Mapping Personality in Dark Places


Guenole (2014) gets a good many things right in his focal article. The need for more focus on dark side characteristics, the need to focus on narrow aspects of maladaptive personality, and the potential of the DSM-5 as a launching point of integrating the fields of industrial–organizational (I–O) and clinical psychology are all very important areas. However, we question whether the underlying logic of his argument is correct and offer an alternative that we believe represents a more actionable and legally defensible approach to understanding both normal and dark personality in the workplace.

Guenole begins by stating that personality researchers agree that there are between three and seven broad personality dimensions of normal personality. Although most personality psychologists would be willing to agree that there are three to seven broad phenotypic traits, many personality psychologists have noted that these statistically-derived structural “traits” are essentially descriptive in nature and are not necessarily based on biology or even causal in nature (e.g., Hogan, 1996; Srivastava, 2010). It is becoming increasingly clear that an actor's standing on factors such as the Big Five might be better understood not as the causes of the actor's own behavior but rather summaries of an actor's behavior, which are some of the most important causes of how others act toward the person (Buss, 1996; Goldberg, 1981; McAdams & Pals, 2006; Wood, 2013). From this perspective, Conscientiousness is a summary (not a cause) of a person's tendencies to act responsible, industrious, organized, self-disciplined, and so on, but because it is an effective summary of these tendencies, it is an important cause of whether they will be offered promotions versus fired (and appropriately so!; Barrick & Mount, 1991). Of course, this leaves the question of what causes these behavioral tendencies. As noted by Funder (1991) “these general patterns called traits should be the targets of further explanatory effort” (p. 36). Consequently, personality researchers have been increasingly drawn to functionalist (as opposed to structuralist) approaches to understanding personality. These approaches attempt to understand individuals in terms of their strategies for improving the quality of their lives and tend to place more emphasis on abilities, expectations, construals, motives, and goals while also acknowledging the importance of situational constraints and norms.

To better understand the nature of dark personality, we believe that it is important to go beyond the structuralist trait approach represented by the five-factor model and the DSM-5 maladaptive trait model and focus efforts instead on the psychological underpinning of maladaptive behavior (cf., Spain, Harms, & LeBreton, in press). Specifically, we propose that dark characteristics are best understood by looking at the motives (the goals or values of the individual), abilities (the various physical, mental, social, and psychological capacities of the individual), and perceptions (schemas and construals of how the world works or should work, as well as perceptual biases of the individual)—an approach we will refer to henceforth as MAPs. These particular units are of interest from a functionalist approach because they indicate whether and why an individual might think that acting in a certain way is valuable (i.e., functional). We believe that this approach will not only provide a more concrete theoretical foundation for understanding dark personality but will also allow for the creation of more precise screening tools and more effective training interventions.

To provide an example, consider the Dark Triad. It is well-established that there is substantial covariation between these traits (Paulhus & Williams, 2002), and attempts have been made to find a common core that might account for this (e.g., Jacobwitz & Egan, 2006; Jones & Figueredo, in press). An alternative functionalist approach to understanding the Dark Triad would be to look at the psychological underpinnings of each element and establish common and distinctive causal elements. For example, research has established that perceiving others in a generally positive light drives prosocial behaviors and fosters positive interactions and outcomes (Wood, Harms, & Vazire, 2010). Each of the Dark Triad types is likely to lack this perceptual orientation. Moreover, it could be argued that each of the Dark Triad types, to some degree, is characterized by an inability to perceive what others are feeling. Other characteristics such as need for power or impulse control may only be relevant for one or two of the Dark Triad components. Still others may actually show differential patterns across the three styles. For example, positive self-regard is almost a definitional component of narcissism, yet Machiavellians are more than willing to admit that they are terrible people in the eyes of others. The degree to which each of the Dark Triad share common antecedents will determine the degree to which the behavioral syndromes correlate at the aggregate level.

As an illustration, Table 1 provides a preliminary list of potential characteristics that may underlie the Dark Triad types. A number of caveats are necessary at this point. Obviously, this is a nonexhaustive, and largely speculative list of antecedents used for illustrative purposes and should not be considered a comprehensive account of these traits. Moreover, it should be noted that antecedent factors that are “common” to all three (e.g., lacking the capacity for empathy) are not “core” factors. Each element is simply one part of a complex system of interacting characteristics that constitute an individual's personality. To be clear, we are not suggesting that the latent factors constituting the Dark Triad or the Big Five simply do not exist; rather, we argue that these factors should not be interpreted as explanations of the indicators. Instead, researchers interested in understanding the nature of personality should seek to explain why the observed behaviors covary. Our suggestion is that these explanations are likely to involve fairly complex, dynamic interactions of comparatively simple personality mechanisms.

Table 1. An Example of Motives, Abilities, and Perceptions Making up the Dark Triad
  1. Note: “+/−” indicates the expected direction and strength of the relationship.

Motive: Need for power+ ++
Motive: Need for affiliation 
Ability: Capacity for empathy−−
Ability: Impulse control−− 
Perception: Positive perceptions of others−−
Perception: Positive self-appraisal +

The approach being suggested has a number of virtues that make it more useful in both research and applied settings. First, potential legal restrictions surrounding clinical scales can be avoided because it is not necessary to directly identify maladaptive behavioral tendencies. Instead, maladaptive proclivities can be ascertained using a network of normal personality characteristics (e.g., Miller, Bagby, Pilkonis, Reynolds, & Lynam, 2005; Miller et al., 2013). Second, tools implementing this approach may potentially be more subtle because dark characteristics are not being assessed directly. Rather, it is the context of MAP components in relation to one another that determines outcomes. For example, having high self-regard cannot be considered narcissism unless it is also paired with a disdain toward others. Similarly, simply being impulsive does not meet the traditional standard of psychopathy unless it is paired with a general lack of empathy (Hare, 2003). Third, because single tests can be used for diagnosing multiple behavioral patterns simultaneously (as opposed to relying on single indicators loading on single dimensions), data collection would potentially be both more efficient (cf. Yarkoni, 2010) and a better reflection of reality (Hofstee, de Raad, & Goldberg, 1992). Fourth, unlike traditional dark personality measures, those based on MAPs could utilize performance-based tests such as projective measures or ability tests instead of relying on either self- or peer reports. Fifth, because a profile approach is being used, there is the potential for far greater nuance in assessment and differentiation between different types of pathologies. For example, a MAP assessment may be able to differentiate between vulnerable versus grandiose narcissism where vulnerable narcissists act narcissistically but possess a deep-seated sense of insecurity (Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010). Sixth, because the individual antecedents of behavioral tendencies are being identified, the likelihood that developmental interventions will work is increased because they can be tailored to the root cause of the behaviors rather than the behavior itself. For example, instead of assuming a supervisor is abusive due to high narcissism or psychoticism, we might instead determine that their abusive behavior is driven by a high need for power, or that they perceive their abusive behavior as expected or normative (e.g., believing “it's just what a boss does”). Attributing their behavior to specific MAPs rather than higher-order traits like “psychoticism” might offer more effective interventions to correct problematic behaviors through more specific and targeted leadership training or counseling.


On the whole, the approach being suggested here is not remarkably different than the one suggested by Guenole. We both advocate for a trait profile approach, but we believe that a MAPs-based assessment model would provide greater psychological richness, less potential for legal problems, substantially better precision in measurement and prediction, and potentially an avenue for improved interventions at lower organizational costs. It seems to us that falling back into the old routine of looking to factor analysis to derive the truth about personality is akin to the old joke about the man looking for his keys under a streetlight because that's where the light is. Structural approaches provide what seems to be an easy solution, but they are potentially misleading. If we want to find the keys to personality, a good place to begin would be to start looking in the dark places.