Weird Sci­ence

Weekend Herald - - Science & Tech - with Her­ald sci­ence writer Jamie Mor­ton: @jamien­zher­ald

Do you have the D-Fac­tor?

Life is full of ex­am­ples of peo­ple act­ing ruth­lessly or ego­tis­ti­cally — just look at who’s sit­ting in the Oval Of­fice.

In psy­chol­ogy as well as in ev­ery­day lan­guage, we have di­verse names for the var­i­ous dark ten­den­cies hu­mans have.

Most prom­i­nent are psy­chopa­thy (lack of em­pa­thy), nar­cis­sism (ex­ces­sive self­ab­sorp­tion), and Machi­avel­lian­ism (the be­lief that the ends jus­tify the means), along with many oth­ers such as ego­ism, sadism, or spite­ful­ness.

Although there ap­pear to be dif­fer­ences be­tween these traits — and it may seem more ac­cept­able to be an ego­ist than a psy­chopath — new re­search shows that all dark as­pects of hu­man per­son­al­ity are closely linked and are based on the same ten­dency.

The com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor of all dark traits, the so-called D-fac­tor, can be de­fined as the gen­eral ten­dency to max­imise one’s in­di­vid­ual util­ity — dis­re­gard­ing, ac­cept­ing, or malev­o­lently pro­vok­ing disu­til­ity for oth­ers — ac­com­pa­nied by be­liefs that serve as jus­ti­fi­ca­tions.

In other words, all dark traits can be traced back to the gen­eral ten­dency of plac­ing one’s own goals and in­ter­ests over those of oth­ers even to the ex­tent of tak­ing plea­sure in hurt­ing oth­ers.

A study by Ger­man and Dan­ish re­searchers shows that dark traits, in gen­eral, can be un­der­stood as in­stances of this com­mon core — although they may dif­fer in which as­pects are pre­dom­i­nant.

In a se­ries of stud­ies with more than 2500 peo­ple, the re­searchers asked to what ex­tent peo­ple agreed or dis­agreed with state­ments such as “It is hard to get ahead with­out cut­ting cor­ners here and there”, “It is some­times worth a lit­tle suf­fer­ing on my part to see oth­ers re­ceive the pun­ish­ment they de­serve”, or “I know that I am spe­cial be­cause ev­ery­one keeps telling me so”.

Fur­ther, they stud­ied other sel­f­re­ported ten­den­cies and be­hav­iours such as ag­gres­sion or im­pul­siv­ity, and ob­jec­tive mea­sures of self­ish and un­eth­i­cal be­hav­iour.

Their re­sults were sim­i­lar to cen­tury-old find­ings that showed how peo­ple who scored highly at one type of in­tel­li­gence test typ­i­cally also scored high on oth­ers.

“In the same way, the dark as­pects of hu­man per­son­al­ity also have a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor, which means that — sim­i­lar to in­tel­li­gence — one can say that they are all an ex­pres­sion of the same dis­po­si­tional ten­dency,” said study au­thor, Pro­fes­sor Ingo Zet­tler of the Univer­sity of Copen­hagen.

“For ex­am­ple, in a given per­son, the D-fac­tor can mostly manifest it­self as nar­cis­sism, psy­chopa­thy or one of the other dark traits, or a com­bi­na­tion of these.

“But with our map­ping of the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor of the var­i­ous dark per­son­al­ity traits, one can sim­ply as­cer­tain that the per­son has a high D-fac­tor.”

The at­trac­tion of con­spir­acy the­o­ries

Con­spir­acy the­o­ries have been cooked up through­out his­tory, but what draws peo­ple to them?

Re­search sug­gests that peo­ple with cer­tain per­son­al­ity traits and cog­ni­tive styles are more likely to be­lieve in con­spir­acy the­o­ries.

“These peo­ple tend to be more sus­pi­cious, un­trust­ing, ec­cen­tric, need­ing to feel spe­cial, with a ten­dency to re­gard the world as an in­her­ently dan­ger­ous place,” said Josh Hart, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Union Col­lege in the US.

“They are also more likely to de­tect mean­ing­ful pat­terns where they might not ex­ist.”

Hart wanted to build on this re­search by test­ing how much each of sev­eral iden­ti­fied traits could ex­plain generic con­spir­acy be­liefs.

By ex­am­in­ing mul­ti­ple traits si­mul­ta­ne­ously, re­searchers could de­ter­mine which ones were most im­por­tant.

“Our re­sults clearly showed that the strongest pre­dic­tor of con­spir­acy be­lief was a constellation of per­son­al­ity char­ac­ter­is­tics col­lec­tively re­ferred to as schizo­typy,” Hart said.

The trait bor­rowed its name from schizophre­nia, but it did not im­ply a clin­i­cal di­ag­no­sis.

Hart’s study also showed that con­spir­acists had dis­tinct cog­ni­tive ten­den­cies: they were more likely than non-be­liev­ers to judge non­sen­si­cal state­ments as pro­found — a ten­dency known as BS re­cep­tiv­ity.

In turn, they were more likely to say that non-hu­man ob­jects — tri­an­gle shapes mov­ing around on a com­puter screen — were act­ing in­ten­tion­ally.

“In other words, they in­ferred mean­ing and mo­tive where oth­ers did not,” he said.

Hart hoped the re­search ad­vances the un­der­stand­ing of why some peo­ple are more at­tracted to con­spir­acy the­o­ries than oth­ers.

But he said it was im­por­tant to note that the study didn’t ad­dress whether or not con­spir­acy the­o­ries were true.

“It is im­por­tant to re­alise that when re­al­ity is am­bigu­ous, our per­son­al­i­ties and cog­ni­tive bi­ases cause us to adopt the be­liefs that we do,” said Hart.

“This knowl­edge can help us un­der­stand our own in­tu­itions.”

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