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We’ve long been fascinated with the darker side of human nature, so much so that in the early 2000s psychologists identified a trio of traits dubbed the ‘dark triad’ to measure the sinister side of human personality: narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit) and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism).
Put simply, the dark triad is a measure of bad personality traits that are underpinned by a tendency to be inward-focused, selfish and self-absorbed.
But what about the lighter side of human nature; the traits that promote a kind, generous society and make us feel warm and fuzzy? Recent research has identified a set of good personality traits – and, thankfully, shown that most people are more good than bad, says Dr Sharon Horwood from the School of Psychology at Deakin University.
People who score highly on what’s called the ‘light triad scale’ demonstrate a tendency towards three good personality traits: Kantianism (treating people as people, not a means to an end), humanism (valuing the dignity and worth of each individual) and faith in humanity (believing that humans are essentially good).
Crucially, the light triad isn’t the inverse of the dark triad. ‘It’s tempting to assume the light triad is the opposite of the dark triad; a person who is low in each of the dark triad traits, but the light triad consists of traits that are underpinned by a tendency to be other-focused, positive and optimistic,’ Dr Horwood says.
The researchers identified 12 items that capture the essence of the light triad, and the test is available online.
People who score highly on the light triad are more likely to be older, female, more spiritual and have experienced less unpredictability in childhood. Conversely, the dark triad is correlated with being younger, male and motivated by power and achievement.
In practical terms, the triads may influence things like choice of occupation or social relationships, Dr Horwood says. ‘A dark-triad person is more likely to be found in cut-throat occupations, whereas a light-triad person will probably gravitate towards helping professions such as medicine or welfare,’ she says.
'The light triad consists of traits that are underpinned by a tendency to be other-focused, positive and optimistic.'
Dr Sharon Horwood,
School of Psychology, Deakin University
But personality is never black and white, and Dr Horwood says it’s best to think about personality types like these as existing on a continuum. ‘We all have these traits, just to a greater or lesser extent,’ she says. ‘The dark and light triads are just a way to categorise people who have more of those particular traits.’
And the good news is that research shows most people score more highly in the light triad than the dark triad in their everyday patterns of thoughts, behaviours and emotions. What’s more, extreme malevolence is rare.
If you’ve ever taken a personality test to measure something like narcissism or even your professional personality and the results were not what you were expecting, you’ve probably wondered if it’s possible to improve your score.
When it comes to the triads, Dr Horwood says personality traits can mellow with age. ‘As we get older, on average, we become less neurotic, more agreeable and more conscientious,’ she says. ‘It’s likely the expression of dark triad traits will lessen as you age.’
‘This is generally thought to be because typical events in the life course demand it. For example, if we start a family, we need to be more conscientious in order to protect our offspring and ourselves from harm. When we need to be successful in a workplace to provide monetary support for ourselves or our family, we may need to become more agreeable so that we keep the job.’
If you prefer to take matters into your own hands, Dr Horwood says ‘working on developing your sense of empathy and caring for others is probably a good way to boost light triad traits.’
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