The dark side of human personality has long fascinated the public and psychologists alike. Research has linked unpleasant traits such as selfishness and a lack of empathy to a higher income and better odds of landing a date.
But critics are starting to push back. In a new study, scientists argue such work is often superficial, statistically weak, and presents an overly simplistic view of human nature. Worse, they say it could have harmful implications in the real world by downplaying the damage dark personalities can cause.
“The situation is cause for real concern,” says Josh Miller, a clinical psychologist at the University of Georgia in Athens. Researchers, he says, have focused “on attention-grabbing, provocative work without the necessary interpretative caution.”
The criticism focuses on research into the so-called dark triad of personalities. Two Canadian psychologists coined the term in 2002 to group together Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy: traits linked by callousness, manipulation, and a lack of empathy. Thousands of papers have been published on the topic since then, with 1700 last year alone.
To capture all three, studies using the dark triad ask people to agree or disagree with statements such as “I have been compared to famous people” or “It’s not wise to tell your secrets.”
Some studies have then tried to link a volunteer’s dark triad score with real-world metrics, such as salary, sexual behavior, and attitude toward co-workers. Many of these papers have been picked up by the press, with such headlines as “Why a little evil is good” and “Republicans have more psychopathic traits than Democrats.”
Companies have gotten in on the action, too. In 2016, a U.K. firm advertised for a “Psychopathic New Business Media Sales Executive Superstar! £50k – £110k.” The advert claimed one in five CEOs were psychopaths, and said it wanted to find someone with “the positive qualities that psychopaths have.”
But dark triad studies are often far too superficial to draw any meaningful conclusions, says Miller, who—with colleagues—has published a strong critique of the field on the preprint server PsyArXiv. It will soon appear in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
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