In recent years, the "Dark Triad" personality traits have been a hot topic. These are supposedly the characteristics that distinguish the most dangerous and unsocial of us. A new study has shown that these traits can be reduced with simple interventions. There's only one twist.
Although it may sound like the villains in the next blockbuster superhero movie's Dark Triad, it is actually a psychological term. It was first used in 2002 to describe three personality traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy and Narcissism. Experts refer to them as "a being pure evil".
Maybe that's a bit exaggerated. The Journal of Personality published a new study this week that found people who have high dark triad traits are more likely to want to make positive changes.
It's possible, and all participants have to do is play the part. Participants in the experiment were instructed to take part in interventions that would increase positive personality traits over a four-month period. These included "donating money to charity that you would normally use on yourself" and "talking to strangers to ask them about themselves."
These activities increased participants' extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. This is a strong support for the principle of "fake until you make it." However, the study also notes that the agreeableness intervention led to reductions in the three dark triad traits.
"Interventions that target agreeableness may help reduce dark traits in ways people may be more likely to cooperate with," Nathan Hudson, a Southern Methodist University professor of psychology and the sole author of this paper.
Psychologists Virgil Zeigler Hill and David K Marcus found that people with dark triad characteristics are more likely to engage in crimes, cause distress to others, and be less pleasant to be around. These new findings might be welcome by people who are high in narcissism and psychopathy.
It's not so easy.
Hudson stated that "I would guess that people with high levels Machiavellianism do not want to be kind and nice people." He added that they feel manipulating other people is a useful and effective strategy to navigate life and get what they want.
This paradoxically means that even participants who wanted to improve their prosocial personality traits consistently said they didn't want their dark triad traits to be reduced. In fact, participants with higher Machiavellianism levels were more likely to wish to increase this trait.
Hudson stated that this finding is logical because these dark traits are associated with an excessive self-esteem and a willingness to hurt or use others for one's benefit. People with high levels of such traits might see their self-esteem or willingness to help others as an asset, rather than a liability.
This leads to an irony in the study. Machiavellianism is a negative trait that involves manipulation and exploitation of others. It also has a cynical disregard and focus on morality.