Psychopaths Have Hogged The Limelight, Now It’s Time To Explore The Other Side

March 24, 2019

Psychologists have devoted much time over the last two decades documenting the dark side of human nature as encapsulated by the so-called Dark Triad of traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. People who score highly in these traits, who break the normal social rules around modesty, fairness and consideration for others, seem to fascinate as much as they appall.

But what about those individuals who are at the other extreme, who through their compassion and selflessness are exemplars of the best of human nature? There is no catchy name for their personality traits, and while researchers have studied altruism, forgiveness, gratitude and other jewels in our behavioural repertoire, the light side of human personality has arguably not benefited from the same level of attention consumed by the dark side.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, a team led by US psychologist and author Scott Barry Kaufman at Barnard College, Columbia University says it is high time we redressed this imbalance. “Too much focus on one aspect of human nature at the expense of the other misrepresents the full capacities of humanity,” they write.

Through four studies featuring more than 1,500 online participants, Kaufman and his team have created a new questionnaire that taps what they are calling the Light Triad (see example items below, and you can take the test online).

They’ve also provided preliminary evidence for the kind of personal characteristics and psychological outcomes that are associated with being a high scorer on the light side of personality – or what they call an “everyday saint”.

The research involved participants rating their agreement with statements designed to tap into the more positive, compassionate and selfless aspects of human personality. Kaufman’s team took inspiration for these items from surveys used to measure the Dark Triad, but they made sure that their new items were not simply the Dark Triad questionnaire items in reverse; they also sought advice from experts in positive psychology and personality psychology to help them with the compilation.

Participants also completed established measures of the Dark Triad, of the Big Five personality traits, and various other measures of psychological outcomes, well-being, values and characteristics.

The new 12-item Light Triad scale that the researchers settled on after removing redundant items taps three light traits: Kantianism (“treating people as ends unto themselves, not as mere means to an end”, as measured by agreement with statements like “I don’t feel comfortable overtly manipulating people to do something I want”); Humanism (“valuing the dignity and worth of each individual”, as measured by agreement with statements like “I tend to treat others as valuable”); and Faith in Humanity (i.e. “believing in the fundamental goodness of humans”, as measured by agreement with statements like “I think people are mostly good”).

The participants’ scores on the Light Triad traits were negatively correlated with their scores on the Dark Triad traits, but only modestly, suggesting that each is not merely the mirror opposite of the other, and that we all have varying levels of both light and dark traits. On an uplifting note, Kaufman and his colleagues found that their participants’ scores were skewed more towards scoring higher on the Light Triad than the Dark (see below). “Extreme malevolence was rare in the samples we studied,” they write.

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