Insight

What Psychologists Know that You Don’t

Who Falls for Dishonest People? Not Who You'd Expect

Learn to recognize the traits that could make you vulnerable.

Let’s face it: Some people are far more decent than others.

Researchers have studied this tendency and labeled it Honesty-Humility (1), a personality factor or "super-trait" that has been observed across many cultures. Individuals high on this trait are sincere, modest, fair-minded, and non-greedy. They do not exploit others, even when there would be no retaliation for doing so. Individuals at the low end of this trait, on the other hand, are dishonest, haughty, and arrogant. They lack empathy and exploit others. In a word, they are narcissistic.

And sometimes honest, humble people end up in romantic relationships with narcissists.

After enduring a good bit of exploitation, lying, and cheating in such relationships, the honest person often wonders, “How did I allow myself to end up with this person?” or, “What is wrong with me that I tolerated such obvious manipulation and exploitation?”

Yes, it is an outrage, but there is no reason to doubt yourself or your judgment.

Narcissists tend to be sexy because they spend so much time on their image. They know how to dress, walk, and talk in ways to literally charm the pants off others. Following is a three-part explanation of why the honest person may be especially vulnerable to the charms of a narcissist:

  1. Narcissists often seem very open and forthcoming, even disclosing very bad past acts. Such disclosures might even include having cheated with their ex-spouse’s best friend, or leaving the scene of a car accident because they did not want to get caught drunk driving. The honest person hears these disclosures and thinks, “Wow, I am getting to know a really honest person who is willing to admit to such things!” The reality is that because narcissists lack empathy, they simply do not realize that their disclosures reveal such deviance and negative character traits. They may instead see their disclosures as showing how desirable, adventurous, and clever they are.
  2. There is recent evidence that honest people tend to see others, particularly close others, as more honest than they actually are (2). By the same token, narcissists tend to see others as more dishonest than they are, and thus see even honest partners as deserving to be exploited. Because of this imagined similarity, honest people may give narcissists the benefit of the doubt when exploitation begins.
  3. The final part of the answer comes from the commitment that honest people feel to their relationships, including with a narcissistic lover. After a glorious, passionate beginning to the relationship, the honest person discovers at some point that the narcissist is a liar and cheater who exploits them by making excessive demands for time and money. When the honest person responds by indicating a desire to end the relationship, the narcissist may attempt to induce guilt to maintain it, saying for instance, “You were just using me for sex!” Ironically, there is some truth to this claim—it has now dawned on the honest person how shallow their lover is and that the relationship was possibly founded on sex. To avoid hurting the narcissistic partner, the honest person—who is sincere and fair-minded and loathes exploiting others—might give the relationship more time to work. In doing so, the honest person is likely to become more racked with guilt because it has now become obvious to both parties that the sexual relationship is hollow.

If you are an honest person with a narcissistic partner, I hope you can forgive yourself for tolerating the lying, cheating, and exploitation. It is because of your wonderful qualities of sincerity, fairness, and modesty that such a haughty, dishonest person could wiggle into your life. Please don’t think of yourself as a target or “sucker.” Next time, you will be more sensitive to signs of callousness and exploitation, and no doubt think twice before letting a narcissist into your life.

 

References

1. Lee, K. & Ashton, M. C. (2006). Further assessment of the HEXACO Personality Inventory: Two new facet scales and an observer report form. Psychological Assessment , 18, 182-191.

2. Lee, K., Ashton, M. C., Pozzebon, J. A.,Visser, B. A., Bourdage, J. S.; et al. (2009). Similarity and assumed similarity in personality reports of well-acquainted persons. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 460-472.

Acknowledgement

This post stems from Anita Kelly’s Science of Honesty project, which was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

Anita E. Kelly, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. She is author of The Clever Student and The Psychology of Secrets.

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