Why Dark Personalities Thrive in the Dark

Nighttime, romance, and the Dark Triad

Posted Sep 20, 2014

The dark triad in psychology refers to the combination of Machiavellianism (the tendency to coldly manipulate people), psychopathy (the lack of empathy and remorse) and narcissism (excessive self-focus). People high in all three of these qualities can be dangerous partners. As you might imagine, not only do they use people but they are exceptionally good at getting others to swallow their bait. For your own mental health, you'll likely want to stay away from potential partners with dark triad traits, but may also find it difficult to resist their superficial charm and appeal.

In an intriguing hypothesis, Humboldt University of Berlin psychologist John Rauthmann and his colleagues (2014) proposed that we’re most subject to the influence of dark triad personalities when the environmental conditions themselves are dark. These conditions in general lead men, they maintained, to be particularly likely to use women for their own sexual purposes. What's more, under cover of darkness, exploitative men are better able to engage in the so-called “shady operations” that would allow them to avoid detection because they’re literally less visible than they would be under the bright glare of the sun.

Dark days and stormy nights generally make us feel more vulnerable. What better frame of mind to appear to bring an unsuspecting target under the guise of your protection? As Rauthmann and his team hypothesized, "Dark personalities should be able to take advantage of less light to successfully lure mates into their fangs” (p. 58).

To test the hypothesis, the team devised an ingenious experimental field study in which they observed their darkly-personified men as they approached possible dates on the street. The 59 men in the study approached nearly 1,400 women on the street (only one-third of whom turned out to be single) while research assistants unobtrusively followed them. The men’s task was to obtain the women’s contact information. The weather conditions in the trials were not as extreme as night vs. day but instead involved either dark/cloudy or bright/sunny skies. 

If the “veil of darkness” hypothesis were correct, the men with dark triad personalities should have had better luck with their intended targets under cloudy than sunny conditions. To test the hypothesis, the women who had approached on the street were then asked to rate the man on his attractiveness and likeability, and how adept he was at gaining the information he sought. The observers also rated the interactions, as did the male would-be suitors.  

As it turned out, the hypothesis was partially correct: Of the three dark triad traits, only Machiavellianism seemed to enable the men to gain greater advantage over their unsuspecting targets. The researchers propose that men high in Machiavellianism (but not psychopathy or narcissism) feel somehow more confident and attractive under cover of a darker afternoon sky. 

In the statistical model they developed to parse the effect, Rauthmann and his collaborators reasoned that Machiavellians tend to feel pretty good about themselves in general, but especially when the light is dimmer and softer. Because they have probably realized better results approaching women under cover of darkness in the past, such low light brings may bring out their self-assurance and confidence. They then become more likely to approach their potential target with self-assured smiling and physical aplomb. For their part, the women may be less able to detect signs of insincerity under cover of darkness that their radar might otherwise pick up. (The authors controlled for the men’s attractiveness, so these effects occurred regardless of whether the men were handsome or plain.)

The Machiavellian man profits from the cover of darkness, then, but not the psychopath or the narcissist. Emboldened by lighting conditions that disguise his coldness and desire to use people, he becomes even more appealing than he might otherwise be.

One fascinating angle of this study is the fact that it was carried out in a naturalistic setting. There was no reason for the female “participants” to fake their responses because they didn’t know they were being observed. As ethically required, of course, the researchers, informed them afterward about the study’s purpose—and the women could choose not to have their data included in the study. It should be noted that about 30% made the decision not to have their results included.

It’s possible, then, that given the voluntary nature of the participation after the fact, the effects of the study were underestimated—women who were in relationships may have been afraid to let on that they’d given out their contact information to a male stranger, for example, or those who offered their numbers may simply have been embarrassed or offended that they'd been convinced to do so. Other factors to consider: The men participating in the study only approached women they truly wanted to get to know—and the observers interrupted any interactions they thought were inappropriate. (When you move psychology research from the lab to real life, ethical controls become particularly crucial.)

The upshot of the study is clear: If you’re a woman, you may be more susceptible to the advances of a manipulative male when the environmental conditions are darker. The next time a suave man emerges out of the darkness, it may be worth bringing him into the light to see if that veneer can withstand some sunshine.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Reference: Rauthmann, J. F., Kappes, M., & Lanzinger, J. (2014). Shrouded in the Veil of Darkness: Machiavellians but not narcissists and psychopaths profit from darker weather in courtship. Personality And Individual Differences, 6757-63. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.020

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Candlelight_dinners.jpg