Human Nature and the Dark Triad

This rings true to me. Due to instability in childhood, I compensated with a grandiose internal conception of myself that I expected the world would one day recognize. Accompanying this delusion, I found it easy to treat people as means to meet my needs. In other words, I did the best I could at the time with the tools I had, but I was not always an asset to be around.

It seems possible to me that this childhood instability may have an affect that is not 100% gene dependent. On the other hand, I am sure the same amount of childhood instability will have varying effects on varying people.

In my experience, religion and spirituality has the potential to change people for the good, but more often it just changes how people express who they are.

I converted to Judaism in my twenties because I thought it was a step-by-step detailed system for making better people. In my fifties, I’ve switched to a view of human decency as largely the product of connection. People who connect with others will be less likely to irrationally blow things up. People who aren’t connected to others will make more bad decisions to unnecessarily hurt themselves and others.

Prior to the last ten years, I went through life often thinking about what would be the most inappropriate thing I could say or do in this situation? That’s not a formula for happiness or goodness, but it did produce a lot of laughs.

In my experience, there is no correlation between any type of religiosity (and the lack thereof), therapy, spiritual practice, tribe, uniform, rhetoric and basic human decency. No system consistently produces good people.

In Rob Henderson’s latest newsletter, he writes:

The correlation between unpredictability in childhood and criminal behavior in adulthood is particularly striking (r = .40, p < .01). This correlation is roughly the same size as the correlation between socioeconomic status and SAT scores. The educated class loves to talk about the effect of wealth on test scores. Seldom do they discuss the effect of instability in childhood giving rise to harmful behaviors in adulthood...

Researchers found that instability in childhood was associated with all three dimensions of the Dark Triad in adulthood. The strongest link was with psychopathy (r = .23). Across the entire Dark Triad scale, the correlation was r = .20. Not huge, but still noteworthy. Roughly equivalent to the link between grades and future earnings.

The effect was especially large for men, relative to women. That is, boys raised in unstable homes were particularly likely to have high Dark Triad scores in adulthood.

Interestingly, childhood socioeconomic status had no assiocation with Dark Triad traits in adulthood.

Being poor doesn’t have the same effect as living in chaos.

As the researchers conclude, “All people may have the potential to be high or low on the Dark Triad traits…exposure to specific conditions is the precipitating factor, which determines people trait activation and position on the Dark Triad continuum. Experiences (or at the very least, recollection of) of childhood unpredictability may be some of the prerequisite conditions to active the dormant selfishness, competitiveness, and antisociality found in the Dark Triad traits.”

The psychologist and author Tamás Bereczkei has written that, “Although genetic factors may have a certain role in the development of the Machiavellian lifestyle and thinking, Machiavellianism is primarily a result of environmental effects.”

Others have suggested that environmental factors can affect the behavioral expression of psychopathy.

Robert Hare, the foremost expert on psychopathy, has written, “social factors and parenting practices help to shape the behavioral expression of psychopathy, but have less effect on the inability to feel empathy or develop a conscience. No amount of social conditioning by itself will generate a capacity for caring.”

Hare is saying that the psychology of psychopaths can’t be changed.

But the behavioral expression of psychopathy can be shaped by parental and environmental factors. For Dexter fans, this was the reasoning behind “the code of Harry.” Dexter’s adoptive father recognized that Dexter would always have the desire to kill. So he directed Dexter’s impulse away from innocent people.

To be clear, the Dark Triad is not a diagnostic tool for mental disorders. It measures subclinical psychopathy and narcissism. Though if someone scores at the uppermost end of those sub-scales, they might qualify for an official diagnosis.

In a real-life case of psychopathy, a few years ago, a neuroscientist named James Fallon discovered that he himself is a psychopath. He was once a self-proclaimed genetic determinist, but changed his mind. He considered how his warm upbringing constrained his darker impulses. And said, ‘I was loved, and that protected me.’”

Fallon believes that had he been raised in a different environment (i.e., not in a stable middle-class family), his life would look very different today.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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