Giving the benefit of the doubt: The role of vulnerability in the perception of Dark Triad behaviours

Kai Li's PaperDescribed as a set of personality traits that are socially aversive, the Dark Triad – psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavallianism – is becoming a research focus within personality psychology.  Even at subclinical levels, these dark personalities are associated with significant social, emotional, financial, and sometimes even physical harm.

Although the Dark Triad underlies a host of detrimental behaviours such as exploitation, control, and deception, these traits have been associated with desirable traits, including charisma and boldness.  It has been argued that people with dark personalities are able to exert control over others because humans have psychological needs for authority and belonging.  These needs can easily be exploited, putting some people at risk of victimisation by social predators.  People develop an inclination for undesirable behaviours under circumstances that encourage its practice, suggesting that there is a two-way relationship between the Dark Triad person and the person on the receiving end of their behaviour.

With this in mind, a study was conducted by Kai Li Chung and Dr Kathy Charles aimed to determine the characteristics of people who ‘enable’ people with dark personalities (e.g. through tolerating unpleasant behaviours, not challenging unethical conduct, etc.).  The Vulnerability Scale was developed to capture the traits of individuals who have a tendency to fall victim to social manipulators.  Vignettes were used to elicit participants’ perceptions of Dark Triad behaviours.

The findings of the study revealed that people who were more vulnerable were significantly more agreeable and neurotic.  Those who had higher vulnerability scores also tended to be significantly less extraverted and conscientious.  The vignette-based study found significant differences in the response styles between high and low vulnerability groups.  People who were less vulnerable tended to be more assertive in expressing their opinions.  In contrast, vulnerable people had a milder response style, whereby their responses hovered around the neutral option.  It appears that vulnerable individuals see grey areas in Dark Triad behaviours, whereas less vulnerable people perceive more readily that people with dark personalities are malevolent.

One main limitation of the study, however, is the validation of the vignettes.  Therefore, an avenue of research is to compare the findings found using these vignettes to findings from other objective measures in order to evaluate internal consistency.

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