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Study Suggests ‘Dark Core’ Underlies Malign Character Traits

A new Danish-German study suggests that all malevolent aspects of the human personality, including narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, spitefulness and others, appear to share a common “dark core” and are essentially just flavored manifestations of a single common underlying disposition: extreme selfishness.

According to the theory, if you have a tendency to show one dark personality trait, you are more likely to display others.

The common denominator of these traits, known as the dark core factor or “D-factor,” can be defined as the general tendency to maximize one’s own benefit over the benefit of others. This often includes creating justifications for one’s own hurtful actions and thus avoiding any feelings of guilt, regret or shame; or disregarding, accepting, or even malevolently provoking disadvantage for others.

In the journal Psychological Review, researchers Dr. Ingo Zettler, Professor of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen, and two German colleagues, Drs. Morten Moshagen from Ulm University and Benjamin E. Hilbig from the University of Koblenz-Landau, demonstrate how the D-factor is present in nine of the most commonly studied dark personality traits:

  • Egoism: an excessive preoccupation with one’s own advantage at the expense of others and the community;
  • Machiavellianism: a manipulative, callous attitude and a belief that the ends justify the means;
  • Moral disengagement: cognitive processing style that allows behaving unethically without feeling distress;
  • Narcissism: excessive self-absorption, a sense of superiority, and an extreme need for attention from others;
  • Psychological entitlement: a recurring belief that one is better than others and deserves better treatment;
  • Psychopathy: lack of empathy and self-control, combined with impulsive behavior;
  • Sadism: a desire to inflict mental or physical harm on others for one’s own pleasure or to benefit oneself;
  • Self-interest: a desire to further and highlight one’s own social and financial status;
  • Spitefulness: destructiveness and willingness to cause harm to others, even if one harms oneself in the process.

In a series of studies with more than 2,500 individuals, the researchers asked to what extent people agreed or disagreed with statements such as “It is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there;” “It is sometimes worth a little suffering on my part to see others receive the punishment they deserve;” or “I know that I am special because everyone keeps telling me so.”

In addition, the researchers studied other self-reported tendencies and behaviors such as aggression or impulsivity and objective measures of selfish and unethical behavior.

The researchers’ mapping of the common D-factor can be compared to how Charles Spearman showed about 100 years ago that people who score highly in one type of intelligence test typically also score highly in other types of intelligence tests, because there is a general factor of intelligence.

“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,” Zettler said.

“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. But with our mapping of the common denominator of the various dark personality traits, one can simply ascertain that the person has a high D-factor. This is because the D-factor indicates how likely a person is to engage in behavior associated with one or more of these dark traits,” he said.

In practice, this means that a person who exhibits a particular malevolent behavior (such as likes to humiliate others) will have a higher likelihood to engage in other malevolent activities as well (such as cheating, lying, or stealing).

“We see it, for example, in cases of extreme violence, or rule-breaking, lying, and deception in the corporate or public sectors. Here, knowledge about a person’s D-factor may be a useful tool, for example to assess the likelihood that the person will reoffend or engage in more harmful behavior,” Zettler said.

Source: University of Copenhagen


Study Suggests ‘Dark Core’ Underlies Malign Character Traits

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Study Suggests ‘Dark Core’ Underlies Malign Character Traits. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Sep 2018 (Originally: 27 Sep 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 26 Sep 2018
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