A study of UK athletes and their coaches found links between psychopathy and both anger and aggression. Machiavellianism, another dark personality trait, predicted anger. The study was published in Psychology of Sport & Exercise.
Emotions are important in sport. This is particularly the case with anger that can both aid and harm performance. Key features of anger are strong feelings of annoyance, displeasure and hostility. A person can become angry when his/her identity or self-esteem are threatened. Anger has the potential to mobilize a person’s energy, but is very difficult to control and may thus lead to poor decision-making, poor performance and to violent behavior.
Violent behavior or aggression is one of the most important consequences of anger in sport. It can manifest itself as hostility or reactional aggression, when a person reacts to feeling threatened or it can be instrumental, when a person accepts aggression and uses it for his/her own purposes. Psychologists have named traits that make a person prone to anger or aggressive reactions trait anger and trait aggression. But are they somehow linked to personality traits known as “the Dark Triad”?
“The Dark Triad” of personality traits consists of three personality traits. These are psychopathy, “the tendency to exhibit impulsive, thrill-seeking behavior” and show little empathy towards others, narcissism, the tendency to feel entitled, dominant and superior to others, and Machiavellianism, the tendency to act and think in an overly manipulative and calculating way.
“Sport and exercise psychologists have a longstanding interest in athletes individual differences such as personality,” explained study author Robert Vaughan (@DrRobertVaughan), a senior lecturer at York St. John University and author of the forthcoming book “Sport and Exercise Psychology: A student’s guide to research.”
“One relatively new personality framework is the Dark Triad consisting of sub-clinical narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Research with the general population suggests that high levels of these traits are associated with costs to the individual and generally considered less socially desirable. However, in the sport context high levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy may be advantageous. That is, a highly goal oriented, ruthless, and self-serving disposition may lend itself to success in competitive sport environment.”
Vaughan and his colleagues conducted psychological assessments of two groups of athletes. One group consisted of 224 athletes “recruited from a range of team and individual sports clubs in the UK.” The other group were 98 pairs of athletes and their coaches (196 in total). There were both same gender (67 pairs) and mixed gender athlete-coach pairs in the group (31 pairs, either a male coach with a female athlete or a female coach with a male athlete).
Participants completed assessments of the Dark Triad personality traits (the short Dark Triad, SD3), and of proneness to anger and aggression in the context of competition (the Competitive Aggressiveness and Anger Scale, CAAS).
Analysis of the first group reported that higher proneness to both anger and aggression was linked to higher levels of all three Dark Triad traits, although associations with aggression tended to be a bit stronger than with anger. When mutual associations between the three Dark Traits were taken into account, psychopathy was found to predict anger and both psychopathy and Machiavellianism predicted aggression.
Researchers then looked at the pairs of athletes and their coaches and tested whether they could predict anger and aggression of one member of the pair based on the Dark Triad traits of the other member of the pair. They found that all three Dark Triad traits of one pair member are predictive of aggression of the other pair member (either the athlete or the coach). The results were similar with anger, but not with all traits in all combinations (coach-athlete vs. athlete-coach).
“Findings from this work suggest that Dark Triad traits should be considered by coaches when dealing with athlete aggression levels especially with regards to psychopathy,” Vaughan told PsyPost. “Moreover, athletes Dark Triad levels can increase coaches aggression and vice versa (coaches Dark Triad levels can increase athlete aggression) highlighting the complex interpersonal association between the Dark Triad and aggression and the importance of the dyadic relationship between athletes and coaches.”
The results highlight important links between personality and sports behavior, particularly its importance for relations between athletes and their coaches. It does, however, have some limitations. Notably, it does not allow for cause-and-effect conclusions and it did not control for how long the relationship between sportsmen and their coaches in the study has been. It has also been based on self-report measures, which might have allowed study participants to give socially desirable answers on at least some questions.
“This article is the latest in a line of work examining the Dark Triad in sport context revealing some important findings,” Vaughan said, “such as – athletes report higher levels of the Dark Triad compared to non-athlete counterparts, high Dark Triad scores predict favorable attitudes towards doping, and actual / objective cheating behavior, the Dark Triad interacts with mental toughness to predict physical activity levels, and high levels of the Dark Triad predicted objective sport training performance.”
The study, “Don’t look back in anger: A cross-sectional and dyadic examination of the Dark Triad, anger, and aggression in athletes“, was authored by William Bryan, Tracy C. Donachie, Robert S. Vaughan, and Daniel J. Madigan.