This One Behavioral Tendency Might Be An Indicator Of A Dark Personality

New research addresses the link between finding violent movies and video games humorous and dark personalities.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 30, 2022

A new study published in the Psychology of Popular Media shows a strong correlation between high consumption of violent media, finding it funny, and having dark personality traits. The research potentially shows us how this connection might help us forecast actual violence and aggressive behavior.

"We noticed that there was a gap in the research literature concerning traits of people who find humor in entertainment media," says Craig Anderson, a faculty member at Iowa State University and an author of the paper. "An obvious place to start was to see whether dark personality traits predict who will find entertainment media humorous."

For this study, Anderson and his colleagues conducted a couple of survey-based studies, focusing on the following seven dark personality traits:

The first four traits, called the 'Dark Tetrad' by psychologists, are as follows:

  • Narcissism, which comprises of grandiosity, entitlement, and self-centeredness
  • Machiavellianism, which comprises of cynicism and manipulative social tactics
  • Psychopathy, which comprises of callousness, impulsivity, and antisocial behavior
  • Sadism, the trait tendency to find harming others pleasurable

The next three were some other commonly assessed personality traits that are usually associated with antisocial behavior:

  • Moral disengagement, a tendency to "turn off" their moral compass to avoid the consequences of their own immoral behavior, such as guilt or shame
  • Spitefulness, which is tendency to harm oneself in order to harm other people
  • Schadenfreude, which refers to finding another person's misfortune or pain pleasurable

In the researchers' view, the most important findings from the two studies were:

  • A type of desensitization effect was noted, i.e, both exposure to high media violence was positively associated with finding violent entertainment media very funny;
  • Moral disengagement was positively associated with both high media violence exposure and finding violent entertainment media funny; and
  • 6 of the 7 dark traits were positively associated with finding violent entertainment media humorous (only narcissism appeared unrelated).

For someone who might have noticed this tendency to find humor in violent media in a loved one, Anderson has the following piece of advice:

"At this point in time, there is very little research linking finding humor in media violence to later real world aggression and violence," explains Anderson. "The state of the research literature does show that a fascination with weapons and violent incidents, and high exposure to media violence, does predict both mild and extreme acts of violence. But, that is not the same thing as finding humor in violent entertainment media."

Anderson does, however, give two important pieces of information on the subject:

  1. Parents of children from age 5 to 21 should be concerned if those children find violence that they see in all types of media, including news reports of real-world violence, to be funny and not distressful.
  2. If that is the case, then that is a good sign that media habits of the family need to be altered, and that the family needs to do a better job of teaching children prosocial family values rather than antisocial ones. Interestingly, superhero violence also is harmful to children's development of appropriate social values, behavior, and feeling of well-being.

Another interesting point raised by Anderson is that, contrasting to his research, there are other studies in the media effects domain that suggest that video games with prosocial themes can, over a period of time, lead to improved socialization of ways of thinking, emotional development, and appropriate behaviors and reduce the likelihood of antisocial behavior.

"Please note that some supposedly prosocial games, especially games in which the 'hero' destroys the bad-person enemies, are actually harmful to players," warns Anderson. "The main reason is that what those games actually teach is that physical violence is good and the first thing to try when faced with an interpersonal dispute."

According to Anderson, truly prosocial games can teach people to come up with nonviolent solutions to conflict, and can therefore result in improved interpersonal relationships.

A full interview with Craig Anderson discussing his research can be found here: Does finding media violence funny mean you have a dark personality?