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.”