Are You Facebook Friends With a Psychopath? How to Tell

Can you spot a psychopath on Facebook?  Perhaps, although not just by looking.  A psychopath will not be using a profile photo of Charles Manson; no one would accept the friend request. Yet postings of dark personalities often contain distinctive features.

In fact, according to research, you might be able to spot other dark personalities as well.  Sure, individual studies do not speak for all of us, and Facebook habits are part of a complex personality profile, only properly diagnosed by a psychologist.  But it is interesting to note potential red flags that have been identified.

Psychopaths Revealed Through Toxic Facebook Posting

Who is most inclined to engage in harmful behavior on Facebook? According to research, one answer is psychopaths.  

In “Dark personalities on Facebook,” Bogolyubova et al. (2018) found a link between types of user and communication posted.[i]  Interestingly, unlike many studies performed on college students, the mean age of participants in their study was 44.96 years. Over 25% of them reported engaging in harmful behaviors online. 

Writing threats or comments that were degrading or insulting in response to the Facebook posts of others were the harmful online behaviors most commonly reported.  One of the two unique predictors of engaging in harmful behavior online was psychopathy

In addition to recognizing toxic posts, which are fairly easy to spot, are there more subtle clues as to what a psychopath´s Facebook profile looks like? 

Bogolyubova et al. make the interesting observation that study participants scoring high in psychopathy wrote posts relating to basic needs and their satisfaction, or to authority-related issues and politics.

Yet psychopaths might also be identified by what they don´t post.  Research by Vander Molen et al. (2018) noted that in their study, psychopaths were not identified on Facebook, except for one trait.  The number of books “liked” on Facebook profiles was negatively correlated with the trait—a finding the authors suggested might indicate that an interest in books contradicts psychopathic tendencies such as thrill seeking, impulsivity, and affect deficiencies.[ii]

Of course, there are many wonderful people who love posting about politics and are consistently falling behind on their book club reading.  Research identifies data points, which may or may not be consistent with a larger personality profile.  This is true with respect to detecting other dark personalities on Facebook as well.

When Less is More: The Machiavellianist Facebook Friend

Abell and Brewer (2014) studied Machiavellianism on Facebook, a personality trait characterized by emotional detachment, cynicism, and interpersonal manipulation. [iii]  They report that Machiavellian men and women engage in more Facebook self-monitoring. Specifically, they found that Machiavellian women engage in more relational aggression toward close friends on Facebook and dishonest self-promotion, while Machiavellian men engage in more self-promotion.

Can you spot a Machiavellianist simply by reading the posts?  Researchers say you might not have much to read.  Bogolyubova et al. noted that in contrast to narcissists who wrote longer posts using longer sentences, Machiavellianists wrote shorter posts and used shorter sentences.  They speculate this may be consistent with the Machiavellian inclination towards manipulation, as engaging in less self-disclosure on social media allows them to control their public image.

Of course, many wonderful people use short posts too. Some are private; some merely express themselves succinctly.  Yet contrast this type of brevity with long, detail-filled posts, usually accompanied by illustrative photos—and you might have spotted a characteristic of a narcissist.

It is Easier to Spot a Narcissist

Research indicates we might be better able to spot a narcissist on Facebook than other dark personalities.  Vander Molen et al. (2018), in examining whether dark triad traits are identifiable through Facebook profiles, found that raters could detect narcissism, but not psychopathy or Machiavellianism.  They suggest that people with dark triad traits use Facebook in different ways and for different purposes. 

They note that narcissists may reveal their narcissism intentionally or unintentionally through their Facebook profiles by sharing self-relevant information. 

Vander Molen et al. note that Machiavellianists, as compared to narcissists, provided less content yet shared more information about events. They suggest that Machiavellianists might be strategically limiting the amount of personal information they provide, choosing instead to share information about events that make them look important. 

Choose Your Friends Carefully

Facebook is a wonderful tool to keep up with current and past contacts and acquaintances.  It is not a place to clinically diagnose psychological personality traits. 

Yet it can be a place to spot potential red flags.  Because it is always good advice to choose your friends carefully.

References

[i] Olga Bogolyubova, Polina Panicheva, Roman Tikhonov, Viktor Ivanov, and Yanina Ledovaya, “Dark personalities on Facebook: Harmful online behaviors and language,” Computers in Human Behavior 78, 2018, 151-159.

[ii] Randy J. Vander Molen, Seth Kaplan, Ellim Choi, and Diego Montoya, ”Judgments of the Dark Triad based on Facebook profiles,” Journal of Research in Personality 73, 2018, 150-163.

[iii] L. Abell and G. Brewer, “Machiavellianism, Self-monitoring, Self-promotion and Relational Aggression on Facebook,” Computers in Human Behavior 36, 2014, 258-262.

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