Psychopaths, silly science and James Bond

The headline of an article that a Lovefraud reader recently sent to me is:

Why women really do love self-obsessed psychopaths

With a headline like that, of course, I had to read it. The article, from 2008, describes research on the “Dark Triad” and mating behavior. The Dark Triad refers to the personality disorders of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.  I had some problems with the article, but before I ripped into it, I figured I’d read the original study. Here it is:

The Dark Triad: Facilitating a Short-Term Mating Strategy in Men

This study was published in the European Journal of Personality in 2009, and the lead author is Peter K. Jonason. To be honest, I find it hard to believe that the study was considered to be a contribution to the field of personality research. But before I rip into it, let’s review the Dark Triad.

Dr. Liane Leedom posted an article about the Dark Triad on Lovefraud back in 2007. Here it is:

Choosing a love partner? Beware of The Dark Triad

Dr. Leedom wrote:

The Dark Triad is Psychopathy, Narcissism and Machiavellianism. To varying degrees, all three personality types entail a dark, interpersonally destructive character with tendencies toward grandiosity, emotional callousness, manipulation and dominance. Psychopaths and Machiavellians have high self-esteem, and are charming and fun but psychopaths are also impulsive and cunning. Narcissists are grandiose and have high self-esteem, and may also be intellectually gifted. Research has shown that these three personality types are all a bit different and yet also highly overlap.

So what do these three personality types have in common? They are preoccupied with dominance and power, and deficient in love and empathy. To anyone who is looking for a love relationship, Dr. Leedom offers the following advice: “Avoid, at all costs, connecting with a member of the Dark Triad.”

Dark Triad and mating strategy study

I realize that scientific papers aren’t supposed to offer advice, but the degree to which Jonason tries to remain “objective” in his study is ridiculous. Here is how he describes the Dark Triad:

Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy—collectively known as ”˜The Dark Triad’—are traits that are linked to negative personal and societal outcomes, and are traditionally considered maladaptive. However, the persistence of these traits over time and across various societies, as well as linkages to positive traits, suggests that the Dark Triad can be advantageous in some ways. For instance, subclinical psychopathy is associated with a lack of neuroticism and anxiety, which may facilitate the pursuit of one’s goals through adverse conditions. Similarly, narcissism is associated with self-aggrandisement, and Machiavellianism is associated with being socially manipulative, both of which may aid in reaping benefits for oneself at the expense of others, especially in initial periods of acquaintance. (Citations omitted.)

So Jonason ascribed to psychopaths the positive quality of persistence in overcoming obstacles—would he be referring to stalking? And self-aggrandisement—drawing attention to one’s own importance—helps in stepping on people? But what is the real value of Dark Triad personality traits, according to this author? Exploitative, short-term sex! Here’s what he wrote:

Although most studies have focused on the negative aspects of the Dark Triad, our evidence suggests that there might be some up-sides to these anti-social personality traits. We found that the scores on the Dark Triad traits were positively related to having more sex partners, an unrestricted sociosexuality and a greater preference for short-term mates.

Study subjects

So, how did Jonason conduct the study? He offered extra credit to 224 undergraduate psychology students to fill out self-report questionnaires. The group included 88 men and 136 women. They were aged 17 to 43—the median age was 21 and the average age was 23.5.

The students filled out three separate inventories to test for their level of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. Then the students were asked about their views on sex, and about their sexual behavior.

So how do you think hormone-drenched, strapping young adults in today’s sex-crazed culture would respond to the following: “I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying casual sex with different partners.”

I assume the answer was: “YEAH!”

Then the students were asked, “With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse within the past year?”

I assume, especially among the males, that the answer was an exaggeration.

If the popularity of Jersey Shore is any indication, my guess is that plenty of 20-somethings think lots of casual sex is just fine, and if they weren’t getting it, they’ll lie and claim that they were. Jonason even admits that this may have happened in his study.

Evolutionary argument

Nowhere in his report does Jonason indicate that he actually interviewed any psychopaths, narcissists or Machiavellians. He merely asked a narrow and unrepresentative sample of human beings to answer questions about themselves on standardized tests. Jonason subjected the responses to a myriad of statistical analyses. It appears that he dazzled the journal editors with his math, because I wonder about his conclusions.

First, he says people with Dark Triad traits have more sex. Even though he based the conclusion on testosterone-enriched young adults, I’m sure he’s right. Then, Jonason portrays this casual, exploitative, short-term sex as a successful mating strategy in the march of evolution. He writes:

Our study indicates a connection between the Dark Triad and more positive attitudes towards casual sex and more casual sex behaviors. To the extent that lifetime number of sexual partners is a modern-day marker of reproductive success, and given that the Dark Triad traits are heritable and exist in different cultures, we speculate that these traits may represent one end of a set of individual differences that reflects an evolutionarily stable solution to the adaptive problem of reproduction. (Citations omitted.)

So he’s saying that casual sex benefits the survival of the human race. I have to wonder about this argument. According to Wikipedia, “Natural selection is the process by which biologic traits become more or less common in a population due to consistent effects upon the survival or reproduction of their bearers.”

Psychopaths have been called intra-species predators. They exploit other human beings, and some have been responsible for killing others, ranging from a few to millions. If the members of the Dark Triad were so successful, I would think there would be more of them in the population. But this would be bad for the species, for human beings, as a whole. Would natural selection encourage an adaptation that has the potential of killing off other members of the species? I hope not.

Back to the news article

As is now obvious, I have a low opinion of this study, and my opinion of the news article is even lower.

First of all, consider the headline, Why women really do love self-obsessed psychopaths. Nowhere in the study does Jonason claim that women love psychopaths. Whoever wrote the headline converted the idea of casual, exploitative sex into love.

Then there’s the first paragraph of the article:

Bad boys, it seems, really do get all the girls. Women might claim they want caring, thoughtful types but scientists have discovered what they really want — self-obsessed, lying psychopaths.

The article completely omits the study’s description of duplicity in the sex pursued by personalities of the Dark Triad. As we well know, most of us who have been intimate with psychopaths, narcissists and Machiavellians were conned into it. We didn’t want, “self-obsessed, lying psychopaths.” We were deceived. But the author, Science Editor Steve Connor, went for the sensational rather than the accurate.

Finally, there’s the idea of using James Bond as an example of the Dark Triad, or at least the most recent James Bond from Casino Royale, starring Daniel Craig. This James Bond, you may recall, fell in love. He was ready to quit being a spy so he could be with his love—until she betrayed him. Even then, Bond attempted to save her life.

A real psychopath wouldn’t do that.


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