Study Suggests Common Stereotype About Psychopaths Isn't True At All


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Turns out the idea that "psychopaths" are seen as charming may not play out in real life as much as they would wish. Pressmaster/Shutterstock

It’s probably not surprising that those with "darker" personality traits tend to not leave the best first impressions, but – according to a new study – this works the other way around too. If you’re encountering such a person, the chances are that they’ll think you too failed at the first social hurdle.

Remember the Dark Triad? This was used by psychologists to describe three characteristics people may possess, all on a spectrum: Machiavellianism (the willful manipulation of others), narcissism (excessive self-admiration), and psychopathy (a tendency toward callous, insensitive, impulsive, anti-social, and non-empathetic behaviors).


People can exhibit behaviors pertaining to some or all of these traits, with high “scores” in all three indicative of someone with a fairly extreme outlier of a personality.

This new paper, however, adds in a fourth dimension, that of “everyday sadism". Think of people you know in life who quite enjoy psychologically maiming people in order to obtain varying amounts of personal joy. That’s an everyday sadist, in crude terms.

Psychopathy is still included, but is now termed subclinical psychopathy: something that isn’t a clinically diagnosable personality disorder, but something hinted at based on a person’s range of behaviors.

These four traits make up the "Dark Tetrad", and a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga-led team wondered not only how high-scoring people are perceived by others, but how they perceived low-scoring people. As pre-existing research suggests, it's complicated.


High scores have been previously linked to a decreased motivation for social connection and affiliation, as well as a penchant for individualistic or competitive orientation – traits seen as negative by many others. Saying that, narcissists are liked “at first” whereas Machiavellian people are “liked under certain circumstances”, perhaps when they’re behaving in a likable way to gain personally. Psychopathy and narcissism are associated with "short-term mate selection", and even sadists are possibly viewed in a positive way at first due to their style of humor.

The key issue here is that “Dark Tetrad traits, by definition, are not socially desirable and positive,” the authors explain. “Therefore, the question is whether other people can detect those non-normative (and negative) tendencies?”

In order to find out, the team recruited 412 (mostly female) undergraduate students who were allowed to interact in “brief, naturalistic, [and] unstructured” ways in groups of 4 to 12, before asking them to give impressions of others.

At the same time, a self-assessment of personality traits was handed in for each individual. Additional information, divulged by people who knew them well in the outside world, was also obtained.


Writing in the Journal of Personality, the team explain that these encounters revealed that, for the most part, those who had stronger Dark Tetrad traits viewed others, and were viewed by others, less positively and, curiously, less accurately too. Sadism was notably associated with being viewed as less positive, attractive, and likable.

It’s an imperfect study. After all, there was no real motivation to behave in a certain way, and the team suggests a goal-oriented situation, like a date or job interview, may yield different results.

Still, taken in isolation, this research suggests that, despite the aim of someone on the Dark Tetrad, they aren’t as charming or as successfully deceptive as they may perceive. At the same time, they get a bad feeling about others they’ve just met, even if there’s no real “threat” there.


  • tag
  • traits,

  • personality,

  • psychopath,

  • dark triad,

  • people,

  • perceptions,

  • narcissism,

  • sadism,

  • negatively,

  • tetrad,

  • machiavellianism,

  • first impressions