Mean People May Be Drawn to Certain Careers, Study Finds

If you work with a lot of difficult people, it may be due to your profession.

Posted Oct 31, 2016

It's hard to like your job if you don't get along with your coworkers, a sentiment which is supported by research. But what if your workplace seems to have more of its fair share of mean people on board? Certain professions, such as law and finance, have a reputation for being shark infested waters – but is there any truth to such stereotypes? Indeed, a new study has found that individuals with “dark personalities” are attracted to some careers more than others.

Previous work on personality and vocational interests has unearthed some fascinating findings. For example, relationships have been found between openness to experience and investigative and artistic career interests; extraversion and social and enterprising career interests; and conscientiousness and enterprising and conventional interests. But what about mean people? Technically speaking, this would refer to those who exhibit the "Dark Triad," a personality constellation that is comprised by the traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (e.g., guile). Burgeoning research is now beginning to untangle their vocational interests, further elucidating what drives such individuals.

In a new study led by Christopher Marcin Kowalski of the University of Western Ontario, he and his collaborators sought to better understand the relationships between dark personality traits and career interests. So here's what the investigators did. They began by recruiting 858 participants, ranging in age from 15 to 92. Then they had these volunteers complete questionnaires that assessed vocational interests, narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. From there, they crunched the numbers.

What did Kowalski and his team find? To start, the trait of narcissism was positively linked to artistic interests, while Machiavellianism and psychoticism were not. This finding, according to the authors, makes sense. If art is understood as an expression of emotion, and psychopaths and those on high Machiavellianism are, as the thinking goes, lacking in emotional expressiveness, it would then follow that they would circumvent artistic pursuits. It may also be that narcissists' interest in artistic careers is in the service of gaining admiration of others. In addition, narcissists were found to be interested in social careers, adventurous jobs, and business.

And the more Machiavellian an individual was, the less inclined he was to seek social careers and applied jobs. Meanwhile, psychopathy was associated with greater interests in physical science, engineering, and adventurous jobs as well as decreased social interests, particularly in teaching, social services, and elementary education, and office work.

Taken together, these results are consistent with previous findings showing that psychopaths and Machiavellians have difficulty expressing or comprehending emotional information, and in turn supports the notion that people who are high on these traits may avoid careers in which social interaction is integral to the job. By contrast, narcissism is an inherently more social trait, as its association with extraversion attests, and may explain narcissists' interest in careers that involve networking with others.

Kowalski and his collaborators note two important limitations of their study. First, women were overrepresented — they comprised a whopping 83.7 percent of the sample. Prior research has found gender differences in both both Dark Triad traits and career interests, and thus this lopsidedness may have influenced their results. Second, the data was correlational—and correlation, as the saying goes, is not causation.

The investigators argue that their study has theoretical value in that it furthers our understanding of what makes Dark Triad individuals tick when it comes to their career choices. They also maintain that their results may have practical value. For instance, it could help career and school guidance counselors better serve their clients by encouraging career paths that better match their personality traits. According to the authors, if, for example, an individual displays psychopathic tendencies, counselors might discourage them from pursuing social careers, such as teaching, and instead encourage professions like engineering or finance. Along similar lines, if a person seems narcissistic, a practitioner might suggest pursuing careers in the arts, social/personal services, or business. But Kowalski and his team also emphasize that more research is required to determine whether those with darker personalities indeed excel in certain professions.


Vocational interests and dark personality: Are there dark career choices? Christopher Marcin Kowalski, Philip A. Vernon, Julie Aitken Scherme. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 104, January 2017, Pages 43–47.