In day to day life we all encounter people who consistently exhibit morally questionable behaviour. Psychologists describe these individuals as possessing one or more “dark” traits. Previous studies have shown that these traits relate to one another - but do they share a common denominator … a “dark core”? Recent research from the University of Copenhagen has found evidence that this may actually be the case!

The presence of nine dark traits was identified in over 2,500 participants using questionnaires. Analyses of these data identified positive correlations between all nine traits, signifying a common origin, or “dark core”. Importantly, the observation of any individual trait can predict with equal certainty the presence of other dark traits, an incident termed the “indifference of the indicator”.

The dark core is defined as the general tendency toward maximising one’s own goals at the expense of others, accompanied by beliefs that justify these behaviours. The dark core can manifest in many different forms, including the nine dark traits. However, the Copenhagen study demonstrates that these are all expressions of the same dispositional tendency.

The nine traits are conceptually distinct, but in practice they have many more aspects in common than aspects setting them apart. Some dark traits may seem more acceptable than others, for example narcissism versus psychopathy, but people possessing either trait have the same disposition to carry other malevolent traits. The researchers note that this finding has important implications for criminology, in particular ascertaining whether an individual will reoffend, or even partake in more harmful behaviour. This research can also inform future studies into the cognitive patterns and brain physiology of individuals possessing dark traits and help identify the risk factors and triggers for their development.

The nine dark traits researched in this study:

1. Egoism: motivation to only serve one’s own interests;

2. Machiavellianism: callous manipulation of others;

3. Moral disengagement: belief that moral standards do not apply to oneself;

4. Narcissism: self-absorption, a sense of superiority;

5. Psychological entitlement: consistent belief that one is entitled to more than others;

6. Psychopathy: superficial charm, lack of empathy;

7. Sadism: deriving pleasure from inflicting pain;

8. Self-interest: ambition to better one’s status, without regards for others;

9. Spitefulness: maliciousness even at personal expense.

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