A recent study published in Communication Research Reports suggests that the Dark Triad personality traits can inform our understanding of negative online behavior. The study found that people who demonstrate compulsive internet use score higher in Machiavellianism and psychopathy, and those with greater online self-presentation behavior score higher in narcissism.
Social media has seen massive growth in the past two decades, making it easier than ever for internet users to connect with each other around the world. This growth has also led to a greater opportunity for negative online interactions, from hostile discussions about politics to severe online harassment.
Researchers John Petit and Nick Carcioppolo propose that certain problematic online behaviors reflect characteristics of the “Dark Triad” personality traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Machiavellianism, which is characterized by cold and manipulative tendencies, has been linked to online aggression. Narcissism, which involves an inflated sense of self, has been linked to self-objectification on social media. Psychopathy, which is characterized by impulsiveness and a lack of empathy, appears to correlate with online trolling behavior.
“We were interested in examining this topic because we thought it was necessary to provide some academic context into how dark personality traits such narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism permeate into our online communication behavior,” explained Petit, a PhD student at the University of Miami.
“This seemed even more relevant to us given the current social and political climate. The increasing polarization in online political discourse as well as the emergence of online-centric antagonistic groups such as QAnon further provided justification to us to dig deeper into the aforementioned phenomenon.”
While there has been much interest in studying these anti-social personality traits, little research has explored how they might influence online communication behaviors. Petit and Carcioppolo proposed that clarifying the link between the Dark Triad traits and online behavior could help researchers understand the psychological processes behind negative online behavior.
The researchers distributed a questionnaire among 147 undergraduate students from a Southern University. All students completed a 27-item Dark Triad scale as well as assessments of six online communication behaviors. The online behaviors assessed were compulsive internet use, psychological reactance, perceived online anonymity, opinion leadership, media trust, and self-presentation behavior.
Using correlation analyses, the researchers found that certain online behaviors were indeed linked to Dark Triad traits. First, the traits of psychopathy and Machiavellianism were both related to greater compulsive internet behavior. Compulsive use of the internet can include a loss of control over one’s use of the internet and feelings of withdrawal when offline. Petit and Carcioppolo noted that this finding falls in line with past studies reporting that individuals with psychopathy and Machiavellianism traits struggle with impulse control.
Moreover, psychopathy and Machiavellianism were also related to greater psychological reactance. Psychological reactance refers to the arousal that a person experiences when they sense that some aspect of their freedom is being taken away. The researchers believe that greater reactance might help explain why some people are more prone to negatively evaluating media content and to aggressive demonstrations online.
Next, students who were higher in narcissism showed greater opinion leadership and self-presentation behavior, which falls in line with research showing that narcissists update their social media pictures and statuses more frequently than their counterparts. The authors say that an interesting follow-up question is whether certain social media platforms are more conducive to narcissistic communication behaviors. Future studies might attempt to uncover the circumstances that support or dampen these types of ego-promoting behaviors online.
Finally, gender was found to moderate the relationship between narcissism and online self-presentation, and as well as the relationship between narcissism and perceived anonymity. In particular, the results showed that women who were high in narcissism had a greater tendency to present themselves favorably and saw themselves as less anonymous on social media. But the authors said more research is needed when it comes to differentiating between the online behaviors that are typical of male and female users.
“I think a central message that can be taken away from the study is that dark personality traits are very complex constructs which operate in an even more complex online environment. In order to disentangle this intricate relationship, we looked at relevant online communication behaviors such as social-media self-presentation, media trust, and compulsive internet behavior and how they correlate with narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism,” Petit told PsyPost.
“One finding for instance highlights that compulsive internet behavior is positively associated with psychopathy (e.g., anti-social behavior and impulsivity) and Machiavellianism (e.g., deception and strategic manipulation), which means that individuals high in these traits tend to be more likely to engage in compulsive and addictive internet behavior. In a nutshell, you could say that we wanted to shine light into darkness (pun intended).”
Although the study was limited by a small sample that was not gender-balanced, the findings suggest that the Dark Triad traits are relevant in the discussion of online behavior and that future research is warranted.
“While anti-social and toxic communication behavior have long been a main focus in popular and media discourse, we believe there is still lack of academic understanding how exactly these dark personality traits manifest in online circumstances,” Petit said.
“Some important questions still need to be addressed. For instance: How do popular and relevant online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit discourage or promote the expression of Dark Triad traits? How can we guarantee continued and informed theory-building on the effect of Dark Triad traits on online communication behavior? What are important practical implications that might emerge out of this field of research?”
“I think it is important to point out that this research article aimed to generate important preliminary findings into the relationship between dark personality traits and online communication behavior,” Petit added. “As such it should be understood as an invitation for communication and psychology scholars to continue to put the finger on the pulse of anti-social and toxic online communication.”
The study, “Associations between the Dark Triad and online communication behavior: A brief report of preliminary findings“, was authored by John Petit and Nick Carcioppolo.