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Which Characteristics Do Aversive People Have in Common?

A recent study suggests that the dark core of personality comprises five themes.

Key points

  • The Dark Factor of Personality (D) is the general tendency to focus on one’s own interests and disregard the harm this causes others.
  • Five themes of D are callousness, deceitfulness, narcissistic entitlement, sadism, and vindictiveness.
  • These traits are also linked to one another to a substantial degree.

Countless examples in world history and everyday life illustrate that people do not always act generously and cooperatively—they can behave in selfish and reckless ways.

To understand why people show regular patterns of socially aversive behavior, and which individuals are more likely to do so, personality psychology has particularly focused on aversive (or so-called “dark”) personality traits in recent years. Although a number of different aversive traits—for instance, narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism—have been studied, they all share a common core.

What is the dark factor of personality?

One conceptualization of this common core is called the Dark Factor of Personality, D, which correlates strongly negatively with HEXACO Honesty-Humility. D is understood as a general tendency to focus excessively on one’s own goals and interests while disregarding the harm this behavior causes for others or even by intentionally hurting others. This disposition is accompanied by beliefs that can justify harmful behavior, such as preventing feelings of guilt or shame.

Image by Dennis Trevisan from Pixabay.
Source: Image by Dennis Trevisan from Pixabay.

In a recent study, we set out to identify which personality characteristics are particularly prominent in people with high levels of D. To this end, we used data from more than 160,000 people from around the world who filled out our item set assessing D (via the common core across 10 aversive traits), receiving automatic feedback on their level in D (and the aversive traits).

More specifically, participants had to read up to 70 statements about typical attitudes, emotions, behavioral tendencies, and cognitions related to socially aversive behaviors and to decide how well these statements describe themselves. The data were then analyzed using statistical methods that uncover the personality sets underlying these statements.

In line with the idea that D is a general tendency underlying socially aversive traits and behaviors, responses across all statements could well be described by a single underlying dimension. The analyses also suggested, however, that this general dimension can be further divided into five sets representing themes within D. We interpreted these five themes of D as Callousness, Deceitfulness, Narcissistic Entitlement, Sadism, and Vindictiveness.

5 traits linked to the dark factor of personality

Callousness describes a lack of concern for other people. Individuals with high levels typically do not care whether their own behavior causes harm or problems for other people.

Deceitfulness represents a willingness to engage in deceptive and illegal behavior, such as lying or cheating, to pursue one’s own interest.

Narcissistic Entitlement is characterized by a sense of self-importance and deservingness, meaning that individuals with high levels typically feel entitled to more attention or possessions than other people. In this sense, Narcissistic Entitlement can be interpreted as a specific type of belief that allows to justify selfish or malevolent behavior.

Sadism describes a disposition to deliberately harm other people in order to feel empowered and dominant or for personal pleasure and satisfaction. The harm inflicted on others can manifest in various ways, for instance physical, emotional, but also materialistic (such as destroying other people’s properties).

Vindictiveness is characterized by a pronounced desire to seek revenge, even to the point that one would accept own costs for the sake of retaliation.

Importantly, these five themes were shown to have much more in common than what sets them apart. That is, these characteristics are associated with one another to a substantial degree. For example, a person with high levels of Narcissistic Entitlement is very likely to also show high levels of Vindictiveness.

Ultimately, the common denominator among those themes is a tendency to pursue one’s own interests at the costs of others—as is the definition of D. Indeed, we rather recommend focusing on the overall D-score, although the newly gained information about which themes can be found under the umbrella of the Dark Factor of Personality further help clarify which sets of personality characteristics are shared by people with strong socially aversive tendencies.

Facebook image: Andriy Solovyov/Shutterstock


Bader, M., Hartung, J., Hilbig, B. E., Zettler, I., Moshagen, M., & Wilhelm, O. (2021). Themes of the dark core of personality. Psychological Assessment. Advance online publication.