New research provides evidence that narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism — maladaptive personality traits known as the “Dark Triad” — are associated with overt displays of virtue and victimhood. The study suggests that people with dark personalities use these signals of “virtuous victimhood” to deceptively extract resources from others.
The findings have been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Fortune and human imperfection assure that at some point in life everyone will experience suffering, disadvantage, or mistreatment,” wrote the authors of the new study. “When this happens, there will be some who face their burdens in silence, treating it as a private matter they must work out for themselves, and there will others who make a public spectacle of their sufferings, label themselves as victims, and demand compensation for their pain. This latter response is what interests us.”
In a series of studies, which included 3,536 participants in total, the researchers examined how signals of virtue and victimhood were related to Dark Triad traits and deceptive behaviors.
The researchers first found that perceiving someone as a virtuous victim made people more likely to help them, indicating that using signals of virtue and victimhood is a valid strategy to gain resources from others. For example, participants were more willing to help a victim of a random act of violence who was described as being shot while volunteering at a charity event than a victim shot walking in front of a grocery store or a victim shot at a strip club.
In subsequent studies, the researchers established there was a positive relationship between Dark Triad traits and emitting signals of both victimhood and virtue. Among the three Dark Triad traits, Machiavellianism — which is characterized by a willingness to be manipulative and deceitful — was the strongest predictor of virtuous victim signaling.
In other words, people with high levels Machiavellianism were more likely to report that they have often “pointed out how I am not able to pursue my goals and dreams because of external factors,” “explained how I don’t feel accepted in the society because of my identity”, and “expressed how people like me are underrepresented in the media and leadership.” They also reported virtue signaling more often, such as buying products to communicate their positive moral characteristics.
Importantly, this relationship held even after accounting for demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Put another way, people with darker personalities were more likely to claim victimhood status regardless of their actual status in society.
Participants who reported engaging in more virtuous victim signaling scores also tended to be more willing to purchase counterfeit goods and were more likely to cheat in a coin-flip game. Finally, participants who reported engaging in more virtuous victim signaling were more likely to exaggerate perceived mistreatment by a colleague to gain an advantage over them, an association that was mediated by the Dark Triad traits.
“Together, our studies present converging evidence that the virtuous victimhood signal is an effective mechanism for persuading others to part with their resources in a way that benefits the signaler and that people who tend to engage in amoral social manipulation to achieve their goals are more likely to emit them,” the researchers explained.
But the researchers “strongly caution against” interpreting the findings as suggesting that everyone who engages in virtuous victim signaling has maladaptive personality traits such as Machiavellianism.
“Our conclusion is simply that victim signals are effective tools of social influence and maximally effective when deployed with signals of virtue. We also provide evidence supporting our proposition that for some people these signals can be deployed as a duplicitous tactic to acquire personal benefits they would otherwise not receive,” they wrote.
The study, “Signaling Virtuous Victimhood as Indicators of Dark Triad Personalities“, was authored by Ekin Ok, Yi Qian, Brendan Strejcek, and Karl Aquino.