New Research Reveals Why Dark Personalities Are Champions At Holding Grudges

Researcher Boban Nedeljković explains why dark triad personalities rarely forgive others, and how it all starts with their thought patterns.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 25, 2023

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences examined the role of anger rumination in forgiveness, specifically with regard to individuals possessing the dark triad traits of machiavellianism and psychopathy.

I recently spoke to Boban Nedeljković of the department of psychology and Laboratory for the Research of Individual Differences at University of Belgrade in Serbia, lead author of the study to discuss how anger rumination is associated with a lack of forgiveness in dark personalities and the real life implications of the same. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Can you briefly describe "anger rumination," and the multidimensional approach to understanding it?

Maybe the best way to describe anger rumination is to explain rumination itself. In general, ruminating means having intrusive, repetitive thoughts about past events. These thoughts are perhaps most easily recognized in depression, where one faces considerations such as "What could I have done to avoid this happening?"

However, there is one crucial difference when comparing depressive and anger rumination. Although they both refer to past events, depressive rumination is mostly characterized by self-blaming, while anger rumination is mostly characterized by blaming others for the (real or perceived) injustice one has experienced.

The multidimensional view on anger rumination we applied subsumes four dimensions:

  1. Angry afterthoughts
  2. Angry memories
  3. Thoughts of revenge
  4. Understanding of causes

Angry afterthoughts and angry memories are nothing but being preoccupied with thinking about the event that made one feel anger.

Understanding of causes might be seen as the process of attempting to find a meaningful explanation of why one was treated badly, while thoughts of revenge could be seen as the tendency to engage in revenge actions that will "resolve" the conflict, "correct" the injustice and bring emotional relief.

What inspired you to investigate the connection between the dark triad, anger rumination and forgiveness?

First of all, I would like to outline that the dark traits are some of the core interests my co-authors and I share. Of course, like many other researchers, we observed the gap in the empirical literature, which strongly motivated us to explore these links.

The existing knowledge in this field tells us that individuals who score higher in the Dark Triad traits tend to be less forgiving. Simply put, they are more likely to take revenge or at least hold grudges for those who harmed them, rather than forgive.

We were surprised that no earlier studies considered anger rumination as the component that could be possibly responsible for "creating a bridge" between dark traits and the lack of forgiveness.

What was your methodology and what were your key findings?

When it comes to the study design, we have chosen survey-based research, which was carried out in a sample of 629 adult participants (49.7% males), aged from 18 to 73, residing in both urban and rural areas, and having a variety of education.

To analyze the data, we used path analysis (a sub-type of structural equation modeling), which helped us understand the complexity of relations between the Dark Triad, anger rumination, and forgiveness.

Our main findings showed that individuals with higher machiavellianism and psychopathy tend to score less on the "absence of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors" component of forgiveness, meaning that they are less likely to forgive their wrongdoers, but this relationship was shown to be largely mediated through angry memories, angry afterthoughts, and thoughts of revenge.

Similarly, those who score high in machiavellianism and psychopathy are also likely to be less forgiving in terms of having positive thoughts about those who harmed them, but the association with this component of forgiveness was shown to be weaker and mediated only by ruminating about thoughts of revenge.

Anyhow, thoughts of revenge were found to be the most important anger rumination dimension with a twofold role – it serves to "help" maintain negative thoughts, feelings, and behavior and also "prevents" the presence of positive ones in those high in machiavellianism and psychopathy.

Even though the design of our study does not allow us to draw strong conclusions on causality, such an interpretation is reasonable and theoretically grounded.

Could you provide examples of how machiavellianism and psychopathy might manifest in real-life situations involving anger and forgiveness?

Of course. The feelings of anger naturally occur when one faces the experience of being harmed, and those feelings tend to be stronger and more persistent in those high in machiavellianism and psychopathy due to their ruminative tendencies.

In various real-life situations, individuals high in these two traits could experience anger and subsequent rumination, which will impede forgiveness. For example, those high in machiavellianism could easily experience anger in academic or corporate settings if someone receives the reward or promotion they wanted, and they may engage in manipulative acts to undermine that person's success as payback for perceived injustice.

Similarly, the feelings of anger in individuals high in psychopathy could be easily triggered in diverse social settings if their expectations are not met, for example, if someone is confronting them, instead of allowing them to be dominant and have control or a leading role.

As psychopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy, remorse, and consideration for others, such negative experiences will likely provide even stronger input for ruminating about revenge compared to machiavellianism.

Could you explain the strong association of the dark triad traits to thoughts of revenge and absence of forgiveness?

The Dark Triad traits are characterized by low agreeableness, meaning that individuals who score higher in these traits are more biased toward interpreting situations in a hostile manner, which naturally triggers anger.

As they are also prone to engage in anger rumination, particularly with regard to thoughts of revenge, their angry mood will be prolonged, and that will inevitably interfere with relief from negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the wrongdoer - which usually happens when the forgiving process is successful.

Looking back at our study, I would like to underscore that this consideration mainly stands true for Machiavellianism and psychopathy, but not narcissism, as we failed to detect its meaningful associations with anger rumination and forgiveness.

Such a finding resulted from using the Short Dark Triad scale, which primarily captures the grandiose and not the vulnerable aspect of narcissism. However, other studies showed that vulnerable narcissism relates to anger rumination and forgiveness in the same way as Machiavellianism and psychopathy in our research.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve anger rumination and foster forgiveness in relationships?

As I mentioned before, anger rumination could be seen as a "bridge" that connects dark traits to the lack of forgiveness. Given this connection, we think that clinical efforts should be focused on anger rumination.

Even though we are not practitioners, there is enough reason to believe that changing someone's way of thinking about anger by employing, for example, mindfulness or cognitive-behavioral training might result in improved management of anger tendencies and eventually promote forgiveness in all forms of human relationships.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?

We plan to extend our research in this field, including additional variables not explored in this study, which might be beneficial in understanding the mechanism that underlies the relationships we found. For example, the type of relationship between an individual and their wrongdoer and the relationship closeness might be the factors that could influence the connections detected in our research.

Future studies should diversify the sources of the data and use additional methods of data collection, such as experience sampling, along with the questionnaires, which would increase the robustness and provide a solid basis for speculating on potential influence. Last but not least, we would be happy to see other researchers try to replicate our findings.