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Are you obsessed with the dark side of psychological personality disorders?

The dark triad of negative personality traits, which includes narcissism, gets a lot of airtime – but does it skew our view of humanity? Suzy Bashford learns about a contrasting measure, the light triad

by Psychologies

Dark side

9 minute read

An obsession with the dark side of life is human nature – which is why so many of us binge-watch crime dramas. After all, we’re hardwired to scan the horizon for threats to our survival, a negativity bias that has successfully got us, as a race, alive and well to 2020.

However, in the modern world, threats to our safety are no longer sabre-toothed tigers but mostly other humans. This could in part explain why, particularly over the last few years, we have been inundated by psychological insights on how to spot people who display deeply negative characteristics which make up the dark triad: narcissism (typically associated with excessive selfishness and self-interest, a sense of entitlement and need for adulation), psychopathy (amoral and antisocial behaviour, egocentricity and an inability to love or have genuine relationships) and Machiavellianism (exploitation of others for our own ends, cunning, deceitfulness and dishonesty).

Danger, danger

You can’t pass a news stand without spotting a couple of headlines asking ‘Is there a narcissist in your life?’ or ‘Ways to tell if your partner is a psychopath’. There is a cacophony of advice, covering everything from ‘Can dark triad traits be detected in someone’s face?’ to ‘Why dark triad men are so attractive’.

As we pore over these quizzes and checklists, we ask who we know with these traits, ticking off annoying relatives, politicians and ex-boyfriends. Worse still, we ask if we have these traits and worry about a flicker of recognition.

But have we been focusing too much on the dark side? Psychologist and researcher Scott Barry Kaufman says we have, which is why he set out to balance the dark triad by creating the light triad. His is the first piece of psychological research that aims to measure a person’s dark and light characteristics.

While he understands our natural fascination with darkness – ‘we are most interested in what we most fear in ourselves and we never fear that we’re going to be a nice person’ – he believes we’re living in an era in which we need to shine more light on the positive side of humanity.

‘If we cultivate more light triad characteristics, they would add up to a far greater net positive in the world than the negative of the dark triad,’ he says. ‘We really need more unconditional acceptance of each other and faith in fundamental human goodness because we live in a time of cynicism and callousness.’ Kaufman’s research strives to reveal and celebrate ‘everyday saints’ who display a certain set of positive traits that make up the light triad. These are: faith in humanity – the assumption that, generally, people are good; humanism – the belief that people of all backgrounds deserve respect and appreciation; Kantianism; the principle that others should be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to our own end, that is, pawns in the game of our life.

Hero or villain?

Kaufman measures these traits, plus dark triad characteristics, through a series of questions in an online test. He presents a number of statements and the testee must select the answer that best indicates the extent to which they agree or disagree with each, being as honest as possible and relying on their initial gut feeling and without overthinking an answer.

For instance, a statement such as ‘I tend to see the best in people’ aims to measure your faith in humanity, whereas ‘I tend to manipulate others to get my way’ measures Machiavellianism. 

As I prepare to do the test to find out whether my personality tilts towards the light or the dark, I feel on edge, nervous about what I might uncover. The landing page even shows a visual of two lightsabre-wielding characters – will I be more Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker?

Initially, I breathe a sigh of relief when my result is revealed: 29 per cent tilted to the light side. Phew! But then I think – 29 per cent is not that light, is it? I’m obviously not saint material because there’s clearly some dark in me too.

Kaufman explains that it’s not as simple as labelling one person light and another dark because we all have a combination of the two, saints and psychopaths alike.

‘Being 100 per cent tipped to the light side is bad – life would be horrible for you,’ he says. ‘You’re going to be constantly exploited by everyone that you meet. It’s important to have a balance. Everyone has a mix of light and dark facets within them.’

Also, according to him, my high score for Machiavellianism (70 per cent) isn’t necessarily a negative thing because you need strategies (a certain amount of planning, aka scheming) to navigate life’s twists and turns. If you have too much light, there’s a chance you’ll be seen as a doormat by others and it will be difficult for you to achieve your goals.

Shadows therein

A crucial point to remember is that these traits are not set in stone and we are all capable of change. This is clearly stated in the message that delivers your online test result: ‘You might want to use this information as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth.’ While there’s no rule book to effect this change, Kaufman believes the best thing to do after taking the test is to ‘figure out what kind of person you want to become in the world, and work towards that’.

In my case, now that I am aware of my high score for Machiavellianism, I can observe my interactions with others and see whether my conversations ever become ‘transactional’ – where I am more concerned about what people can do for me, instead of really listening to what they have to say.

However, Kaufman stresses that he doesn’t want his test to become yet another stick with which to beat ourselves, or a way to judge ourselves over where we may be ‘falling short’.

Whipping girl

In his experience, women have a tendency to do this without justification and yet more women than men score highly on the light triad in his test. ‘Women are more likely to have anxious ruminations about their behaviour but the research suggests many of them can take a deep breath and relax a little, because they are doing just fine!’ says Kaufman.

Indeed the results show that, overall, humans are good. The majority of people who have taken the test are tipped towards the light side and extreme malevolence is rare, which gives us cause to have faith in humanity.

As Holocaust victim Anne Frank, while facing mankind at its worst, said in her diary: ‘I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.’ It looks as if, for the most part, she was right.

Take Scott Barry Kaufman’s test at scottbarrykaufman.com/lighttriadscale.

Switch on your light triad

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman’s tips to radiate faith, humanism and Kantianism, and be your best, brightest self

  • If you want greater light and to reflect positive human traits, Kaufman recommends ‘interventions that shift perspective and increase a sense of universal love and transcendence’.
  • He suggests daily loving-kindness meditations that connect you to others. He also proposes ‘perspective changing’, which can be done by putting yourself in another person’s shoes, even via virtual reality technology that enables you to see life from another person’s viewpoint and to experience their circumstances and world.
  • Cultivate light by ‘turning down the dial on your ego’. People with ‘quiet egos’ are mindful and balance their needs with those of others. They’re less defensive in conflict due to being able to see their opponent’s view. People with quiet egos display four traits: detached awareness (the ability to step back), inclusive identity (belief in a shared human identity), perspective-taking (understanding an alternate view) and growth-mindedness (the idea that we get smarter through hard work).

For more on this, see scottbarrykaufman.com/quieting-ego-strengthens-best-self.

Image: Getty

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