“Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory,” the great basketball player Bill Russell once said. He was referring to the game, but it turns out that his insight applies to human nature as well.
In a first, a new study explored whether mental toughness in some measure explains why scheming individuals excel when it comes to their professional lives — and whether genetic contributions play a role. Technically, such people are said to exhibit the Dark Triad, a personality constellation comprised by the traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (e.g., guile).
Though usually cast in a negative light, previous research has demonstrated that these three traits do have an upside when it comes to work. In an effort to further understand why the odious ways of the Dark Triad may be potentially adaptive, Michael Onley of the University of Western Ontario and his colleagues examined the relationship between this personality constellation and mental toughness, which has been carved out as a core trait in human resiliency.
Mental toughness encompasses dedication, motivation, focus, resilience, and having an appetite for a challenge. Accordingly, the authors broke it down into four factors: control, commitment, challenge, and confidence. As the investigators report, previous research has established that the Dark Triad traits and mental toughness have their advantages in the workplace, including various achieving goals and personal success in competition. Even narcissistic tendencies, such as goal-striving, charisma, and high aspirations, can be parlayed into professional boons. Similarly, a positive link has been found between Machiavellianism and income in educated men, revealing that the trait may be helpful in securing senior positions. What's more, in studies of sales organizations, those showing high levels of Machiavellianism tended to be most successful in unstructured work environments that allowed them to manipulate others at will. Overall, the evidence suggests that these individuals possess the cool, calm, and confidence to excel in high-demand work settings.
In addition to the relationship between the Dark Triad and mental toughness, Onley and his team were interested in possible genetic contributions to this relationship. As been demonstrated, this information can be ascertained by comparing the responses of monozygotic (MZ) and same sex dizygotic (DZ) twins on a given trait. If the environments among identical and fraternal twins are equal, then the only way in which they would differ is because of their genes. This is because MZ twins share 100% of their genotype, whereas DZ share only about 50% of their genes. In turn, if genetics play a larger role in the development of a given trait, MZ twins should give more similar responses with respect to a trait than should DZ twins. Regarding the focus of this study, previous research has uncovered that individual differences in each of the Dark Triad traits are heavily influenced by genetic factors, while both genetic and non-shared environmental factors account for individual differences in mental toughness.
In order to test the relationship between mental toughness and the Dark Triad, the researchers had participants fill out four self-report questionnaires that inquired about the traits in question: The Dark Triad traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism as well as mental toughness. The final sample was comprised of 210 same-sex twin pairs. There were 152 MZ pairs, of which 128 were female and 24 were male. The sample also included 58 same-sex DZ pairs, of which 53 were female and five were male.
What did the investigators find? As expected, narcissism showed positive correlations with all factors of mental toughness. But unexpectedly, both psychopathy and Machiavellianism demonstrated negative correlations with most of the mental toughness factors. One interpretation of this result offered by the authors is that narcissism is “qualitatively unique” among the Dark Triad traits in that it embodies both positive and negative social behaviors.
There was partial support for the role of genetic contributions to this relationship. As hypothesized, and in keeping with previous research, genetic influences were found between the Dark Triad traits of psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Moreover, the links between psychopathy and mental toughness were wholly accounted for by common genetic factors. However, while it was expected there would be a strong genetic link between narcissism and mental toughness, the analyses revealed a significant relationship between narcissism and only the challenge factor of mental toughness.
Onley and his team recognized the limitations of this study and advised the usual cautions in scientific research. At the same time, their study has opened up a compelling area of inquiry, helping us better understand what to many is a daily frustration: why mean people so often get ahead at work.
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