Bad to the Bone

Are narcissists, psychopaths, and sadists all members of the same dark club?

Posted Oct 08, 2018

 Graja/Shutterstock
Source: Graja/Shutterstock

I spend a lot of times in prisons.  So, you’d naturally think that I would know quite a few inmates who don’t seem to have a moral compass.  But that’s not true.

Sure, it’s true that some of the inmates I know live according to a survival of the fittest mindset that is fueled by self-interest; if it comes down to either them or me, I’m the one who’s going to lose.  But these inmates typically do bad things to get something they want or need.  They have people they love and try to protect.  They have no desire to hurt someone who isn’t standing in their way.  They also tend to have their own moral code; the same inmate who killed a man in a gang fight might die before sexually abusing a child (and often would not hesitate to kill someone who did).

However, according to recent research, some people have a cluster of personality traits that is so toxic that they are, at times, even willing to give up an edge just to make someone else suffer. Specifically, researchers found nine personality traits that tend to coexist and form a common core that is characterized by ruthless self-interest that far exceeds an out-for-number-one mentality:

Egoism: valuing everything only in terms of one’s self-interest;

Machiavellianism: the belief that any means, no matter how unscrupulous or deceitful, is justified it if leads to the desired result;

Moral disengagement: the belief that ethical principles don’t apply to oneself;

Narcissism: excessive self-absorption, a sense of superiority, and an extreme need for attention from others;

Psychological entitlement: a pervasive belief that one deserves more than other people;

Psychopathy: lack of empathy and remorse, combined with impulsive and antisocial behavior;

Sadism: getting pleasure out of hurting someone else;

Self-interest: a concern for one’s own advantage and well-being without regard for others;

Spitefulness: a malicious desire to hurt someone else, usually in return for a real or perceived wrong, even if one harms oneself in the process.

In essence, this “dark core” is an overarching tendency to place one’s own goals and interests over others and take pleasure in mowing others down along the way.  This is the person who will go the ends of the earth to get revenge for a real or imagined slight and get as much pleasure out of sabotaging another person’s success as they do plotting their own.  It’s psychopathy on steroids.

The Various Shades of Dark

Not everyone with this “dark core” has all nine of these personality traits.  Also, some traits may be more or less dominant.  Someone with a strong sadistic personality trait, for instance, may take pleasure in humiliating another person, while a narcissist may be more demanding and entitled in his or her interpersonal interactions.  These researchers suggest that though there may be different shades of a dark core, all “dark” personality traits share this underlying disposition, and that if you have one of these dark personality traits, you are also more likely to have others.

Here’s how this finding unfolded.  Researchers asked 2,500 people to what extent they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “I can barely stand it if another person is the center of events” or “Part of me enjoys seeing the people I do not like fail even if their failure hurts me in some way.”  They asked these same people how often they engaged in various aggressive, impulsive and/or unethical behaviors and also gave them tests that measured selfish and unethical behaviors.  What they found was a surprising kinship among malevolent beliefs as well as deviant behaviors.  The person who believed he was superior to others also felt little empathy for his fellow man and easily justified any manipulative, deceptive, or exploitive means to an end.  The person who enjoyed humiliating others also tended to lie, cheat, and steal. 

Cueing off Charles Spearman’s model of intelligence, who, over 100 years ago, found that people who score highly in one type of intelligence tend to also score highly in others (causing him to hypothesize that, while we all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses, there is a general or “g” factor of intelligence), researchers dubbed the dark core of personality the D-factor.  And, they say, it can be measured

The Bottom Line

This is a theoretical shift and, as such, we’ll have to wait and see if future research supports these findings.  But, on a practical level, the odds that a person high in any of these personality traits would make a loving partner or honest business partner is low.  So, for now, perhaps the best conclusion for most of us is, the D-Factor stands for danger.  Stay away.