[This essay first appeared in Arc Digital and was co-authored by Nathan H. Lents and Robert Trivers. Credit for the thesis and most of the evolutionary analysis belongs to Trivers.]
There is no shortage of published psychological profiles of Donald J. Trump that attempt to diagnose him, from a distance, as either a psychopath or a narcissistic sociopath (examples here, here, here, here, here, and here). These profiles, of course, are fatally hindered by the lack of access to Mr. Trump for personal examination and completion of personality inventories. However, exploration of the evolutionary features of these very peculiar personality types provides insight into this important question.
Psychopaths are indeed an evolutionary conundrum because their particular behaviors are not an obvious path toward evolutionary success. For example, the majority of serial killers are childless when they are killed or apprehended. Narcissistic sociopaths, however, invariably have families and children whom they support energetically, and many of the traits specific to this phenotype can fairly be called adaptive. This raises the important issue of the evolutionary niche of a narcissistic sociopath within the societies in which they exist.
[A note on terminology: We employ “narcissistic sociopath” as an umbrella term inclusive of Machiavellianism and narcissistic/antisocial personality disorder but exclusive of sadistic psychopathology, as explained below. Terminology in this area is inconsistent in both the scientific literature and even more so in popular media, in part because these various personality types/disorders exist on a multidimensional spectrum with both common and distinct characteristics. Importantly, our analysis is from the perspective of evolutionary biology, not psychology.]
Narcissistic sociopaths share many features with psychopaths including above average intelligence, considerable social savvy, adaptability, likeability, and natural skills in manipulation (Machiavellianism). They are charming, outgoing, feign interest in people and subjects, and can convincingly fake both sympathy and conscience. If they engage in charitable acts at all, they are only in pursuit of ancillary selfish benefits. They learn from experience, and show no dedication to a set of moral values, religious beliefs, truth, or transparency. If they admire anyone, it is other psychopaths and sociopaths that they wish to emulate. Finally, they are effective liars and show a chilling unconcern for the welfare of others.
There is one particular skill that is common to both psychopaths and narcissistic sociopaths and is absolutely essential to their nature: cognitive empathy. This is different from emotional empathy, sometimes called emotional contagion, which is regarded as the ability and tendency to closely identify with the emotional experience of others. Cognitive empathy is a mental skill involving the close observation of others in order to understand and predict their behavior. It is morally neutral and common in high-functioning individuals across the moral and ethical spectrum. While social workers and therapists use cognitive empathy to help individuals improve their lives, psychopaths and sociopaths use this skill to manipulate, coerce, and deceive others in orders. While emotional empathy is an innate cognitive feature we share with other social mammals, cognitive empathy is a skill that can be developed and refined, and doing so is key to the behaviors of both psychopaths and sociopaths.
However, the ways in which sociopaths differ from psychopaths is key to understanding their evolutionary utility. For example, psychopaths are more likely than the general public to be violent and to end up incarcerated. Narcissistic sociopaths, on the other hand, are usually nonviolent and can work within a system of laws and norms, insofar as it suits their goals, because, while they do not hesitate to harm others, especially when insulted or humiliated, it isn’t a specific aim. Instead, they are highly motivated toward the accumulation of riches and influence; whereas psychopaths are often more focused on sadistic self-gratification and generally do not seek positions of power and wealth per se. (There is some crossover between these phenotypes; sociopaths who do find gratification in inflicting pain can be labeled malignant narcissists.)
Finally, narcissistic sociopaths always seek reproductive success through procreation and aggressive nepotism, which is usually accompanied by extreme in-group identification, e.g., racism, xenophobia, and nationalism, while psychopaths show no allegiance to family, community, or country.
Therefore, the phenotype of the narcissistic sociopath is not a bizarre combination of traits, but rather a set of highly attuned social skills and behaviors aimed at increasing long-term biological fitness through wealth, status, power, and the future success of progeny. In order words, sociopaths are highly adapted (key literature here, here, here, and references therein).
The evolutionary puzzle of narcissistic sociopaths is not found in the phenotype itself but rather in the interaction of sociopaths with the society in which they exist. Social groups can detect dishonest and manipulative behaviors and act to punish the actors in order to either correct the antisocial behavior or remove them from the group. Dozens of mammal species have shown this very sophisticated and elastic social behavior, but humans and our close relatives are especially apt at detecting and punishing cheaters, freeloaders, and liars.
This sets up both a short-term conflict and long-term evolutionary battle between manipulative narcissistic sociopaths and the rest of society, that is, those who do not wish to be manipulated. Most individuals in a society share a vested interest in maintaining fairness and social order. The equilibrium point is reached through a concept called frequency-dependent selection, the essence of which is that phenotypes can sometimes have distinct advantages precisely because they are rare. Under this paradigm, the infrequency of sociopaths in a population is essential to their success.
Current estimates place the prevalence of narcissistic sociopathy at 1–2 percent, making it a candidate phenotype for frequency-dependent selection, especially given how successful they often are. The rarity of narcissistic sociopaths in the population, along with their considerable skill in hiding their true motivations, makes them very difficult to detect. If they were more numerous, however, members of society would become familiar with this particular pattern of social deviance and quickly learn to neutralize it. Furthermore, when narcissists encounter one another, while they may be willing to cooperate with each other in fickle and short-lived alliances, ultimately their goals will collide and the relationship deteriorates into mutually self-defeating conflicts. This, too, acts as negative selection and maintains the low frequency of this peculiar phenotype.
On the other side of the conflict is the selective pressure on the rest of society. Because sociopaths are rare, the intensity of the pressure on society to detect and neutralize them is correspondingly weak. Weak pressure leads to poor adaptation, while sociopaths experience strong pressure and become highly adapted. However, as the sociopath phenotype finds evolutionary success, the pressure flips back the other direction as the rest of society experiences increasing pressure, adapts, and then pushes the frequency of the sociopaths back down to the basal level. In human culture, this pendulum swings in both the long time scales of genetic evolution and the short time scales of cultural evolution. In both contexts, the conflict is cyclical.
With this evolutionary framework in mind, we can now return to the question of President Trump. Clearly, he attracts devoted supporters. He can be affable, charming, and flattering. He reads people well and can maneuver through his relationships in order to obtain the best “deal” for himself. While many question his capacity for emotional empathy, his skills in cognitive empathy are undeniable.
However, he also has maintained an unwavering pursuit of wealth, influence, and power, by his own admission. He has never participated in regular religious observance, is not outwardly pious, and shows no allegiance to political party. It is well documented that his views have shifted, sometimes repeatedly, on the most central political questions of the day such as abortion, government involvement in healthcare, military interventionism, federal drug policy, and LGBTQ rights. While only his critics view him as racist and xenophobic, even his supporters see him as fiercely nationalistic and his own campaign slogan of “America First” underscores this. And finally, he aggressively pursues his own biological fitness through the placement of his children in top positions in both his business enterprises and his presidential administration. Thus, an evolutionary analysis reveals that he is clearly not a psychopath.
Whether or not he is a narcissistic sociopath, then, depends on the answers to questions about his conscience or lack thereof, commitment to truth and transparency, sincerity in his professed religious beliefs, fidelity to political ideals, and tendency to cheat, deceive, and coerce. These questions are more like Rorschach tests in which his supporters and detractors come to opposite conclusions. However, for the most part, the answers to these questions do not require a psychological analysis of the president. There is abundant evidence in the public record.
[This analysis reflects the views of biologists Nathan H. Lents and Robert Trivers, not any of the institutions they are or have been affiliated with.]