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Sexist ideologies may help cultivate the "dark triad" of personality traits

People who score highly on the dark triad are vain, callous, and manipulative.

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

The "dark triad" of personality traits — narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism — do not make for the nicest individuals.


People who score highly on the dark triad are vain, callous and manipulative. They adopt a so-called "fast-life" strategy, characterised by impulsivity, opportunism and selfishness. Such individuals can succeed in the workplace, while failing to get on with others. They're also more likely to cheat on their partners, and are deemed more alluring in speed-dating sessions.

Though these traits can bring advantages to the individual, they are clearly detrimental to those around them. So it's important to understand what fosters them. Could particular attitudes in society, for example, help to encourage these dark traits?

A new study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, concludes that this may in fact be the case. Melissa Gluck at the University of Florida and her colleagues gathered evidence suggesting that sexism — "and the socially-supported, unearned male power and privilege that sexism reflects" — is linked to higher scores on measures of the dark triad. "If scholars can demonstrate that these malevolent traits are partly learned by growing up in sexist cultures, agents of personal and social change can help people recognise, understand, alter and replace these malevolent aspects of humanity," the researchers write.

Gluck and her colleagues recruited 295 adults living in the US (131 women, 164 men) to complete online two measures of dark traits, plus a sexism inventory. This inventory gauged endorsement of statements that reflect two separate facets of sexism: so-called "hostile sexism" (e.g. "Women seek to gain power by getting control over men") and "benevolent", patronising sexism (e.g. "A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man"). Brief demographic data was also collected from each participant.

As predicted, based on earlier findings, the men scored higher for dark traits than the women. Also as expected, the men displayed more sexism, of both types. For both men and women, there was a correlation between their overall sexism scores and their dark triad ratings, and among the men, but not the women, it was hostile sexism that really accounted for this link. Overall, the difference between the men's and the women's dark trait scores was "substantially, but not completely" attributable to sexism, the researchers write.

Perhaps then, tackling sexist ideology, and hostile sexist ideology in particular, would also affect levels of these dark traits in society?

Well, maybe. But it's impossible to know from this study whether sexist ideology is encouraging narcissism, callousness and manipulativeness, or whether people with these traits are more likely to adopt sexist attitudes. Alternatively, as the researchers note, something else might conceivably drive the development of both dark traits and sexism. This might be childhood trauma, perhaps, or living in a culture that focuses on individual rather than group success.

For now, Gluck and her colleagues argue that sexism should at least be considered as a cause. They write: "The origins of the dark traits are still debatable, but these data support the utility of exploring the impact of sexism and dysfunctional aspects of traditional gender beliefs on the development and maintenance of dark traits."

How much of the dark triad is accounted for by sexism?

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

Reprinted with permission of The British Psychological Society. Read the original article.

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