Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


“Is Your Pet a Psychopath?”

Learn these 4 signs of deception.

Source: MrWallpaper

Recent psychological science has shed light on the common co-occurrence of three infamous personality traits known together as the “Dark Triad”: Machiavelianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

Are these traits uniquely human? Can wild animals and our pets be narcissists and psychopaths? To answer this question we need to look at what we know about about evolution, and proceed in order.

Machiavelian Intelligence involves the ability to deceive others for personal gains by making complex inferences about what others are likely to think, or even lie about. This ability to deceive and detect deception in others with multiple levels of mind-reading is an evolutionarily recent trait that is well documented in primates, and is also found in other large-brained mammals, and some species of birds.

Narcissism may be a different story.

For evolutionary biologists, narcissism isn’t always bad news: overconfidence and the ability to overestimate our abilities in the face of challenging situations, like other “positive illusions” and forms of self-deception, gave our species a clear survival advantage.

Psychopathy, in turn, involves the chilling capacity to derive personal, selfish pleasure from inflicting cruelty: that is, inflicting pain and suffering on others for a purpose other than one's survival.

So how recently did narcissism and psychopathy evolve? Can non-human animals be narcissists?

The simple answer is "of course not".

Most life-forms are capable of deception and self-deception to some degree, but there is no question that full-fledged narcissism, self-aggrandizing monstrosity, and mass-scale cruelty cannot rise to the occasion without such distinctly human institutions as language and culture. A more interesting question that has been posed by scientists, rather, is whether the strange culture of pet loving and fetishizing is itself an extension of human narcissism!

But narcissism and psychopathy should be understood as maladaptive traits (or common pitfalls) of the human species.

If you have read this post so far, in fact, I regret to inform you that you have been deceived by a click-bait. Or more to the point, you have deceived yourself. This article is about deception and maladaptation in evolution; not pets. Go back and read the title, and note the quotation marks. The article might as well have been titled "I am never fooled": Learn these 4 signs of deception.

I suggest, now that you are here, that you educate yourself on common signs of your own self-deception, particularly when it comes to the illusion that your decisions (like impulsively clicking on a stupid link in your newsfeed) are conscious, chosen, and reflected upon:

1) The availability heuristic: if something comes to mind effortlessly, you are not thinking hard enough, and you are probably committing an intuitive error.

2) Social proof: if something comes to your mind effortlessly, it is probably because other people you associate with already have the same ideas and tastes

3) The Fundamental Attribution Error: when trying to make sense of a problem, your mind quickly jumps to the personal attributes of someone involved in the scenario, instead of looking at the Big Picture.

4) The Trump Effect: Learn how these common forms of self-deception and cognitive errors make you dangerously prone to hating other people you associate with your “outgroup”. (*content warning*: the Trump Effect does not describe personal opinions on the alleged president of the United States - it uses the idea of Trump as a heuristic to outline a brief recipe of general, tribalist human psychology!)

More from Samuel Paul Veissière Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today