Some people like going to bed early in the evening and waking up at the crack of dawn. Others are most alive after the Sun has set, preferring the darkness of night to the brightness of morning. Research into chronotypes (the propensity to sleep at a particular time during a 24-hour day) shows that people do indeed have stable individual differences in their activity levels at different times of the day. At one end of the continuum are the ‘morning larks’; at the other, ‘night owls’. Although the exact cause of the differences in chronotypes has yet to be unravelled, they are likely to have some genetic influence.
Night owls are quite different from morning larks. Morning people are more punctual, perform better in school, and have higher success in the corporate world. Evening people are more risk-taking, creative, extraverted and have higher alcohol and nicotine consumption. They also have laxer moral standards, and an increased desire for casual sex. Indeed, my colleagues and I suspected that the characteristics of people who habitually lurk in the shadows of the darkness could have a relationship with the ‘Dark Triad’ of personality: Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism.
In the past 10 years or so, interest in understanding the darker side of human nature has mushroomed. Thousands of empirical research papers have investigated the topic, attempting to discern the causes, consequences and correlates of the Dark Triad traits. The three traits that make up the Dark Triad are seemingly aversive, sharing the core characteristics of selfishness. Narcissism has the unique feature of grandiosity, and Machiavellianism is associated with a scheming inter-personal orientation, coupled with a cynical view of human nature.
Psychopathy can be further sub-divided into two components, primary and secondary psychopathy. Primary psychopathy has also been named the ‘successful psychopathy’, since callousness and lack of guilt can be useful tools for achieving power. Research into successful psychopathy has suggested that it could be more typical of business people, CEOs, politicians and those in other high-powered occupations. Secondary psychopathy, in turn, is related to an inability to control impulses and a higher propensity to take risks. Individuals high in secondary psychopathy are more likely to find themselves in prison rather than in the plush corner office of a Fortune 500 company.
Rather than simply deeming the Dark Triad individuals as mad, bad and dangerous to know, personality research inspects these traits in a more neutral manner. Similar to the extraversion-introversion continuum, the Dark Triad can be investigated as a continuous trait, where people vary in how manipulative, uncaring and big-headed they are. From an evolutionary perspective, these traits might even be adaptive, aiding the individuals at the higher end of the continuum to be more successful in acquiring sexual partners, and therefore transferring their genes to the next generation. At the end of the day, it’s all that evolution cares about: reproduction, reproduction and more reproduction.
The Dark Triad has, indeed, links to reproductive strategies that are characterised by a short-term mating orientation: multiple mates over monogamy; one-night stands over long-term partnerships. It makes sense, then, that Dark Triad traits share many of the behaviours that are typical of evening chronotypes, such as casual sex, lax morality and greater substance use. The Dark Triad traits have been associated with increased risk-taking in multiple aspects of life, including dangerous black-jack bets, accepting the risk of getting caught while having an affair and engaging in petty crimes without concern about being detected. The ‘live fast, die young’ lifestyle epitomises Dark Triad characteristics.
A few years ago, my colleagues and I were interested in testing the idea that night owls have Dark Triad characteristics, as the darkness of night might allow more chances for opportunistic sexual encounters and exploitation. We researched more than 200 participants over the internet, giving them questionnaire measures on the Dark Triad, as well as asking questions about their chronotype orientation. To no surprise, we found that most of the Dark Triad traits (Machiavellianism, secondary psychopathy, aspects of narcissism) were associated with the propensity to stay up late. Intriguingly, primary psychopathy was connected to a morning chronotype, suggesting that individuals who are high in ‘successful’ psychopathy are early risers. This makes sense, as in order to achieve career success, the niche for exploiting others is earlier in the day during business hours.
However, keep in mind that most studies into chronotypes and personality are correlational. It is impossible to demonstrate the direction of the causal link. Perhaps staying up late causes people to be more cunning, risk-taking and impulsive? This is something to be looked at in future studies.
We know that most delinquent activities happen in the darkness of the night, which is also the peak time for sexual activity. It is possible that the night-time life, with its promise of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, has something to do with the personalities of people who habitually stay up late. Night owls might be harnessed with darker personality characteristics, which are in turn part of an adaptive tool-kit, designed for reckless reproduction and effective extraction of resources.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Could neuroscience help a Jeffrey Dahmer or a Ted Bundy become... better people?
Psychopaths have long captured the imagination. The names of famous psychopaths, such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, evoke a morbid curiosity. The crimes committed by these men are so vicious, so unfathomably cruel, that it’s impossible to imagine how someone could do such a thing. The severed heads kept as mementos in Bundy’s apartment or the partially eaten body parts stowed away in Dahmer’s refrigerator are the result of simply inexplicable personalities. So it makes sense that the psychopath is often portrayed as cold-blooded and fearless, and, most of all, as a predator incapable of human emotion. However, research is growing to suggest that this might not be totally accurate.
There is now substantial evidence that psychopaths can in fact experience emotions – but only under the right circumstances. And they can display normal emotional responses – when the emotion is part of their goal, or when they are invited to respond to perceptually simple basic shapes or single objects. Yet their reactions to the same stimuli are deficient when their attention is focused on an alternative goal or to a complex situation. This means that, while psychopaths are capable of experiencing and displaying emotions in some situations, what confounds them is complexity.
Take one of the core deficits in psychopaths: their inexperience of regret. In our study with the neuroscientist Joshua Buckholtz at Harvard University, we asked participants to pick between two wheels that had different probabilities of winning or losing them money. In this task, two forms of regret can be measured: retrospective regret, which is the emotional experience you have after learning you could have done better if you’d chosen differently, and prospective regret, which is when you consider potential outcomes for each option and contemplate which decisions would be regrettable so that you can make better future decisions. Psychopaths reported feeling regret when they saw how much they’d won or could have won on the game. However, they were unable to use the information about the choices they’d been given to anticipate how much regret they might experience in the future, and to adjust their decision-making accordingly. They have a deficit in prospective regret, not retrospective regret.
This particular dysfunction is evident in our study when a participant was confronted about his crimes, including theft, assault, drugs and murder. This psychopath said that he ‘feels badly about what happened’. However, he elaborated that his crimes had a great impact on him, not just the victim, and that many others were to blame for his incarceration, including the individual who ‘ratted’ on him, his ‘horrible’ public defender who was a ‘poor planner’, and the ‘rigged’ trial. When asked about his future, he was confident and nonchalant as he listed goals, such as starting his own business as a dating-app developer, and ‘having no problems’. In these statements, he demonstrated a moment of regret, but his failure to see the downstream consequences of his behaviour for the victim, the victim’s family and for himself suggested that this moment was disconnected from his future thoughts.
In another study, conducted with inmates at a maximum-security prison, we focused on the purported fearlessness of psychopaths. Our lab used a fear conditioning task in which the letter ‘n’ (either upper or lower case) and a coloured box (either red or green) appeared on the screen. A red box meant the inmate might get an electric shock, and a green box meant he was safe. In some trials, the inmate had to tell us the colour of the box (thereby focusing on the threat); in other trials, he had to tell us the letter’s case (focusing on the non-threat), while the box was still displayed. Psychopaths experienced fear responses (indicated by a startle and amygdala activity) when they had to focus on the box (ie, the threat). However, they showed a deficit in fear responses when they had to tell us the letter’s case (with the box secondary to their primary goal). Once again, it was not that psychopaths were incapable of experiencing emotion, rather that they had less emotional response than non-psychopaths when they were focused on something else (emotion was not part of their primary goal).
Psychopaths can use information that’s directly relevant to their goals. For instance, psychopaths are excellent at regulating behaviour and using emotions to con someone, as when a participant in our prison study stated that he feigned emotions of love and caring to beguile and manipulate his romantic partners into providing free housing, money and sex. But when information is beyond their immediate focus of attention, psychopaths are less able to use it adaptively to function, such as when they quit a job in the absence of another one, despite needing employment for probation, or when they seek publicity for a crime while wanted by police, despite the obvious consequence of this action.
Being in a room with a psychopath can feel like the walls are closing in on you, but at the same time you can enjoy your time with this person. The grandiosity, charm and control the psychopath displays leaves you feeling overwhelmed and uncertain. These traits and the lack of genuine emotion displayed by psychopaths contribute to the belief that these individuals are villainous and should be separated from the rest of society. But this is misguided. The reason psychopaths are a problem is not because they don’t feel but because they have difficulty effectively processing information. They’re not cold-blooded; they’re simply awful at multitasking. So we need to think about how to address the mind of a psychopath in order to help them notice more information in their environment, and harness their emotional experience.
Some of our recent work has focused on how to change the mind of a psychopath. In 2015, together with John Curtin and Joseph Newman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we developed a computerised training package aimed at helping psychopaths attend to information outside their immediate goals. For six weeks, in one hour per week, participants played games that involved learning to integrate emotional and non-emotional information with their immediate goals. At the end of this training, psychopaths showed improvement, which suggests that it is possible to identify and target the cognitive-emotional dysfunctions of psychopathy, and that neural and behavioural patterns can be changed, even for what might be the most recalcitrant population.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
How easily grossed out are you? Your sensitivity to disgust reveals more about you than you'd probably be comfortable with, from how you'll vote in this election to your potential to be a cold-blooded killer.
Who do you think has a stronger stomach: a liberal or a conservative? Who is the tougher party?
The knee-jerk answer to this question might lean toward the latter, because conservative political ideologies – on the whole – are perceived by both sides as taking a harder line. But what brain circuits are stirring beneath those hardline decisions?
An international team of researchers conducted two studies (involving more than 31,000 people in total) and found a positive relationship between sensitivity to disgust and political conservatism. "Across both samples, contamination disgust, which reflects a heightened concern with interpersonally transmitted disease and pathogens, was most strongly associated with conservatism," the study reports.
Disgust is a sliding scale, and we’re all grossed out by different things. Some of us shudder at the thought of seeing blood. Some draw the line at foul smells. There are people who are disgusted by homosexuality and there are people are disgusted by homophobia. And there are a few groups who have almost no sensitivity to disgust at all.
Science journalist Kathleen McAuliffe knows a lot about disgust. She took us on a wonderful tour of parasites here, and in the video above she tackles the link between visceral disgust and moral disgust. It’s hard for the average person to fathom how someone can decide to kill in cold blood, and also physically carry out the act. But research has found that cold-blooded killers have damage to the brain circuits involved in the disgust response, which explains why these people are less squeamish about not just the moral quandary of taking a life but are also quite comfortable carrying out the grizzly act.
McAuliffe points to another group of individuals who have similarly impaired disgust circuits: people with Huntington’s disease. This is a genetically transmitted neurodegenerative disease, and those with it are unable to recognize expressions of disgust in others, and don’t tend to react to foul smells, sights or tastes. People with Huntington’s also have impaired fear recognition, as the two areas are closely related in the brain.
Which brings us back to conservative political ideologies, particularly immigration aversion. McAuliffe notes that there is a link between germophobia and xenophobia, as evidenced by a study of 2000 Danish people and 1200 Americans, where the data showed that opposition to immigration increased in direct proportion to the disgust sensitivity of the individual.
If you want to see where you sit on the disgust sensitivity scale, there’s a quiz for your amusement over here.
Kathleen McAuliffe's book is This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society.