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Defining the toxic personality

Defining the toxic personality

Psychology experts conducted a study to define the factors that might connect and predict ‘dark traits’ in individuals, including narcissism, psychopathy, sadism and self-interest.

“LinkedIn influencer”, self-described “Chief People Scientist” and “award-winning coauthor of the #1 best selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0”, Dr Travis Bradberrey, penned an article published by Forbes entitled, “10 Toxic People You Should Avoid At All Costs”. Bradberrey’s ten personae non gratae are: the gossip, the temperamental, the victim, the self-absorbed, the envious, the manipulator, the twisted, the judgemental, the arrogant, and the dementor. 

Yes, that last one takes its title from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. As Bradberrey puts it, “Dementors are evil creatures that suck people’s souls out of their bodies, leaving them merely as shells of humans. Whenever a Dementor enters the room, it goes dark, people get cold, and they begin to recall their worst memories.”

On WebMD’s “medically reviewed” article titled “Signs of a Toxic Person”, six “most common signs” of toxicity to watch out for are listed as: “inconsistency”, “they always need your attention”, “there is always drama”, “they don’t respect your boundaries”, “they manipulate others for what they want”, and lastly, “they abuse substances”. Meanwhile, on Psychology Today, author, psychologist and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s adjunct professor George S Everly Jr writes: “there are at least four basic types of toxic people: the narcissistic-aggressive person, the ‘frenemy’, the negative-complaining person, and the seductive, overly-dramatic person.”

The internet is littered with similar quick reads, diagnosing toxicity and prescribing solutions. Mental Health America, a non-profit founded in 1909, lists “eight traits of toxic people”, five of them a combination of some of the above, while introducing three alternate options to make up their eight: negativity, passive aggression, and controlling behaviour.

The Oxford Dictionary defines toxicity in human behaviour as “very unpleasant, especially in the way somebody likes to control and influence other people in a dishonest way”. 

But to be clear, “toxicity” in reference to human behaviour is an entirely colloquial and highly subjective term. It is not a formally recognised condition or diagnosis in the field of psychology.

However, psychology experts have produced a large and evolving body of work studying those personality traits that are generally viewed as “dark”, and that research encapsulates many of the behaviours described as toxic in everyday language. In fact, a recent study published in 2018, titled “The Dark Core of Personality”,  conducted by Ingo Zettler, a professor of psychology at the University of Copenhagen, alongside two German colleagues, Morten Moshagen from Ulm University’s Institute of Psychology and Education and Benjamin E Hilbig from the University of Koblenz and Landau’s Department of Psychology, sought to spell out these behavioural traits and define their relationship to each other, as well as the factor at the centre of them, which they call “Dark Factor of Personality”, simply shortened to “D”.

The darkness within

“Herein, we provide a unifying, comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding dark personality in terms of a general dispositional tendency of which dark traits arise as specific manifestations. That is, we theoretically specify the common core of dark traits, which we call the Dark Factor of Personality (D),” the researchers explain.

Egoism, Machiavellianism, moral disengagement, narcissism, psychological entitlement, psychopathy, sadism, self-interest, and spitefulness; these are the nine traits of “Dark Factor of Personality” outlined by the authors in their paper. In defining D, they write: “The fluid concept of D captures individual differences in the tendency to maximize one’s individual utility — disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others — accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications.”

In the context of their research, individual utility is defined as a “measure of extent of goal achievement”. Depending on the individual, this could be in reference to the pursuit of elevated status, monetary payoffs, or feelings of “power, superiority, pleasure and joy”.

This does not merely refer to ambition or straightforward overachievement, but rather specifically the willingness to seek the maximisation of one’s utility even if it is at the expense of others, or worse, to pursue such specifically to cause others harm. In a nutshell, they argue that these traits are linked to the predisposition towards placing one’s goals, pursuits and interests above those of others, no matter the harm that might be visited upon them, or worse, intentionally taking pleasure in the harm one might cause.

The initial research included over 2,500 online participants, whom the researchers measured according to how strongly they agreed or disagreed with specific statements. “In proposing D — the Dark Factor of Personality — we specify the basic principles underlying all dark traits and thereby provide a unifying, comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding dark personality… All commonalities between various dark traits can thus be traced back to D, so that D represents the common core of all dark traits,” they write.

According to their findings, the high D scorers also hold beliefs that serve as justifications for their individual utility maximisation. “For example, individuals high in D may tend to consider themselves as superior, to consider others as inferior, to endorse ideologies favouring dominance, or to believe that people generally think about themselves first and that, therefore, there is no injunctive norm to refrain from utility maximisation. These — and other — beliefs offer some kind of justification to strive for own benefits at the cost of others.”

In terms of personality, the researchers reference what is known as the Hexaco model of personality, a six-factor model used to measure personality. The six factors are Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience. They found that “D was primarily related to low Agreeableness and low Conscientiousness, indicating that individuals high in D are characterised by a lack of compliance, kindness, and modesty as well as higher impulsivity, lack of law-abiding, rule-following, and self-control, especially when dealing with others. In addition, D also exhibited weak to moderate links to (low) Extraversion and Neuroticism, probably reflecting a less sociable and more anxious, irritable, or moody manner.”

Some psychopaths are more equal than others

In establishing the theory of D as being at the core for a number of behaviours, specifically the nine dark traits mentioned above, they add that the higher an individual’s D-score, the more likely an individual is to exhibit other dark traits. For example, an individual who exhibits a high level of psychopathy, might also exhibit a high level of sadism.

Comparing their D-factor theory to the g-factor theory for intelligence which was established by the English psychologist Charles Spearman a century ago, Zettler tells Science Daily: “In the same way, the dark aspects of human personality also have a common denominator, which means that — similar to intelligence — one can say that they are all an expression of the same dispositional tendency… For example, in a given person, the D-factor can mostly manifest itself as narcissism, psychopathy or one of the other dark traits, or a combination of these… This is because the D-factor indicates how likely a person is to engage in behaviour associated with one or more of these dark traits.”

However, there is no exact predictor as to what other behaviours they might express. For instance, with regards to a high level of self-interest, the researchers write: “Self-Interest is defined as a rather mild form of individual utility maximisation in terms of pursuing gains in ‘socially valued domains, including material goods, social status, recognition, academic or occupational achievement, and happiness’… According to this definition, aiming for material goods and a higher status are the only aspects that immediately imply potential disutility for others (which is a defining feature of D). It is quite possible, for example, to strive for occupational achievement or happiness without inflicting negative consequences for others.”

Got some D?

While they published their initial findings in 2018, their research is ongoing. The team has established a website,, where members of the public can take one of a number of tests, ranging from three to fifteen minutes long, to measure their own Dark Factor of Personality, while also contributing to the research. DM/ML


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