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The Dark Core of Personality (scientificamerican.com)
112 points by imartin2k 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments



I don't really want to call this pseudoscience, but what it's missing is the connection to psychiatry and neuroscience and to me falls into the nasty tendency of bucket thinking. Just because traits are observable and nameable doesn't mean they're actually valid. You're just handing amateurs dumb "diagnostic" tools that are just going to harm interpersonal relationships rather than make them better.

If I observe you as having narcissistic traits, and you observe yourself as having narcissistic traits, and you form an identity around being a narcissist, nothing meaningful has been done. You still have no useful tools with which to make your life better.

The psychological world needs a lot less of this, because handing people convenient identities without a corresponding plan of action for improving yourself that actually works, is contributing to rather than alleviating the problem.

I don't think half of the people who think they're on the autism spectrum are anywhere close to it. I don't think half of the people described as narcissistic or psychopathic deserve the term. I do think that most people have emotional difficulties, and quantifying and providing resources for improving emotional health and depth should be the primary focus of psychology at the moment.

I like the focus on loneliness, I hate the focus on disorders.


> The psychological world needs a lot less of this, because handing people convenient identities without a corresponding plan of action for improving yourself that actually works, is contributing to rather than alleviating the problem.

Why? Psychology is not medicine. Psychology is the study of the mind. (Maybe you're thinking of psychiatry?)

We—psychologists—study the mind because we want to know how it works. It's basic research, like physicists studying particle collisions, or astronomers studying the cosmic microwave background. We're doing it in order to understand. We're approaching the same problems neurologists work on (how does the brain do this? why does the brain do that?), but from a different abstraction layer, using more of a social-sciences toolset.

This research, in particular, is interesting because it unifies several previous, more limited hypotheses about how and why the human brain ends up in a particular persistent state. It provides a rubric that allows researchers (not doctors; not laymen) to craft tools that find this state, and to make predictions based off of the presence of this state.

Researchers in possession of those tools can then use them to do other things. Like, say, medicine. But the basic research comes first.


The concept of a measure implies a way exists to bin people. So after measurement we may safely confine a person to a bin and never reconsider their lot in life again. Our culture is full of that mindset, and it’s unethical when applied to autonomous beings. People are ends in themselves - only to be defined by that person.

More simply, I personally believe I need a reason to do something mean, but I don’t need a reason to do something nice. Is binning people mean or nice? It’s definitely mean. I suggest corrections but also the possibility of redemption for offenders.


Is “epileptic” a bin?

Separately: is life better or worse for epileptics since the creation of the concept of epilepsy-as-neurological-disorder?

Consider what reifing this concept has allowed medical science to do, that it was not so empowered to do under previous explanations for the same behavioural phenomena.

When you cleave concept-space the right way, you create a node in your schema that corresponds to something you can actually affect, through e.g. therapeutic or pharmacological interventions.

A “bin” that stays such—just something to label people with, is a wrong cut. It is a concept that does not expose something “raw” and concrete enough to actually touch.


This sounds like a moot point.

The subject of the essay is correlation of stately statistical categories. The entire discussion remains purely in the abstract, and by this I mean the categories in question are abstract and the correlated heirarchies are abstract on every level. To take any issue with this in utility or morality would be to take issue with theoretical analysis itself. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt by assuming you are not intending to do that.


> We're approaching the same problems neurologists work on (how does the brain do this? why does the brain do that?), but from a different abstraction layer, using more of a social-sciences toolset.

You’re approaching the same problems that neuroscientists are tackling, but using a “social sciences” toolset? What does that even mean? That sounds like an outright rejection of the scientific method.


First, the scientific method is not relevant or useful in all worthwhile fields of inquiry. Second, the scientific method can definitely be applied in psychology.


I don't know a lot about psychology. The only things I've read are pop-psych articles like this about "traits", "D-factors" and "personality types", which you got to admit do sound a bit much like pseudo-science, or at least not telling the full story. It's useful, for sure, but I'd like to know more about the formal methods employed in modern psychology today. I imagine statistics, surveys and telemetry perhaps being key, but like all methods based in data - You have to be very careful; testing methodology and interpretation biases can heavily influence the results.

I think psychology could bring valuable insight into the future of AI as well. It's a shame that most psychologists involved in tech are in HR/communications or at best tasked with keeping people addicted to whatever social platform they are building.


It is true that psychology as it is currently practiced in many places has one of the worst replication crises [1] of all sciences, with lots of p-hacking and other unethical practices going on as researches attempt to get publishable results in a field where most data you get is necessarily messy and difficult-to-control confounding variables abound. But that's more about the usual perverse incentives in the academia rather than a fundamental problem with the field itself.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis


Oh, I was genuinely unaware that the replication crisis was such a big problem in psychology - It makes a lot of sense though, and it was a fascinating read :) And yes, I do agree that there's a problem with incentivization in all the sciences.


In my view, the impact of the replication crisis is to leave us with a science that embraces scientific methodology but has not produced a reliable scientific knowledge base and is burdened by an unscientific past. Digging out of this mess could take a long time, and is not guaranteed to produce results that are interesting to the general public.


Psychology is one of the few sciences that isn't directly traceable back to physics (In fact, I can't think of another one). They use the scientific method, but when dealing with personalities and human behavior there are plenty of "dead ends" that cannot be reduced or described further.


That depends entirely on your definition of "science". Out of the fields of research usually bundled under the category "social sciences" psychology is certainly among those closest to "natural sciences"—and there's certainly lot of interdisciplinary research that bridges the gap.


I really get where you’re coming from, but you’re far too ahead of yourself; and most importantly your assertion is very dangerous. It may well be popular among your peers, but history will surely drown your confidence in shame. Why? Entropy.

There’s a spectre that haunts Western pyshology which allows for the set of thus considered “scientific” checkboxes to be marked, which are sufficient for the physical sciences. But, physically speaking, the physical sciences are child’s play compared with the material subject of psychology, which is fairly undebatable. On the other hand, the same could be said for the physical sciences at certain points in time, and still to say in particular focuses. So what’s my point??

Psychology as it has so far been instituted in the western world cannot observe, define, or much less control the entropy it contends with. Critical theory, political theory, economics, poetics, cultural studies; truly the entire fields of humanities have a more comprehensive understanding of this entropy than the field of psychology does. Why? Because it cannot. It’s too much. Psychology can “scientific method” it’s heart out all it wants, but it remains to be seen that this method is even the best we’ve got. Mind you again that psychology cannot control for social entropy, and what but it can (debatable) falls off a cliff outside of the lab.

When we speak of social entropy, we cannot ignore politics; the scorpion’s tail of the entire effort which understandably ignores an effort to define either entropy or control but instead blindly accepts the human environment of contemporary ‘normal’ as the aim for dictating constants. This is of course ridiculous, and doing otherwise would be no less so. As such, it’s hard to blame the folks trying, but should be far easier to see how moot their effort is. The humanities has achieved a far more enlightened critique of the field of psychology than the field itself has even begun to. Sociology embraces the entropy whole-hearted and as such admits doubt and is politically marginalized (or privatized) accordingly. The approach of psychology in these respects is again understandable, but if the physical sciences were accused of something at all similar, we would all be up in arms.

On a separate note, the measurable issues with the institutional politics undermining western psychology are however similar to those at play in psysical sciences, but the vaguaries and innate necessity of ignorance in pursuing the task serve as multipliers to corruption. Where to even begin? It’s just too much.

To conclude, the effort in calling is certainly worthy and noble. But, the effort in practice is terribly fraught; deserves loads more criticism and caution than it receives. If the scientific method could be performed in scope (as one might say it is in the humanities) western psychogy remains in hypothetical stages. There’s cause for a few toasts, but not a celebration.


The "definition of science" isnt up for debate.


In that case your original assertion is trivially wrong.


Depends entirely on your definition of "wrong".


The definition of "wrong" isn't up for debate. b^)

Well, it seems like a simpler concept than "science", anyway.


> Psychology is one of the few sciences that isn't directly traceable back to physics (In fact, I can't think of another one).

Computer science is not "directly traceable back to physics."


Computer science isn't really a science, though. It's more like a branch of mathematics.


I agree with the second part but I'm struggling with what's informing the first part of your statement there. It doesn't seem to me that these are mutually exclusive, and it seems to me the assumption must be that if the experimentation and testing involved in theoretical CS do not involve physical phenomena, they aren't really part of what we consider the scientific method. I'm a little surprised by this.


The scientific method is not really a core part of computer science in the same way that it's not really a part of mathematics. Sure, there certainly is a such thing as experimental mathematics and using simulations and experiments to guide mathematical intuitions, but you can't directly use the outcome of experiments to prove a theorem. Computer science (as distinguished from software engineering or computer engineering) is about what's possible given a certain model of computing. It's really just a kind of math, and is not affected by what's possible in this universe. (Though what we choose to focus on certainly is, just like math.)

"Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." - Dijkstra

"Computer science is not about machines, in the same way that astronomy is not about telescopes. There is an essential unity of mathematics and computer science." - Fellows


I would argue that the scientific method isn't as much about using experimental results to prove theorems as much as it is building a model and repeatedly verifying/modifying it until it is consistent. In that aspect experiments are not dissimilar from tests in software and examples in mathematics. They serve as a single point that demonstrates a certain behaviour of the final model.

Sure in pure mathematics you can derive solutions using pure logic however if a model looks sound but an example shows up that disagrees with the model then there is obviously a flaw somewhere.

Similarly in physical sciences, experiments are data-points that constrain a model of the system. As physical sciences unfortunately don't have the luxury of using pure logic to derive models, they are stuck with using just these "tests".

As you said computer science is more or less a subset of mathematics. Because of this I would say that they are both true sciences, they just have a few extra tools at their disposal compared to the rest of the sciences.


My position is that CS is a bunch of proofs about Turing machines which can be implemented in transistors which are productions of our mastery of physics.

You could try to say the same thing about psych being implemented by neurons, but it's not directly traceable. You can try building up from neural networks, and backtrack from Freud's drive/defense model, but there is an insurmountable gap in between.


My interpretation of what he means by 'traceable back to physics' is that in most so-called 'hard sciences' (biology, chemistry, computation etc) the phenomena of interest can be formally described in terms of math/physics.

Assuming I'm not off-base there, I think the distinction is that unlike neuroscience, psychology often seeks to explain things by correlating data/observations rather than describing the underlying physiology.


> the phenomena of interest can be formally described in terms of math/physics

The theoretical parts of computer science that do not get broken out academically into separate engineering disciplines (wherein physics is quite relevant) are really just branches of mathematics, without any physics involved.

> I think the distinction is that unlike neuroscience, psychology often seeks to explain things by correlating data/observations rather than describing the underlying physiology.

I don't know a huge amount about psychology but that sounds fair. Psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience all inform one another. I don't think it's quite accurate (or perhaps it's just needlessly pejorative) to suggest, as the OP does, that psychology has hit a "dead end" when the phenomenon under study requires the application of psychiatry or neuroscience in order to be more fully understood. On the contrary, it sounds like an indication that the psychologists might have discovered something interesting.


> Psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience all inform one another.

I totally agree. I'm not making any claims about the validity or worth of psychology, I just think the distinction OP was referring to is worth pointing out.

I think ideally we would understand everything from a physiological perspective, but until that time comes there are plenty of cases where we can benefit from acting on imperfect information. An imperfect example: I don't believe the mechanism that SSRI medicines work on is well understood, but for a lot of people they are obviously beneficial.


Well, time and space constraints are quite prominent in CS, and both are very physical.


Why do you say that?


It's closer to a sibling of mathematics. Albeit independent in a lot of ways. I would say "Computer Science" often ends up referring to many different disciplines:

* The "mathematics" of computation (the British often call computer science informatics, and I think they might be closer). Information theory, computability theory, automata, etc. This would be the theory side of "computer science". But it is more it's own independent sort of mathematics.

* A science about what can be computed effectively, what works best, and other questions using empirical testing. This would be the "applied informatics", or the actual term "computer science". A computer has as much to do with computer science as telescopes do with astronomy, they are a supremely useful tool, and most scientists are probably pretty good at using them.

* Programming, this is the vocational skill, that anyone can learn, that is informed from what we know of the science.

* Software Engineering, this is the primary engineering discipline of the science. In the context of physics this would be like a civil engineer or something, or like a specialized electrical engineer (like compared to physics degree specialized in electromagnetism).

* IT/MIS, this is what most people think when you say computer scientist. But this is more like a specialized technician who maintains computers. And are like 3 degrees removed from the core of the informatics (informatics->science->engineering/programming->maintenance).

So in relation to the larger issue of the thread: In so far as mathematics came from physics (e.g. a tool to study nature, considering most strides in mathematics have come from people who could also loosely be described as physicists (like Newton and Plato, etc.) it's not a major stretch), computer science sort of came from mathematics, transitively it came from physics.


> So in relation to the larger issue of the thread: In so far as mathematics came from physics (e.g. a tool to study nature, considering most strides in mathematics have come from people who could also loosely be described as physicists (like Newton and Plato, etc.) it's not a major stretch), computer science sort of came from mathematics, transitively it came from physics.

I really respect the effort here, but formal, productive mathematics predates anything we'd call physics (or the scientific method) to such a huge extent that I think this is a weak conclusion. But, on the other hand, it wouldn't have ever occurred to me to call Plato a physicist.


> You still have no useful tools with which to make your life better.

Nonsense, you can now use mental health best practices to treat yourself or seek help from someone who can treat you. I say this because I’ve seen this precise scenario: someone told a family member they were narcissistic and to get help, and they did, and they’re largely a more pleasant person to be around now. It took years to effect this change, but I sincerely believe labels can help; even in self diagnosis.

That said, this type of self awareness is a modern phenomenon—David Foster Wallace captured the negative aspects of this quite well in some of his stuff (infinite jest and Men Who Stare At Goats come to mind). The answer for me was meditation and finding a better balance between stress and relaxation; I think true mindfulness (....not an app) could really help here.

And, of course, you need to want to change. This may be the hardest part of watching someone deal with monkeys on their back.


Yes. With self awareness, you can use your psychology to further your commitments. It's like adding (or strengthening) a level, in Hoffstadter's strange loop model.


I disagree. I found a self diagnosis of personality disorder helpful. I was able to read the characteristics, identify the ones that fit and then actively work toward changing them. It also allowed me not to be upset with myself when those quirks were acting up. I used the definition as a starting point for my own self directed change. The other thing I learned is that there is no accepted cure for any of the PDs except one. They are wrong of course, but they are learning.


Why are they wrong, and which one has a cure?


Something called Dialectical Behavior Therapy is an accepted treatment for BPD - Borderline Personality Disorder. Not sure what it's all about 'cause I'm not BPD. They are wrong because other PDs can be cured in some cases - I'm not going to assert that they always can, that would be as silly as categorically saying they can't.


> I like the focus on loneliness, I hate the focus on disorders.

Again though, that's you, your understanding. This is always the problem with psychology. Projecting all the information you've ever encountered through your understanding of yourself and through your understanding of others, onto others.

Disorders suck, yes. It's not always just loneliness in a physical presence sense. Sometimes it's intellectual/emotional loneliness.

> I don't think half of the people who think they're on the autism spectrum are anywhere close to it.

We are what we make of ourselves. You might not know the reason someone would prefer identifying with autism. But again, that comes down to how you observe information on the outside, versus an how an individual has understood their own self internally, in a stable sense, their entire life.

Intellectual loneliness, only seeing a singular connection between sets of information people externalize. One singular one that matches with everything. And then, trying to have one's own sense of self, instead of having to perpetually match with every person intellectually, to keep their own perspective maintained, validated.


Yes, maybe not pseudoscience, but also not very useful.

So based on their nine questions, I score rather high on their "D-factor". And while I don't spend much time obsessing over "utility maximization", I have clearly made many utility-based decisions. For example, I never wanted children, notwithstanding social expectations, and preferred to do what interested me.

It's true that some of my interests have been entirely selfish. Having fun, in various ways, for example. But I've also spent years being quite idealistic. Academic pursuits. Working on social and ecological issues. And now, being a privacy advocate.

I do get that my idealistic efforts could just be driven by the desire to look good. To be admired and recognized. But I'm aware of that, and use it for motivation, while recognizing that it's all ultimately empty and meaningless.

So anyway, I believe that human psychology and ontogeny are far too complex to be usefully characterized by stuff like a "D-factor". At best, that just gets at what we're conscious of. And what we're conscious of is largely meaningless post hoc bullshit.


I read it the same way. "Oh great, more pseudoscience in psychology that will make things worse for the marginalized and get thrown out after 30 years of not working."

It's part of the push to treat crime as a mental illness and set the stage for medicating criminals, I suspect, and it comes with all the flaws that the traditional mental illness model has.


While I do agree with most of what you said I think there is value in providing people descriptions of behaviors that they may see in other people.

For example, if a relative of mine 'Timmy' suffered from schizophrenia but schizophrenia as a diagnosable condition didn't exist yet then it would be much more difficult for anyone to know how to deal with Timmy. Some might shun him while others might fully buy into his paranoia.

The dark core traits have real victims so providing society with a means to identify and describe those behaviors will provide some limit to their range and impact.


Some of these "dark" traits are not treatable. You don't treat the sociopath, you treat his/her victims. The best strategy is to avoid them, if possible. Understanding this means you can feel free of the obligation of treating them, saving yourself form a lot of suffering - they would only use these opportunities to hurt you, anyway.


A really strange thing I’ve come across is when someone becomes a sociopath. It seems like it would then be possible to go back to ‘normal’, but it doesn’t seem to happen much. Why is it so much easier to go in one direction than the other?


Maybe it's actually an inborn tendency they can't change.


Psychological entropy?


No actual narcissist is going to “observe themselves having narcissistic traits”.



The general idea of a Dark Score is not a bad concept; you can think of psychopathy as a spectrum from "a bit of an asshole" to "serial killer". But as someone who takes psychology seriously, and who grew up in a family environment rife with psychopathic behavior, I have some problems with this article.

First, echoing dboreham's comment below, the problem with a self-reported Dark Score is that no real psychopath is going to rate themselves accurately. You just don't get very far on the spectrum if you have the ability to truly introspect and self-reflect. In my experience dealing with psychopathic individuals (I'm talking behavior leading to lawsuits, major crimes, and death), I can trace this lack of self-awareness to severe childhood trauma/abuse causing a sort of split or divided self. The true psychopath is a stranger to themselves.

Second, I think that creating a simple online self-report quiz trivializes some very real and very dangerous aspects of personality. I think it does a disservice to the field of serious forensic psychology. It is possible to study the type of minds of that cause tremendous suffering for others in a rigorous scientific way. But fun online quizzes aren't the way.


So, as I understand it, they're saying that someone who is (for example) a psychopath, is a lot more likely (than most people) to be narcissistic, someone who is sadistic is a lot more likely to be self-interested, and so on. This is perhaps a good thing to go out and check, but mostly this does not seem surprising to me; it would have been news if it turned out not to work like that.


> but mostly this does not seem surprising to me

I know what you're tying to say but I'd just like to put it out there that conclusions from scientific studies do not have to be surprising. Scientific exploration is to find out the truth - sometimes it is "common sense" and sometimes it is surprising.


Absolutely. And the underlying paper is entirely justified. The Scientific American article about the paper, is I believe trying to turn this into big news. But I agree with your point.


#9 is really interesting, and apparently the most correlated with all forms of malevolence. Are we just kidding ourselves when we do things like take political action, or even punish criminals? Is it really just feeding our need for hate and malevolence? Is hatred necessary? If it’s all based on self-justification, how do we know when it is appropriate?

I think this is the metaphor with lady justice. She is blind but very exact. She does not interpret, she executes. She has no empathy nor malevolence. Because we know that those are the seeds of our delusion.


Noob here, and only read the article. It sounds strange since afaik some of the mentioned manifestations are full-blown disorders in the physiology, or at least work like that―namely psychopathy. Now, there would be no surprise if the conclusion was "you need to have less empathy if you gonna be evil," but apparently the scores don't depend on any single one of the manifestations.

Also weird for a research paper like this one to have its own site that looks like a startup landing page.


Not sure what you mean by "research paper", but scientifamerican is "just" a magazine.

"""Scientific American, the longest continuously published magazine in the U.S., has been bringing its readers unique insights about developments in science and technology f or more than 170 years.""" - from the about page https://www.scientificamerican.com/page/about-scientific-ame...


There's a separate site linked in the article: http://www.darkfactor.org/


ah ok, wow you're right that does look like a startup landing page. Instantly makes me lose trust in it tbh


People have been reflecting on their own natures, and the natures of others, for thousands of years. Some of those reflections grew into systematic traditions leading to real understanding.

Apart from their scientific-ness, finding one of these traditions can be helpful in sorting out self. E.g. in Jung's psychology, we all have a shadow ('dark core'). But beyond that is a greater Self. E.g. in Buddhism, we learn that desire is a primary cause of suffering ... But we can grow, through self-mastery, beyond our suffering. And share. There are more examples.

Yes, these old systems pre-date science, but several are firmly grounded in centuries (or more) of shared human experience. Finding one of these traditions that 'talks to you' (while avoiding schemes) can be very helpful - in a pragmatic sense. All are part of what Huxley called the 'Perennial Philosophy'.


This reminds me of the Parallax View, the 1974 Warren Beatty movie, in which the evil Parallax Corporation recruited psychopaths it identified with a standardized test, then put them to work doing evil things. The story proposed that those tests were hard to fool, because the questions were intricately cross referenced (so Beatty didn't even try, he just had a real psychopath fill in the answers) and that the traits sought by Parallax were not ordinary, but were complex and rare. Contrast that with tests to identify the D-Factor. They'd be easy to fool, if one knows they're looking for self exaltation. And D-Factor traits are not complex or rare, they're present in everyone to a degree.

I just don't see why the notion of a D-Factor would surprise anyone, or why this study is regarded as "big news."


I really want to know, to what extent the D score can change, and what factors can change it.


It’s more or less pointless to worry about physical or neurological mechanisms in this context. Psychology isn’t really a science, but done rigorously it is a legitimate phenomenology. For practical purposes it doesn’t matter what causes g or d to have the value that it does, only that various correlated behavior patterns are observable.

For example the NFL and US military both successfully use tests of g to select more capable recruits.

Unfortunately I don’t believe any test of d will be useful, except maybe in very low g high d individuals. This is because there is usually no incentive to score low on a g test, but there is on a d test.


> Psychology isn’t really a science

Why not?


Reproducibility crisis.


I've tackled this issue from a bunch of different angles, and have never come to any comfortable conclusion. But one can assume that, there is a semi-random distribution of these traits based on genes and inheritance. So these people are going to keep cropping up, and maybe even more of them. Given that there's no way to stop people with certain personality traits from being born, what to do with them? Unless we're making exceptions, these people also have human rights as well.


Once you know someone will hurt you to get ahead - avoid them and avoid being the throat they need to step on. Sometimes you can’t help it. The best you can do then is not leave openings and have some solid backup plans.


Coming to a Facebook quiz near you! Discover your D-factor! Are you darker than your (also discoverable) celebrity alter - ego?


This is obvious, most personality traits are normally distributed and biologically driven


"Please don't post shallow dismissals, especially of other people's work."

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Just want to call myself out on this one. Thanks for the reminder to be better.


Respectfully disagree. 'normally distributed and biologically driven' is a distinct and non-shallow point of view, as far as I can see not really put forward in any other comment.

Also, 'obvious' is not necessarily as dismissal.




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