A new study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology has discovered intriguing links between the Dark Tetrad personality traits and the way individuals react to emotional imagery.
The Dark Tetrad refers to a set of four personality traits – Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism – that are characterized by various socially aversive behaviors and a notable lack of empathy. These traits, while not clinical disorders, represent distinct aspects of human personality associated with manipulative tendencies (Machiavellianism), grandiosity and a need for admiration (narcissism), impulsivity and a lack of empathy (psychopathy), and a propensity for enjoying the suffering of others (sadism).
“The interest in dark personality traits and their manifestations has been rising exponentially in the past two decades,” said study author Anja Wertag in Croatia. “These traits have been linked to various emotional deficits and aberrations in emotional processing, and in this study, we sought to investigate the relationship between the Dark Tetrad traits and reactions to different emotional pictures.”
“We investigated the cognitive and affective processing characteristics related to the Dark Tetrad traits beyond usual self-reports. Such research is important because, apart from offering a better insight into similarities and differences of emotional processing in each Dark Tetrad trait, it offers the possibility of getting insights into the motivation and specific behavior related to each trait (for example, through aberrations in emotional processing we can understand the motivation for different forms of aggressive and/or violent behavior).”
The research was carried out with a group of 144 college students. The participants, with an average age of 22.18 years, completed a questionnaire that assessed the Dark Tetrad traits online. This questionnaire explored Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism, with participants rating their agreement or disagreement with statements on a five-point scale.
Following the completion of the Dark Tetrad questionnaire, participants individually rated a series of affective pictures displayed on a tablet. The time it took for each participant to provide their responses, along with the responses themselves, were automatically recorded. This response latency served as an indicator of their ongoing cognitive processes during the evaluation of these emotional pictures.
The pictures, carefully selected from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS), depicted a wide range of emotional content. They were categorized as positive, negative, or neutral, with subcategories such as sports, erotic, mutilation, self-threat, and threat to others. These images varied in valence (the degree of pleasantness or unpleasantness) and arousal (the degree of activation or deactivation).
Participants rated their emotional reactions using nine-point scales when assessing valence (ranging from entirely negative to entirely positive) and arousal (ranging from entirely calming to entirely exciting) in response to each picture.
The researchers observed gender-related differences in emotional reactivity. Males tended to score higher on the Dark Tetrad traits (except narcissism) compared to females. Additionally, males rated negative pictures more negatively and excitingly, reacting more positively to these images compared to their female counterparts.
Higher narcissism and lower sadism were associated with more positive ratings of positive pictures, while higher sadism was linked to more positive ratings of negative pictures. This aligns with the idea that individuals high in sadism tend to experience positive emotions when observing violent or negative stimuli.
“Our results indicated that dark personality traits are related primarily to ratings of valence of emotional pictures: specifically, individuals high on narcissism and low on sadism evaluated positive emotional pictures (such as pictures showing sports activities, or romantic interactions) more positively, while individuals high on sadism evaluated negative pictures (such as those depicting threats to self and others) more positively,” Wertag told PsyPost.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing findings relates to response latency—the time it took for participants to provide their emotional assessments. Machiavellianism emerged as a key predictor of faster response times when evaluating emotional stimuli.
This aligns with the idea that individuals high in Machiavellianism may have a strategic advantage in decision-making. The finding “can be connected to previously documented enhanced cognitive processing linked to manipulative traits (a key feature of Machiavellianism),” Wertag explained.
On the other hand, higher sadism was associated with slower assessment of negative pictures’ valence. This could suggest that individuals with elevated sadistic traits take their time to savor the suffering depicted in such stimuli.
“The positive evaluations of negative and violent pictures related to sadism are in line with findings of previous studies and the key characteristic of sadism – the enjoyment in observing (and inflicting) the suffering of others,” Wertag told PsyPost, “and the longer assessment time related to the assessment of negative pictures could be taken as an indicator of taking time to enjoy the depicted suffering of others in individuals high on sadism. So, the takeaway message of our study would be that sadism is the dark personality trait related to most aberrations in emotional processing.
However, the dark traits did not show a significant relationship with arousal ratings (the level of excitement or activation generated by a stimulus). There was a marginal association between higher psychopathy and lower arousal ratings for negative pictures, but this link was not as strong as with valence ratings.
As with any research, there are limitations to consider. The sample size in this study was relatively small, and the composition of the participants (mostly college students) may not fully represent the broader population. Some of the measurement scales used in the study had lower reliability, which could have influenced the size of the observed relationships.
Additionally, the emotional stimuli used in the study may not have been strong enough to provoke highly variable emotional responses. Future research could explore different facets of the dark personality traits and incorporate physiological measures, such as skin conductance or heart rate, to further enhance our understanding.
“What was surprising in our results was the absence of the expected relations between psychopathy and the evaluations of emotional pictures,” Wertag said. “We believe that the main reason for this is the psychopathy measure used in our study, and strongly recommend using measures that capture the multidimensional nature of psychopathy.”
“We believe that further possible reasons for the absence of the expected relations are related to the limitations of our study – primarily a relatively small and homogenous sample (in terms of sociodemographic characteristics) and stimuli (pictures we used which were maybe not emotionally strong enough to provoke variability in emotional responses), thus, the following steps should be conducting research on larger and more heterogeneous samples, and using other emotional stimuli, as well as replicating the obtained findings using physiological measures (such as skin conductance, startle response or heart rate).”
“Moreover, since the biggest issue in our study is related to its cross-sectional design, it only recorded that there are relations between the Dark Tetrad traits and the processing of emotional pictures,” Wertag added. “Therefore, it is necessary to continue investigating this topic using longitudinal study designs which can offer more insights into possible causal relations between the dark traits and cognitive and emotional processing.”
The study, “A look through dark-colored glasses: The Dark Tetrad and affective processing“, was authored by Anja Wertag, Maja Ribar, and Ines Sučić.