Niccolò Machiavelli

Dark Triad Personality Traits & Belief in a Just World

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Niccolò MachiavelliNote: Since this is a longer article than usual, I’ve gone to the trouble of putting the most important information in bold. That means you can simply scroll down and just read the bold lines in order to get a brief gist of my project and its findings.


Around 6 months ago I promised a number of people that I would write up an in-depth article on the findings of the research project I was carrying out as part of my Bachelor’s degree with honours. I originally wanted to do so after I received my grade for the project, but instead I find myself with a hunger to reveal it all before any of that happens.

I’d like to say that, overall, the project itself was a great success, and it all went according to plan without too many hiccups in the process. The write-up of the 11,000-word document itself was probably the toughest part to get through, knowing what to put in and what to leave out of something that should resemble an actual academic journal article. I also had to create an academic poster which put across the area of research as well as my methodology and basic findings, you can view this by clicking here.

The next challenge I’ve set myself is to get my research published in an academic psychology journal so that it can be read and used to benefit others researching similar topics. I actually expect this to be an even more difficult challenge as I’ll have to seriously whittle down the content of my paper to its core, and I’ll have to make sure it flows as professionally as possible for it to even have a chance of being accepted. I’ll keep at it regardless of the outcome as having something published is something of a personal goal of mine.

With that housekeeping out of the way, I’ll go straight into what I did, how I did it, what I found, and what that means.

What is Dark Triad & Belief in a Just World?

The Dark Triad Model

the-dark-triad-modelThe Dark Triad is a model of personality traits which are considered to be associated with some ‘bad’, ‘malevolent’, ‘immoral’, or ‘unethical’ behaviours. These three traits are psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Each of these traits is related to a wide number of different attributes within thinking and behaviour.

Psychopathy, simplified, is mostly marked by a lack of empathy, a superficial charm, and a tendency towards impulsive antisocial behaviour, among other things. Psychopaths can use their attributes in a range of advantageous ways, which is why it is a common trait in a high percentage of successful businessmen, however, the drawbacks are that psychopaths are also overrepresented in prison populations also, likely because of their impulsivity and disregard for authority.

Narcissism, simplified, is having an overly grand sense of self, a strong need for attention and validation, obsessive vanity, and often insecure self-beliefs. Narcissists, despite their often overly-confident disposition, tend to be quite sensitive to most forms of perceived criticism, making the trait somewhat ironic in a way.

Machiavellianism, simplified, is marked by having manipulative and duplicitous tendencies, as well as an intense focus on self-interest. These types of people tend to be more selfish and more willing to use deceit and other unethical tactics to get what they want. Those high in Machiavellianism are thought to have somewhat of an advantage in games and tasks where the goal is all about beating others for power, resources, and influence.

Belief in a Just World

Belief in a Just World, simply put, is your level of belief in whether people generally get what they deserve in life. In other words, do you think good people are rewarded with good outcomes, and do you think bad people are rewarded with bad outcomes?

It works as a spectrum, with neither position at either side of the spectrum being morally or objectively right or wrong. What’s interesting about Belief in a Just World, however, is that where you are on the spectrum correlates with other factors, such as helping behaviours and even political leaning.

An example of such differences is that having a higher Belief in a Just World is linked with being more likely to offer someone help when they need it. By the same token, however, people high in Belief in a Just World are also more likely to blame a victim for what happened to them due to them believing that people do generally get what they deserve.

As you can see, it isn’t right or wrong to be high or low in Belief in a Just World, but each is correlated with different arguably morally right or wrong behaviours. It should be stressed that these are correlations, not causations, so they certainly don’t apply to everyone and they don’t apply all the time.

My Study’s Rationale

So why did I choose to look at The Dark Triad model in relation to Belief in a Just World in the first place? Well, there were two main reasons why I thought it would be a good idea.

Firstly, as personality has a direct effect on behaviour, I believe it is important that we try to figure out what behaviours are associated with what personality traits. This becomes even more important when we think about personality traits that are considered to be playing a part in morally dubious behaviours.

So, not only are psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism having significant effects on people’s behaviour, so is Belief in a Just World. I wanted to know if and how these two constructs interacted and to see if there were any significant implications of this interaction.

The second reason is that Belief in a Just World is likely more susceptible to change than personality, at least over a short period of time. So, assuming Belief in a Just World is correlated with one of The Dark Triad traits, could Belief in a Just World be altered with some kind of intervention to reduce the negative behaviours associated with one or more of these ‘undesirable’ personality traits? If so, this finding could be worked into reforming psychopathic prisoners, as well as members of the general population who possess Dark Triad traits.

With these reasons in mind, I felt it was definitely an interesting and worthwhile endeavour to explore both of these constructs and look to see whether they contained any useful findings with important implications.

I came up with the following hypotheses:

  • There will be a significant negative correlation between Psychopathy and Belief in a Just World.
  • There will be a significant negative correlation between Narcissism and Belief in a Just World.
  • There will be a significant negative correlation between Machiavellianism and Belief in a Just World.

My Methodology & Data Analysis

I’ll be brief in explaining the methodology I applied in this study as it’s pretty straightforward and most readers will likely want to get straight to the findings.

In short, I created an online survey which contained two tests, one which measured Dark Triad personality traits and one which measured General Belief in a Just World. I also had to include some demographic questions about age, sex, country-residence and more so I could explore differences between certain groups later on.

I ended up collecting over 200+ responses altogether. Some responses had to be omitted from analysis, however, as I wanted to control for cultural differences, that meant any response from outside the UK was not used. Ideas of what makes a just world is something I expected to vary culturally depending on where you look, so sticking to one population prevented too many extreme outliers in the data.

After collecting data, I analysed it in two different ways, both were simple correlations.

My first statistical test looked at all overall scores in all three Dark Triad Traits (psychopathy, narcissism, & Machiavellianism) and all overall scores for Belief in a Just World for a relationship between the two.

My second statistical test split the data by sex (male & female) and ran the same process as the first statistical test to look for a relationship that may only be present in one of the sexes.

Funnily enough, I ended up finding something that not only surprised me but also went in entirely the opposite direction of one of my hypotheses.

Note: I actually carried out even more statistical tests than this that looked more in depth at relationships between specific items in both survey tests, however, there were too many to discuss here. If you’re interested, be sure to keep an eye out for when I make the whole project paper publically available.

What I Found

Rather disappointingly, I didn’t actually find any significant relationship between any of the Dark Triad traits and level of Belief in a Just World after I ran the first test which considered the scores of all participants. While exciting to do, exploring the data just to find an insignificant result can be disheartening, not that it’s objectively less valuable I might add, but because I think most researchers want to get a result that supports their hypotheses.

However, there was a silver lining of sorts. After running the second test which looked for a relationship between the Dark Triad traits and Belief in a Just World in which male and female scores were separate, I found something rather intriguing.

The test showed a significant positive relationship between narcissism and Belief in a Just World in males only, which I had no idea how to explain at the time of discovery.

Male Narcissism Scatterplot

The fact that I had found a relationship that no-one else had yet looked for felt fulfilling and it made me come to appreciate the hard work that researchers do carry out. While the finding itself could potentially be a fluke, as can all kinds of findings in the sciences which is why we need replications, it represents a step in a particular direction of research which I would love to continue to add to.

What Do These Findings Mean?

On their own, these results don’t have the power to have any real-life implications at this point, however, if more research was sparked by this study it could definitely lead to some interesting stuff eventually.

One example I mentioned earlier was the idea of being able to work to change Belief in a Just World levels in order to try and positively affect the salience of negative Dark Triad trait behaviours. Knowing that narcissism in males correlates positively with Belief in a Just World could one day have potential implications for therapy for male narcissists. The practitioner may be able to garner more insight into the client’s view of the world if they know that as a narcissist they are more likely to exhibit a high level of Belief in a Just World.

Going one step further, interventions used in therapy could be altered with Belief in a Just World in mind. Imagine an intervention which focused on altering Belief in a Just World in order to have a knock-on effect on their narcissism. It is possible that if these constructs are linked that narcissistic behaviour can be changed to be expressed more positively by working on increasing Belief in a Just World.

Even neurotypical males might be able to benefit from the advantages of narcissism by increasing their level of Belief in a Just World. If their level of narcissism can be increased, it could be a way to increase confidence, self-worth, and self-esteem.

Of course, all of these ideas are purely theoretical at this point, but they certainly are not outside the realms of possibility. If it’s interesting and can potentially be used to do constructive good, then I believe an area of research is definitely worth investing more time and effort into.

Limitations of the Study

Every study has its limitations and weaknesses, there’s no such thing as perfect methodology. This is especially true when it comes to undergraduate projects where we are much more time-limited, have access to fewer resources, and have plenty of other things in life to juggle around while carrying out our research.

My study’s inherent weakness lied in its sampling, in other words, the responses I collected are not as representative of the population as I would have preferred.

Firstly, out of the 200 or so valid responses I collected, just over 70% of them were from females. This is a problem because it is possible that the overall correlations were skewed towards female responses, which are generally lower score-wise when it comes to Dark Triad traits.

Secondly, with the above percentage in mind, around 30% of responses were from males; my main finding was picked up from the male group in my sample. Is it reliable and valid to believe that there is a relationship between narcissism and Belief in a Just World from analysing just 60 male responses? Arguably yes, and arguably no. This is why replication is required to help confirm whether this result is consistent.

Finally, while I didn’t ask about occupation in the demographic questions (an unfortunate oversight), I would have good reason to believe that most of the responses I gathered were from undergraduate psychology students, my peers who were also carrying out their own projects. Is this group representative of the UK or Scottish population? Once again, yes in some ways, no in others.

Unfortunately, these types of weaknesses are often unavoidable in undergraduate projects, however, they certainly do not make the findings less valuable, every study has participant bias in some way or another. Once again, this is why I would stress that replication is absolutely necessary when carrying out research in an area such as personality and individual differences.

Next Steps & The Future

Getting Published

With the self-declared success of my project, I have decided to work on it further in the hopes of submitting it to an academic psychology journal. This would mean that fellow researchers in this area of literature would be able to use it in their own work in order to continue adding to our knowledge on the subject. This is a personal goal of mine to have something academic published in a journal, so I’ll be trying my very hardest to make this a reality over the next few months.

Getting the paper published will mean severely cutting down my original dissertation down from around 11,000 words to around 5,000. I’ll have to get rid of all the descriptive prose that introduces the Dark Triad and such which was required for the honours project, but is simply unneeded filler in an academic journal. The people reading will already know the background of these constructs very well, so it’s not required.

I’ll also have to tighten up all writing, dotting all my i’s and crossing all my t’s. Once it’s submitted, I’ll likely get a long list of feedback statements from multiple reviewers telling me what needs to be changed or improved to make the paper of a high enough quality. The worst case scenario is that they reject the paper outright, which while disappointing is not fatal, as I can attempt to submit to different journals afterwards until it is accepted.

When I get confirmation that my work will be published, I’ll be sure to let you all know as soon as humanly possible.

Starting a Ph.D.

While my goals and plans are prone to changing with the wind, I find myself wanting to go into doing more research in this area of psychology through taking on a Ph.D. at some point. I’ll be taking a break of at least one year after I graduate with my Bachelor’s degree whereupon I’ll be doing some travelling, getting more relevant experience in psychology-related positions (hopefully as a research assistant), and getting more general work experience. I’ll also likely get back into volunteering in some way or another again like I have been doing for the past year or so already.

I’ll begin applying for Ph.D. programmes in the Spring of 2017 most likely, and if I don’t get in I will simply continue getting more and more experience until those advertising the Ph.D. programmes are willing to give me my shot. If I don’t get in at first, it just means, at worst, I can take another few months to a year of working on my own independent projects, like writing a book and developing Xnanga even further.

Final Words

If you managed to get through all that then I salute you; you certainly have a thirst for knowledge.

Once again I’ll repeat that I will keep all of you updated on the status of getting my paper published, as well as another small project I may be able to show off sometime in the month of June.

If you have any questions about my research, comments about what you think about it, tips on Ph.D. programmes, and/or information on opportunities that you think I should look into, please do let me know.

You can comment below or, if you’d rather, you can email me directly via my Contact Form or through my details below; I reply to every email received.

Follow Jamie Peutherer on Twitter (@Xnanga) and like the Facebook page for more updates. You can reach him via email directly at [email protected]