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Washington State University
CAS Connect March 2016

Shining new light on dark personalities

Spite, narcissism, sadism, psychopathy—almost always portrayed negatively, these and other “dark personality” traits can have a bright side, too, says David Marcus, professor and chair of psychology.

David Marcus

In The Dark Side of Personality: Science and Practice in Social, Personality, and Clinical Psychology, a new book edited by Marcus and Virgil Zeigler-Hill, they and some 40 other prominent social and clinical psychologists explore the negative consequences of many dark personality traits and reveal some of the counterintuitive benefits, as well.

The book also examines adverse effects of personality traits that are largely considered benevolent, such as confidence and perfectionism.

“In recent years, the trend of positive psychology has really hit its stride, but in The Dark Side of Personality, we like to focus on the darker side of things,” Marcus said. “In a way, it’s more interesting to me.

“Figuring out what causes negative personality traits, like spite, and what their everyday consequences are, has as much or more potential to increase the quality of peoples’ lives than always focusing on the positive.”

On the bright side

Although spiteful behavior can cause considerable suffering, it may also limit exploitation and encourage fairness and reciprocity.

For example,in a computer simulation of an evolving human population, researchers found that the presence of some spiteful individuals led to fairer, more prosocial behavior than if spiteful members were lacking.

Cover of ‘The Dark Side of Personality’ co-edited by WSU psychologist David Marcus and colleague Virgil Zeigler-Hill.

“The mere threat of spiteful retaliation may lead people to treat others more fairly,” Marcus said. “Despite its potential for harm, spite can actually help in enforcing important social norms.”

Narcissism, another dark personality trait, is most often associated with conceited, arrogant, and domineering behaviors. Yet, in the professional world, narcissistic individuals are consistently selected as organizational leaders and generally perform well on tasks that present them with opportunities for recognition and glory.

Narcissists also tend to be more successful than most in the initial stages of dating.

Finding a bright side to sadism—the enjoyment of other people’s suffering—might seem especially unlikely, but researchers think its ubiquity in human culture suggests a possible reproductive advantage for sadistic individuals.

Too much of a good thing

Among more positively regarded personality traits, confidence also can have a surprising flip side—similar to spite, narcissism, and sadism.

Joyce Ehrlinger
Joyce Ehrlinger

While being confident can help us get ahead in life, too much confidence can be a bad thing, said Joyce Ehrlinger, assistant professor of psychology. How overconfidence can hurt is one of the issues she addresses in the chapter she contributed to The Dark Side of Personality.

People tend to view themselves as better than average with respect to their intellectual abilities, job performance, and social skills, Ehrlinger found. For example, 90 percent of drivers rate themselves as above average in their driving ability.

“People anchor on the fact that a task is easy for them and give too little weight to the fact that this same task is likely easy for others,” Ehrlinger said. “The primary reason that those who lack skill remain grossly overconfident is that they lack the knowledge necessary to recognize when they are mistaken and in what ways they need improvement.”

Overconfidence can lead individuals into dangerous situations. For example, the quest to scale Mt. Everest has claimed the lives of more than 800 people, many of whom were inexperienced climbers, and thousands more have been injured pursuing the same goal.

Had their levels of confidence and ability been more closely matched, their adventures might have ended differently, she said.