Born to Be Bad?

02.10.2020 |

Episode #2 of the course Psychology of evil by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! In this lecture, we are going to focus on the dispositional perspective of the psychology of evil. Are some people born evil? Well, another way to approach this question is to first ask whether most people are born good?

Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University, has extensively studied the emergence of morality in babies and young children. In his book “Just Babies”, he outlines the findings of his research. For instance, in one study, 1-year-old babies viewed a puppet show featuring a “nice” puppet and a “naughty” puppet. Children watched as the nice puppet passed a ball back to another puppet, whereas the naughty puppet ran away with it. Later, when given a choice, the children were more likely to take a treat away from the naughty puppet. In other studies, his team found that babies as young as three months of age would look longer at a character that helps someone than a character that hinders somebody. Bloom argues that certain core aspects of morality are likely hard-wired into us and are a product of human evolution. On the surface, it appears that most of us are naturally inclined to act morally.

In a similar vein, most psychologists view personality as being a collection of individual traits that are genetically-based and are stable across time. The American Psychological Association defines personality as “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”. Personality traits are internal “dispositions” that all people have. In other words, we are born with a set of traits that help guide our behavior as we mature. Even though it is presumed that we all have the same basic traits, individual people vary on where they land on a continuum from low to high on separate traits.

Over the past 20 years or so, personality psychologists have attempted to identify and measure individual traits that are linked to committing immoral or evil actions. Emerging from this research is a personality model called the Dark Triad, first introduced by psychologists Del Paulhus and Kevin Williams in 2002.

This model is comprised of three traits that are each uniquely associated with evil, and they are Machiavellianism (expressed by blunt emotions, manipulating people, and putting oneself ahead of others); Narcissism (characterized by lack of empathy, exhibitionism, and ego inflation); and Psychopathy (comprised of impulsivity, being callous, and no remorse for others). While the three traits are related to each other, and frequently occur together, each trait has been identified as being distinct.

Personality researchers and clinicians use sophisticated self-report questionnaires to measure these traits. For the Dark Triad, there are a number of popular scales used by researchers to assess where people score on each trait. If you are interested in your own Dark Triad traits, you can find a free online test here.

In addition, where people stand on immoral or anti-social behavior can also be measured with a six-trait personality model called HEXACO. One trait specifically, called Honesty-Humility, refers to the extent to which someone is honest, trustworthy, and generous. People who score high on Honesty-Humility are commonly seen as being good people. However, people who score low on Honesty-Humility display characteristics like greed, arrogance, and selfishness. Research has found that all three Dark Triad traits correlate with low scores on Honesty-Humility.

If you would like to try the HEXACO model for yourself, you can find an online version with a full report of your scores here.

What’s vital about these models is that the traits they describe can predict whether someone will act in ways that either benefit themselves or possibly harm other people across numerous domains in life. Over the next three lectures, we will break down the Dark Triad model into its separate pieces and look at each trait in more detail. In tomorrow’s lesson, we will start by exploring Machiavellianism. See you in the next lecture!


Recommended book

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom


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