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The psychology of psychopaths and social media users

You’re a legend: Narcissus, painted by John William Waterhouse in 1903. Photo/Getty Images

Psychologists are getting a picture of people who are big on social media. It's not always pretty.

Like a good many people, I think of psychopathy as a constellation of personality and lifestyle characteristics that we all possess to one degree or another, the combination of which spells trouble.

Some of us don’t “do” empathy or feel guilt, but we’re not psychopaths. Some of us are impulsive, or don’t think through the consequences of our actions, but we’re not psychopaths. Some of us are manipulative and cunning, or lie a lot, yet we’re not psychopaths, either. The same goes for people who have a grandiose sense of their own worth.

When all these characteristics come together in a single person, as they may do in 1-4% of the population, someone’s going to have trouble. For a long time, almost everyone who ends up in our prisons has been evaluated for psychopathy using some variation of the Psychopathy Check List-revised, or PCL-R, diagnostic tool.

Although many serial killers may be psychopathic, not all psychopaths are serial killers or ever would be. That’s partly because not everyone who has that guiltless, cunning, unempathetic personality also has the disorganised lifestyle that brings you to the attention of the local constabulary. Many of us know one of these people, though.

Before there was a PCL-R, there was the MACH scale. MACH is short for Machiavellianism and it doesn’t come from criminal psychology, but the study of personality. In the 1960s, Americans Richard Christie and Florence Geis plumbed the classical “politics for dummies” guides written by Niccolò Machiavelli and turned his advice into a set of questions to measure how Machiavellian a person is. For the Machiavellian, the end justifies the means, people who trust you deserve to be suckered and lying is an essential tool for getting the goodies.

This was a popular focus of personality researchers for a long time, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that someone asked whether these two intellectual children were in fact siblings and, unsurprising in retrospect, I think they’re probably the same wine in different bottles.

More recently, thanks to Delroy Paulhus, Machiavellianism and psychopathy have come to be seen as two parts of the “dark triad”. These “syndromes”, along with narcissism, tend to travel together – people who display one tend to display the others. They tend to predict the same sorts of unpleasant behaviour. For example, and forgive me for taking a turn towards the mundane, consider social media and social networks. Until recently, there wasn’t much research on these. We used to try to predict who had a Facebook profile from their personality, but now everyone seems to have one.

In 2015, however, the first research on selfies, by Ohio State University’s Jesse Fox and Margaret Rooney, was published. They asked more than 800 men questions about their online behaviour, as well as the dark triad. Consistent with other research, people who are narcissistic, psychopathic and/or Machiavellian also spend more time on social networks.

They also take more selfies, post more selfies and are more likely to edit them first to make themselves look good. When you put the dark triad into a statistical smackdown, it looks as if it’s the narcissistic grandiosity and self-aggrandisement that are doing the heavy lifting here. What about LinkedIn? Is that a playground for the corporate psychopath?

Unsurprisingly, just as unpleasant types are responsible for unpleasantness in our workplaces and personal lives, the dark triad also finds a playground in the online realm. Interestingly, although dark personalities troll more, the flavour varies. Psychopaths troll more popular profiles (to bring them down), whereas narcissists are more likely to target less popular profiles (to make themselves seem bigger).

This doesn’t mean that everyone in your social network is a psychopath, a narcissist or Machiavellian. You may want to check your own profile pic, too.

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.