clearly an X-Altruist on a mandated mission, it needs to be recognized as such. Harsh, punitive punishment for the violation of laws that were broken with the intent of serving a much greater good should, on some level, be tolerated. At the very least, it should be taken into account when deciding on punishment or consequences.
Conformity and standardization serves a purpose, but it isn’t universally applicable, and is context-specific. We should question authority. If no one ever broke a rule and unquestionably followed the given outline, there would never be any advancement in this world. Creativity, by definition, is rule-breaking. However, there needs to be a way to recognize rules that are being broken for the sake of doing social good, and those that are broken for illegal or immoral intent.
At any given point in time, there is a significant portion of the population fighting against conformity, refusing to get shoved into a box, breaking rules in order to advance civilization—but what if they all stopped? What if every single person stopped bucking the system, stopped challenging convention, and marched obediently to take their expected place in society?
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Note: A man named Tea Krulos, whom I met after writing the first article on this subject, has been writing a book about the Real Life Superheroes and their quest to create a better society through acts of heroism. He has a blog where he updates progress on the book and features different "real superheroes" each week. The name of the blog is Heroes in the Night.
 Lykken suggested the genetic link was between psychopaths and heroes, not sociopaths; he saw them as two distinct groups. I am not defending nor arguing against his position, only pointing out the distinction.
 Definition taken from http://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Ego%20Strength
 Note I used the term "Personality" and not "Disorder"; this implies functionality of the traits.
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Image credit: Prometheus, Scott Eaton, at Wikimedia Commons.
About The Author: Andrea Kuszewski is a Behavior Therapist and Consultant for children on the autism spectrum, residing in Florida; her expertise is in Asperger’s Syndrome, or high-functioning autism. She teaches social skills, communication, and behavior intervention in home and community settings, training both children as well as parents on methods of therapy. Andrea works as a researcher with METODO Social Sciences Institute, the U.S. branch of METODO Transdisciplinary Research Group on Social Sciences, based in Bogotá, Colombia, investigating the neuro-cognitive factors behind human behavior- this includes topics such as creativity, intelligence, illegal behavior, and disorders on the divergent-convergent thinking spectrum of schizophrenia and autism. As well as being a researcher of creativity, she is also herself a fine artist and has been trained in various visual communication medium, ranging from traditional drawing to digital painting, graphic design, and 3D modeling and animation for the medical and behavioral sciences. She blogs at The Rogue Neuron and tweets as @AndreaKuszewski.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.