The “Dark Triad” of personality traits has gained a lot of attention in recent years, supposedly being the characteristics that mark out the most dangerous and antisocial among us. But according to a new study, those traits can be effectively reduced via some fairly simple interventions – there’s just one twist.
The Dark Triad may sound like the antagonists of the next big blockbuster superhero movie, but it’s actually a legit psychological term. Coined in 2002, it refers to three particular personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism – features which, when combined, can result in what experts refer to as “a being of pure evil.”
Well, maybe that’s overselling it. According to the new study, published this week in the Journal of Personality, people who score highly on dark triad traits often want to change for the better.
And the good news is, it seems to be possible – all they have to do is act the part. Over a period of four months, participants in the experiment were directed to follow interventions designed to increase levels of positive personality traits – things like “donating money to a charity that you would normally spend on yourself” or “talking to a stranger and asking them about themselves.”
These activities were successful in increasing participants’ extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability – a vindication for the principle of “fake it till you make it.” But “more excitingly,” the study notes, “the agreeableness intervention in particular spurred reductions in all three dark triad traits.”
“Interventions targeting agreeableness may be an effective way to help reduce dark traits in a way that people may be likely to cooperate with,” said Nathan Hudson, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University and sole author of the paper.
People with dark triad traits have been found to be more likely to commit crimes, cause social distress, and just be generally not very nice to be around – “dark personality features are socially aversive, and linked with various sorts of interpersonal difficulties and potentially destructive behaviors,” explained psychologists Virgil Zeigler-Hill and David K Marcus in 2016. So you might think these new results would be welcomed by those people who score highly in narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
But it’s not that simple.
“I’d guess that people with high levels of Machiavellianism, for example, do want to be nice, kind people,” Hudson said. “But they also feel that manipulating others is a good and useful strategy for navigating life and getting what they want,” he added.
And that means that, paradoxically, even those participants who wanted to improve their pro-social personality traits reliably said that they didn’t want to reduce their dark triad traits. In fact, those found to have higher levels of Machiavellianism were actually more likely to want to increase the trait even further.
“This finding makes some inherent sense in that these dark traits generally deal with having an overinflated view of oneself and being okay with hurting or using other people for one's own benefit,” Hudson said. “People high in such traits may view their high self-views or willingness to use others as an asset that helps them attain goals, as opposed to being a liability.”
Which leads to a certain irony in the study: Machiavellianism, an undesirable trait characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception, can be reduced by focusing on a seemingly unrelated personality trait – which, as psychological interventions go, is pretty Machiavellian.