You might think that to become a better person, you should squelch your inner demons, suppress your darker impulses. That’s not quite right, according to Columbia University psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. The Notorious S.B.K., as some like to call him on Twitter, has a jovial, earnest presence. He’s open and curious about others’ views on a number of things, mostly on topics touching his areas of expertise—intelligence, creativity, and human personality. He can be firm in his convictions while making a counter-argument gently. He doesn’t avoid the social media platform’s vitriol but defuses and transcends it. On The Psychology Podcast, he thoughtfully interviews scientists studying the nature of mind, and how to improve people’s lives to realize their potential. He’s trying to bring back the idea of a “humanistic” psychologist. It’s how he identifies himself. This is someone who, he said, seeks to “understand what it means to be a fully vital human who is experientially alive and trying to deal with the paradoxes of human existence.”
One of those paradoxes is the way we should relate to the dark side. Last week, Kaufman tweeted, “Integrate your dark side; it may be your greatest creative power when harmonious with the rest of you.” In his new book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, Kaufman movingly explains the spiritual and intellectual debt he owes to Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist widely known for the idea that to live a psychologically rich life, humans must satisfy a “hierarchy of needs” like survival, social connection, and self-esteem. Kaufman dedicated Transcend to Maslow (“a dear friend I’ve never met”), bringing his mentor’s views up to date. “To me,” Kaufman said, “Maslow represents a human who was deeply wrestling with issues that I feel like I’m wrestling with, trying to understand how we can integrate ourselves and become fully actualized human beings without ignoring the dark side.”1
In two recent papers, published in 20192 and in 2020,3 Kaufman contrasted our light and dark sides, “two very different profiles of human nature,” and argued that we must get in touch with our dark side and harness it, to become whole. Our more aggressive, manipulative, narcissistic propensities aren’t to be cast aside. “Perhaps it would be wise to adopt a dialectical mindset and accept our dark and light sides, being aware of the functions of these traits and the contexts in which they are expressed, rather than ignoring such tendencies within ourselves and in others,” Kaufman and his colleagues concluded in the 2020 paper. “Social trust and affiliation with others, and a relatively lower expression of an antagonistic and exploitative orientation, appears to be a particularly productive path to personality development, life satisfaction, and a deeper connection with humanity.”
If this all sounds very Star Wars-y, that’s no mistake. Kaufman takes the moral perspective of Star Wars seriously. “Oh, God, I’m obsessed,” Kaufman said. “I’m the first one to scientifically operationalize the Star Wars force and create a test that allows people to actually see where they are placed on it. I believe in it. It’s a brilliant framework. You can feel what force is taking hold of you,” the light or the dark. The Jedi, the main protagonists in Star Wars, rely on the light, of course. They’re supposed to seek knowledge and peace, value all life, and be motivated by compassion. Their antagonists, the Sith, rely on the dark. They’re supposed to desire power and conflict, value only their self-interest, and be motivated by aggression. To Kaufman these philosophies are, on the whole, accurate representations of how morally relevant personality traits cluster together.
On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.
Kaufman designed a survey, “Light vs. Dark Side of the Force Test,” that scores users on six personality “facets”—three from both the so-called Light and Dark Triads. In the 2019 paper, Kaufman and his colleagues found that a new scale he developed to measure the Light Triad was valid, reliably capturing “a loving and beneficent orientation toward others.” This study involved over 1,500 participants, who he recruited using two separate data collection platforms from four demographically diverse samples. “While the Light Triad contrasts with the callous and manipulative orientation of the Dark Triad,” he wrote, “the Light Triad was not merely the inverse of the Dark Triad.”
Scientists have been studying the Dark Triad for about two decades, since psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams published a paper in 2002 proposing it as a part of human personality.4 “Of the offensive yet non-pathological personalities in the literature, three are especially prominent: Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism, and subclinical psychopathy,” Paulhus and Williams wrote. Machiavellianism is an inclination to strategically exploit and deceive others; narcissism, a sense of entitled self-importance; and psychopathy, a tendency to callousness and cynicism.
An idea was going around in the field that, really, these are names for a single thing. Paulhus and Williams showed otherwise. “We conclude that the Dark Triad of personalities, as currently measured, are overlapping but distinct constructs.” Kaufman said, “There’s a common thread that runs through all of the Dark Triad traits, and that’s exploitation and the desire for antagonism, viewing the world in a zero-sum way.” Like when Darth Vader, toward the end of Revenge of the Sith, dealt his friend and former master Obi-Wan Kenobi an absolute: “If you aren’t with me, then you are my enemy.” Vader’s self-hating yet triumphant view of himself is also on-point. “Dark Triad people have no tolerance for anything, or acceptance. They even hate themselves,” Kaufman said. “We found that. They think they’re the greatest, but they don’t love themselves. They’ll be the first to admit, ‘Yeah, I’m a piece of shit as a person,’ but they don’t value that. You see what I’m saying? They like power.”
The Dark Triad, which is associated with committing the “seven deadly sins,”5 appears to have cast a spell on researchers. The number of studies on it since Paulhus and Williams’ paper came out has gone up each year, almost exponentially. “People are obsessed with the dark side and it’s interesting questioning why,” Kaufman said. “You go on Netflix and the most highly watched shows are the ones that are unsolved mysteries, or this serial-killer profile. People’s fascination with this stuff is they want to see: How close am I to that person?”
Kaufman developed the Light Triad Scale to bring balance to the force, so to speak. He was motivated by the question, “What would an everyday loving and beneficent orientation toward others look like that is in direct contrast to the everyday antagonistic orientation of those scoring high on dark traits?”
To find this direct contrast, he couldn’t merely “reverse code items on the Dark Triad Scale, because that would be a boring scale,” Kaufman said; for example, “I like to exploit others/I don’t like to exploit others.” Instead, he said, “Is there something that is the absence of darkness? Light? I would say no. Light is something more than just the absence of darkness. That’s what our research bears out.”
Star Wars philosophies are, on the whole, accurate representations of how morally relevant personality traits cluster together.
He came up with faith in humanity (believing in the fundamental goodness of humans), humanism (valuing the dignity and worth of each human being), and Kantianism (treating people as ends in themselves, not means to an end). “Kantianism,” Kaufman explained in his paper, “provided a sensible (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) contrast to ‘Machiavellianism’ within the Dark Triad framework.” Immanuel Kant and Niccolò Machiavelli are, of course, renowned moral and political philosophers who, in Kant’s case, emphasized the ethical strictures of duty and, in Machiavelli’s case, made a virtue of being conniving and clever.
Kaufman found no straightforward inverse relationship between Light and Dark Triad traits, which leaves room for people to have a mix of both. “There’s a sort of a benevolent orientation that goes through all three of those Light Triad traits, just like the antagonistic orientation that goes through the Dark Triad,” Kaufman said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that those who score very high in the Light Triad are delusional. They may recognize and accept, even love, the foibles of human nature.”
In his 2020 paper, Kaufman and his colleagues wanted to see how Light and Dark Triad personality profiles are spread out across the human population. “There are those who are extremely high Dark Triad and very, very low Light Triad,” he said. “There are those, which are the largest profile of humans, who have a mix. And then there are those who are up the kazoo in Light Triad and very low in Dark Triad.”
Kaufman and his colleagues were able to show that females were lower in the Dark Triad and higher in the Light Triad, and that people high in the Light Triad tended to be older, “consistent with the idea that personality is a maturational process.” They also found, by analyzing speeches from Senate floor proceedings coded for virtue and vice signals,6 that United States senators were higher in the Dark Triad than the general population—which makes sense, given how competitive politics can be. The senators relatively higher in the Dark Triad also had longer political tenures but co-sponsored fewer bills. “I wasn’t surprised,” Kaufman said.
He was surprised to find that people are, on average, moderately tipped toward the light. (Maslow, Kaufman said, believed people were basically neutral.) “I think people are basically good when their defenses aren’t activated,” Kaufman said. “There are people that can bring out the worst in you and environments that can bring out the best in you. We’re quick to activate our defenses and there’s a million triggers. I wrote a tweet about that: ‘I have found that as long as people don’t feel that you are attacking their politics, religion, core values, core identity, personal truth, morality, likability, intelligence, talent, creativity, or favorite Pokemon character, people actually tend to be quite polite and kind.’ I can be a cheeky psychologist.”
Yoda had some dark side. That’s why I think Yoda was so wise.
Our often unruly environments mean we’re not entirely ruled by the sort of traits we have. “It doesn’t mean that you’re always one way or the other,” Kaufman said. “That’s not what a trait is. Traits are density distributions. Throughout the course of your day you’ll tend to be four or five out of a five-scale on average, but it doesn’t mean you don’t rack up ones and twos and threes. The Darth Vader density distribution is so highly packed on the four- or five-level of darkness, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t every now and then have these moments where things slip through, and he saves his son’s life, who he cares about.”
Kaufman went on, “If there’s slivers of love that can slip through the cracks of our hate, it can profoundly change our mindset in the world. I do believe that mindsets are malleable. It’s just entirely possible that Darth Vader had a radical mindset shift by the feeling of love being able to slip through the heavy armor of darkness that he has held up as a defense mechanism. That defense mechanism may have served its purpose for many years, but he may have realized that it no longer serves him, or the world. Any one of us at any moment can have that realization.”
Perhaps equally crucial is the realization that our dark side is not something we should seek to extinguish. “Harnessing your dark side is essential to becoming a whole person,” Kaufman said. “People trying to feel more whole will maybe try to cut out all their naughty bits. They’ll put on the porn blocker. You know! That’s it. ‘Now I’ll feel whole if I have the porn blocker on. Or I’ll cut out all carbs and then I’ll feel whole. Or I’ll just completely eradicate the dark side and then I’ll feel whole.’ They still don’t feel whole and they’re like, ‘Why don’t I feel whole? I eradicated the dark side.’ Well, that’s a very naïve view. What I try to really help people with in my book, and I’m doing a course on this for the first time in September, is to help people realize that acceptance is what leads to wholeness.”
Complete suppression never works. “The truth will always find a way of popping back, sometimes in full force,” Kaufman said. “Whether we’re talking about truths within you that you don’t want to accept about yourself or truths in the world. There’s some people that want to cancel anything, any truth that they don’t want to recognize as true. ‘Let’s just not talk about it. Let’s cancel anyone who says anything like it.’ You see that analogy there? That’s not the best way for a society to become whole and that’s not the best way for a human individual to become whole, either.” Kaufman believes that the dark side played an important role in motivating people to join the civil rights movement, to fight for social justice. “Sometimes channeling your aggression for real injustices in the world, and integrating that into your higher-level goal, is important. I’m all about integration, baby!”
In Transcend, Kaufman offers “growth challenges,” some of which focus on helping you to integrate your dark side. “Consider in what ways you have coped with the negative emotions, emotional scars, or negative parts of your identity,” he writes. “In what new ways might you be able to take the negative emotions or scars and do something productive with them, such as making small personal improvements or connecting with others, rather than judging yourself?”
Inspired, I took Kaufman’s test. When I finished, a picture of Yoda appeared. I am, the analysis informed me, “moderately tipped toward the light side of the force!” Phew. My psychopath rating was less than 10 percent, 26 percent below the average; the average Machiavellianism score is just below 40 percent, and mine came in at 5 percent lower than that. But it turns out I’m a bit of a narcissist. I scored 19 percent higher than the average of 40 percent. Instinctively I attribute this to my identity as a writer. George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” listed “sheer egoism”—“the desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death”—among his four “great motivations” for writing, the others being “aesthetic enthusiasm,” “historical impulse,” and “political purpose.” About egoism, Orwell wrote, “Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful business men—in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.”
I’m OK with that. In another essay (which Kaufman quotes), Orwell writes, “On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.” I scored just a percent higher than the average faith-in-humanity score—60 percent. But my humanism is extreme. The average score is around 70 percent and mine was above 90 percent. And, at just above 80 percent for Kantianism, I’m 6 percent higher than the average. So, overall, not that high-scoring in the Light Triad. At least compared to Kaufman, who scores high. He said, “Surprised you’re not higher in humanism.” I took it as a compliment.
Before I bid Kaufman farewell, I asked him how Yoda, a Jedi paragon, would take his advice about integrating the dark side. Wasn’t Yoda pure light?
“Yoda had some dark side,” Kaufman said. “That’s why I think Yoda was so wise. Yoda had the ability to feel the dark side. Yoda’s strength actually was more of his ability to control and channel it, rather than not have any idea what it feels like. I heard Jordan Peterson, [a Canadian psychologist], say something like this once—that to be able to have the dark side within you and have the capacity to control it makes you much more powerful than to not have access to that state at all. I’ve been thinking along similar lines. I’m a big fan of meditation for that reason, where you just nonjudgmentally check in with yourself throughout the day and be like, ‘Oh wow, I’m feeling the dark side right now.’ Meditate on it with love.”
Brian Gallagher is an associate editor at Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher
To explore your own dark and light sides, take Kaufman’s psychological survey, “Light vs. Dark Side of the Force Test,” here.
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2. Kaufman, S.B., Yaden, D.B., Hyde, E., & Tsukayama, E. The light vs. dark triad of personality: Contrasting two very different profiles of human nature. Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019).
3. Neumann, C.S., et al. Lights and dark trait subtypes of human personality—A multi-study person-centered approach. Personality and Individual Differences 164, 110121 (2020).
4. Paulhus, D.L. & Williams, K.M. The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality 36, 556-563 (2002).
5. Jonason, P.K., Zeigler-Hill, V., & Okan, C. Good v. evil: Predicting sinning with dark personality traits and moral foundations. Personality and Individual Differences 104, 180–185 (2017).
6. ten Brinke, L., Liu, C.C., Keltner, D., & Srivastava, S.B. Virtues, vices, and political influence in the U.S. Senate. Psychological Science 27 (2015).
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