UBC Psychology professor Delroy Paulhus first introduced the concept of the ‘Dark Triad’ in 2002. They are a family of socially aversive personality traits that includes Machiavellianism (strategic manipulation), narcissism (excessive self-love), and psychopathy (impulsive thrill-seeking).
Together, these traits capture the sinister side of otherwise normal individuals. Along with Dan Jones, Dr. Paulhus created the Short Dark Triad (SD3), an efficient and reliable questionnaire measure that is now in widespread use. Recently, the Dark Triad roster has been expanded into the Dark Tetrad, with the addition of everyday sadism.
We sat down with Dr. Paulhus to learn more about why he studies dark personalities and his future plans for research.
First of all, what has led you to explore dark personalities?
Graduate school advisors often set the future research path for their students. My advisor, Richard Christie, once noted that the tendency to see other people as either good or bad interferes with a deeper understanding of human personalities. That notion has channeled my thinking in two ways. First, there are many ways in which people can be aversive. They can be manipulative, impulsive, grouchy, egotistical, undependable, etc., but rarely do we find all aversive traits in the same person. Second, obnoxious traits often have a plus side, a social niche in which they actually pay off.
Why did you choose to study this subset of dark personalities together as a unit?
When my students and I searched the personality literature, we were struck by the confusion surrounding these concepts. Just as Christie had warned, even research specialists tended to see dark personalities as interchangeable. The reason, we finally concluded, was a common element among these four, namely, interpersonal callousness. Although this lack of empathy for others plays out differently for each dark personality, it inevitably eventuates in harm to others.
The term ‘everyday sadist’ is the most recent addition to this roster. How does this character fit into the collection of dark personalities?
We argue that this one is special because the everyday sadist actually seeks out opportunities to hurt others. In impulsively grabbing what they want — money, sex, revenge — psychopaths can cause great harm without any guilt. The everyday sadist, as we have shown in lab studies, will go to great lengths (e.g., perform a long boring task) just for the opportunity to hurt someone. So their goal is the enjoyment of seeing others suffer. Erin Buckels and I have now developed a multi-dimensional measure that distinguishes three aspects of everyday sadism: direct, vicarious, and verbal.
Are there everyday sadists among us?
The more we looked, the more we saw evidence that normal people often enjoy seeing others getting hurt. Harmless examples include the slapstick comedy that most people enjoy as entertainment. But the hideous cruelty of Roman circuses has much in common with the mass appeal of violent films and sports. Perhaps the clearest example is the demand for more violent video games, where players don’t just watch violence, but participate by blowing heads off opponents to see the blood spurts.
A less graphic but directly harmful example is internet trolling, the nasty attacking of others for no apparent purpose other than humiliating or otherwise upsetting them. We showed that such individuals score high on the everyday sadism scale.
Does every society contain such people?
Dark personalities (at least Machs and psychopaths) are essentially parasites on society. They thrive because the efficient operation of society requires much trusting of others. The ones I study — subclinical versions — don’t push it too far and can remain part of a functioning system. Society can sustain a certain level of these parasites without collapse. If there were too many, dark personalities would resort to exploiting each other and lose any parasitic advantage.
According to evolutionary psychologists, dark personalities thrive among us because each variant represents an alternative reproductive strategy. Psychopaths, for example, reproduce by impulsive thrill-seeking; Machiavellians, by strategic manipulation. Each one has a niche in society where their exploitative personality style pays off.
What are the practical applications of your research?
We are now collecting data on several important applications — ones where dark personalities have the potential to wreak havoc in society. These include pro-criminal and terrorist attitudes. We are also investigating the pre-screening of applicants for military and police forces. These occupations provide such opportunities for abuse of power that their value to society can easily be undermined.