This question doesn't necessarily relate to sociopathy or psychopathy, but I don't mind if these are referred to. More specifically, I'm interested in learning about casual, every-day cruelty and why it would come to exist as a personality trait.

To give an example, while walking the streets of the city I live in, occasionally I'll experience some form of minor, verbal abuse that isn't instigated and doesn't seem to come from anywhere beyond the instigator wanting to carry out the act.

Another example, I've seen even close family cheat and insult each other quite casually.

I'm interested to know why this form of behavior would come to evolve? What advantage does it serve in our every day survival? Or what advantage did it serve at the time it was useful?

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    $\begingroup$ In most cases, questions about evolved behavior/personality traits cannot be answered scientifically, they devolve instead to just-so stories. More generally, it's not necessary to attribute any observed trait to selection for that trait or absence of a trait as selection against it - see also this Q&A on Biology.SE: biology.stackexchange.com/questions/35532/… $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 17 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Fair, although cruelty is a pretty common and ubiquitous feature of our nature, now and throughout history. I doubt that it's completely arbitrary vis-a-vis selection. $\endgroup$ Jan 17 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ Similar to: Are there advantages of psychopathic traits? $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Jan 18 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ Closing this question: (1) Extending the scope to "cruelty", "sociopathy", "psychopathy", etc makes it too broad, as reflected by the answers referring to "bullying", "narcissism", and "aggression"; (2) for such a broad scope, it's better to refer to the post @BryanKrause linked to; (3) as BryanKrause predicted, this question is attracting opinion-based answers; (4) as I argued elsewhere, questions about evolutionary psychology ... $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Feb 2 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ ... should at the very least establish that the trait in question is heritable, which this question does not do. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Feb 2 at 3:27

3 Answers 3


"casual, every-day cruelty" is everyday sadism, a power play designed to bring you down and boost the abuser's feeling of mastery. The abuser may be doing it because they see someone better off than themselves and their grief and envy (their narcissistic wound) can be made better if the other is brought down. Narcissistically wounded people also try to compensate, augment their ego by joining/identifying with power centres, groups; hence an authoritarian dimension.

C. Fred Alford writes about the narcissistic wound in Narcissism : Socrates, the Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic theory (1998). He unusually defines healthy mastery and the drive for such as (positive) narcissism, while the bad effects of wounded narcissism are considered as resulting from pathological narcissism.

As Grunberger puts it, the infant is an outcast in two worlds: he is unable to satisfy his instinctual urges in a satisfactory manner, and he is unable to achieve narcissistic satisfaction. The result is a humiliating sense of powerlessness, which is frequently referred to as “the narcissistic wound,” or “the narcissistic injury.” A quotation from Kafka serves as an epigram for Grunberger’s discussion of this theme:

A fine wound is all I brought into the world; that was my sole endowment. – from Kafka’s fable “A Country Doctor.”

What will ultimately compensate for this injury to some extent is a sense of “object mastery”: the ability to control one’s environment and oneself.

Power as capability and mastery of environment is the primary evolutionary nisus.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This doesn't seem to answer the actual question asked. I don't see anything about evolution here. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Jan 18 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ @ArnonWeinberg As I noted in my final comment, striving for mastery is the basic life drive. This might play out in Vikings as invasion and pillage, with its associated evolutionary effects. In a civilised society there are supposed to be restraints; I have answered how 'striving for mastery' can escape those restaints due to pathological narcissism. Not the only escape path but a significant one. That's the connection to evolution. Power as the life drive both creates and destroys (Eros + Thanatos). $\endgroup$ Jan 19 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ There might have been an evolutionary edge to being a Viking but in modern society it's antisocial. $\endgroup$ Jan 19 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisDegnen It's not clear to me that these behaviors in modern society lead people to have fewer children or less social/economic status. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 24 at 19:59

It isn't necessarily cruelty (getting pleasure from other's pain); it could be a form of bullying (making sure everyone knows they are lower in the social hierarchy).

The following is taken from an article in a religious based magazine.

The basic idea is that bullies get the food and the mates, and so have the most and healthiest children (which in evolutionary terms is called "survival"). Modern society no longer has a common shared morality, so the forces that formerly kept most bullying under control are no longer present.

For decades, many public schools in the Western world have had a science curriculum based on evolutionary theory. This theory is based on natural selection and “the survival of the fittest”—in other words, strong organisms survive and live to pass on their genetic traits, while weak organisms are dominated and eventually die out.

When we see extreme and dangerous bullying increase in society, we are just seeing the cruel “evolutionary process” play itself out. After all, if we are only animals—and that’s all that evolutionary dogma says we are—then we have no basis for morality. It’s predictable that people behave with no thought for the welfare of others if they are taught the heartless theory of evolution. That’s where evolution leads.

Even popular media hints at the problem:

In the most basic terms, bullying is about dominating—and we come from ancestors who were big into the dominance hierarchy. As Christopher Boehm, PhD, who literally wrote the book on it (Moral Origins), says, “Any species that has a social dominance hierarchy, like apes or monkeys or wild dogs or lions, has bullies.” He adds that bullying is adaptive for many species (and even for us, in many ways), “because you get better food or mating opportunities…. In primates, studies have shown that the top bullies have more offspring and therefore their genes proliferate.” So there’s a clear payoff to it, since the more you bully, the higher you’ll rise in social ranks, and the more offspring you’ll have…. So bullying is a great example of our own evolution betraying us
— (“Bully Psychology: Where Evolution And Morality Collide,” Forbes, July 5, 2012).

Bullying: Why Is It Getting Worse | Tomorrow’s World

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know that evolution justifies bullying, it just indicates that this type of behavior is sometimes successful, which is why it persists at the population level. If one's goal is to find a partner and have kids there are likely better, more successful strategies (being strong but kind, for example). But this approach requires intellect and isn't attainable by everyone. So some have to take the 'over-confident, machismo, get the baby made' approach. $\endgroup$ Jan 18 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I don't think the mere existence of empathy, altruism, or collaboration offers a counterexample of moral nihilism. Unless coupled with some independent, objective standard, they are just game-theoretically explicable observations that oblique tactics for maximizing individual utility sometimes lead to better collective utility than intuition would first suggest. $\endgroup$
    – user10478
    Jan 24 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Psychology & Neuroscience Meta, or in Psychology & Neuroscience Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Feb 1 at 21:58

The other two answers get at the gist of it, but I thought I'd add some insight from a book titled Sociobiology and Behavior (Barash, 1977) that I picked up recently.

In the book the author puts cruelty into the broader phenomenon of aggression. The way he put it is that when there is a contest for resources, people will selectively use aggression to compete for those resources. This would bring us into the realm of selfish / violent behavior.

From there you could infer that most of us have the ability to only use aggression when it's appropriate to do so, or when there is a major payoff. But for some it is occasionally used when there is no apparent payoff - needless cruelty.


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