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Psychologists used to speak of dark personalities in terms of three overarching traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. But emerging research is painting a more complicated picture. Here are five recent scientific findings that shed new light on our understanding of dark personality traits.
#1: Goodbye Dark Triad, hello Dark Tetrad
According to psychologists, the Dark Triad refers to the following three types of socially offensive personality traits:
- Narcissism, at its high end, refers to someone who is self-obsessed and believes that they are special, gifted, and superior to others.
- Machiavellianism refers to the degree to which someone is manipulative, tricky, and ingratiating.
- Psychopathy describes people who are dangerously risk-seeking and lack empathy for others.
A growing body of research suggests that a fourth dimension, called sadism, should be added to the list. According to new research published in the European Journal of Psychological Assessment, sadism “satisfies the criteria of “callousness or impaired empathy” while also adding a “unique element not covered by the Dark Triad members, namely, intrinsic pleasure in hurting others.”
How should sadism be measured? The psychologists offer the following seven statements as a starting point. (People who show more agreement with the statements are more likely to exhibit the personality trait of sadism.)
- Watching a fistfight excites me.
- I really enjoy violent films and video games.
- It’s funny when idiots fall flat on their face.
- I enjoy watching violent sports.
- Some people deserve to suffer.
- Just for kicks, I’ve said mean things on social media.
- I know how to hurt someone with words alone.
#2: Machiavellian personalities are not necessarily as smart as they think they are
A new paper argues against the idea that “Machiavellian personalities” — or those who have a penchant for being strategic, deceptive, and even manipulative to achieve their goals — are any smarter than others.
“The Machiavellian individual is presumed to be a master social strategist,” say the researchers, led by William Hart. “However, research has generally failed to support this assumption.”
The researchers hypothesized that this disconnect might stem from an overly simplistic view of Machiavellianism. To take a closer look at the association between Machiavellianism and cognitive ability, the researchers split Machiavellianism into five parts, listed below:
- Antagonism. Antagonism refers to the callous, exploitative, selfish, and immodest tendencies found in people who exhibit Machiavellian personalities.
- Planfulness. Planfulness describes a careful, detail-oriented processing style. It is also found in people with Machiavellian personalities.
- Agency. Agentic individuals tend to express high ambition and power striving. Elevated levels of agency are one of the hallmarks of Machiavellianism.
- Tactics. Tactics are tendencies toward manipulation and exploitation that are exhibited by Machiavellian personalities.
- Cynical views. Cynical views refer to misanthropic notions regarding human behavior. They are also expressed by Machiavellian personalities.
The psychologists analyzed how each specific feature of Machiavellianism related to social-cognitive intelligence. They found that the “planfulness” feature of Machiavellianism was predictive of higher social-cognitive intelligence scores while the “antagonistic” and “tactics” dimensions of Machiavellianism were associated with lower scores.
#3: Dating apps are a breeding ground for dark personalities
A team of researchers at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria found that people who used dating apps were more likely to possess dark personality traits like narcissism and Machiavellianism, and less likely to possess positive personality traits such as openness or agreeableness.
To arrive at this result, the scientists recruited 555 German adults to participate in a 3-week tracking study. Some participants installed software on their phones that monitored their daily usage of three of Germany’s most popular dating apps while others self-reported their dating app usage. The researchers asked participants to complete two personality assessments, measuring the Big Five and the Naughty Nine. The Big Five measure focuses on general personality traits such as extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness while the Naughty Nine measures personality traits such as narcissism (e.g., “I tend to strive for prestige and status”), Machiavellianism (“I have used flattery to impose my will”), and psychopathy (“I tend not to care about the moral of my actions”).
The team found that the negative traits were much stronger predictors of online dating usage than the neutral and positive traits. Specifically, narcissism was the strongest predictor of whether someone used an online dating app while Machiavellianism was the strongest predictor of average daily usage. Among the Big Five traits tested by the researchers, emotional stability was the only trait reliably associated with dating app usage, but in the reverse direction — less emotionally stable people were more likely to use online dating apps.
#4: Narcissists prefer to date other narcissists
Narcissists prefer the romantic company of other narcissists, suggests new research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
A team of scientists led by Marcin Zajenkowski of the University of Warsaw in Poland found evidence for what researchers call “assortative mating”—or the tendency to engage in romantic relationships with people who possess characteristics similar to one’s own—in a sample of 150 Polish heterosexual couples. Specifically, people who scored high on the personality dimension of narcissism tended to be with partners who also scored high on narcissism, while people who scored low on narcissism tended to be with less narcissistic partners.
Previous research hinted that such a relationship might exist, but this study provides more compelling evidence that narcissists may indeed flock together.
“We confirmed our hypothesis of assortative mating for narcissism which is consistent with previous findings,” state the authors. “Thus, our results corroborate the broader compatibility literature in the area of romantic relationships, as well as the literature specific to narcissism and compatibility. Narcissists look for prospective partners similar to themselves—that is, self-oriented rather than other-oriented.”
Interestingly, the researchers found no evidence that narcissism was related to relationship satisfaction. In other words, narcissistic couples were no more or less happy than other couples. What was predictive of relationship satisfaction? The degree to which one’s partner was happy in the relationship.
#5: Some narcissists might think they have higher IQs than everyone else, but research suggests otherwise
A team of researchers led by Zajenkowski of the University of Warsaw found evidence that certain types of narcissists, called grandiose narcissists, are especially likely to believe that they are more intelligent than others.
To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers recruited 232 Polish individuals to take part in an in-person study. In the experiment, the researchers asked participants to fill out personality scales measuring two forms of narcissism: grandiose and vulnerable. For readers not familiar with the different types, grandiose narcissism is characterized by interpersonal dominance, elevated self-esteem, and a tendency to overestimate one’s abilities. Vulnerable narcissism, on the other hand, is characterized by avoidant, defensive, and hypersensitive attitudes in social contexts.
Next, the researchers asked participants to complete a series of intelligence tests. Then, they had participants gauge their own level of intelligence by responding to the statement, “People differ with respect to their intelligence and can have a low, average, or high level. Using the following scale, please indicate where you can be placed compared to other people.”
They found that grandiose narcissists were, as predicted, more likely to view themselves as more intelligent than others, even though the intelligence tests showed no reliable pattern of intellectual superiority. For vulnerable narcissists, no evidence was found to support the idea that they viewed their own intelligence as inferior, or superior, to others’ intelligence. They did, however, report experiencing more anxiety while taking the intelligence tests.