I was listening to a worldbuilding discussion on another site and somebody came up with an idea for a dystopian setting that they called "the worst of all possible worlds". Basically, the idea was you have a setting where instead of the evil dictator being installed by inheriting the throne, manipulating their way to power, or starting a military coup, the got power by being part of an intrinsic societal system that sees the "Dark Triad" personality disorders are virtues and tries to put low-empathy people into power whenever possible.

In psychology there's the concept of pathocracy: the idea that people in positions of power IRL throughout human history are disproportionately composed of individuals that are likely diagnosable with one of the "Dark Triad" of personality disorders (sociopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism) because people with these disorders often have a deep-seated desire for power for personal gain and do not care if they cheat or perform unethical actions to get power. However this is less an intended result of the system and more of an exploited loophole as a result of sociopaths and narcissists gaming the system. I'm talking about a political system that explicitly tries to put psychopaths in power.

The idea sounded like a chilling idea for a dystopian setting and I was wondering what such a society might end up looking like. I was thinking this system results along the lines of one where individuals are given tests for empathy and those that score high on such tests for "dark triad" traits are earmarked or fast-tracked into positions of power, rather than flagged as in IRL. The societal "justification" those in power give to justify their rule is that only someone who isn't distracted by emotions and can see the "big picture" can make objective, difficult decisions without bias. Basically the "hard men making hard decisions" trope on a societal level. Also these kinds of people tend to be risk-takers and society needs people with ambition to survive. This is complete self-serving bunkum but has enough of a veneer of logic that people go with it.

The society is explicitly non-sexist. The "hard men making hard decisions" trope is often framed in terms of hyper-masculine behavior (the "you can't handle the truth" speech being a good example of this) and there is a correlation between dark triad traits and sexism in both genders, but women can exhibit dark triad behaviors as well (though there's some suspicion in IRL psychology that women exhibit these traits differently or are better at masking them) and as a result in this society can get into positions of power. The one explanation I thought of to justify this is there is a cultural idea in this society that the proles with empathy are prey, whereas fellow people that belong to the ruling class are competitors. Basically an argument of "lions eat gazelles, but they mate with lionesses".

There are still plenty of people with empathy in society, but they are shunned from positions of power both implicitly because of social norms and explicitly because the sociopaths in power don't like to share or be told "no". This isn't a society of people where everyone has no empathy, it's a society where those who have the least empathy have the most power. This is different from the previous questions on the site about a society where everyone is evil because the people in charge are neither cartoonishly evil (the Dark Triad has distinct symptons), and the rank-and-file are pretty much normal people. Good people who try to get power to un-frag the society end up being shunned by the society as a whole.

The biggest thing I couldn't figure out is how the society manages to not tear itself apart. Sociopathy and narcissism are characterized by being very short-tempered, impulsive, and quick to take insult, and the pathocracy hypothesis even goes so far as to suggest this is how most wars in human history start (after all, if you're in power, you're not going to be the one dying in a war for the sake of honor). However, people with these traits tend to be so catty how would a society not collapse into feuding parties fighting over the slightest insult and never getting stuff done?

If you're thinking this society sounds horribly dystopian and arguably outright evil: you are correct. The system is oligarchic at best and outright totalitarian dystopia at worst. The point is to create one of those topsy-turvy societies where what modern readers consider horrible is outright celebrated. They are probably going to be the bad guys in this setting, but the idea was to come up with a society that horrifies readers by being technically possible, if the "worst of all possible worlds". If anything it's intended to point out the problems with the "hard men making hard decisions" trope, pointing out how people with low empathy quotients IRL don't make logical decisions for the good of the whole but instead are usually horribly corrupt and motivated by their own self-interest, with the explanation just being an excuse to justify their behavior.

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    $\begingroup$ In other words, this society would likely eventually fall into an permanent economic depression and become a 3rd world country. But even so, those at the top would still live relatively comfortably. $\endgroup$ – cowlinator Jan 15 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus This isn't a society composed entirely of sociopaths, it's a society ruled by sociopaths with the majority being normal people. $\endgroup$ – user2352714 Jan 15 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect many great leaders are sociopathic, lacking in empathy doesn't mean they have to be violent unless you consider mercilessly manipulate others to push the agenda forwards. ;D $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jan 15 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ This is different from the real world, how? $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jan 15 at 2:35
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen IRL people don't try to put sociopaths in power, not every single person with power is a sociopath, and society generally does not value sociopathic behavior and frowns on it being expressed openly. Most sociopaths in power IRL generally pretend to not be sociopaths. This is a case where sociopaths have unilateral power, there is no one to reign them in, and society is warped to value sociopathy as a virtue. $\endgroup$ – user2352714 Jan 15 at 3:09

This is the classic predator-prey balance

If everybody is a lion, then all starve.

If the lions become too numerous and kill unnecessarily, the prey become extinct.

Nature handles this by ensuring that, in the long run, there is the right balance between predators and prey. The prey animals have to be much more numerous. They also need to be allowed to feed reasonably well otherwise they don't make a good meal. Lions don't generally harass their prey unless they are actually planning to eat them.

All societies end up with a top-down pyramidical structure whether criminal, democratic, capitalistic, socialist or whatever. If a society of purely non-aggressive people existed in some place, predatory people would soon invade and take over. Only a small elite can exploit the masses.

Illegal organisations typically use the tactic of selecting for heartlessness to outsiders. Within the organisation, ruthlessness to others combined with loyalty to family is highly valued. Thugs look up to bigger thugs. They are attracted towards the criminal structure. However, as mentioned, a great quantity of productive non-thugs are required to make things work or the society becomes bankrupt.

The general population usually have little choice about it. If they are lucky they will get a benevolent dictator although such are few.

There lies the problem. Exploitation can last for a long time as long as the underdogs are allowed to prosper to some extent. However if you get completely selfish people at the top, like in Aristocratic France ("let them eat cake"), eventually something will break and you get the French revolution.


Your society will not prosper in the long-term because sociopaths don't care about the long term. They want what they want now. They don't have the foresight or the will to protect the population in general. They kill the goose for the golden egg.

Your society will eventually become bankrupt and/or it will be overthrown.

  • $\begingroup$ But "eventually" doesn't mean it won't last long enough for a story to take place. A story which may or may not end in the society becoming bankrupt and/or being overthrown. I like this answer. $\endgroup$ – A. B. Feb 2 at 3:08

Well, there are examples of places where a large portion of the leadership are officially psychopaths. Where 1 in 5 CEOs are estimated to be psychopaths.

Sociopathy is described by a psychologist writing for Forbes as a lesser form of psychopathy, which I think is a good enough definition for this case. While I can't find statistics on how much of management or CEOs are sociopaths, logically it should be a lot higher than the number of psychopaths, due to its lesser extremity (using this definition). So, you could be looking at more than 1 in 5 business executives being sociopaths, with 1/5th being full psychopaths (the same rate of psychopathy that's found in prison inmates).

As for political leadership, a study found that Washington DC has the highest number of psychopaths of any state, by far, rating extremely high in dis-inhibition, boldness, and meanness.

So I think you have a pretty good model to extremify, for a nation whose leadership is entirely made of sociopaths. It might be less extreme than existing nations with very high levels of psychopathy among the leadership (unless you're figuring your nation has a lot of psychopaths).

The Society

Note that the system doesn't officially try to put psychopaths in power... but there are some implicit and explicit reasons for it, where many articles have investigated as to why psychopaths tend to get ahead. A system that encourages this would just be more openly cutthroat, competitive, political and back-stabbing, with an admiration for double-dealers. And despite how destructive this is, such a society can last for centuries, as many nations with high levels of psychopathy have.

If its a nation that favours a Gestapo like organization, for example, then the most brutal agents will be promoted for cracking down on anything that questions the government. This sort of thing does happen, where people are promoted explicitly due to their brutality or outward devotion to the state.


Some of these are pretty obvious. Purges, propaganda, suppression of freedom of speech, paralyzing bureaucracy, inconsistent enforcement of law, minimal social mobility, a continual reduction of the people's power and rights as well as an increase of elite/government power, just about anything that can be found in many historical dictatorships and oligarchies.

Hope this was helpful. I can add additional details, if you'd like more.

  • $\begingroup$ 'As for political leadership, a study found that Washington DC has the highest number of psychopaths of any state, by far, rating extremely high in dis-inhibition, boldness, and meanness.' Interesting..... That suggests that there might be an advantage to society of having a small number of psychopaths. $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Jan 15 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ @DrMcCleod Psychopaths might, in some instances, be preferable to weaklings, for your foot soldiers or executioners or whatever... but it would be far more preferable in all cases to just have brave, good men. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Jan 15 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that 'weakling' is the antonym for 'psychopath'. You can imagine that a psychopath who has no qualms about manipulating others for their own benefit might make an effective diplomat, for example. $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Jan 15 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ @DrMcCleod Wasn't meant to be an opposite, just that the only thing a psychopath is preferable to is someone utterly incapable. A psychopathic diplomat is just as likely to sell out your country for a bribe, something that has happened many times before. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Jan 15 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ It could just mean that they're good at getting into and holding onto such positions, by means other than just doing their jobs well, not that there's any advantage to anyone else to them being there. Like the common grumble that some people get jobs not because they're good at the job but because they're good at impressing people in job interviews. Doesn't prove that there is no advantage, of course; in fact, variety of any kind is often useful, unusual people often think of ideas nobody else does and occasionally they're right. $\endgroup$ – A. B. Feb 2 at 3:14

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