Why Psychopaths Make Such Bad First Impressions

When you meet someone for the first time, your mind actively turns on the assessment machinery to help gauge whether this is a person you can trust or not. You try to evaluate whether this person will have your best interests at heart, or whether you’re at risk of having this person take advantage of you. If you’re good at this skill, you’ll easily be able to figure out what your approach should be and react accordingly. If not, you stand to lose anything from your hard-earned money to a chunk of your well-being.

In new research on the accuracy of interpersonal perception, University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s Katherine Rogers and colleagues (2018) investigated the role of personality in interpersonal perception. They were particularly interested in the ability of people high in the so-called “Dark Tetrad” traits to judge the personalities of others, but also to learn how they themselves are judged. The Dark Tetrad includes the qualities of psychopathy, Machiavellianism (tendency to exploit others), narcissism, and sadism. Each of these traits has its own unique qualities, but when combined into the Dark Tetrad, they become particularly malevolent. The question that Rogers et al. pursued was whether these unpleasant and, frankly mean, individuals would perceive others more negatively and whether they themselves would seem unsavory to those who interact with them.

If the concept of the Dark Tetrad is new to you, consider for a moment each of its contributing factors. Psychopathy involves a callous attitude toward others as well as a tendency to be impulsive and reckless. People high in narcissism have a grandiose sense of self and a strong streak of entitlement. Machiavellianism is the tendency to take a cynical and hostile view of others and the world, dishonesty, and the strategic use of other people for personal gain. Sadism of the “everyday” variety as used in this context, involves getting enjoyment from watching of the suffering of others, either directly or vicariously (i.e. not causing but watching others suffer). You can see now why these traits add up to lead people high in them to have a malevolent stance toward others and the world in general.

Rogers et al. based their research on the “Social Accuracy Model (SAM)” of interpersonal perception, “a person-centered approach that examines agreement across a number of traits to assess accuracy and bias in impressions” (p. 2). One component of SAM involves normative accuracy, in which you provide an average estimate of where people stand on a particular quality and “is assessed by the degree to which one’s impressions of others, on average, map onto the average person’s standing on a given trait” (p. 2).  If you’re high on normative accuracy as measured in the Rogers et al. study, you’re good at estimating how high or low people in general are on the Dark Tetrad qualities. This also involves taking off the normally rose-colored glasses you wear when judging others, as normative accuracy tends to be biased toward the positive end of the spectrum. We like to see the “average” person, in other words, as “better than average.”

Distinctive accuracy is the second component of SAM, and involves those everyday judgments you make of the people you meet. In order to make these judgments, you need to have at least some signals provided to you by other people, and then you need to be able to use these signals appropriately to come up with your assessment.

Taking a look at distinctive accuracy, you can see why even the best judge of character can run into problems when dealing with people high in the Dark Tetrad traits. Given that these individuals, by definition, are always trying to con people and, in fact, enjoy taking advantage of them, they are unlikely to send out honest signals about their qualities. 

The other two components of the equation involve how accurately you can view others and, in turn, how accurately others perceive you. Perception-based accuracy refers to how you view others, and expression-based accuracy to how others perceive you.

There are, then, 4 combinations produced by the SAM based on normative and distinctive perception-based and expression-based accuracy .  These became the focus of the study conducted by Rogers and her collaborators as they evaluated people high and low in Dark Tetrad traits in an interpersonal judgment task. The innovative design of this study involved having the students meet others in small groups where they were instructed to introduce themselves and also get to know the others in the group. Their task was to rate one other person, and be rated by that person as well. This part of the study involved first impressions, as the average encounter lasted just 3 minutes. The second part of the study had the more intensive component of having participants provide contact information of people who knew them well. This allowed the researchers to obtain informant reports of personality that they could compare with self-reported personality traits.

Dyads in the getting acquainted groups rated each other on qualities related to trust, likeability, and “nefarious intentions.” These included such qualities as being aggressive and unrestrained, opportunistic and crafty, sarcastic and demanding, physically attractive, likeable and admired, and mature. Additionally, participants rated their dyadic partner on scales of being liked overall and trusted.

The analyses, which took into account perceiver and target personality ratings, led the authors to conclude that, as expected, people high in Dark Tetrad traits had negative views of others and themselves were perceived negatively. Sadism and psychopathy were the two traits of the four most strongly associated with interpersonal accuracy. As the authors concluded, “Taken together, the results paint a fairly negative picture of interpersonal interactions that include an individual scoring highly on any of the Dark Tetrad traits” (p. 10). What’s so intriguing about these findings is that psychopaths think they are charming and easily liked. People high in psychopathy rely on their ability to impress people in order to use them to their own purposes. However, the Rogers et al. study suggests that they’re not as good at the people-pleasing game as they think. 

Not only were those high in Dark Tetrad traits negatively perceived, but they also were shown to have a decidedly biased view of others. Seeing the world through dark-colored glasses leads them to see dire motives in others even when none exist, a problem made worse when Machiavellianism and sadism are added to the mix.  And worse, “for individuals scoring highly on the Dark Tetrad—with their coldhearted and aloof interpersonal style… the absence of rewards from civilized social exchange may exacerbate the antisocial tendencies associated with these particular traits” (p. 10). In other words, the negative qualities of those high in Dark Tetrad traits further ruin their interactions with others. No one wants to interact with them, much less form friendships, which leads them to become even more cynical and unfeeling.

To sum up, you may not make all the subtle distinctions among the Dark Tetrad traits when you meet someone you find untrustworthy, but you almost certainly will be on your guard. Paying attention to those vibes you receive in these cases may be the best protection at your disposal for gaining the greatest fulfillment possible in your relationships.

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