The Mad Dog Strategy

Despots throughout history have often used a form of social proteanism to maintain power. They have unpredictable rages that terrify subordinates. Caligula, Hitler, and Joan Crawford were all alleged to have increased their power over underlings through this "mad dog strategy," which keeps subordinates in line by imposing stressful levels of uncertainty on them.

Imagine a despot who had a fixed threshold for getting angry. Subordinates could quickly learn that threshold and do anything just below the anger threshold with impunity. If King Arthur only got upset by knights actually having sex with Queen Guinevere, the knights could still court her, kiss her, and plot with her. But if Arthur's anger-threshold was a random variable that changed every day, subordinates could never be sure what they could get away with. Maybe he was happy for them to carry her flag at the joust yesterday, but maybe he will chop off their heads for even looking at her today.

Against the mad dog strategy, any insult, however slight, risks retaliation. But mad dog despots don't incur the time and energy costs of having a fixed low anger threshold—the uncertainty does most of the work of intimidating subordinates. Despotism is the power of arbitrary life and death over subordinates. If a despot can't kill people at random, he isn't a real despot. And if he doesn't kill people at random, he probably can't retain his despotic status. Social proteanism lies at the root of despotic power.

The mad dog strategy is just the most dramatic example of how unpredictability can bring social benefits. The advantages of an unpredictable punishment threshold also apply to sexual jealousy, group warfare, and moralistic aggression to punish antisocial behavior. Fickleness, moodiness, inconstancy, and whimsy may be other manifestations of social proteanism. However, we need more research on human and ape capacities for adaptively unpredictable social behavior. Given the importance of mixed strategies in game theory, and the fact that many social interactions can be interpreted as games, it would be surprising if randomized behaviors did not play a large role in human social interaction.

If great apes differ from monkeys in having better social prediction abilities, it seems likely that they would also have evolved better social proteanism abilities to avoid being predictable. How does this relate to human creativity? The mad dog strategy sounds sexually repulsive, not the sort of behavior that sexual choice might favor. Yet I shall argue that the same capacities for strategic randomization that underlie the mad dog strategy were transformed, through sexual selection, into our human capacities for creativity, wit, and humor. There are at least three ways that social proteanism may have smoothed the way for human creativity to evolve. One has to do with the brain mechanisms underlying creativity, the second with sexually selected indicators of proteanism ability, and the third with playfulness as an indicator of youthfulness.

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