Do Dark Personalities Like Cognitive Stimulants?

Different views on ethical strategies for stimulation and success

Posted Feb 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

Many ambitious people begin their day by sitting down to eat a breakfast of champions, then getting up to dress for success.  They believe in pursuing excellence both physically and mentally.  But even people who are driven by positive routines believe there should be a limit to acceptable methods of gaining a competitive advantage.  

Image by Ernesto Eslava from Pixabay
Source: Image by Ernesto Eslava from Pixabay

Enhancing Performance

We live in a society, both academically and professionally, where people recognize the value of performing at their best.  We teach our young people about the value of honest ambition, hard work, and a commitment to excellence, both publicly and privately.   Opinions diverge, however, regarding appropriate methods of achieving optimal performance—morally, legally, and ethically.   Perhaps not surprisingly, this divergence may be tied to personality characteristics.  

Cognitive Stimulation for Success

Cognitive enhancement techniques range from non-pharmacological techniques such as meditation, a healthy diet, and common stimulants such as sugar and caffeine, to both legal and illegal drugs—which might be used more frequently among certain types of professional or student groups seeking to achieve a cognitive edge to maximize performance.  

But although there is widespread approval of mental and physical strategies for success, cognitive enhancement strategies are viewed differently by different people, depending on what is involved.  Most people approve of natural methods of improving mental and physical performance through diet, exercise, and even nutritional supplements.  But even people who order a double espresso at their local coffee shop might view the use of performance-enhancing drugs to gain a competitive advantage as unfair and unethical.  But not everyone holds a negative view of seeking a pharmacological boost.  Research reveals that personality characteristics might predict what types of people are more likely to approve of using drugs to improve cognitive performance.

Striving For Success Through “Smart Drugs”

When it comes to improving cognition, are certain types of personalities more likely to desire artificial enhancment? Eric Mayor et al. (2020) explored the link between Dark Triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism, and  Machiavellianism) and the desire to improve cognitive performance through methods of enhancement.[i]  They note that Dark Triad personality, as well as competitiveness, have been linked to holding “atypical ethical positions,” which they note may be manifest in attitudes about cognitive enhancement.  Specifically, Mayor et al. examined the impact of Dark Triad personality, trait competitiveness, and intra-organizational competitive climate on positive attitudes about using pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers, known as “smart drugs.”

The Dark Triad: Traits and Tactics for Success

Mayor et al. describe individuals with Dark Triad traits as morally disengaged, approving ideas other people would find morally unacceptable, and having a “propensity to seek high social status and personal gain at the expense of others.” They note that prior research shows that people with Dark Triad traits are more likely than others to behave deceptively, nefariously and even criminally.  They acknowledge that psychopathy is linked with drug use, Machiavellianism with making unethical choices, and narcissism with unethical behavior as well as risk-taking.  Professionally, they recognize that both psychopathy and Machiavellianism are linked with “cutting corners” in the workplace.  In fact, they note that all three Dark Triad personality dimensions are related to workplace manipulation tactics, as well as holding a positive view of doping in sports.

In their research, Mayor et al. found that Dark Triad traits, particularly Machiavellianism, predicted positive attitudes towards pharmacological cognitive enhancement.  Regarding the influence of a culture of competition, they found that a competitive climate may increase positive attitudes towards pharmacological cognitive enhancement only in individuals scoring high on dark personality traits.  

Personality and Perseverance

Obviously, there is nothing morally or ethically wrong with striving for success.  Many high achievers are healthy, benevolent, role models and mentors. They value hard work, resolve, and resilience.  And there are many people who suffer from cognitive disabilities or challenges that can benefit from legitimate pharmacological intervention.  Research examining the link between the approval of cognitive enhancement strategies and Dark Triad traits merely provides an interesting correlation to consider along with many other facts and circumstances, in evaluating personality.  


[i] Eric Mayor, Maxime Daehne, and Renzo Bianchi. The Dark Triad of personality and attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. BMC Psychol 8, 119 (2020).