Traits of a feather flock together.

Man of bark.

Image credits Michael Cordedda / Flickr.

A new study published by a team of German and Danish researchers suggests that dark personality traits — Machiavellianism, egoism, narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, and spitefulness — all stem from a common, ‘dark core’. In other words, if you exhibit any of these tendencies, you’re also likely to have one or more of the others.

The findings could help researchers or therapists working with people exhibiting dark personality traits, the team writes, as they point to the common ground from which reckless and malicious human behavior and actions stems. The team calls this common ground the (tad unfortunately-named) D-factor.

Root of the issue

While each individual dark trait manifests itself in widely different ways, they seem to have much more in common than initially meets the eye, new research suggests.

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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 egoism (maximizing one’s advantage at the expense of others), sadism (gaining pleasure from inflicting harm on others), and spitefulness (willingness to cause harm to others, even if one harms oneself in the process) are all variation on a single ‘dark core’ of personality, the team writes.

This dark core — or D-factor — can be defined as the general tendency to maximize one’s individual utility while disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others, accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications/excuses for their shadier actions.

In other words, the mental predisposition that enables all these dark traits is the belief that one’s goals and interests simply trump others’, even to the extent that an individual might take pleasure in hurting their peers. Associated beliefs and mental processes are used to prevent feelings of guilt or shame. The ‘final’ dark trait emerges depending on the exact ratio of each aspect — e.g., the justification-aspect is very strong in narcissism whereas malevolently provoking disutility is the main feature of sadism.

The team, composed of Ingo Zettler, Professor of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen, Morten Moshagen from Ulm University and Benjamin E. Hilbig from the University of Koblenz-Landau, has shown that this D-factor is present in nine of the most commonly studied dark personality traits.

The team worked with over 2,500 participants over a series of studies, asking them to what extent they 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”. The studies also tracked other self-reported tendencies such as aggression or impulsivity and measured indicators of selfish and unethical behavior.

“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’, Zettler says.

In practice, this means that an individual who exhibits a particular malevolent behavior (such as enjoying to humiliate others) will have a higher likelihood to engage in other malevolent activities, too (such as cheating, lying, or stealing).

“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 adds.

The paper “The dark core of personality” has been published in the journal Psychological Review.