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What's at the Root of Narcissism and Other Dark Traits

Convergence between “D” and socially offensive psychopathology is examined.

Key points

  • The common core of dark personality traits, like psychopathy, is called the Dark Factor of Personality (D).
  • D is at the heart of both dark personalities (e.g., psychopathy) and socially offensive psychopathology (e.g., narcissistic personality).
  • D is associated with overvaluing oneself, devaluing others, and subjective justifications for these behaviors.
True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock
Source: True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock

According to an article published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality by Hilbig and colleagues, there is a convergence between the Dark Factor of Personality (D) and socially offensive psychopathology—specifically, antisocial, paranoid, narcissistic, and borderline personality traits.

To explain the significance of the present study, let me start by explaining dark personalities, followed by socially aversive psychopathology.

Dark Personalities

Unethical and hurtful behaviors are often attributed to dark personalities or dark traits. So, what are dark personalities? Dark personality traits, often called the Dark Triad, usually consist of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. (When called the Dark Tetrad, they also include sadism.)

Detailed descriptions of dark personalities are beyond the scope of this post, but in short:

  • Narcissists are arrogant and entitled.
  • Machiavellians tend to be calculating and deceptive.
  • Psychopaths are disinhibited and callous.
  • Sadists are cruel.

Sadists are sometimes confused with psychopaths. However, unlike psychopaths, who typically behave cruelly when provoked or when it serves an instrumental purpose, sadists enjoy cruelty itself.

As an aside, it should be mentioned that many people with dark traits experience considerable success in domains that value such personality traits (e.g., a coldhearted person working as a police officer).

Recent research suggests there exists a common core of dark personality traits, called the Dark Factor of Personality (D).

D may be defined as a “general tendency to maximize one’s individual utility—disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others—accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications.”

Socially Aversive Psychopathology

One group of psychologists (clinical psychologists) views some of the above socially unpleasant and offensive traits and behaviors (e.g., manipulativeness, cruelty) from a clinical perspective, and as symptoms of mental illness and psychopathology. Clinical psychologists call such socially aversive psychopathology by the name of personality disorders. Examples are narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder; sometimes paranoid personality disorder and borderline personality disorder are also included in this group.

Many of the socially offensive tendencies are associated with the trait domain antagonism. Antagonism refers to behaviors that put one “at odds with other people.” Individuals high on antagonism tend to be exploitative, manipulative, deceptive, suspicious, quarrelsome, and oppositional. Many people with dark personalities appear to have antagonistic tendencies.

I should note dark traits and socially aversive psychopathology (which clinical psychologists study) do not overlap completely.

For instance, certain dark traits (e.g., spitefulness, moral disengagement) do not seem conceptually related to socially aversive psychopathology. The opposite is true too. For example, paranoid psychopathology is not usually considered a dark trait, even though distrust and paranoia have been previously considered aspects of Machiavellianism.

The investigation by Hilbig et al. aimed to address these issues and show the “conceptual gaps between dark traits and socially aversive psychopathology can be bridged by focusing on the ‘aversive essence’ of traits as conceptualized in D.”

The Explanatory Power of the Dark Core of Personality

The first measurement (T1) used a sample of 2,329 participants—53 percent female, average age of 40 years (18-77 years), and 30 percent with a college degree. For T2, which occurred about eight months later, participants from the first sample were invited back, and a final sample of 668 people was used.

Measures included HEXACO-60, Personality Assessment Inventory, the 18-item Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire, Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Self-Report Psychopathy Scale III, the Paranoia Scale, and the Borderline Personality Disorder Severity Index.

Items used to measure D are listed in Table 1, below. Some examples are “people who mess with me always regret it,” “I feel entitled to more of everything,” and “It’s wise to keep track of information that you can use against people later.”

The results showed D was significantly related to the major forms of socially aversive psychopathology: antisocial/psychopathy, narcissistic, paranoid, and to a lesser extent, borderline personality disorder traits.

D was strongly associated with paranoia, which is one of the traits often ignored in research on dark traits.

To intuitively make sense of the link between dark traits and paranoia, we need to remember paranoid individuals are distrustful, often fearing others are merciless and selfish utility maximizers (i.e., will take advantage of them); their beliefs serve as a powerful justification for paranoid individuals’ own attempt at utility maximization at great cost to others. In short, imagining the worst about human beings’ intentions (e.g., assuming they have an insatiable desire to manipulate, exploit, and harm) gives the paranoid person the permission or justification to do the same.

What about the (weak) link between D and borderline tendencies? This association also makes sense because only some borderline traits (e.g., rage, vengefulness, but not emotional instability) are socially aversive and potentially related to dark traits.

The authors conclude that D “involves invoking disutility for others as a consequence of one’s own utility maximization (i.e., antisocial) or for the sake of revenge (i.e., borderline).” It entails “justifying beliefs such as one’s own superiority and entitlement (i.e., narcissistic) or generalized distrust (i.e., paranoid).”

Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Hilbig et al., 2021)
Source: Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Hilbig et al., 2021)

The Dark Factor of Personality (D) seems to be at the heart of dark personalities and socially offensive psychopathology.

What these unpleasant traits and dark personalities appear to have in common include the following:

  1. Overvaluing oneself.
  2. Devaluing others.
  3. Subjective justifications for the above.

So, the concept of value or valuation is central to the definition of D. While there is nothing wrong with trying to see oneself as valuable and worthy, problems occur when one’s self-esteem and self-confidence come at the cost of ignoring, dismissing, or actively devaluing others. And worse, when we subjectively justify such views—justifying mistreating and abusing people by thinking of them as stupid, malicious, subhuman, etc.

These antagonistic tendencies, which lie at the heart of dark personalities and socially aversive psychopathology, cause considerable distress for those (e.g., romantic partners, children, parents) who regularly interact with individuals possessing these traits.

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