The Personality Factor

Social Sciences3 MIN READ

Authenticity yields negative results for dark personalities

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
August 5, 2021

Be yourself. This motivational phrase is often presented as the magical key to unlock happiness and success. And rightly so. Research repeatedly shows that being your true self is associated with many positive outcomes, such as higher self-esteem and better relationships.

But is that the case for everyone? What if your authentic self is troubled? Would expressing your true colors still predict these positive results?

Motivated by these questions, Assistant Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Seto, together with Wittenberg University’s William Davis, conducted two studies to understand how authenticity plays out for people with negative personality traits. Their new paper in this under-explored area suggests that true self-expression produces negative consequences in well-being for those with callous personality traits, especially psychopathy, defined as lacking empathy and remorse and being highly impulsive. While previous studies have only looked at intrapersonal well-being, this paper also focused on interpersonal well-being such as people’s interactions with others, Seto said, since authenticity can be contingent on that.

In the first study, they examined a group of four callous personality traits, called by psychologists the Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (highly manipulative), narcissism (inflated sense of self), psychopathy, and sadism (pleasure from inflicting harm).

Using a series of psychological scales, they gathered data from 380 college students. They assessed each person’s Big Five personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism), authenticity, self-esteem, dark personality traits, and intrapersonal and interpersonal well-being measures, such as depression and hostility.

“When you are behaving in line with your darkest self, it’s not necessarily a good thing.”

—Assistant Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Seto

Analyzing each dark personality trait separately, they uncovered that psychopathy, followed by sadism, “the darkest of the dark traits,” significantly moderated the relationship between authenticity and many of the well-being measures.

Authenticity for people with low psychopathy and sadism levels manifested itself as greater self-esteem, lower depression, less rocky relationships, and less hostility. But being authentic for those with high psychopathy and sadism did not predict those same outcomes. “There is an interesting caveat there,” Seto said, because her findings challenge the notions about being true to one’s authentic self. “When you are behaving in line with your darkest self, it’s not necessarily a good thing.”

Based on these conclusions, Seto and Davis ran a second study. They delved deeper into psychopathy and sadism.

This time, they had a larger and more diverse pool made up of 486 participants between the ages of 19 and 76. Yet similar results emerged for interpersonal well-being. For those with low psychopathy, authentic self-expression produced less rocky relationships and lower hostility. But the researchers couldn’t find the same relationship for people with high psychopathy.

“There’s something about psychopathy and this kind of authentic expression of psychopathy that might be related to negative interpersonal relationship quality,” said Seto. Although this study established psychopathy’s distinct relationship with authenticity and interpersonal well-being, further research is needed to better understand the correlation.

So should people with negative personality traits hide their true selves?

Pointing to previous research, Seto explained that inauthenticity for people with high Dark Tetrad traits is associated with higher well-being. “If you can maybe conceal some part of that dark personality,” she said, “it might be better for your well-being and relationships.”

Illustration by Yenpitsu Nemoto / Ikon Images