Monday, July 20, 2015

The Dark Triad in Cyberspace

The term "Dark Triad" refers to the psychological traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, which are all considered negative. A few days ago I read an article containing this link to a recent study of male Dark Triad behavior on social networking sites (SNSs). Although I don't engage in any social networking, unless you stretch things and count this blog, I have long been intrigued by Internet behavior and how traditional relationships have been undermined by the invasion of technology into people's lives. Among the study's conclusions:
Men who self-objectify spent more time on SNSs than those lower in self-objectification, and, supporting previous research, more narcissistic individuals reported spending more time on SNSs. Those higher in narcissism and psychopathy reported posting selfies more frequently. Narcissists and individuals high in self-objectification more frequently edited photos of themselves that they posted to SNSs. Thus, our study has provided evidence for several as yet unstudied relationships between personality traits and social media use and self-presentation. Further, it suggests that those high on Dark Triad traits may employ SNSs to execute "cheater strategies" that help them achieve their interpersonal and social goals despite their antisocial personality traits.

As is the case with many psychological studies, these conclusions seem fairly obvious and were only awaiting research to confirm them. I am wondering whether the Internet simply provides a new venue for people who already have Dark Triad characteristics or whether it actually increases the total Dark Triad population. Studies such as this one are too narrow to draw many conclusions, but I would say that Dark Triad traits have been there all along but were previously more repressed by face-to-face interactions and the relative difficulty of representing oneself anonymously. It is theoretically possible that Dark Triad characteristics would increase in the species over time if people who are predisposed to one or more of those traits reproduced more than they did in the past, but it seems more probable that the gene pool was flexible to begin with and the Internet is now rewarding such behavior, in effect making bad people out of those who would behave better under different circumstances. More people are willing to lie, cheat, etc., when they believe that there is little likelihood of their being caught and held accountable, and in any case the Internet hasn't been around long enough to change the gene pool. A further complication regarding how much influence the Internet has over behavior is the decline of civil behavior in other sectors of society. For example, the number of reported serial killers dramatically increased from 1900 to 1980, with the U.S. leading the world, and there may be multiple explanations for such phenomena that relate in complex ways to Dark Triad behavior. However, I think that cyberspace in conjunction with other social changes is probably producing more Dark Triad behavior than was present in previous generations.

To some extent the Internet seems to be normalizing over time, particularly under the influence of businesses, which now derive much more revenue through it than they used to and therefore have much more at stake. This gives it a safer appearance, but I think many of the elements of the Wild West are still present. For example, cyber-bullying, cyber-crime and Internet trolls are far from eradicated. Then there is the massive research conducted by businesses such as Facebook, and Google to figure out how to squeeze more money out of their users or sell that information to someone else. I suspect that beneath the surface of many websites, very little civility exists at all. I have experienced this myself at Wikipedia and at the NYRB and don't doubt that the Internet is teeming with façades concealing private agendas that are hardly kind and generous. Moreover, though I don't currently interact with many people, I get the impression that many within the under-thirty age group may lead double lives. They may outwardly placate their parents and their elders by exhibiting the behaviors expected of them while privately engaging in different behaviors which may, at their worst, fit within a Dark Triad profile. Even when their behavior doesn't seem sinister, they may be suffering from spending too much of their time in cyberspace, where they are less likely to learn many of the skills that were once considered part of being human.

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