The Dark Factor
of Personality

A Theory of the Common Core of Dark Personality Traits

About D

What is D?

A unified theory of dark personality

Ethically, morally, and socially questionable behavior is part of everyday life and instances of ruthless, selfish, unscrupulous, or even downright evil behavior can easily be found across history and cultures. Psychologists use the umbrella term “dark traits” to subsume personality traits that are linked to these classes of behavior — most prominently, Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy. Over the years, more and more allegedly distinct and increasingly narrow dark traits have been introduced, resulting in a plethora of constructs lacking theoretical integration.

In proposing D — the Dark Factor of Personality — we specify the basic principles underlying all dark traits and thereby provide a unifying, comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding dark personality. In analogy to the general (g) factor of intelligence, D represents the one basic general dispositional tendency of which specific dark traits arise as manifestations. All commonalities between various dark traits can thus be traced back to D, so that D represents the common core of all dark traits.

For example, D may be evident in Narcissism and/or Psychopathy, but also in any other specific dark trait such as Amorality, Egoism, Greed, Machiavellianism, Psychopathy, Sadism, or Spitefulness, as well as in any combination thereof. Thus, instead of saying that an individual is an amoral, egoistic, narcissistic psychopath who selfishly acts according to her/his own interests and, in doing so, engages in sadistic and spiteful behaviors, one may just say that this individual displays high levels in D. D explains why dark traits are connected and thereby forms the theoretical basis for the emergence of dark personality in general.

For very informative summaries, take a look at Scientific American and Psychology Today.

The definition of D

D is defined as:

The general tendency to maximize one's individual utility — disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others —, accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications.

Put simply, D describes the tendency to ruthlessly pursue one's own interests, even when this harms others (or even for the sake of harming others), while having beliefs that justify these behaviors.

D is a basic, general dispositional tendency, which means that D is responsible for and can be evident in any specific dark trait (such as, for example, Psychopathy) and any malevolent behavior (for example, abusing, bullying, cheating, intimidating, insulting, exploiting, harassing, humiliating, hurting, lying, manipulation, molesting, stealing, taunting, threatening, tormenting, torturing, trolling, etc.).

The content of D

Individuals with high levels in D will generally aim to maximize their individual utility at the expense of the utility of others. Utility is understood in terms of the extent of goal achievement, which includes different (more or less) visible gains such as excitement, joy, money, pleasure, power, status, and psychological need fulfillment in general. Thus, individuals high in D will pursue behaviors that unilaterally benefit themselves at the cost of others and, in the extreme, will even derive immediate utility for themselves (e.g., pleasure) from disutility inflicted on other people (e.g., pain). Vice versa, individuals high in D will generally not be motivated to promote other’s utility (e.g., helping someone) and will not derive utility from other’s utility as such (e.g., being happy for someone).

Further, those with high levels in D will hold beliefs that serve to justify their corresponding acitons (for example, to maintain a positive self-image despite malevolent behavior). There are a variety of beliefs that may serve as justification, including that high-D individuals consider themselves (or their group) as superior, see others (or other groups) as inferior, endorse ideologies favoring dominance, adopt a cynical world view, consider the world as a competitive jungle, and so on.

Read the full paper

Details on the theoretical conceptualization of D and corresponding empirical support can be found in

Moshagen, M., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2018). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review, 125, 656–688. (doi: 10.1037/rev0000111)

Download the preprint

Measuring D

General issues of measuring D

D explicitly represents a fluid construct and will thus be reflected in all indicators used to assess dark traits. Nonetheless, the operational definition of D obviously depends on the specific indicators included. For example, if using an inventory designed to assess Narcissism, the resulting scores will of course primarily reflect Narcissism and only secondarily reflect D. A particular operationalization of D will thus be flavored depending on the dark trait measures included, so that (slight) shifts in meaning are to be expected when different sets of dark traits are investigated. Thus, although the indicators of any particular dark trait will — to a certain extent — also reflect D, measuring D itself requires the inclusion of a sufficiently large number of indicators of diverse dark traits in order to capture the full theoretical breadth that D represents.

An inventory to assess D

We are currently working on the development of an inventory to assess D. Inventory development is guided by the rationales (a) to allow for the assessment of D in sufficient breadth, (b) to maintain information about specific dark traits, (c) to balance positively and negatively keyed items, and (d) to provide several versions differing in language and length. Ultimately, we will provide the items and detailed information on the inventory here. In the meantime, we recommend resorting to the same set of items as we used in Moshagen et al. (2018, see the supplement), perhaps excluding self-interest, since — despite its name — this does not really represent a dark trait.

Modeling D

In general, we recommend using the bifactor approach as outlined in detail in Moshagen et al. (2018). It is important to include the factors for the specific traits to account for remaining similarities among item groups that are not due to D. This could also be done by employing higher-order models (with D being at the highest level). Although we prefer bifactor models for theoretical reasons, we would expect similar results concerning D when using higher-order models instead. Note that the interpretation of the specific (lower-order) factors changes depending on the modeling approach employed.

If for some reason (for example, because the sample size does not allow for structural equation modeling) you rather prefer to go with observed variables, you can approximate D by creating a composite (e.g., mean) score. However, note that this will only approximate D and note also that you will not be able to concurrently investigate both D and specific dark traits (because these will be linearly dependent). We thus recommend against using this approach.

What is your score on D?

If you would like to know your level in D, you can take a questionnaire online at

Determine your D-score

D in the Media

The Authors behind D


Morten Moshagen

Professor of Psychology
Research Methods
Institute of Psychology and Education
Ulm University
Albert-Einstein-Allee 47
89081 Ulm, Germany
Tel +49 731 50 31850


Benjamin E. Hilbig

Professor of Psychology
Cognitive Psychology Lab
Department of Psychology
University of Koblenz-Landau
Fortstraße 7
76829 Landau, Germany
Tel +49 6341 280 34220


Ingo Zettler

Professor of Psychology
Faculty of Social Sciences
Department of Psychology
University of Copenhagen
Øster Farimagsgade 2a
1353 Copenhagen, Denmark
Tel +45 35 32 48 50