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When it comes to behavioral domains that are relevant from an evolutionary perspective, parenting is right up there near the top. After all, parenting, which is absolutely required in humans given how helpless our offspring are for their first several years of life, has direct implications for a child’s ability to survive and ultimately reproduce. From an evolutionary perspective—and from nearly any psychological perspective—parenting is downright critical.
In recent years, personality psychologists have found that a certain cluster of traits that we refer to as the “Dark Triad” of personality, including narcissism (overly focusing on oneself), Machiavellianism (manipulating others for one’s own gain), and psychopathy (having little in the way of feelings for others), is predictive of a broad suite of difficult social behaviors, such as revenge-seeking (Geher et al., 2019), cutting people out of one’s life (Geher et al., 2019), refusing to help others (Ruel et al., 2021), and promiscuous sexual behavior (see Schmitt et al., 2017), among many others. In short, we should watch out for people who show Dark Triad tendencies—they can cause all sorts of problems.
The relationship between Dark Triad traits and parenting styles
A few years ago, my research team, the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, became interested in the relationship between Dark Triad traits and parenting behaviors. In an intensive review of the academic literature related to the Dark Triad, we were intrigued to see that the Dark Triad had not, to that point, been examined in terms of parenting. Given how central parenting is to the human experience, we thought that a study on this topic would be illuminating.
We designed a survey that we then administered to over 250 parents. In this study, we administered a standard measure of all three traits of the Dark Triad, along with three different scales tapping parental styles based on the classic work of Dianna Baumrind (1967), which, along with some newer work, breaks parenting styles into the following categories:
- Authoritative parenting, which emphasizes parents as authority figures but is largely collaborative and compassionate
- Authoritarian parenting, which is harsh and bossy, not taking kids’ feelings into account
- Permissive parenting, which fails to really set boundaries and rules for kids to help them develop a strong constitution
- Uninvolved parenting, which is marked by genuine neglect of the feelings, needs, and concerns of one’s kids
The Dark Triad is associated with suboptimal parenting styles.
While the full study was a bit complex, the results were pretty straightforward. Across the three different parenting style measures that we included, we found that each facet of the Dark Triad was associated with at least one of the suboptimal (non-authoritative) parenting styles. And none of the Dark Triad traits was associated positively with authoritarive parenting.
In other words, parents whose personality is marked by the Dark Triad tend to show a combination of harsh, authoritarian parenting, overly permissive parenting, and downright neglectful parenting. In short, parents with Dark Triad traits, for a variety of reasons, may well demonstrate suboptimal parenting, which, based on decades of research in psychology, likely has all kinds of implications for the development and behavior of so many kids across the globe.
The Dark Triad of personality, including narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, has been shown to have ubiquitous effects on all kinds of social behaviors and outcomes.
The work presented here (Geher et al., 2020) is among the first to explore how the Dark Triad plays out in the domain of parenting. Using a suite of validated measures and a sample of more than 250 actual parents, our findings were clear: Parents who show Dark Triad tendencies seem to employ the full gamut of suboptimal parenting styles. These findings suggest that the reach of the Dark Triad in the human experience extends even further than behavioral scientists had previously thought.
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