Lying, cheating and arrogance might be morally repugnant, but a little dose of nastiness can be a creative thing
levolent personalities come in flavours, says Del Paulhus, the University of British Columbia psychologist who coined the term ‘dark triad’ to describe a trifecta of human evil: the Machiavellian plotter strategising the downfall of others, smiling all the while; the impulsive psychopath, pouncing to steal a friends’ last penny; the self-entitled narcissist, seizing the corner office and the choicest cut of steak. These nasty personalities have remained entrenched in the gene pool because they sometimes confer advantage.
That a hyper-aggressive individual might dominate a passive one is hardly breaking news – nor is it surprising that master manipulators are going to fool the credulous and naïve. Sure, people who constantly, flagrantly lie and cheat, those who trammel relationships to steal from their friends, can seize an advantage. But a spate of research published over the past couple of years reveals something surprising and new: measured amounts of dark-side traits, expressed at lower levels – too little to be considered a diagnosable personality disorder – open the doors of perception, helping us see the world through an edgier, more on-the-bias creative lens.
According to Robert Biswas-Diener, a psychologist at Portland State University, we all need ‘permission to engage in acts of dominance, aggression, strategic manipulation, and selfishness’. Go ahead and put yourself first every so often. Cheat a little. Lie a little. Aggrandise yourself like a narcissist and, from time to time, throw humility out the door. The slightly evil among us could be more creative, more accomplished and contribute a decent dollop of good to the human race.
By far the most repugnant of the dark traits to help us take flight can be found on the spectrum of the psychopath, whose paradoxical behaviours wrap traits we value around ones we loathe. Based on clinical descriptions of the full-blown diagnosis, the criminal psychologist Robert Hare at the University of British Columbia has created an assessment tool that includes a complete palette of traits: glibness and superficiality; egocentrism and grandiosity; lack of remorse and guilt; lack of empathy; deceitfulness and manipulation; emotional shallowness; impulsivity; poor behaviour controls; a need for excitement; and a lack of responsibility.