The Light Triad vs. Dark Triad of Personality

New research contrasts two very different profiles of human nature

 

I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” – Anne Frank

What’s one less person on the face of the earth, anyway?” – Ted Bundy

 

Why are dark triad people so seductive? Why do they get all the research attention? I asked my colleague David Yaden in his office. Immediately his ears pricked up, and he asked me to send him papers on the dark triad, remarking that he hadn’t heard of the dark triad but that it sounded fascinating (thus proving my point).

When I went back to my office, I emailed some papers to David and my colleague Elizabeth Hyde. In a quick email response, David simply wrote back, “light triad”? Now my ears pricked up. Was there such a thing? Had it been studied?

The dark triad has already been well-studied. First discovered by Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams in 2002, the dark triad of personality consists of narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit) and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). While these three traits had traditionally been studied mostly among clinical populations (e.g., criminals), Paulhus and Williams showed that each of these traits are clearly on a continuum—we are all at least a little bit narcissistic, Machiavellian and psychopathic.

Credit: Laura Harris Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Since their initial paper, research on the topic has increased quite a bit each year, with two-thirds of the publications of the dark triad appearing in 2014 and 2015 alone. While each of the members of the dark triad has unique features and correlates, there is enough overlap among these “socially aversive” traits that Paulhus has argued that they “should be studied in concert.” Indeed, there does appear to be a “dark core” to personality.

While research on dark personalities has certainly contributed to our understanding of the darker side of human nature, and how each of us differs in the extent to which we consistently exhibit dark patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors in our daily lives, what about the light side of human nature?

Everyday Saints

Socially aversive people certainly exist, but what about everyday saints? I’m not talking about the person who publicly does a lot of giving, and receives many public accolades and awards for all of their giving (and who constantly gives to others in order to achieve personal success). I’m talking about the person who, just by their being, shines their light in every direction. The person who isn’t constantly strategic about their giving, but who emits unconditional love naturally and spontaneously because that’s just who they are.

So this is what we set out to find out. Through many email exchanges and personal meetings, David, Elizabeth and I looked at existing tests of the dark triad and brainstormed a variety of items relating to the conceptual opposite characteristics of each member of the dark triad, but we created items that weren’t simply the reverse of the dark triad items. Our initial pool of items related to forgiveness, trust, honesty, caring, acceptance, seeing the best in people and getting intrinsic enjoyment from making connections with others instead of using people as a means to an end.

To our surprise (we hadn’t expected there to necessarily be three factors), three distinct factors emerged from our studies, which we labeled: Kantianism (treating people as ends unto themselves, not mere means), Humanism (valuing the dignity and worth of each individual) and Faith in Humanity (believing in the fundamental goodness of humans):

 

Credit: Scott Barry Kaufman, David Yaden, Elizabeth Hyde and Eli Tsukayama

After a series of refinements of our initial items (and sophisticated statistical analyses conducted by Eli Tsukayama), we settled on 12 items that capture the essence of this light triad. You can take the Light Triad Scale here (and also receive information on your light vs. dark triad balance).

We have now administered the Light Triad Scale to thousands of people of different ages, genders, races and ethnicities, and the results are far-reaching. First, it is clear that the light triad is not merely the opposite of the dark triad. While the two are negatively related to each other, the relationship is only moderate in size (a correlation of about .50), supporting the idea that there is at least a little bit of light and dark in each of us. In my view, it’s best to view those who score extremely high on the dark triad not as a separate species of human (after all, to have a dark side is to be human) but as magnified and unleashed versions of potentialities that lie within all of us.

With that said, it seems like Anne Frank may have been on to something in the opening quote of this article. We calculated a light triad vs. dark triad balance score for each participant by subtracting each person’s score on the dark triad from their score on the light triad. The average balance score of the entire sample was 1.3, suggesting that the average person is tipped more toward the light relative to the dark in their everyday patterns of thoughts, behaviors and emotions. As you can see in this scatterplot, extreme malevolence is extremely rare in the general population:

Credit: “The Light vs. Dark Triad of Personality: Contrasting Two Very Different Profiles of Human Nature,” by Scott Barry Kaufman, David Yaden, Elizabeth Hyde and Eli Tsukayama, in Frontiers in Psychology, March 12, 2019

Portraits of the Light and Dark Triad

What about the contrasting profiles of the light and dark triad? We found that the dark triad was positively correlated with being younger, being male, being motivated by power, instrumental sex, achievement and affiliation (but not intimacy), having self-enhancement values, immature defense styles, conspicuous consumption, selfishness and viewing their creative work and religious immortality as routes to death transcendence. The dark triad was negatively correlated with life satisfaction, conscientiousness, agreeableness, self-transcendent values, compassion, empathy, a quiet ego, a belief that humans are good and a belief that one’s own self is good.

The dark triad also showed positive correlations with a variety of variables that could facilitate one’s more agentic-related goals. For instance, the dark triad was positively correlated with utilitarian moral judgment and the strengths of creativity, bravery and leadership, as well as assertiveness, in addition to motives for power, achievement and self-enhancement. Also, an unexpected correlation between the dark triad and curiosity was found, which was localized primarily to the embracing (“I like to do things that are a little frightening,” “I prefer jobs that are excitingly unpredictable“) and deprivation (“It disturbs me when I don’t understand a solution,” “It bothers me if I don’t know a word”) forms of curiosity.

Interestingly, after we controlled for the more antagonistic elements of the dark triad, the dark triad actually showed positive associations with a number of growth-oriented outcomes. These findings suggest that the callous and manipulative core of the dark triad does not do these individuals many favors. It’s likely that the variance that is left over once the malevolence-related variance of the dark triad is removed is associated with agentic extraversion (the particularly aspect of extraversion associated with assertiveness, which may provide a protective factor for those scoring higher on the dark triad.*

In stark contrast, the overall picture provided by the pattern of correlations with the light triad was quite different than the dark triad. The light triad was associated with being older, being female, less childhood unpredictability, as well as higher levels of religiosity, spirituality, life satisfaction, acceptance of others, belief that others are good, belief that one’s self is good, compassion, empathy, openness to experience, conscientiousness, positive enthusiasm, having a quiet ego and a belief that one can live on through nature and biosociality (having children) after one’s personal death.

Individuals scoring higher on the Light Triad Scale also reported more satisfaction with their relationships, competence and autonomy, and they also reported higher levels of secure attachment style and eros in their relationships. In general, the light triad was related to being primarily motivated by intimacy and self-transcendent values. Many character strengths correlated with the light triad, including curiosity, perspective, zest, love, kindness, teamwork, forgiveness and gratitude.

Note that the flavor of curiosity associated with light triadstretching (“I actively seek as much information as I can in new situations,” “I view challenging situations as an opportunity to grow and learn“)—differed from the flavor of curiosity associated with the dark triad (primarily embracing and deprivation). Mature defense styles were also associated with the light triad (e.g., humor, sublimation, altruism, anticipation), as were optimistic beliefs about the self, the world and one’s future. Individuals scoring higher on the Light Triad Scale also reported higher self-esteem, authenticity and a stronger sense of self.

In general, the light triad does not appear to be associated with any obvious downsides, with a few possible exceptions depending on the context. The light triad was negatively correlated with the motives for achievement and self-enhancement (even though the light triad was positively related to productivity and competence). In terms of character strengths, unlike the dark triad, the light triad was uncorrelated with bravery or assertiveness. Such characteristics may be important for reaching one’s more challenging goals and fully self-actualizing.

Additionally, in line with our predictions, the light triad was related to greater interpersonal guilt—including survivor (“I sometimes feel I don’t deserve the happiness I achieved”), separation (“It makes me anxious to be away from home for too long”) and omnipotent responsibility (“I worry a lot about the people I love even when they seem to be fine”) forms of guilt. While it may be adaptive to experience these forms of interpersonal guilt for facilitating relationships and repairing damage in a relationship, these forms of guilt may limit one’s ambitions for fear of succeeding while others remain less successful.

The light triad was also correlated with greater “reaction formation,” which is considered by some psychologists as a neurotic defense style (but which I conceptualize in my own work as an aspect of mature altruism). The reaction formation scale consisted of the following items: “If someone mugged me and stole my money, I’d rather he be helped than punished” and “I often find myself being very nice to people who by all rights I should be angry at.” While having such “loving kindness” even for one’s enemies is conducive to one’s own well-being, these attitudes, coupled with greater interpersonal guilt, could make those scoring higher on the light triad potentially more open to exploitation and emotional manipulation from those scoring higher on the dark triad. Indeed, we believe further investigation of the social interactions between extreme light vs. dark triad scorers would be an interesting future line of research.

Conclusion

There are definitely limitations of our studies, and lots of areas for future research extending and developing our work. The 12-item Light Triad Scale should be viewed as a first draft, and our four studies should be seen as more exploratory than definitive.

Nevertheless, we hope our research helps balance the force in personality psychology. Yes, everyday psychopaths exist. But so do everyday saints, and they are just as worthy of research attention and cultivation in a society that sometimes forgets that not only is there goodness in the world, but there is also goodness in each of us as well.

You can read our scientific paper here. Also, you can take the Light Triad Scale here, and also learn about your light vs. dark triad balance.

*This is in line with recent research on narcissism conducted by my colleagues and I that explicitly separates the antagonistic and agentic extraversion facets of narcissism in predicting well-being. We have found that the agent extraversion aspect of narcissism is particularly adaptive when antagonism is partialed out of the equation.

DARVO: deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender

DARVO is an acronym for “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender”. It is a common manipulation strategy of psychological abusers.[1][2][3] The abuser denies the abuse ever took place, attacks the victim for attempting to hold the abuser accountable, and claims that they, the abuser, are actually the victim in the situation, thus reversing the reality of the victim and offender.[1][3] This usually involves not just “playing the victim” but also victim blaming.[2] It is similar to some mechanisms that have been passed down subculturally and misused institutionally for millennia in the phenomenon of anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism.[4]

The acronym and the analysis it is based on are the work of the psychologist Jennifer Freyd, whose webpage links to an article explaining that the first stage of DARVO, denial, involves gaslighting.[1][2][3]

Jennifer Freyd writes:

…I have observed that actual abusers threaten, bully and make a nightmare for anyone who holds them accountable or asks them to change their abusive behavior. This attack, intended to chill and terrify, typically includes threats of law suits, overt and covert attacks on the whistle-blower‘s credibility, and so on. The attack will often take the form of focusing on ridiculing the person who attempts to hold the offender accountable. […] [T]he offender rapidly creates the impression that the abuser is the wronged one, while the victim or concerned observer is the offender. Figure and ground are completely reversed. […] The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is put on the defense.[5]

Examples

Alleged examples of DARVO in public events include:

  • The behaviour of R. Kelly during an interview related to criminal proceedings against him for sexual abuse of minors.[6]
  • The behaviour of former American President Donald Trump in defending himself against sexual harassment allegations, as well as in defending himself against allegations of his other wrongdoings.[7][8]
  • Harvey Weinstein, in a 2017 interview, accusing his victims of gaslighting.[9]

In popular media

In the 2019 episode Season Finale of South ParkRandy Marsh is arrested for destroying home-growers’ marijuana. Randy calls President Garrison for legal advice. [10] The President explains to him DARVO and role plays how to use it.

Why do narcissists want to gaslight you?

Theory of Mind develops at around the age of four years old. This is where we realise that we don’t know what other people know. It’s an important precursor to empathy, for to empathise, there has to be somebody else just like me. There has to be another mind.

Having retreated into fantasy well before this point, the narcissist thinks that there is only one mind – theirs.

Everyone knows what the narcissist thinks they should know, believes what the narcissist has assigned them to believe.

The narcissist is not interacting with people, they are playing with dolls.

However, the Toys are Revolting.

The narcissist has assigned you with a role, and a limited set of knowledge. Being a Bad Doll, you seem to know more than you should. But that’s not the game. You’re ruining the game. When you go back to knowing what you should know, you will become a Good Doll again (lack of Object Constancy).

I’m certainly not saying being a Good Doll will be a pleasant experience for you – it will not.

Using hatred as their tool the narcissist sets about making the world right. Gaslighting is one way of doing this. The narcissist is attempting to make you know only what you should know, only what you know in their fantasy version of you.

It is as though the narcissist has been playing with dolls, when suddenly one of the dolls says “no, I’m not a fireman, and I don’t want to go into that building! It’s dangerous! I’m a landscape Gardener and my name isn’t Bob, it’s Max!! And you set the building up to collapse on me! I saw you!”

The narcissist is enraged. You’re just a stupid toy! You will do what you are told! The building is going to fall on you, you’ll go to hospital and be crippled for life, that’s the game!

If you transition from perfect lover to evil villain, that’s the game!

If you go from evil villain to benign, though short term benefactor, that’s the game!

You don’t have characteristics of your own, you have whatever the narcissist assigns you for this particular game. The Narcissist decides the game, not you!

You’re a f*cking toy!

Thus the narcissist, with single pointed determination has learned a bunch of tricks, neurolinguistic programming to smash human minds back into the game that is being played. If the narcissist says something didn’t happen, that’s because in their mind you don’t know that it happened.

The narcissist knows what you know, but you are just a toy! You cannot fathom the unknowable God! You are not Good! You are Bad! Bad dolly! Naughty dolly!

Smack smack smack,

Robert

The science of aggression and narcissism

 

Link to research article mentioned in the video: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?do…

Reference: Kjærvik, S. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2021). The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication.

The Willpower Instinct | Kelly McGonigal | Talks at Google

Neuroscientists talk about how we have one brain but two minds. We have a mind that acts on impulse and seeks immediate gratification, and we have another mind that controls our impulses and delays gratification to fulfill our long-term goals. We face willpower challenges when the two minds have competing goals. Learn what influences us to procrastinate or why we fail to resist temptation, and learn about small interventions that can have large, positive outcomes.

Author and Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, talks about strategies from her new book “The WillPower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It” as part of the Authors@Google series. Topics include dieting/weight loss, health, addiction, quitting smoking, temptation, procrastination, mindfulness, stress, sleep, cravings, exercise, self-control, self-compassion, guilt, and shame. For more from Kelly McGonigal, visit http://kellymcgonigal.com/​. This event took place on January 26, 2012 at Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA.