Psychology researchers have flipped their focus away from narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism to explore what characteristics are present in people who are the everyday saints around us.
Maybe you’re one of them?
Most of us strive to be a good person.
Yet our culture is fascinated by psychopaths and narcissists. And with good reason. People high in the “dark triad” – the well-studied threesome of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism – tend to cause substantial harm to others.
They also make interesting and colourful TV characters, so we’re exposed to a lot of them on our screens.
This dark triad of personality was first proposed in 2002, and since then research and public fascination with these anti-social traits has flourished.
“The dark triad and the dark side of our nature is an area that people keep on talking about over and over again,” Scott Barry Kaufman said, a psychologist at Columbia University.
To fight for the light side, Dr Kaufman and his colleagues set out to discover the traits of a loving human being with an orientation towards others.
After testing thousands of people they proposed the “light triad” — three traits they found to be most in contrast, although not opposite, to the traits of the dark triad.
What traits make up a truly good person?
According to Dr Kaufman and colleagues, the light triad consists of the traits of Kantianism, humanism and a faith in humanity.
Kantianism is when we treat people as means to themselves, as opposed to a means to an end. Basically, we’re not out to use them. It’s pretty much the opposite of Machiavellianism, and is based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
Humanism is valuing the dignity and worth of each individual person.
Faith in humanity is when we believe that people are fundamentally good.
These traits are not so much about the self, but about our attitude to others. And the light triad theory says that people high in all three of these traits are the “everyday saints in our midst”.
“I think this light triad captures love as an attitude, not as an emotion,” Dr Kaufman said.
Nick Haslam, a personality researcher at University of Melbourne, argues that some of the characteristics of the light triad are covered in mainstream personality psychology in the Big Five personality test, which assesses agreeableness, conscientiousness, open-mindedness, extraversion and neuroticism. Four of those traits are generally thought to be good things, he said.
“I think there is an understanding in personality psychology that there is a variability from positive to negative on pretty much all human attributes,” Professor Haslam said.
But Dr Kaufman points out that the traits in the light triad are not really about agreeableness.
“The light triad can actually be if you stand up for your values, if you’re really caring and loving you can still not be polite,” he said.
“It’s not like no one has ever looked at positive aspects of personality, but these particular aspects have been neglected.”
Why do we need to know about the good people?
While positive psychology over the past 20 years has looked at how to be happier and live a more meaningful life, researchers are only just turning their focus towards looking at the characteristics of what makes a “good” person.
Dr Kaufman believes it’s a focus we need in today’s world.
But can simply developing the concept of a light triad actually change the amount of light in the world?
Peggy Kern, a psychology researcher at the University of Melbourne thinks it could.
“By putting a light on it, it actually gives us something to move and strive towards,” Dr Kern said.
“It gives us a language to think about … what does it actually look like when people do value others and they are really looking for the good in others.”
Advantages of the light side
Some of the features of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism can be seen in successful politicians, business leaders and celebrities (and you may recognise them in your bosses, families and colleagues).
However, scoring high in the dark triad is not a pretty thing.
The dark triad is positively correlated with low life satisfaction, as well as a range of aversive psycho-social outcomes, including aggression, violence, low empathy and a heartless “love style”.
On the other hand, the light triad is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction.
“They’re the type of people who get along with others, they contribute, they’re almost what we want in a well-functioning society,” Dr Kern said.
The light triad hasn’t yet amassed the body of research that the dark triad has, but the researchers found a strong link between the light triad and the characteristics of a “quiet ego” – perspective-taking, inclusive identity, detached awareness and growth-mindedness – which are generally seen as desirable.
Although the researchers didn’t find any obvious downside to scoring high in the light triad, there still may be some disadvantages of being too light.
“With any personality characteristics there can be too much of a good thing,” Dr Kern said.
Someone with a lot of faith in humanity may also have problems with setting boundaries, and end up being taken advantage of by others, for example.
“When is too much of a good thing a bad thing is a very interesting question for the future,” Dr Kern said.
There’s light and dark in all of us
One reason we’re intrigued by the dark side of humanity is because of the insidious threat they can pose to us.
“These are the sort of people who we have to be very mindful of,” Professor Haslam said.
“They exploit us, dominate us. These are the people who treat us badly. And it makes perfect sense that human beings would be fascinated with the sorts of unpleasant characters that make their lives difficult.”
Dr Kern suggests a slightly different angle on why we’re so interested in psychopaths and narcissists.
“We like to look at it in part because we’re actually afraid of identifying with it,” she said.
If you’re afraid of your inner dark side it may be possible to make yourself lighter.
One of the most common misconceptions about personality is that it’s fixed throughout our lifetime.
“Personality is not some mysterious thing lurking deep within the soul, it’s just is the way you tend to behave. There is lots and lots of evidence that these things can change,” Professor Haslam said.
Change often takes place simply by a process of maturation.
But there is also evidence that people can deliberately change themselves, Dr Kaufman said.