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Neuropsych

A psychopath, a narcissist, and a Machiavellian walk into a bar

Which one is the funniest?
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach
Key Takeaways
  • Narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism are referred to as the dark triad of personality traits. 
  • A study examined how dark triad personality traits correlated with comic styles.
  • Narcissists prefer lighter comic styles, while psychopaths and Machiavellians embrace dark comedy.

A narcissist, a psychopath, and a Machiavellian feature in a comedy show lineup. The narcissist thinks they got the best applause, the psychopath doesn’t care, and the Machiavellian actually gets the best applause, though at the expense of the other two.

Narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism are referred to as the dark triad of personality traits. Narcissists have an overblown sense of self, whereas psychopaths find it hard to empathize with others. Machiavellians, on the other hand, are cunning like politicians.

Niccolò Machiavelli (the Italian diplomat and writer whose name inspired the term) also wrote comedies. Manipulative characters with self-serving personalities were central to their plots. Historian Christopher Celenza described his style as “ironic, wry, a little melancholy, punctuated by an earthy vulgarity.” Indeed, new research suggests that this description fits the humor of people with dark triad traits.

Research published online in the journal Personality and Individual Differences outlines how dark people use comic styles. The researchers checked how comic styles relate to dark personalities based on an online self-reported questionnaire that received 715 submissions.

To investigate this, the researchers used a model of comic styles from an earlier study. The model classifies comic styles into eight categories. Of these, four styles are lighter and related to positive emotions and interpersonal relations: fun, humor, wit, and nonsense — all styles that mark a jovial mood and good companionship. Darker styles, on the contrary, are employed in mockery: irony, satire, sarcasm, and cynicism.

Relationship between dark traits and comic styles

One would expect dark personalities to gravitate toward darker comic styles. While that is true for Machiavellians and psychopaths, narcissists shy away from darker styles, with the sole exception of satire. This could be because they generally want to be liked by those around them. 

Psychopaths are bullish on all dark comic styles, which is in line with their tendency toward antisocial behavior. Machiavellians, in line with their manipulativeness and subtlety, engage in socially acceptable humor. This is why they use irony, a comic style that allows them to make fun of others without being too blunt. (A similar behavioral pattern is seen among salespeople: Machiavellians are not as overt in their misdemeanors compared to psychopaths and narcissists.) 

On the lighter side, narcissists embrace fun, humor, and wit, but have little patience for nonsense. The authors suggested that this could be because “narcissists may use positive humor as a way to positively improve their own reputations.” For instance, they often rely heavily on wit, perhaps because clever puns or comebacks require intelligence — providing narcissists an opportunity to impress others.

Machiavellianism is also positively related to wit, but the motivation in this case might be different. More than needing to impress others, it could be a natural result of the generally higher cognitive capacity of such individuals. But overall, Machiavellians and psychopaths have little to no affinity for lighter comic styles.

Missing pieces

The fact that both dark traits and comic styles were self-reported is a limitation, especially because dark individuals could be more likely to lie. For example, the high correlation between narcissism and wit might be because most narcissists imagine themselves to be wittier than they actually are. Furthermore, there is no way to tell from this research if personality traits shape comic styles or if exposure to comic styles shapes personality.

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Dark Triad Comedy Night at the local pub might be a fun experiment.

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