Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

The Dark Triad and Impulsivity

The nuanced links between the members of the Dark Triad and impulsivity

Recently, psychologists have stepped outside of the clinical setting and have accumulated research on how the dark side of human nature varies in the general population. What has become quite clear is that the "Dark Triad"-- which consists of the combination of Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism, and subclinical psychopathy-- is an overarching trait that everyone has to some degree. Unfortunately, some people just have a lot more of it than others.

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While acknowledging that clinical levels of the Dark Triad traits are certainly socially undesirable, Peter Jonason and his colleagues argue that the traits that underlie the Dark Triad are best viewed as one particular social orientation towards others and may facilitate people's goals, especially when those goals involve an exploitative social strategy and a short-term mating strategy. They have found across multiple studies that those scoring high on the Dark Triad are characterized by a distinct psychological profile of personality traits and social strategies, displaying higher extroversion, openness to experience, and self-esteem while being less agreeable, neurotic, conscientious, and altruistic.

The common thread running through all three traits of The Dark Triad (Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism, and subclinical psychopathy) is high selfishness and low disagreeableness. Still, the three traits are only moderately correlated with one another, and recently researchers have started to assess the independent predictions of each separately from the others, and how people with a different balance of the Dark Triad go about obtaining their goals differently. For instance, recent research conducted by Peter Jonason, Glenn Geher, and myself suggests that narcissism is tied most heavily to extroversion and a desire to engage in social interactions whereas psychopathy is negatively related to extroversion.

Also of particular note is how each member of The Dark Triad is differentially related to different forms of impulsivity. Scott J. Dickman differentiates between two different forms of impulsivity: functional impulsivity and dysfunctional impulsivity. Functional impulsivity is related to idea generation, enthusiasm, adventurousness, and the ability to make quick decisions. On the other hand, dysfunctional impulsivity is related to erratic disorderliness, distraction, and inaccurate decision making.

To see how each of the members of The Dark Triad is related to impulsivity, Daniel N. Jones and Delroy L. Paulhus recently administered a battery of Dark Triad and impulsivity tests to 142 undergraduates as well as 329 adults in the community. Their measure of Psychopathy included four components: erratic lifestyle (e.g., "I am a rebellious person"), interpersonal manipulation (e.g., "I would get a kick out of 'scamming' someone"), callous affect ("e.g., "Most people are wimps"), and antisocial behavior (e.g., "I have tricked someone into giving me money"). They found that all four components of Psychopathy were extremely highly related to one another. Their measure of Machiavellianism included items such as "Anyone who completely trusts anyone else is asking for trouble" and their measure of narcissism included items such as "I like to be the center of attention". Finally, their measure of functional impulsivity included items such as "Most of the time, I can put my thoughts into words very rapidly", whereas their measure of dysfunctional impulsivity included items such as "I often get into trouble because I do not think before I act."

Even though the inter-correlations among the members of the Dark Triad were higher in the community sample, they found a similar pattern of results for both the student and community sample. Both narcissistic and psychopathic individuals tended to show higher levels of overall impulsivity. More telling though were correlations with the different types of impulsivity. Psychopathy was primarily associated with dysfunctional impulsivity, whereas narcissism was primarily related to functional impulsivity. Interestingly, Machavellianism was unrelated to either type of impulsivity.

According to the researchers, these results help explain why narcissism is a mixed blessing. In situations where accuracy is less important than speedy responses (e.g., short-term social interactions), functional impulsivity will be adaptive for narcissists. Over time, though, even functional impulsivity will start to show detrimental effects on interpersonal relationships.

The link between psychopathy and dysfunctional impulsivity is consistent with other research showing that psychopaths lack the ability to inhibit their antisocial impulses. The lack of relation between impulsivity and Machiavellianism is interesting and the researchers suggest that Machiavellian individuals may have an advantage over psychopaths and narcissists because their moderate impulse control may allow them to "refrain from counterproductive behaviors despite their selfish intentions".

The researchers conclude,

"Taken together, our two studies add to the accumulating evidence that the Dark Triad members have unique personality styles favoring different life outcomes. Each member has a unique social engagement style that might prove adaptive in some situations but maladaptive in others."

By studying beautiful minds as well as not-so beautiful minds, I think we can come to a more nuanced and richer understanding of human nature and the various paths by which people obtain their goals.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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