Anyone with interest in psychology will no doubt have heard of the dark triad – the three traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) most often associated with the more devilish facets of human nature. We'd even go as far to say as you probably know a person or two – famous or otherwise – who displays one or more of these traits.
But what of their polar opposite? What, in other words, would make a "modern-day saint"?
Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Hawai’i-West O’ahu have created the first draft of a so-called "light triad" for the Princess Di and Mother Teresa's of the world. The test (which you can take here) involves 12 questions from "I tend to see the best in people" to "I tend to manipulate others to get my way", which can each be answered on a scale of "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".
The end result is a composite of scores on three personality traits: Kantianism, humanism, and faith in humanity.
In this case, Kantianism, named after the Enlightenment philosopher, essentially boils down to the idea that you see a person as ends unto themselves rather than a means to an end. Or, in Kant's own words: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end," (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 36). As such, it's an antonym to "Machiavellianism", named after Italian diplomat and humanist Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli; the idea that any means can be used to obtain power.
Humanism values the dignity and worth of each individual and faith in humanity is exactly what it says on the tin – the idea that everyone is, in essence, good.
The researchers tested their concept with the help of 1,518 volunteers recruited online. Not only were they required to complete the questionnaire, but they were also asked to fill in a number of self-report survey items and tasks, including personality tests.
This method might not be perfect (it relies on self-reporting and only accepted participants from English speaking countries, for starters) but it did throw up a number of interesting correlations (again, not perfect – correlation does not mean causation). Those who scored higher on light triad traits, for example, skewed older and female. They were much less likely to have experienced a lot of unpredictability growing up. They were also more likely to describe higher levels of spirituality, religiosity, and life satisfaction, in addition to empathy, compassion, conscientiousness, and openness to experience and to others.
Meanwhile, those who scored higher on dark triad traits skewed the other way (younger, male) and scored lower on traits like compassion, empathy, and agreeableness. They were more likely to report being motivated by power and status and were more likely to engage in casual sex and have superficial relationships.
Despite the apparent dichotomy between light and dark traits, however, it is not necessarily so clear cut. We all sit on a spectrum but a lack of dark traits does not necessarily imply the presence of light, the researchers say.
"We’d like to emphasize that no one is all Light or Dark Triad, and we each differ in our balance of these traits," the study authors write.
"Nevertheless, it should also be noted that the average light-dark balance showed a substantial skew toward the light side of personality, and extreme malevolence was rare in the samples we studied. Indeed, research has shown that, in general, people tend to view the ‘true’ self in others as both good and moral."