Psychologists define the 'dark core of personality'

Psychologists define the 'dark core of personality'
Dark factor figure. Credit: University of Copenhagen

Egoism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, spitefulness and others are among the traits of the malevolent side of human personality. As results from a recently published German-Danish research project show, these traits share a common "dark core." People with one of these tendencies are also likely to have one or more of the others.

Both world history and everyday life are full of examples of people acting ruthlessly, maliciously or selfishly. In psychology and in everyday language, such dark tendencies human are termed psychopathy (lack of empathy), narcissism (excessive self-absorption), and Machiavellianism (the belief that the ends justify the means), the so-called dark triad, along with many others such as egoism, sadism, or spitefulness.

Although at first glance, there appear to be noteworthy differences between these traits—and it may seem more "acceptable" to be an egoist than a psychopath—new research shows that all dark aspects of human personality are very closely linked and are based on the same tendency. That is, most dark traits can be understood as flavoured manifestations of a single common underlying disposition: The dark core of personality. In practice, this implies that if you have a tendency to show one of these dark personality traits, you are also more likely to have a strong tendency to display one or more of the others.

As the new research reveals, the common denominator of all dark traits, the D-factor, can be defined as the general tendency to maximize one's individual utility—disregarding, accepting or malevolently provoking disutility for others—accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications.

In other words, all dark traits can be traced back to the general tendency of placing one's own goals and interests over those of others, even to the extent of taking pleasure in hurting others—along with a host of beliefs that serve as justifications and thus prevent feelings of guilt, shame or regret. The research shows that dark traits in general can be understood as instances of this common core—although they may differ in which aspects are predominant (e.g., the justifications aspect is very strong in narcissism, whereas the aspect of malevolently provoking disutility is the main feature of sadism) .

Ingo Zettler, Professor of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen, and two German colleagues, Morten Moshagen from Ulm University and Benjamin E. Hilbig from the University of Koblenz-Landau, have demonstrated how this common denominator is present in nine of the most commonly studied dark personality traits:

  • Egoism: an excessive preoccupation with one's own advantage at the expense of others and the community
  • Machiavellianism: a manipulative, callous attitude and a belief that the ends justify the means
  • Moral disengagement: cognitive processing style that allows behaving unethically without feeling distress
  • Narcissism: excessive self-absorption, a sense of superiority, and an extreme need for attention from others
  • Psychological entitlement: a recurring belief that one is better than others and deserves better treatment
  • Psychopathy: lack of empathy and self-control, combined with impulsive behaviour
  • Sadism: a desire to inflict mental or physical harm on others for one's own pleasure or to benefit oneself
  • Self-interest: a desire to advance and highlight one's own social and financial status
  • Spitefulness: destructiveness and willingness to cause harm to others, even if one harms oneself in the process

In a series of studies with more than 2,500 people, the researchers asked to what extent people agreed or disagreed with statements such as "It is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there," "It is sometimes worth a little suffering on my part to see others receive the punishment they deserve," or "I know that I am special because everyone keeps telling me so." In addition, they studied other self-reported tendencies and behaviors such as aggression or impulsivity and objective measures of selfish and unethical behaviour.

The researchers' mapping of the common D-factor, which has just been published in the academic journal Psychological Review, can be compared to Charles Spearman's research that showed about 100 years ago that people who score highly in one type of intelligence test typically also score highly in other types of intelligence tests, because there is something like a general factor of intelligence.

"In the same way, the dark aspects of human personality also have a common denominator, which means that—similar to intelligence—one can say that they are all an expression of the same dispositional tendency," Ingo Zettler explains.

"For example, in a given person, the D-factor can mostly manifest itself as narcissism, psychopathy or one of the other dark traits, or a combination of these. But with our mapping of the common denominator of the various dark personality traits, one can simply ascertain that the person has a high D-factor. This is because the D-factor indicates how likely a person is to engage in behaviour associated with one or more of these dark traits," he says. In practice, this means that an individual who exhibits a particular malevolent behaviour (such as taking pleasure in humiliating others) will have a higher likelihood to engage in other malevolent activities such as cheating, lying or stealing.

The nine dark traits are by no means the same, and each can result in specific kinds of behaviour. However, at their core, the dark traits typically have far more in common. And knowledge about this 'dark core' can play a crucial role for researchers or therapists who work with people with specific dark personality traits, as this D-factor affects different types of reckless and malicious human behaviour and actions that are often reported in the media.

"We see it, for example, in cases of extreme violence, or rule-breaking, lying, and deception in the corporate or public sectors. Here, knowledge about a person's D-factor may be a useful tool, for example, to assess the likelihood that the person will reoffend or engage in more harmful behaviour," he says.

Explore further

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More information: Morten Moshagen et al, The dark core of personality., Psychological Review (2018). DOI: 10.1037/rev0000111
Journal information: Psychological Review

Citation: Psychologists define the 'dark core of personality' (2018, September 27) retrieved 22 October 2019 from
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Sep 27, 2018
"psychopathy (lack of empathy), narcissism (excessive self-absorption), and Machiavellianism (the belief that the ends justify the means), the so-called dark triad"

-True psychopathy is the result of structural damage or defect in the brain. In this way it is not unlike autism and may be related.

But it is not possible to discuss these behaviors without understanding tribalism.

""Primeval man", he argued, "regarded actions as good or bad solely as they obviously affected the welfare of the tribe, not of the species". Among the living tribal peoples, he added, "the virtues are practised almost exclusively in relation to the men of the same tribe" and the corresponding vices "are not regarded as crimes" if practised on other tribes (Darwin, 1871, i: 182, 179)"

-Tribalism is the human version of speciation. Members of other tribes are perceived as a little less human than yours. And anything that weakens them - victimizing, abuse, intimidation, etc - strengthens your own.

Sep 27, 2018
"Rude tribes and... civilized societies... have had continually to carry on an external self-defence and internal co-operation - external antagonism and internal friendship. Hence their members have acquired two different sets of sentiments and ideas, adjusted to these two kinds of activity... A life of constant external enmity generates a code in which aggression, conquest and revenge, are inculcated, while peaceful occupations are reprobated. Conversely a life of settled internal amity generates a code inculcating the virtues conducing to a harmonious co- operation (Spencer, 1892, i, 322).

"These two different sets of sentiments and ideas he called the 'code of amity' and the 'code of enmity'."

-To the committed tribalist, this 'tribal dynamic' can be indistinguishable from psychopathy and 'Machiavellianism'. And without context it would be difficult to distinguish the motivation.

Sep 27, 2018
Someone got money for re-positioning what has been known for centuries.

Sep 28, 2018
What a non-conclusion:

"all dark traits can be traced back to the general tendency of placing one's own goals and interests over those of others"

Literally everyone does that. I am more concerned with doing my laundry than yours, working my job than yours. If I apply for the job and bump you out as the most qualified candidate, I pursued my interest at your expense.

The actual dark core is something different. One thing I've noticed is psychos vampirically depend on other people's perception for their existence, they are not self contained, it's all about differential relations. The guy taking pleasure in his reflected face and enjoying being with himself camping alone is healthy, the guy who needs to convince you of his greatness, and that he's better than you is a narcissist/egoist. The person who wants to have pleasure and wealth is sane, the person who wants more than you, even at cost or pain, is a psycho.

Oct 02, 2018
TheGhostofOtto1923, you can witness tribalism today. Look at the interactions of countries and empires. Tribalism is alive and well.

Oct 02, 2018
My method is pretty simple. Ask if the subject finished last- He's the nice guy. What about first? Total D-bag.

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