New research in the area of psychology has uncovered a 'light triad' of personality characteristics. These form a core of characteristics that people like about other people. They also help us to like ourselves. But why aren't we all like this? Why do some people instead develop a 'dark triad' personality?
Social behaviour clusters into 'good' and 'bad', and surprisingly can be narrowed down to just three traits in each camp. On the virtuous side we have a characteristic summarised as 'treating people as ends unto themselves'. This is labelled Kantianism, after Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who focused on questions of reality, experience and moral obligation. The second is referred to as humanism, and most of us will know this as valuing the worth and dignity of other individuals. The third in this light triad is perhaps more challenging, since it embodies the belief that we are each fundamentally good; encapsulated in the phrase, 'faith in humanity'.
For the last few decades personality analysis has instead dwelt on the antisocial and problematic personality characteristics, known as the 'dark triad'. These reflects not so much opposites of the light but three core socially undesirable personality characteristics: to seek to manipulate others for our own ends (Machiavellianism), to aim for admiration and special treatment (narcissism), and to be insensitively callous toward others (subclinical psychopathy).
Here we see personality traits of the arch villain of Hollywood blockbusters, but also characteristics displayed by many successful people: political leaders, unregulated professionals, company founders and officers, hustlers, and so on, all with that quintessential business ethos to get ahead no matter the cost. However, talk with these people individually and they are decent, caring types.
This observation suggests that the psychological characteristics we display at work may not be those of our core personality. So, what is it about our society that encourages this dark side to come out to play?
Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, looked at the scientific foundations for moral behaviour. At the risk of oversimplifying his thoughtful 300 pages, he appears to argue that we all know what well-being means and strive to achieve this for those around us and for ourselves without the need to be taught about morality or constrained by a set of rules. But why does this seem to go wrong at times?
Is environment to blame for changing our personality orientation? Do some environments reward problematic personalities and steer people into acting out of character? If so, are negative personality traits adaptive in certain situations?
Perhaps the issue is based in fear of limited resources, which drives hierarchical ranking, selfishness and competition. Inequality becomes the norm, with the myth of superman or woman at the top: it is simply easier to highlight and award individuals than to recognise the teamwork that gets them there. We also see this in the meteoric rise in cheating over the last decade; an issue that can be slated home to fear of poor scores in a workplace that acts more like a game of musical chairs than a system that seeks to utilise all those willing and able to contribute. It all sounds quite desperate.
But there is good news. In general, we do all appear to be born ready to seek well-being for ourselves and others. This moral knowledge and drive does appear to reside within us, ever-present, but encountered most clearly in a state of calmness, compassion and safety. What remains is to find a way to bring these states to the fore, both within ourselves and through the structure of our outer world.
It has to be said though, that there are genetic effects from birth, and morphological changes that occur in the brain with practice, habit, and ageing, that correlate with personality traits. However, mental plasticity can quickly reshape this organic matrix along with thought processes. For more detail on this see my book.
Promisingly, even a confirmed psychopath, the neurobiologist James Fallon, with the brain morphology to prove his condition and a worrying genetic pedigree has come forward documenting his desire to change and the story about how he successfully reformed his most problematic characteristics. This is mapped out in his book, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.
We have a choice. It is our inner world, our mood, which drives behavioural actions. To change this, all that is needed is to shift attention. So, in order to encourage the light triad of personality characteristics, the simple question, 'Is this the way I would like to be treated?', (restated in many quotes over the centuries) may be a useful place to start.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb