What are dark personality traits and what impacts do they have?

Written by Kristin Delgado, R&D Manager

The Dark Triad (DT) consists of three malevolent personality traits, narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. They are often measured together because they are moderately interrelated and tend to predict similar outcomes.

  • Narcissists have large egos, a strong sense of grandeur and are self-involved (Raskin & Hall, 1979).
  • Psychopaths are characterised by impulsivity, antisocial behaviour, and lack of empathy (Hare, 1999).
  • Machiavellianism is associated with the intentional manipulation and exploitation of others paired with a lack of morality and ruthlessness (Christie & Geis, 1970).

How to measure dark triad personality traits

Measures of the DT were initially developed for clinical purposes. They have since moved beyond that realm for use in non-clinical settings like the workplace. Most of these measures are traditional self-report personality instruments where individuals respond to a series of statements related to their attitudes and beliefs. But there are some concerns with this type of measure – they can be susceptible to response distortion by the respondent, particularly when the instrument is being used for decision-making purposes such as employee selection or promotion. While there is evidence to support the use of these instruments, the deceitful and manipulative nature of individuals high in DT begs the question: Would a less transparent approach be more effective?

In general, individuals tend to deemphasise their negative traits more than exaggerate positive characteristics. This can lead to deflated scores on negative traits. Individuals high in dark traits are more likely to fake responses based on their personality. They have the largest opportunity to do so because their true score is high, so they have more room to recognise this and decrease their self-rating, therefore reducing the overall score on that particular trait. Such individuals also have an increased motivation to fake responses because they have a propensity to self-enhance, and a personality test presents a trait-relevant situational cue that encourages expression of this self-enhancement propensity.

In particular, people high in Machiavellianism are especially likely to fake responses because a personality test in a selection situation presents a clear external reward (i.e., receiving a job offer), and the core of Machiavellianism is manipulation to receive a desired outcome. In fact, there is empirical evidence that people high in psychopathy and Machiavellianism have a higher ability to fake good responses.

Recent research suggests that established models of normal personality can be used to understand narcissistic or psychopathic tendencies embodied by DT. At Talogy, our researchers are actively exploring how to leverage predictive modeling techniques to capture socially undesirable traits in self-report assessments, such as DT. Specifically, machine learning applied to item response data from normal personality instruments to extract response profiles and patterns that are predictive of dark trait scores. This approach can be most effective when using items that are not transparent and don’t have a ‘correct’ answer, per se.

Related: The benefits of personality powered interviewing

Examples of personality correlates

Items relating to utilitarian thinking were associated with elevated psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Both of these dark traits are characterised by shallow emotional affect. So, it follows that decision-making processes would not include emotional information.

Also, we tend to see that dark traits have an interesting relationship with creativity, or preference for abstract thought. Theoretically, artistic creativity is related to socially unacceptable traits, such as a tendency to behave contrary to the norms, being opposed to the rules accepted by society, and non-conformity. One can see how this would be associated with the likelihood of engaging in anti-social behaviours. In addition, people high in Machiavellianism or narcissism are more prone to engage in scientific or artistic creativity, if these actions will lead to being viewed as more prestigious and of higher status.

Negative impacts of dark personality traits at work

Past research and our own data indicate that even mild elevations of dark traits are associated with problem behaviours that may manifest in a work setting.

These negative consequences include:

  • Counterproductive Work Behaviours (CWBs): Research supports a consistent pattern of significant relationships between the DT and CWBs.
  • Job Performance: Machiavellianism and psychopathy were both related to lower overall job performance in employees.
  • Leadership: Researchers have identified a relationship between the DT and derailing and toxic leadership where direct reports of psychopathic supervisors report lower job satisfaction.

In sum, individuals possessing dark traits are generally not beneficial to the effectiveness of an organisation and its employees.

It is important to note that these algorithms are not based on one or two responses, but a pattern of responses derived from both psychological theory and empirical data that would indicate a greater likelihood that an individual is on the higher end of one (or more) of the DT traits.

You might also like: The bright truth about personality tests and good science

Moreover, we want to emphasise that these subclinical measurement approaches cannot replace proper professional clinical diagnoses of personality disorders. An individual may indeed score high on one or more of these scales and still not meet the clinical criteria for personality disorder. However, it is encouraging to see that leveraging data science can help us measure traits that have been traditionally more difficult to capture, and which may have a significant impact on work behaviour.

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