Beware the Dark Triad

The ‘dark triad’ is a group of three personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, all of which forewarn malevolent intent…

Psychopathy is characterised by antisocial behaviour, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness and remorselessness, Machiavellianism, by deception, the manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical regard for morality and overriding self-interest.

Narcissism is characterised by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy for others, although all three groups are extraordinarily adept at detecting empathy in others – and ruthlessly exploiting it.

Grandiose narcissists, the most common type, are dominant and extroverted – they love being the centre of attention. They crave attention and power and often end up becoming politicians and celebrities. Their narcissism developed because their parents, most often their mothers, put them on a pedestal during childhood.

Vulnerable narcissists are more reserved, but they have a strong sense of entitlement and are prone to feeling demeaned or even threatened by the adverse opinions of others – they can easily get into a strop when this happens, throwing their toys out of the cot with a biblical zeal.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is an extreme form of narcissism and is classified as a psychological disorder. It is more common in males, but it affects between 1% and 2% of the greater population (about the same percentage as psychopaths.) Sufferers of Narcissistic Personality Disorder also harbour a strong sense of entitlement but also crave approval, admiration and adulation in the same way the rest of us crave oxygen.

Narcissists make friends faster than other people – but not for long. Their lack of empathy eventually becomes apparent – people eventually drift away from them and toward those who are more in touch with their emotions and who care about their relationships.

Researchers at the University of Krakow in Poland tested 15 groups of 20 students and studied how the popularity of individuals in the groups changed over time. During the first week, the students were asked who they liked most in their group. Three months later, they were asked again. In the meantime, the personalities of each student were continuously assessed in order to discover how narcissistic they were. The results of the study have been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The researchers discovered that when a group of people meet for the first time, those who become popular straight away tend to score highly on narcissism. However, they became less popular as other people begin to see through them. The initial surge of admiration, recognition and friendship did not lead to sustained relationships.

Emotionally intelligent people on the other hand, found that their popularity increased over time as their social skills were gradually revealed. In short, a quieter, less needy ego, together with the ability to perceive, understand, use, and manage emotions resulted in better relationships in the long run.

A useful exercise here would be to think about people you have known and how your relationship with them may have changed over time.

However, these behavioural characteristics are not inversely correlated. Most people, perhaps unsurprisingly, fall somewhere in the grey area between the emotionally intelligent and narcissistic. Some narcissists can also be emotionally intelligent, while others can also be lacking in self-confidence and have poor skill reading people’s emotions. Just because someone has more of one characteristic does not necessarily mean they will have less of the other.

The students who ended up with fewest friends at the end of the three-month study were the students who achieved low scores in narcissism and also in emotional intelligence, ‘a particularly unfortunate combination’ according to the researchers.

The idea that people in positions of power are manipulative and morally bankrupt is a longstanding cultural stereotype, but it’s no myth – there are reasons why we harbour this kind of distrust of wealth and power.

We have seen how, and why, certain people, with a certain type of personality, rise to the top of the business and political tree. Typically, they are manipulative and ruthless and more likely than most to enjoy that position and a new study carried out by Aarhus University, Denmark has found that psychopaths are more likely to study for degrees in business and economics.

The Aarhus researchers conducted personality tests on nearly 500 students, aged 17 to 45 in order to measure the dark triad of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. The tests, carried out on students of psychology, politics, business, economics and law were designed to establish whether certain traits affected the kind of subjects the students chose to study. They tested for ruthlessness, desire for power and social domination. The tests were conducted before the students began their courses so to eliminate any effects course material might have.

In terms of the dark triad, psychology students scored substantially lower than business and law students and so the researchers determined that personality traits were a part of the decision making process involved in picking a profession that involves power and the manipulation of others.

The study showed that the students were already in possession of dark triad traits, rather than having learned them within their chosen faculties, although the researchers allow that subject matter might also encourage those traits.

It’s unlikely that the choice of subject was a conscious or deliberate decision to satisfy any lust for power or a need to manipulate. Rather it is more likely an unconscious choice that would allow them to pursue a career in an environment that matches their view of the world and the cynical views they might hold about others.

This study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. I would like to have seen the results from music and drama students – the incidence of performers precious, monstrous egos has to be seen to be believed. Backstabbing in show business is nothing new, and is often vicious and merciless. There is no perfidy luvvies will shrink from to beat their competitors to the top!

However, it is possible that psychopaths – who are portrayed as cold and calculating – act in the way they do because, like terrorists, their brains are wired to overvalue short-term rewards and goals and lead them to avoid thinking about the consequences of their actions – according to psychologists at Harvard. One expert compared the impulsive nature of the psychopath to that of compulsive and short sighted decision-making, a trait that has been observed in compulsive over-eaters, gamblers and substance abusers.

The Harvard team hope to change the popular image of psychopaths as cold-blooded monsters to that of humans whose brains are just wired differently – not aliens, just people who make bad decisions.

The choices that psychopaths make may be more important to their actions than their stereotypical emotional detachment. The idea that psychopaths cannot generate emotion, which is why they do all those terrible things, could be wrong. It could be that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of their bad choices.

The team scanned the brains of 49 inmates at two medium-security prisons in Wisconsin. The inmates took part in a type of delayed gratification test that invited them to choose between two options – receive a smaller amount of money immediately, or a larger amount at a later time. This is like the marshmallow test carried out with children, beloved of psychology students everywhere.

The results of the tests allowed the researchers to create a measure of not only how impulsive each participant’s behaviour was, but to identify the brain regions that play a role in assessing the relative value of those choices.

They found that people who scored high for psychopathy showed greater activity in a region called the ventral striatum – known to be involved in evaluating reward – for the more immediate choice. The more psychopathic a person was, the greater the magnitude of the striatal response. This suggests the way they calculate the value of the reward is deregulated in that they may over-represent the value of the immediate reward.

When the team began mapping which brain regions are connected to the ventral striatum, it became clear why. The connections between the ventral striatum and other regions known to be involved in decision-making, specifically regions of the prefrontal cortex known to regulate striatal response, were much weaker in people with psychopathy.

That lack of connection is important because this portion of the prefrontal cortex is thought to be important for mental ‘time-travel’ – that is, the ability to envision the future consequences of actions.

We need the prefrontal cortex to make prospective judgements about how an action will affect us in the future. If that connection is broken, the individual is going to start making bad choices because they won’t have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more sensible ends.

Researchers have looked at decisions made by individuals in circumstances where they have to sacrifice one person to save a group of people. The studies have been designed to better understand why people with these behavioural traits act in certain ways.

Given several hypothetical dilemmas, participants had to decide whether to sacrifice a person in order to save a larger group of people. The team found that people with strong psychopathic traits were more decisive and chose to sacrifice the one in favour of the needs of the many.

The current wisdom is that psychopathy is generally characterised by antisocial behaviour and impaired empathy. Certainly, individuals with strong psychopathic traits find it less emotionally challenging to sanction actions that justify harming others if it is for the ‘greater good.’ In other words, personality traits can influence our moral actions.

Whether it is more or less moral to sacrifice one to save many has always been the subject of fierce debate, but individuals with greater psychopathic traits make moral judgements with greater decisiveness.  If, in the real world, someone had to quickly decide to do harm for a greater good, then people with psychopathic traits might just be the more sensible choice. I’m wondering how the great generals – Wellington, Zhukov, Eisenhower or even Churchill and Stalin – all of whom sacrificed large numbers of men for later gain, would fit in to this scenario.

Psychopathy is an antisocial behaviour, but what if psychopathy is an evolutionary strategy that not only benefits the psychopath, but society in general? While most people struggle to make moral decisions, psychopaths are measurably more pragmatic when it comes to making decisions for the greater good. In fact in certain circumstances, psychopathic traits could be considered beneficial.

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Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

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Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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