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The Dark Side of Personality

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Over the past 10 years, I have taught several areas of psychology. My lectures have ranged from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology to the more structured lectures of research methods and statistics. 

One of the most interesting areas of psychology that I have taught is personality. This is not just because personality can be used to explain behaviour, thinking patterns and how resilient we are, but that there are areas of personality that can be seen to have a dark side. 

Usually, my personality lectures will include details on The Big 5 and other theories such as Eysenck’s PEN model. These are some of the older perspectives and are quite useful in discussing how we, as humans, can be involved in different health behaviours, so those behaviours which could be harmful to our health (like smoking or drinking alcohol) but also the types of behaviours that may support our health (such as the likelihood of attending therapy sessions for mental health conditions.

I must admit that one of my favourites personally theories is not a one that is widely taught as some researchers find this theory a bit too dark to teach students.

The one theory I am referring to is that of the Dark Triad, an approach to personality that consists of three constructs: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. People who are high on the harcissism scale can be seen as selfish, boastful, arrogant, and lacking in empathy. They are also hypersensitive to criticism and do not take it well. People who are high on the Machiavellianism scale can be concerned with self-interest, have a lack of emotion and morality and can be seen as very manipulative (For example, they do everything they can to get what they want.) Finally, people who score highly on the psychopathy scale can have antisocial behaviour, have no empathy or remorse and can be seen as volatile. As you can guess the Psychopathy scale can help predict behaviours which could lead to people being defined as ‘psychopaths’.

Now one of the reasons I enjoy discussing this personality theory is because it can explain behaviours which are seen to be not socially acceptable. For example, someone who is high on the psychoticism scale may be involved with crime or activities that encourage anti-social behaviour. While other personality theories such as the Big 5 could explain these behaviours, it does not focus upon the heavy darker side of people’s thoughts and behaviours like the Dark Triad does.  I also feel as though there is some misunderstanding about the theory and people will often assume that it’s a bad theory as it only discusses more negative behaviours. When I talk about this theory to my students, I will often discuss this misconception and will let my students know that the Dark Triad can be discussed in terms of good behaviours too (so when people score low on the scales). The Dark Triad was applied to the workplace by Oliver James, a clinical Psychologist who showed how the theory could be used to identify someone with leadership qualities and influential characteristics. 

There is research out there to suggest that we all display some traits in relation to the Dark Triad. So, for example, some people may be quite self-involved and may not consider others, or people may be comfortable with antisocial behaviour. While this may be true, the Dark Triad does suggest that people need to have consistent behaviours in relation to these traits to be able to score highly on the questionnaires. For example, someone who ‘every so often’ thinks about themselves is not going to be seen as narcissistic as there are times where we do need to consider ourselves. If a person, however, thought about themselves 24/7 then it is likely that they are displaying narcissist traits. It’s even been suggested that we can spot the dark triad in someone by just looking at their emotional expressions, although I am not sure how much evidence there is. 

So next time you are considering teaching areas of personality, please consider using the Dark Triad as a key example. In my experience, students have found the theory interesting as it can be a good contrast to the more conventional theories of personality, and it can show students that sometimes even the worst.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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