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Does a ‘dark triad’ of personality traits make you more successful?

The dark side of human personality has long fascinated the public and psychologists alike. Research has linked unpleasant traits such as selfishness and a lack of empathy to a higher income and better odds of landing a date.

But critics are starting to push back. In a new study, scientists argue such work is often superficial, statistically weak, and presents an overly simplistic view of human nature. Worse, they say it could have harmful implications in the real world by downplaying the damage dark personalities can cause.

“The situation is cause for real concern,” says Josh Miller, a clinical psychologist at the University of Georgia in Athens. Researchers, he says, have focused “on attention-grabbing, provocative work without the necessary interpretative caution.”

The criticism focuses on research into the so-called dark triad of personalities. Two Canadian psychologists coined the term in 2002 to group together Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy: traits linked by callousness, manipulation, and a lack of empathy. Thousands of papers have been published on the topic since then, with 1700 last year alone.

To capture all three, studies using the dark triad ask people to agree or disagree with statements such as “I have been compared to famous people” or “It’s not wise to tell your secrets.”

Some studies have then tried to link a volunteer’s dark triad score with real-world metrics, such as salary, sexual behavior, and attitude toward co-workers. Many of these papers have been picked up by the press, with such headlines as “Why a little evil is good” and “Republicans have more psychopathic traits than Democrats.”

Companies have gotten in on the action, too. In 2016, a U.K. firm advertised for a “Psychopathic New Business Media Sales Executive Superstar! £50k - £110k.” The advert claimed one in five CEOs were psychopaths, and said it wanted to find someone with “the positive qualities that psychopaths have.”

But dark triad studies are often far too superficial to draw any meaningful conclusions, says Miller, who—with colleagues—has published a strong critique of the field on the preprint server PsyArXiv. It will soon appear in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Part of the problem, Miller says, is that these studies usually use only a handful of criteria to rate someone as, say, a narcissist, a Machiavellian, and a psychopath, whereas standard tests use dozens to justify even one of those designations. In addition, he notes, much of the dark triad work has been carried out on narrow groups such as undergraduates seeking course credits, leading to doubts about whether the results can be applied broadly, including to the workplace.

The biggest flaw of dark triad research, however, is that it can oversimplify personality traits, Miller says, because the tests use so few criteria. A study might label someone a narcissist because they show high self-esteem, for example, even though many narcissistic attitudes—including a tendency to view others as rivals—are actually driven by low self-esteem. And the way academic researchers measure Machiavellianism in dark triad studies is problematic because it’s so different from how clinical experts do so in the field, he adds. Work on the dark triad, Miller says, needs to “take a really big step towards better quality.”

Delroy Paulhus, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and co-author of the original dark triad paper, rejects many of Miller’s criticisms. He says, for example, that any personality test has to be simplified to work with the general population. “These kinds of criticisms can be made of any personality scale,” he says. Miller and others who have taken issue with the dark triad idea “resent its popularity,” he says.

Minna Lyons, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom and author of a new book on the dark triad, acknowledges that the field is a “mess.” But she blames that on sloppy psychologists rather than fundamental weaknesses with the idea. She says her work shows psychopathy and Machiavellianism can both be accurately measured by the dark triad.

Paulhus does agree with Miller that dark triad researchers need to work on a wider range of volunteers. And he says scientists in the field should try harder to confirm subjects’ personality traits, perhaps by bolstering their self-reported traits with second opinions from friends. “Lots of research on the dark triad out there is less than stellar.”

All of this could help correct misconceptions playing out in the real world, says Ernest O’Boyle, associate professor of management at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington. He says many in the business community have become seduced by the idea—spread from flippant discussion in the research literature—that dark triad traits including psychopathy could have benefits, such as risk taking, which can influence hiring decisions.

“It’s potentially damaging when we start to glorify what are socially adverse behaviors and attitudes,” O’Boyle says. People who show psychopathic behavior, he adds, “are not people you want to helm a company.”