Study Claims All Harmful Personality Traits Share One Dark Core

A new study done by Danish-German scientists has suggested that all of the malignant attributes that are found in the human psyche have a common “dark core”, and that these traits can all be considered just different manifestations of selfishness.

Furthermore, the researchers found that if an individual possesses one of these dark personality traits, they are likely to possess others as well.

Nine Dark Traits

While narcissism has become one of the most talked about dark personality traits in recent years, a new study published by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, the University of Koblenz-Landau, and Ulm University have identified nine “dark traits” in total. These traits include traits defined as part of the “dark triad” (Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy), but they also include other traits like moral disengagement, spitefulness, and egoism.

Here’s the nine different traits that the researchers identified along with how the traits were described by the researchers:

  • Egoism: preoccupation with one’s own achievement at the expense of others
  • Machiavellianism: “a manipulative, callous attitude and a belief that the ends justify the means”
  • Moral disengagement: the ability to behave unethically without feeling bad about it
  • Narcissism: excessive self-absorption, superiority, and extreme need for attention
  • Psychological entitlement: the belief that one is superior to others
  • Psychopathy: lack of empathy and self-control; impulsivity
  • Sadism: desire to inflict mental or physical harm on others for one’s own pleasure or benefit
  • Self-interest: desire to boost/highlight one’s own social or financial status
  • Spitefulness: willingness to retaliate/cause harm to others—even if it hurts oneself

In order for these traits to be quantified and defined, the researchers collected a test group of around 2500 individuals and had them answer a variety of questions. The questions included things like “Sometimes it is worth a little personal suffering to ensure others get deserved punishment”, and “It’s difficult to get ahead in the world without cutting corners occasionally”.

After the survey participants responded to the questions, the researchers examined people’s level of each attribute and then examined if there was any correlation between having one of the attributes and having other attributes. According to the researchers, there was a noticeable pattern of correlation: If an individual scored highly in one attribute they were also more likely to have a higher score in the other attributes.

Beyond this, researchers found that those who scored highly in the various categories would more likely keep money for themselves if they had the opportunity. A third finding was that high scores on the test were correlated with many expected social outcomes, like being more aggressive in pursuit of power, being more impulsive, and being less sensitive to the needs of others.

The D-Factor

So what is the “dark core”, or the root of these negative traits? It’s something that the researchers refer to as the “D-factor” and define as a general “tendency to maximize one’s own utility at the cost of others, accompanied by beliefs that serve as justification.” To put that another way, the primary source of negative/socially harmful personality traits is a desire to prize one’s own wellbeing above the wellbeing of others, and to justify actions that undercut the wellbeing of others through various rationales. According to the researchers, the function of the justifications and rationalizations is to prevent feelings like shame, guilt, or cognitive dissonance.

The model of dark personality traits advanced by the researchers undercuts some of the distinctions between the traits, explaining the seemingly different personality traits as just different manifestations of the same tendency, rather than distinct motivations and characteristics. So while some may deem it more acceptable to be an egoist than to be a psychopath, the authors of the study say the traits come from the same impulses.

Ingo Zettler, one of the author’s on the study, explains that for a given person the D-factor can primarily manifest itself as psychopathy, narcissism, or any dark trait. The individual’s D-factor can also manifest itself as a combination of these other traits. Zettler says that the D-factor can also show up in many different contexts, like lying, rule-breaking, manipulation, and extreme violence. Zettler says that for authorities trying to determine if an individual is likely to engage in socially damaging behavior, or re-offend after being punished, knowing something about the distribution of a person’s D-factor could be a valuable bit of information.

Comparisons To Other Models

The authors of the study have made direct comparisons to how intelligence is described with the g-factor. Research into the g-factor has also shown that those who score highly in one area tend to be score highly in other areas of intelligence as well. Furthermore, the “principle of indifference” is a principle that states the g-factor will link many of the different intelligence traits together without being reliant on the manifestation of a single trait. This was also found to be true with the D-factor. Yet while the study authors have made comparisons to the g-factor, they have made contrasts against other psychological models.

The famous “Dark Triad” of traits is a psychological model used in the field of applied psychology and interlinks three different traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. While explanations for the relationships that the triad attributes have to one another usually involve adaptive mechanisms, the D-factor has other explanations for the relationships in its. The Dark Triad is often seen as possible manifestations of an adaptive strategy that is centered around immediate rewards to enhance an individual’s survival probability.

In contrast, the researchers of the D-factor say that the relationship between the different attributes is more complicated and other explanations could account for some of its traits. As an example, the authors of the study state that because some of the traits involved in the D-factor involve incurring a personal cost to oneself, there could be more to the traits than a straightforward benefit to survivability or likelihood of reproduction.

The study didn’t define the level at which these traits become disruptive or harmful. For self-interest in particular, everyone is motivated by their own personal well-being and it isn’t clear at what score/level self-interest starts to move beyond the regular amount of self-interest we all have.

It’s also unclear how the study would explain economic models that propose rational individuals may act selfishly and still both derive benefits from their interaction. From a game theoretic perspective, two parties may both display self-interest and still benefit from their relationship. On the other hand, it could be stated that such mutually beneficial interactions between selfish parties require empathy for the other party. Future research into the D-factor may help answer these questions and improve the predictive power of the model.