The Dark Factor
of Personality

A Theory of the Common Core of Dark Personality Traits

About D

Determine your D-score

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.


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 actions (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.

More about D

In the section below, you can find an annotated list of all published papers on D, briefly summarizing their content and providing links to download a copy.

For very informative summaries about the idea of D take a look at Scientific American and Psychology Today.

Papers on D


Moshagen, M., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2018). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review, 125, 656-688. (doi) (download copy (PDF))

Original publication spelling out the theoretical idea and definition of D and demonstrating that (i) many dark traits are (largely) subsumed by D, (ii) D accounts for diverse aversive (behavioral) outcomes, whereas the specific dark traits provide little to no additional explanation of these outcomes (beyond D), (iii) D can be fully represented by subsets of indicators in line with its fluid nature (i.e. D can be measured by any combination of dark trait indicators), and (iv) within models of basic personality structure, D is located across multiple dimensions (especially Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness).

Moshagen, M., Zettler, I., & Hilbig, B. E. (2020). Measuring the dark core of personality. Psychological Assessment, 32, 182-196. (doi) (download copy (PDF))

Based on rational item selection techniques and data from seven large and highly heterogeneous samples (total N > 165,000), item sets (comprising 70, 35, and 16 items, respectively) suited for an economic and psychometrically superior direct assessment of D are identified. For more on measuring D and all item translations, see Measuring D below.

Zettler, I., Moshagen, M., & Hilbig, B. E. (in press). The dark factor of personality shapes dark traits. Social Psychological and Personality Science . (doi) (download copy (PDF))

Tests the theoretical notion that D is the underlying tendency from which specific dark traits arise as flavored manifestations. Shows in 4-year longitudinal data that D is stable and indeed more so than specific dark traits and that D longitudinally accounts for (change in) dark traits, sometimes more so than the dark traits themselves. For example, D (modeled without any spitefulness items!) is a descriptively better predictor of spitefulness four years later than spitefulness itself.

Moshagen, M., Zettler, I., Horsten, L. K., & Hilbig, B. E. (2020). Agreeableness and the common core of dark traits are functionally different constructs. Journal of Research in Personality. (doi) (download copy (PDF))

Tests and rejects the notion that the common core of dark traits, the D factor, is essentially equivalent to the low pole of (Big Five) Agreeableness. Shows that D and Agreeableness are functionally distinct, that is, account for different variance components in theoretically relevant criteria, especially dishonest behavior, justifying beliefs, and (lack of) empathy and guilt.

Hilbig, B. E., Thielmann, I., Klein, S. A., Moshagen, M. & Zettler, I. (in press). The dark core of personality and socially aversive psychopathology. Journal of Personality. (doi) (download copy (PDF))

Demonstrates the conceptual and empirical overlap between D and socially aversive tendencies as studied in abnormal psychology: narcissistic, antisocial, paranoid and borderline psychopathology. Shows that – despite the limited theoretical and operational correspondence between specific dark traits and instances of psychopathology – D is well suited as a common cause explanation and outpredicts not only the full range of basic personality dimensions (including those most strongly related to D: Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness) in accounting for aversive psychopathology, but actually the same instances of psychopathology themselves.

What is your score on D?


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

Determine your D-score

Measuring D


General issues

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 in order to capture the full theoretical breadth that D represents.

Measuring D

Based on rational item selection techniques, we have identified sets of items that allow for a psychometrically sound, reliable, valid, and concise assessment of D. These sets come in different lengths, comprising 70, 35, or 16 items respectively (thus referred to as D70, D35, and D16). Details on item selection, psychometric properties, and validation results can be found in

Moshagen, M., Zettler, I., & Hilbig, B. E. (2020). Measuring the Dark Core of Personality. Psychological Assessment, 32, 182-196. (click to download a preprint).

Moreover, a growing number of translations are available (so far Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, French, Estonian, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (European and Brasilian), Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and Spanish), all of which were translated by native speakers with expertise in psychology, independently backtranslated by native speakers, and checked for inconsistencies by us. If you are considering adapting the items to any other language, please contact us.

Download the item sets and translations

By filling out the form below you can obtain a copy of the final items sets in all currently available versions (16, 35, and 70 items) and languages. Once you have clicked the 'download'-button you will receive an email to the address you entered containing a download link.

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D in the Media


The Authors behind D


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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
Homepage

...

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
Homepage

...

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
Homepage