Dark Triad vs. Light Triad: How To Know You’re ‘A Good Person’ (And What to Do If You’re Not)
There’s a light and dark side to personality, but wherever you land on the spectrum, change is possible.
Whenever there’s talk of light vs. dark, I can’t help but think of Star Wars, and the Jedi-Sith war. George Lucas’ expansive fictional universe is a prime example of good versus evil, a gold standard of storytelling. But it’s also an insight into human nature and depth psychology. Everyone, to some extent, has the capacity to lean towards the light or the dark, just like Luke Skywalker. Our power lies in our willingness to choose to be better.
In psychology, the study of personality shows that people fit certain characteristics. The reasons for this are highly complex, a mixture of nature and nurture, genetics, and environmental and social factors. But one thing is clear — people do have ingrained traits. And, just like Star Wars, psychologists have identified two opposing forces when it comes to “goodness” — the dark triad vs. the light triad.
What Is A Personality Type?
Chances are you’re familiar with personality types to some degree. Many people have completed online quizzes to find out what their “type” is. The origin of personality types dates back to Carl Jung, who attempted to reconcile theories from Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. As a man who was committed to seeing beyond limitations, Jung attempted to map the human psyche as broadly as possible. In Psychological Types, he writes:
“To be quite accurate, human nature is simply what it is; it has its dark and its light sides. The sum of all colours is grey – light on a dark background or dark on light.”
The Myers-Briggs test is one of the most common models, which consists of 16 personality types. Developed by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katharine Briggs, the framework builds upon Jung’s early work, offering insight into what their personality type is. This can support people in relationships, work, and various areas of life.
Are Personalities Fixed?
Personality research is a branch of trait theory (or dispositional theory), within which Myers-Briggs and other theories exist. Traits are habitual patterns of behavior, from thoughts to emotions. It’s a common misconception, though, that personality traits are fixed. One major study from 2018 tracked the “Big Five” personality traits across a group for 50 years and discovered that many traits are malleable, and can even change drastically.
What Is The Dark Triad?
In 2002, Canadian psychologists Del Paulhus and Kevin Williams published a paper that took the field of psychology by storm. In exploring what makes up bad character, the pair created the Dark Triad model to explain three main “dark” personality traits — subclinical psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. What’s interesting about this research is that it didn’t study criminals, but a broad section of the population.
Examples of Dark Triad Traits
Since the dark triad became widely known, there’s been an abundance of research, all of which affirm its validity. A study in Personality and Individual Differences from 2021 looked to explore the dark triad traits in greater detail, discovering many associated traits connected to the big three, all of which are antisocial in their own way:
- Psychopathy is linked to low levels of empathy and high levels of impulsivity. Six domains have been identified: detachment, aggression/impulsivity, antisocial, manipulation, risky behavior, and thrill-seeking.
- Machiavellianism consists of tricks and deception and is highly manipulative. Its domains include four dimensions: cynicism, amorality, manipulation, and detachment.
- Narcissism is extreme self-centeredness. Within that term, there are introverted and extroverted forms of narcissism. It contains eight dimensions: antagonism, authority, distrustful self-reliance, agentic extraversion, indifference, superiority, acclaim-seeking, and narcissistic shame.
Paulhus and Williams identified that at the core of the dark triad positively correlated to “callous manipulation” — exploiting others for personal gain. Clearly, these aren’t people you want to take lightly. Fortunately, as is true in nature, everything has its opposite, and there is a Jedi to the Sith.
What Is The Light Triad?
The trend in psychology seems to first look at the negative before evolving to the positive, or thriving. The likes of Sigmund Freud, who emphasized various forms of pathology, were followed by the likes of Abraham Maslow or Carl Rogers, people who led the way for positive psychology and the study of fulfillment, purpose, and goodness.
In 2019, a group of researchers addressed the imbalance. “While there is a growing literature on ‘dark traits’ (i.e., socially aversive traits),” they write, “there has been a lack of integration with the burgeoning research literature on positive traits and fulfilling and growth-oriented outcomes in life.” Their paper marked a milestone in exploring the light triad personality type. They explored the full spectrum of dark and light, in one study — the gray sum of all colors Jung mentions.
Led by Scott Barry Kaufman, the group created the Light Triad Scale to capture the benevolent traits of human nature. These so-called “everyday saints” are marked highly in three key traits. Unsurprisingly, these traits are linked to better outcomes in life, including happiness and fulfillment.
Examples of Light Triad Traits
Although there is some overlap, people who ranked higher in the light triad had a direct negative correlation to the dark triad traits. The light triad consists of high levels of honesty and humility and ranked highly on the Big Five trait of agreeableness. People ranked higher on other qualities such as compassion, politeness, and enthusiasm, and lower on qualities such as withdrawal.
Self-esteem also ranks higher in the light triad vs the dark triad, along with authentic living, self-awareness, relational authenticity, and unbiased processing. Following the research, the team settled on three points of the light triad:
- Kantianism: inspired by Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy of treating people as an end in themselves, not to be used for something else. In other words, humans have inherent value.
- Humanism: this values the dignity of every individual.
- Faith in humanity: believing in the fundamental goodness of humanity.
To follow the thread of faith in humanity, it’s crucial to note that no one person is all dark, or all light. Research has even discovered what is known as the Dark Empath, someone who has dark traits and high empathy. The lines are blurred, each of us exists on a spectrum. And as the research shows, our personalities are always changing. How do you make sense of the dark triad and light triad, then? How can it be used for growth or inspiration?
Your Personality Isn’t Fixed — And That’s a Good Thing
Research in psychology is beginning to align with certain spiritual concepts. In particular the Buddhist concept of no self, explaining how there is no rigid, fixed personality. Studies show how many traits are malleable. Practices such as mindfulness and meditation have been shown to alter people’s personalities — one qualitative study found that people who meditate increased their levels of openness and receptivity and ranked lower in neuroticism.
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Many other theories of personality point to this, too. We are not the victims of the past or imprisoned by our upbringing or genetics, but always have the autonomy to make the choice to change. Perhaps the contrast between dark triad and light triad can act as an inspiration and a warning, a way to identify darker traits and work towards cultivating more compassionate qualities.
Carl Jung, whose work on personality type has been hugely influential in the field, was cautious to warn people of their shadow. Just like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, there is a seed of dark and light within everyone, and it’s up to us how we choose to nurture it. Part of Luke’s hero’s journey is overcoming the temptation of being tempted by darkness — this is true of your own journey of growth.
Steps to Take To Move To The Light Side
Questioning whether you are inherently good is a powerful exercise, which in itself is an indicator of goodness. But what can you do to become more Jedi and less Sith? What are the practical steps? Many qualities associated with the light triad are in essence spiritual practices. These are ingrained and set traits, but qualities that are possible to cultivate. For example, a loving-kindness practice can improve your level of compassion towards others. Empathy can be increased by consciously trying to understand other people’s perspectives.
Other practices, such as gratitude and forgiveness, can move you away from a more self-centered, egoic approach to life. Meditation and mindfulness are powerful tools to boost these practices; their magic lies in the changes they seem to make in terms of outlook and perspective. As shown, they can change your personality and degree of openness.
Studies have also found that practices aimed at improving agreeableness — such as donating to charity or talking to a stranger and taking an interest in how they are — can reduce dark traits, making people less impulsive and selfish. Hope is not lost.
The Paradox of “Enlightenment”
Paradoxically, moving toward the light requires acceptance of the darkness. As Jung warns: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” You have to embrace your shadow, to fully become aware of how the dark traits influence your behavior from your unconscious mind.
Believing yourself to be all bad, or all good, will distort your self-perception — it’s likely you’ll end up suppressing or denying any traits that you associate with being bad, allowing them to operate behind the scenes. Above all else, connect to values that lead you away from yourself.
Start to deeply question the value of cultivating more kindness and consideration for others, and aim to move towards those values as best you can, day by day. Learn emotional regulation, in order to avoid your impulses or desires clouding your judgment. And try to keep in mind the golden rule: treat others how you would like to be treated.
Goodness doesn’t come by chance but is the process of choosing good and light, in the face of the darkness.