Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 18, 2019

The Heart of Darkness: The Dark Factor of Personality

by Morten Moshagen, Benjamin Hilbig, and Ingo Zettler
silhouette illustration of a Man Killing a Golden Goose with a Gold Egg.

It takes no more than a glance at the daily news to realize that unethical, immoral, and  harmful behavior seems to be literally everywhere. We all experience people lying, cheating, or abusing others, and we are also well aware of reports of downright evil acts such as sexual assault and murder.

Dark Personality Traits

Psychologists who study the human personality have long been interested in  identifying and describing  the personality characteristics that shape these kinds of harmful behaviors. Over the past few decades, psychologists have distinguished among several such “dark” personality traits based on the observation that people who engage  in malevolent acts do so for different reasons and out of different motivations.

For example, whereas some people act aggressively because they have  poor impulse control, others may use aggression strategically to achieve their goals, and still others may use violence for sheer enjoyment, sometimes even at some personal cost to themselves. Because malevolent actions may be based on different motives, psychologists have identified a plethora of dark personality traits over the years, including greed, Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, spitefulness, and many more.

Given that human malevolence is associated with so many dark traits, we wondered whether there might be some general psychological characteristic that binds all of these specific traits together: Could there be a single theme, something like a common dark core, that describes the basic features underlying all dark traits?  Based on a series of studies with more than 2,000 participants, we were able to identify the key characteristics that are common to all dark traits. We call this common core of all dark traits the Dark Factor of Personality, or just D for short.

What is the Dark Factor of Personality?

D is (rather technically) defined in terms of two components. The first involves the tendency to maximize one's individual utility while disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others.  Utility maximization refers to people’s attempts to maximize their own positive outcomes, such as money, power, excitement, pleasure, and other desired goals. Of course, all of us behave according to our own interests. However, people who are high on the D Factor cause others to suffer various costs while pursuing their own goals.

In the language of economics, these adverse or harmful effects are often called disutility. Disutility refers to anything that hinders people’s ability to fulfill their needs and desires.  For example, stealing something causes financial disutility, bullying someone causes psychological disutility, and hurting someone causes physical disutility. So, the first ingredient in D is the tendency to pursue one’s own interests in ways that ruthlessly cause harm to others people.  Indeed, sometimes the primary intention of the high-D person is to harm others.

The second ingredient is that high-D individuals hold beliefs that, in their minds, justify their anti-social behavior. For example, they may believe that they, or their group, is superior, thereby entitling them to dominate other people. Or, they may view the world as a dangerous place or competitive jungle, justifying their antisocial actions. Or, they may believe that other people are stupid or somehow losers and therefore deserve to be exploited, and so on. These patterns of beliefs allow people who are high in D to act in ways that hurt others with little, if any, guilt or remorse.  

In sum, D – the tendency to maximize one's own outcomes at a cost to others, while holding beliefs that justify those harmful behaviors – underlies all dark traits and represents their common psychological core. Thus, instead of saying that someone is an amoral, egoistic, narcissistic psychopath who selfishly acts according to her or his own interests and, in doing so, engages in sadistic and spiteful behaviors, we may just say that this person is at a high D level.

What is more, every specific dark trait – narcissism, psychopathy, spitefulness, greed, and so on -- is essentially a flavored variant of D. Dark traits largely differ with respect to the emphasis they place on the main characteristics of D. For example, some high-D individuals might hardly notice that they harm others (as in psychopathy), others might notice that they hurt others without caring (as in Machiavellianism), and other might even experience pleasure from the very act of harming others (as in sadism). So, although there are differences between various dark traits, they all share the same two features: others are harmed through self-interested behaviors that are, in the high-D person’s mind, justified in one way or another.  

Now that the common core underlying dark personality has been identified, an important next step is to determine why some people develop high levels in D and whether something can be done to lower the number of people with these dark characteristics.   

If you are curious to learn your level of D, you can take an online questionnaire at qst.darkfactor.org.


For Further Reading:

Moshagen, M., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2018). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review, 125, 656–688. doi: 10.1037/rev0000111

Morten Moshagen is Professor of Psychology at Ulm University, Germany; Benjamin E. Hilbig is Professor of Psychology at the University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany; and Ingo Zettler is Professor of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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