Does Your Bright Side Have a Dark Side?

Surprising new research on who we really want around when the going gets tough.

Posted Aug 29, 2015

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Psychopathy and related traits lead some people to rate highly on the "Dark Triad" of personality, according to research on the “Dirty Dozen” scale. If your personality—or that of someone you know—is “bright,” it may seem like you’re safe from trouble. However, those bright-side personality traits can make life very difficult, as well.

Personality disorders represent a category within psychiatry’s diagnostic system that includes long-standing maladaptive collections of traits or dispositions. Antisocial personality disorder is one of these disorders, characterized by a combination of psychopathy (glib disregard for others) and antisocial behavior (lying, cheating, and stealing).

Although popular at the time of Freud and his fellow psychoanalysts, what we now call histrionic personality disorder (formerly called “hysteria”) has received considerably less attention. This is probably in part due to the fact that those with antisocial personality disorder are known to commit hurtful, if not illegal, acts, while people with histrionic personality disorder don’t have quite the same effect on others. Theatrical, self-centered, and flamboyant to a fault, the latter go through life with a vague, impressionistic view of the world. Their relationships are shallow and superficial, and not unlike psychopaths, they are unable to empathize or be truly intimate with others.

University College of London’s Adrian Furnham (2014) decided to tackle the question of whether one could define a subclinical level of histrionic personality disorder involving people who don’t have the disorder but instead have “colorful” or “bright” personalities. Although these terms would tend to imply desirable qualities—we’d all rather be “bright” than “dark,” in a sense—Furnham conceptualizes this collection of qualities as problematic both for those who have them to an excessive degree and those who are close to individuals who do.

Using a well-known personality measure of so-called “Big Five” personality traits, Furnham asked more than 5,700 middle-aged middle-level managers, (nearly 75% of them male) to complete the NEO-PI-R, a 240-item general personality inventory. The NEO-PI-R produces scores on each of 5 basic factors—the so-called “OCEAN” (or “CANOE”) scales tapping Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Within each of the 5 overarching traits are 6 subscales, meaning that the total test can produce 30 measures. All of the subscales track so-called normative personality traits, meaning that they do not tap personality disorders or other forms of psychopathology.

Furnham compared the scores of his participants on this measure with their responses to the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), an index designed to measure traits associated with personality disorders as expressed within the context of work. In particular, the HDS measures 11 Dark Triad traits intended to identify who is likely to be a high-risk employee. All are adaptive in measured amounts, but under conditions of workplace stress, they can spell trouble for an individual or a company.

The HDS measures a version of histrionic personality disorder called “Colorful,” and as the term implies, the items on this scale characterize people who are somewhat larger than life, enjoy expressing themselves in a dramatic fashion, have difficulty listening to others, tend to interrupt, and enjoy being the focus of attention.

People with moderate colorful-personality scores can actually to be quite successful. They are regarded as having the potential to do well in sales, for example, and as being motivated to change and ready to seek a challenge. However, if their scores are too high, they can set unrealistically high expectations which ultimately prove disappointing. Thus, it’s OK to be a little bit colorful but if you go too high, you reach the maladaptive point of histrionic personality disorder. Under stress in the workplace, you’ll become a “derailer”—preventing your business from achieving success.

Furnham used the 30 NEO-PI-R measures to predict scores on the HDS Colorful scale. The high Colorful individuals, meaning those with especially “bright” personalities showed the following profile.

Low on:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Straightforwardness
  4. Modesty
  5. Dutifulness
  6. Self-discipline

High on:

  1. Warmth
  2. Gregariousness
  3. Assertiveness
  4. Activity
  5. Excitement-seeking
  6. Positive emotions
  7. Openness to fantasy

As you can see, these terms are fairly intuitive (except, perhaps “activity,” which means preferring to be active). How would you rate yourself in comparison to this profile of the colorful, histrionic person? How about the people you know in relationships, at work, or in your family?

Perhaps you would agree with Furnham's conclusion that “to some extent this reveals the HPD individual to be somewhat unattractive in that they suffer little self-doubt and may be rather egocentric. This may in part explain why studies using the HDS have shown that [histrionic personality disorder] individuals seem to do well in the business world” (p. 534).

Now can you think of anyone who fits the profile?

For the moderately colorful individual—the so-called “subclinical HPD individual"—Furnham concludes that there are weaknesses as well as strengths. Although they can be impulsive, rash, and dishonest, they have “many positive traits like intellectual curiosity, trust in others, altruism, and achievement striving” (p. 534).

Under ordinary circumstances, as the authors point out, the bright qualities of the colorful personality may serve as strengths. Being low in anxiety and high on openness to fantasy, for example, can make one a creative team member who can be counted on to help make inventive and useful decisions. However, when the pressure mounts, or they become tired or bored, the dark side of their brightness will take over.

The upshot of this perspective is to recognize how easily your personality strengths can become your weaknesses as you, and those you love or work with, seek fulfillment. When we see personality as a continuum, as neither black nor white, we can see how to achieve a bright—but not too bright—balance.

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Reference

Furnham, A. (2014). A bright side, facet analysis of histrionic personality disorder: The relationship between the HDS colourful factor and the NEO-PI-R facets in a large adult sample. The Journal of Social Psychology, 154(6), 527-536. doi:10.1080/00224545.2014.953026

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015