Do Psychopaths Prefer the Night?

Exploring the surprising link between chronotype and psychopathy.

Posted Mar 10, 2020

Mangostar/Shutterstock
Source: Mangostar/Shutterstock

There’s a common assumption that bad people do their dirty work in the cloak of darkness. When we walk the streets alone at night, our pace is a little faster, our senses a little sharper. We presume that just like in the animal kingdom, predators prefer to hunt at night.

It turns out there is some truth to this assumption. One study found that people are most ethical in the morning and are more likely to engage in unethical behavior later in the day. Another clever experiment found that everyday people are more willing to engage in unethical behavior (lying, cheating, being greedy) in a dimly lit room compared to a brightly lit space.

These studies provoke an intriguing question: Are people who prefer the night inherently immoral?

The answer seems to be yes, at least if we look at research conducted on the Dark Triad. The Dark Triad refers to a collection of three personality traits that are associated with the worst of human behavior. These include:

  • Narcissism = arrogant, self-entitled, sense of superiority over others
  • Machiavellianism = manipulative, self-interested, domineering
  • Psychopathy = impulsive, remorseless, emotionally cold

People who are considered psychopaths tend to score high in all three of these traits. As the Psychology Today description of the Dark Triad states, “People with these three dark traits tend to be callous and manipulative, willing to do or say practically anything to get their way. They have an inflated view of themselves and are often shameless about self-promotion. These individuals are likely to be impulsive and may engage in dangerous behavior—in some cases, even committing crimes—without any regard for how their actions affect others.”

Given these tendencies, people high in the Dark Triad might prefer to be active at night, since doing so makes it easier to engage in immoral misdeeds without getting caught. To examine this possibility, a team of international researchers examined the relationship between chronotype and Dark Triad traits.

Chronotype refers to people’s natural (and largely genetic) preference for mornings versus evenings. Night owls who feel they are most alert, productive, and creative when the sun is down have an evening chronotype. Early birds who feel they are most alert, productive, and creative when the sun is rising have a morning chronotype.

These researchers recruited 263 participants who completed measures of chronotype and the Dark Triad. The results showed that all three Dark Triad traits were associated with a stronger night preference. That is, evening people were consistently higher in narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy than their morning counterparts.

Then the researchers dug a little deeper into the data and looked at subcategories of the Dark Triad personality traits. For example, some aspects of narcissism can be good (the tendency to be a strong leader) and others can be harmful (the tendency to manipulate and exploit others for personal gain).

The same is true of psychopathy. People high in primary psychopathy tend to be calloused, shallow, and superficially charming. They are “successful psychopaths” — politicians, lawyers, surgeons — who are not afraid to step on others’ toes to rise to the top, but they are not likely to engage in hostile or criminal behavior. In comparison, people high in secondary psychopathy are impulsive, lack long-term goals, and are more likely to engage in hostile or criminal activity.

The analyses showed that people who prefer the night tend to possess the “darkest” of the Dark Triad traits. In addition to being significantly higher in Machiavellianism, they are also higher in the exploitative type of narcissism and secondary psychopathy than their early-to-bed peers.

So what accounts for this relationship?

The researchers speculate that it has to do with evolution. They argue people high in the darkest Dark Triad traits slowly evolved to become night owls because the night is the best time to be a psychopath. Their data suggests that early risers are more likely to act like “cops” in society – they behave morally themselves and catch and punish those who don’t. Since these “cops” are more active during the day, it makes sense that immoral “robbers” would prefer to do their activities at night. When the cops are sleeping, the robbers are more likely to get away with their misdeeds.

Keep in mind that this study was correlational, not experimental. That means we can’t infer causality. We don’t know if evolution is actually playing a role or not. We also don’t know the true direction of the relationship.

It could be that having Dark Triad traits causes people to eventually prefer the night. Or it could be that preferring the night causes people to become more immoral and impulsive in the same way that everyday people behave more unethically in a dark room. Or it could be that something else, like a shared genetic link, causes both factors. We need more research to make definitive conclusions about cause.

This research also doesn’t mean that every night owl is a psychopath. A night preference is just one piece of the complex puzzle.

But it does suggest that if you already suspect someone you know (or even yourself) has psychopathic tendencies, take note if they are a morning or evening person. That last clue may be just what you need to reach a final decision.