- People high in psychopathy may be mean, but not all mean people are psychopaths.
- New research supports the value of looking at meanness on its own terms.
- People who are mean become even meaner due to their inability to show or express the qualities associated with love.
You almost certainly have someone in your life right now who you consider to be mean. And not just mean, but spiteful and hurtful. When you’re around this person, you have to tread ever so carefully so as not to provoke their wrath. Perhaps this is a person you don’t choose to be with but whose presence is foisted upon you by circumstances, whether work, family, or your community. You can’t even count all the times you’ve left an interaction with this person in tears or just plain frustrated.
This person might be a coworker who seems to take joy in watching you squirm. The comments directed toward you range from jokes about your physical appearance to the quality of a presentation you made to the group. Although you've tried a number of ways to break down this wall of hostility, your efforts have proved fruitless.
According to Florida State University’s Allison Daurio and Jeanette Taylor (2021), the quality of meanness is one of 3 defining features of psychopathy, the personality trait characterized by lack of remorse, inability to feel empathy, and a certain amount of ruthlessness. Specifically, the so-called “triarchic” model of psychopathy proposes that this trait is made up of a combination of qualities that include impulsivity, boldness, and, lastly, meanness. Typically, you don’t hear psychopathy defined as including meanness, but the FSU authors are working from an approach that views personality along a continuum or set of dimensions. From this perspective, Daurio and Taylor propose, meanness can reflect “common neurobiological and physiological influences” on personality.
Not All Mean People are Psychopaths
If indeed meanness is one of 3 potentially independent dimensions of psychopathy, then it can be separated out and understood on its own terms. In other words, a person can theoretically be mean without being a psychopath. Moreover, it’s possible to be high on meanness and show signs of other personality disorders, particularly those that share some features with antisocial personality disorder (characterized by psychopathy). These disorders are most likely to come from the so-called "Cluster B" grouping that shares qualities such as being overly dramatic, exploitative, and impulsive.
More specifically, as the authors propose, meanness can take various forms depending on which Cluster B qualities a person shows. Narcissistic personality disorder includes the “impetus to humiliate” (p. 2). Borderline personality disorder also incorporates meanness in the form of what the authors call “disaffiliated agency,” in which people pursue their own goals without regard to the needs of others. Histrionic personality disorder involves qualities such as superficiality and emotional lability but there's no theoretical reason for individuals with this disorder to be high on meanness.
Meanness on its own isn’t unique to psychopathy, then, or even its clinical form of antisocial personality disorder. Your coworker might just be someone who likes to give people a hard time. However, you’d still like to know why, as this can help inform your strategy for dealing with this person and protect your self-esteem at the same time.
To measure meanness in its own right, the FSU authors chose a personality test known as the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire Brief Form (MPQ-BF), developed in prior research as a way to examine the manifestations of those underlying, biologically-based influences. Rather than categorize people, the MPQ-BF takes a dimensional or continuous approach, an effort reflected in potential revisions of the diagnostic framework currently in use, the DSM-5.
This dimensional approach can allow clinicians to view their patients from the more naturalistic perspective in which people aren't plugged into boxes depending on which and how many symptoms they show. You can think of this as the difference between calling a person “obese” based on a cutoff for body mass, versus simply using the actual number reflecting the ratio between their height and weight.
What Does Meanness Really Mean?
It’s time to look at the way the MPQ-BF defines meanness as a way to help you understand this dimensional approach to its measurement. As published in supplemental material provided in a previous study documenting the development of the measure (Hall et al., 2013), here are key features shown by people both high and low in this quality:
- Overall qualities: Tough, egocentric, emotionally insensitive, and lacking in affection toward others
- Behavioral signs: View others as “dog-eat-dog,” are indifferent to the suffering of others, express contempt for people they see as weak, and become excited or feel powerful when retaliating against others or have the opportunity to engage in risky activities.
- Overall qualities: Kind, affectionate, sincere, and sensitive to the needs and feelings of others
- Behavioral signs: Make genuine connections to others, value people for who they are, prefer cooperation rather than competition, want to help others who are hurting or in need, and feel guilty if they’ve hurt someone else.
Putting Meanness under the Microscope
In their study of 508 online participants and 549 undergraduates, Daurio and Taylor used the MPQ-BF along with self-reports of personality disorder traits from existing diagnostic instruments. These measures would allow the researchers to tease out the relationship between meanness and all four potentially related personality disorders.
Having proposed that meanness would be one of the qualities contributing to the cluster of personality disorders included in Daurio and Taylor’s predictions, the findings indeed supported the contribution of meanness scores to antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders. By contrast, people high on the histrionic personality disorder scale actually had lower meanness scores, suggesting that they lack the antagonistic qualities seen in the other 3 disorders within Cluster B.
The FSU study shows that, indeed, being mean doesn’t automatically qualify people for a personality disorder, even one involving psychopathic qualities. The mean people in your life, unless they are also high in the qualities of disinhibition and boldness, aren’t that easily categorized.
The majority of research on meanness, unfortunately, combines it with the other dimensions of the triarchic model of psychopathy, so that it isn’t possible to separate either its causes or its impact as a standalone trait. However, one intriguing study linking another triarchic theory, this one Sternberg’s theory of love, suggests possible ways to gain insight into the psychological makeup of the chronically mean. University of Baltimore’s Caitlin Mejia and colleagues (2020) examined the three love components of intimacy, passion, and commitment in relationships to scores based on the triarchic psychopathy model among both a university and an online sample of adults.
After correcting for a variety of other influences, including scores on disinhibition and boldness, the UM Baltimore researchers reported additive effects of meanness on all three dimensions of love. In short, without considering any other contributors to relationship problems, meanness had its own unique impact. Given the correlational nature of the study, this finding begs the question about what causes what. However, could it be that, all other factors being equal, the mean either lacked or now lack the ability to love? Their meanness alienates people, but it also may reflect a lifetime of experiences involving rejection.
It may seem artificial to separate meanness from the context of other psychopathic traits, but the findings from these two studies suggest that meanness can take the form of a “quiet” cynicism, the sort you encounter in those people whose hostility reflects an extreme sense of isolation. As they push people away, this reinforces their streak of meanness, making them even less likely to feel or express kindness.
To sum up, people who show this passive form of meanness can still make you miserable, even if their behavior isn’t outright harmful. Understanding the ways their relationships can both create and maintain their negative worldview can help you neutralize their ability to cause you pain.
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Mejia, C. Y., Donahue, J. J., & Farley, S. D. (2020). Mean, uncommitted, and aggressive: Divergent associations between triarchic psychopathy, elements of love, and caustic relationship behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(4), 1193–1215. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519890414
Hall, J. R., Drislane, L. E., Patrick, C. J., Morano, M., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Poythress, N. G. (2014). Development and validation of Triarchic Construct Scales from the Psychopathic Personality Inventory. Psychological Assessment, 26(2), 447–461. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035665
Daurio, A. M., & Taylor, J. (2021). An Investigation of the Triarchic Model of Psychopathy and Self-Reported Cluster B Personality Disorder Traits. Advance online publication. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/per0000500