People with maladaptive personality traits view those traits more favorably, study finds

New research has found that people view maladaptive traits more favorably if they consider themselves to possess those very same traits.

The three-part study of 417 college students found that individuals with elevated scores on Dark Triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) and other maladaptive traits were more likely to view those traits more favorably. However, they did not actually rate those traits as likable, just closer to neutral than the average person.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Joanna Lamkin. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Lamkin: The way we perceive other people has a significant impact on our lives. It affects who we spend time with and how we choose to behave. In general, we like people more when they are similar to us. For example, someone who is cheerful probably likes other cheerful people. We wondered whether this pattern is true for all traits. Do people with “unlikable” traits actually like those so-called unlikable traits? This seemed like an interesting possible paradox. And, because certain traits (like narcissism) are related to significant relationship problems, understanding how those traits are related to perceiving of others could help us understand and treat problematic behaviors.

What should the average person take away from your study?

We asked people to rate how likable they considered a set of different personality traits. The trait we were most interested in was antagonism, which includes being callous, cynical, manipulative, and unconcerned about others. This trait and related traits are not rated as very likable by the average person. However, people with high antagonism scores themselves actually seem to be more tolerant of these traits. That is, they report liking antagonism more than the average person, but not strongly enough as to actually rate the trait as likable on our scale.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Although we demonstrated this pattern of tolerance, we can’t explain why this happens. There are multiple possible explanations. One interpretation is that we try to maintain a positive view of ourselves, and to do this, we try to protect ourselves from seeing any aspect of our behavior or personality as negative. Another explanation is that we have more empathy toward others who are similar and so we do not necessarily exclude them from our social circles. Or, individuals with these traits do not have insight into how problematic the traits can be, and thus rate them as closer to neutral. We are excited to explore these different explanations in further studies.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The study was conducted at the University of Georgia while I was a graduate student. I am now a postdoctoral fellow at the Michael E. DeBakey VA, South Central Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC), and Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness and Safety (IQUEST), and an Instructor at Baylor College of Medicine.

The study, “How Likable Are Personality Disorder and General Personality Traits to Those Who Possess Them?” was also co-authored by Jessica L. Maples-Keller and Joshua D. Miller.