The Psychological Core of Unethical, Antisocial People

Researchers discover the dark trait that lies at the heart of hurtful behavior.

Posted Aug 22, 2018

Themalni/Shutterstock
Source: Themalni/Shutterstock

None of us are perfect, and all of us occasionally do things that hurt other people. But some people do things that hurt other people far more often, and with far more serious consequences, than the rest of us do. Psychologists have been interested for many years in understanding people who regularly harm others — whether through dishonesty, greed, manipulation, irresponsibility, treating others unfairly, criminal behavior (such as stealing, aggression, and sexual assault), or otherwise hurting people who don’t deserve it. 

Since the 1950s, researchers have studied a large number of “dark” personality traits that include disregard of other people’s well-being as a central component. This research has shown not only that some people are predisposed to behave in ways that hurt others, but has also identified particular traits that are associated with specific patterns of harmful behaviors. For example, patterns of unethical, antisocial behavior can arise from low empathy, manipulativeness, moral disengagement, narcissistic entitlement, impulsivity, and a number of other dark traits. Not all bad people are the same.       

A team of European psychologists has recently completed a program of research showing that, despite their differences, all of these antisocial traits share a common core, which they called the Dark Factor of Personality, or just D for short. This personality characteristic involves the degree to which people single-mindedly focus on achieving their goals — whatever those might be at the moment — while callously disregarding the fact that their actions hurt other people or even by intentionally hurting other people to get what they want.

In the jargon of psychology, D is the tendency for people to maximize their own desired outcomes at the expense of other people, and to justify their harmful behaviors and the damage they cause through a set of antisocial beliefs. But just think of D as a particularly harmful and malignant form of selfishness. This dark trait may manifest in different ways in different people, but if we dig down deep enough, we find that many unethical, antisocial tendencies share this same basic core. 

Photo by Jack Moreh, courtesy of and copyright Free Range Stock
Source: Photo by Jack Moreh, courtesy of and copyright Free Range Stock

The researchers focused on several psychological characteristics that involve D, including:

Machiavellianism  endorsing the use of deceit and manipulation to get what one wants

Moral disengagement — an orientation to the world in which people don’t consider the moral and ethical implications of their actions

Narcissism  a pervasive sense of superiority and grandiosity, coupled with the belief that one is entitled to use, if not mistreat, other people to get what one wants

Psychological entitlement  the belief that one deserves to have more and to be treated better than other people

Psychopathy  a disregard for other people that is characterized by very low empathy and very low self-control (or high impulsivity)

Spitefulness  behaving in ways that harm other people, often for purposes of revenge, even when hurting others also harms oneself

Sadism  insensitive, cruel, or demeaning behavior in which people inflict physical or psychological pain or suffering on others in order to assert power or for pleasure 

This is obviously an unusually troubling set of characteristics. The interesting thing is that people who score high on each of them, as well as some others, score high in D. 

Digging a bit deeper, this dark master trait involves a package of three distinct things. The first is called utility maximization, which essentially involves doing whatever is necessary to get what one wants. For example, people who score high on this component on D report that they’ll say or do almost anything that’s needed to get what they want from other people.

The second component involves purposefully doing things to other people that interfere with their goals, cause them distress, or hurt them physically. And thirdly, people who score high on D have beliefs that justify their malevolent actions, such as believing that they are superior to other people or are entitled to get what they want.

The picture one gets of people who score high on D is one of extreme, abject selfishness. Of course, all of us look out for our own interests and behave in ways that we think will improve our lives and make us happy. Much of the time, pursuing our goals doesn’t have much, if any, direct effect on other people’s well-being. At other times, reaching our goals may interfere with other people’s ability to reach theirs — as when we win the game or get the job — but in these cases, everyone accepts upfront that someone will win, and someone will lose.

Most of us try not to hurt other people as we pursue our goals in life. But people who are high in D don’t care. In some cases, they may simply not worry about the fact that satisfying their goals hurts other people, but in other cases people high in D may intentionally hurt others in order to achieve their goals. Even worse, sometimes the goal itself is to hurt others, as when people seek revenge. And when they do hurt others, people who score high on the Dark Factor justify hurting other people to get what they want.

Now that researchers have identified this dark personality trait, research is needed on why it arises. What makes certain people habitually disregard others’ well-being and even do things that cause others great distress? And is there anything we can do, as individuals and as a society, to lower the level of selfish disregard that underlies so many of our problems and causes so much pain? Few other things would improve society more than finding ways to reduce the prevalence of the Dark Factor of Personality.

References

Moshagen, M., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (in press). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review. (doi: 10.1037/rev0000111).  For more information (and to obtain a copy of the original report), see http://www.darkfactor.org/