4 min read

Is There Such Thing as a Bad Person?

Do bad people exist? Where they come from? How that knowledge can help us, but won't help them.
Is There Such Thing as a Bad Person?
Photo by TETrebbien / Unsplash

Recently I've been thinking about people and bad people in particular.

I was trying to understand why and where they come from, why exactly we don't like them, and what could be the biology behind it?

Disclaimer: I'm neither a psychologist nor a neurobiologist but I have something to say.

Reinforcement Learning Within the Social Environment

There are low-level needs and basic survivorship behaviours that are rewarded with neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, etc. Such as seeking food, reproduction, domination within the social hierarchy, sticking to a tribe, etc.

Behaviours that are not leading to survivorship are typically penalized by cortisol which is a stress neurochemical backed by anxiety and pain.

During our lifetime we communicate with a reinforcement learning social environment where we learn more complex behaviours - social behaviours, that we use to accomplish the exact same basic survivorship goals and avoid threats and fears of penalties.

How Do We Learn?

Looking at the examples around us we try different behaviours within the environment.

Some of them work and pay off the reward.

Some of them don't work, disappoint us, and even lead to losses. We turn them into fears and learn to avoid them as something that leads to survivorship threats.

We repeat the process again and again while we are growing up. Eventually, we work out certain - neural pathways, or simply communication habits that we later use on daily basis as a part of our social behaviours toolkit.

There is usually a trade-off between a craving for possible reward and a fear of penalty. Species learn how to balance their behaviour according to their capabilities to maintain a comfortable balance between achievements, place in the social hierarchy, and the stress they get from failures.

That's how social adaptation works.

Good vs Bad Behaviours

Some of those behaviours are considered by the social environment to be good and some of them are not.

On the one hand, it's the social environment that defines them to be good or bad.

On another hand, good behaviours are considered to be good for reasons. Usually, they don't only reward the pursuer, but they are also good for the whole environment, typically from a survivorship standpoint.

Good behaviours are considered to be honest ways to the rewards. Misbehaviors are not encouraged. They are a sort of parasitic behaviour allowing one to achieve certain goals, based on exploiting vulnerabilities in the social environment or its members.

Why We Discourage Misbehaviours

To my surprise, that kind of explanation could be applied to any sort of people that we usually don't like.

Let's imagine a liar who can spoof his skills to pass the hiring process and get a better job.

Why won't we appreciate it? We consider it cheating to get a dominating place in the social hierarchy.

Social hierarchy is something that mammals and many other species have been using to distribute well-being resources for hundreds of millions of years.

A fake place in the social hierarchy leads to corrupted distribution. It also brings hierarchical risks to other species and messes up natural selection.

Another reason why we don't like liars is that they ruin trust. We don't want to ruin trust because it is an evolutionary advantage that has allowed humans to build larger tribes than other species, dominate, and survive.

We can infinitely continue the list with traits we don't like.

  • We don't like selfish people and those who utilize others because they put their own goals over the interests of surrounding people. The social environment doesn't want to be pushed back.
  • We don't like bootlickers because they exploit social hierarchy order through the backdoor.
  • We don't like angry people because aggression explicitly harms society and is more like an evolutionary disadvantage in the modern world.

We encourage thoughtful, casual, honest, and strong-willed people. Those with reliable beliefs whom we can trust. We like lovely people with developed soft skills who can build and maintain a larger social network. Possibly because it's an evolutionary advantage.

How People Become Bad

From childhood, we try different ways of communication, and depending on the environment we are surrounded by, we learn certain behaviours.

Some behaviours work by chance, and some of them work for reasons.

We opt for those approaches that work, reinforce them by repetition, and finally end up with neural pathways in our brain that allow us to accomplish rewards in one case and avoid failures in another.

  • Someone at school finds the easiest way to earn a place in the social hierarchy by bullying other pupils.
  • Somebody cheats at exams because for him it works much better than a hard way of learning things.
  • Someone tries hard to find his way into a career, and it turns out that bootlicking works much better in his environment than doing his job well.
  • Someone falsely feels how he climbs on top of the social hierarchy by lowering other people
  • Someone finds stealing as an easy path to wealth other than working hard

The human brain's flexibility comes with vulnerability. Our brain can easily develop addictions by getting wired to certain behaviour patterns and rewards. No matter if it is a harmless habit or social misbehavior.

From that standpoint, bad people can:

  • Fully realize the harm of their misbehaviors. Exactly like smokers realize that smoke kills.
  • Realize that behaviour is discouraged and harmful, but don't have a will to resist the reward, just like people who only steal when nobody sees.
  • Fail to see the implications and do it almost unconsciously. Just like how we endlessly scroll social network feeds.

We are all different in the way how vulnerable our brains are. How strongly we are exposed to rewards and predisposed to developing addictions.


Having an environment that encourages (or doesn't discourage) certain behaviours, enough rate of the randomness of this crazy world, and a brain that can be vulnerable to addictions, we end up dealing with bad people.

The good news is it's not people who are intentionally bad.
That's the social adaptation they've eventually obtained under circumstances and probably couldn't resist due to their brain's vulnerabilities to addictions.

Bad people don't act in that way exactly consciously, but certainly, because of the neural pathways they've built up during their lifetime. The pathways that have been bringing them to the rewards more often in the environment they belonged to.

The bad news is that this understanding doesn't help.

Exactly like a bad habit that a person is vulnerable to, misbehavior requires a lot of effort to resist and even more effort to rewire because the brain only turns less flexible with years.

From that standpoint, we avoid bad people and don't trust untrustworthy people for reasons. They hardly ever change over time.