Research Report

Giving the benefit of the doubt: The role of vulnerability in the perception of Dark Triad behaviors

Described as a set of personality traits that are socially aversive, the Dark Triad – psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism – underlies a series of detrimental behaviors, including manipulation, self-centeredness, and deception. Even at subclinical levels, these dark personalities are associated with considerable social, emotional, financial, and even physical harm.

Despite being considered as socially undesirable, the Dark Triad traits have been associated with sought-after characteristics such as charisma and boldness. Some researchers argue that people with dark personalities can exert control over others because we as humans have psychological needs and primal fears that can easily be exploited. Previous research has suggested that some individuals possess certain characteristics that put themselves at a higher risk of being victimized by social predators. People with dark personalities are able to exhibit undesirable behaviors in settings that encourage its practice, suggesting that there is a two-way interaction process between the Dark Triad person and the person on the receiving end of their behavior.

A study was conducted by Kai Li Chung and Dr Kathy Charles from Edinburgh Napier University, United Kingdom, aimed to determine the characteristics of people who ‘enable’ those with dark personalities (e.g. through tolerating unpleasant behaviors, not challenging immoral conduct, etc.). A 20-item Vulnerability Scale was developed to capture the traits of individuals who have an inclination to fall victim to social manipulators. One-hundred and forty-four participants completed the Vulnerability Scale and the Big Five Inventory that measures personality. After ranking their vulnerability scores from the lowest to the highest, the top 30 participants (high vulnerability group) and the bottom 30 participants (low vulnerability group) were invited to participate in a vignette-based study. Vignettes depicting Dark Triad characters along with their victims of manipulation were used to draw out participants’ perceptions of Dark Triad behaviors.

Results from this study found that people who had higher vulnerability scores were significantly more agreeable and neurotic. The more vulnerable individuals also tended to be significantly less extraverted and conscientious. The vignette-based study showed significant differences in the response styles between high and low vulnerability groups. People who were less vulnerable were more assertive in expressing their opinions and used more derogatory terms when describing the unpleasant character in the vignettes. In contrast, vulnerable people were milder and less harsh in their response styles.

It appears that vulnerable individuals see grey areas in Dark Triad behaviors, whereas less vulnerable individuals perceive more readily that people with dark personalities are malevolent. Low conscientiousness within the high vulnerability group suggests that people who demonstrate signs of vulnerability may have blurred personal and moral boundaries, which possibly lead them to rationalize the unpleasant behaviors of the manipulators.

A curious paradox remains – we may complain about unpleasant people, but victims of such people still have a tendency to excuse and put up with them.

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