The Psychopathology of Heroism

“As crazy as it sounds, there may be a closer link than most people would think between the extreme-altruistic personality and sociopathic personality.”

So all those scenes where the Bad Guy confronts the Hero and says something to the effect, “You know, you and I are more alike than you might imagine.” Like this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Belloq: You and I are very much alike. Archaeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the purer faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.

Guess what? It’s true! At least per this article: “Addicted To Being Good? The Psychopathology Of Heroism.” Its author Andrea Kuszewski states:

We look at heroes and do-gooders as a special sort of breed: people who possess extraordinary traits of altruism or self-less concern for the well-being of others, even at the expense of their own existence. On the other end, sociopaths also have an extraordinary set of traits, such as extreme selfishness, lack of impulse control, no respect for rules, and no conscience.

As crazy as it sounds, there may be a closer link than most people would think between the extreme-altruistic personality and sociopathic personality. Would it shock you to know that two people, one with the traits of extreme-altruism (X-altruism) and the other the traits of a sociopath, could be related? Even siblings? And that their personality traits are very similar, with only a few features to distinguish them? Research by Watson, Clark, and Chmielewki from the University of Iowa, “Structures of Personality and Their Relevance to Psychopathology” [pdf], present a convincing argument in which they support the growing push for a trait dimensional scheme in the new DSM-V to replace the current categorical system.

The article provides some bullet points to break down the two extreme types:

Sociopath:

  • low impulse control
  • high novelty-seeking (desire to experience new things, take more risks, break convention)
  • no remorse for their actions (lack of conscience)
  • inability to see beyond their own needs (lack of empathy)
  • willing to break rules
  • always acts in the interest of himself

X-altruist:

  • low impulse control
  • high novelty-seeking
  • little remorse for their actions (would “do it again in a heartbeat”)
  • inability to see past the needs of others (very high empathy)
  • willing to break rules
  • acts in the best interest of others, or for the “common good” (because it is the right thing to do)

From a writing standpoint, this is an interesting way of developing potential Protagonist and Nemesis characters, where the latter is a kind of projection of the former’s “shadow” self. Per Carl Jung:

It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature. Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict of which he is so painfully aware.

Or as Harvey Dent says in The Dark Knight:

A major part of the human individuation process is to recognize, then get in touch with all the various ‘aspects’ of our Self, to integrate the conscious with the unconscious. That can make for a lifetime of work. On the other hand, it provides a wealth of inspiration and narrative material, just by becoming familiar with those same various aspects, each one adding a voice and a world view to characters we create.

So the next time you come up with a Protagonist, consider what their opposite might be. Or perhaps get in touch with your own shadow self. That could be the roots of your story’ Nemesis.

Image for post
Image for post

Comment Archive

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store