What Is The Right Way To Think About Antogonistic, Deceitful, And Callous Personalities?

Psychologist David Scholz explores the relationship between antagonistic traits and basic structures of personality.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 5, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Personality attempts to understand how antagonistic and 'dark' personality traits fit into the general structure of personality.

I recently spoke to co-author David D. Scholz from the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany to better understand these concepts. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What is antagonistic psychopathology?

Generally speaking, antagonistic psychopathology describes enduring tendencies to think, feel, and behave that put one "at odds with others" and thus repeatedly involve negative consequences for oneself and/or others.

Although any trait in the extreme can and potentially will lead to such negative consequences (e.g., very high contentiousness implies extreme perfectionism which can be very maladaptive), antagonistic traits have a particularly high potential for clinically relevant problems due to the harm to others they imply, e.g., trait manipulativeness describes that someone is ready to use others to achieve one's end.

Thus, antagonistic psychopathology describes:

  1. which traits can be understood as antagonistic
  2. and, which negative consequences will arise out of such traits, namely harm for others

Our study dealt with the former in that we sought a better grasp of how antagonistic traits can be understood in terms and concepts from basic personality research.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of agreeableness and antagonistic psychopathy and what did you find?

At the moment, the view on personality psychopathology is changing.

Clinical Psychology has been moving away from categorial diagnoses, such as antisocial or histrionic personality disorder, and has started to describe personality-based psychological problems in terms of several so-called maladaptive traits.

One such example would be trait callousness, which describes that an individual typically has little or no empathy for the suffering of others.

Often, it is assumed that 'bundles' of such maladaptive traits that often co-occur can be thought of as extreme variants of broad traits known from basic personality research, especially the Big Five.

For example, individuals who are willing to manipulate others (trait manipulativeness), are also often ready to lie and cheat (trait deceitfulness), and are usually quite callous about the negative consequences they cause for others (trait callousness). Thus, these three maladaptive traits (manipulativeness, deceitfulness, and callousness), among others, are mapped onto the Antagonism dimension which is assumed to reflect extremely low agreeableness as per the Big Five model of personality.

However, there are other constructs in personality research beyond the Big Five which are theoretically well-suited to represent antagonistic traits, each of them with a different focus.

Whereas Big Five agreeableness does correspond well with antagonistic traits which mainly refer to typical feelings (e.g., frequent feelings of anger), the Honesty-Humility dimension from the HEXACO model is better suited to reflect antagonistic traits directly describing behavior (e.g., the tendency to lie and cheat).

Moreover, the dark factor of personality (D, see below) actually represents all antagonistic traits and especially those describing how an individual may justify antagonistic behavior (e.g., the belief that one is in constant danger of exploitation from others).

To investigate this, we relied on a large-scale online study in which participants filled out questionnaires designed to measure antagonistic traits, Big Five agreeableness, Honesty-Humility, and D. The results confirmed that D represents all antagonistic traits (except one) most comprehensively, whereas Big Five agreeableness and Honesty-Humility each tend to cover only a certain subset of antagonistic traits particularly well, and thus miss out on other aspects.

More precisely, Big Five agreeableness misses out on primarily behavioral traits such as manipulativeness and deceitfulness, whereas Honesty-Humility misses out on primarily affective focused traits such as callousness and hostility. Moreover, agreeableness and Honesty-Humility both miss out on primarily cognitive traits such as grandiosity and suspiciousness.

Your study is based specifically on the idea of low agreeableness (per the Big Five), low Honesty-Humility (per the HEXACO model), and a high D-Factor. What are some ways that these phenomena manifests in real-life behaviors/situations?

Traits like Big Five Agreeableness, Honesty-Humility, and D can manifest in many different behaviors which are best summarized as "socially and/or ethically aversive" and thus at odds social/ethical norms, i.e., what others or society at large want or expect. However, the specific manifestation of aversive tendencies is highly dependent on situational and contextual factors.

For example, a tendency to manipulate other people might manifest itself very differently (or only) in a work-related context (e.g., using one's position in the hierarchy to threaten someone) compared to settings with family or friends (where one may simply not possess a hierarchical advantage and thus subtler, emotional manipulation may be more useful). There are many more examples of such aversive manifestations.

A particularly comprehensive coverage and overview of aversive manifestations, in our view, is offered by the theoretical definition of D, namely "to engage in maximizing one's own utility, while disregarding, accepting, or provoking disutility in others". Utility here refers to any subjective benefit the individual might expect out of a certain behavior, e.g., material gains, higher social status, or even pure joy.

Disutility, in turn, describes any harm, which is done to other people or society as a whole. Importantly, D also implies that these behaviors are accompanied by beliefs which justify the behavior for the individuals and thus help to maintain a positive self-image.

For more information about D and the opportunity to get feedback on one's own D-level, we would point interested readers to this Dark Factor website.

Antagonistic psychopathology is usually looked at as a negative quality. Could you tell us what advantages are able to emerge from facets of its behaviors? In what situations might it be beneficial?

As stated above, personality psychopathology is negative by definition. In most clinical models, "pathology" directly implies suffering and psychosocial problems which are obviously negative.

However, antagonistic dispositions or traits do not necessarily or indiscriminately lead to negative consequences. Under certain circumstances, they might even be adaptive. For example, in some professions, it may be largely adaptive to be deceitful and manipulative along with a sense of entitlement.

More generally, for most people there comes a point that requires some extent of "antagonism" and anyone can run into situations where negative consequences for at least some people are inevitable. Indeed, some would argue that, occasionally, some harm may be necessary for some "greater good."

Moreover, as with any tendency, individuals may find ways to manifest antagonistic tendencies in a socially and morally more accepted way, e.g., through competitive sports. Admittedly, this is especially challenging for antagonistic tendencies as they do, by definition, imply potential harm to others.

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

We would like to see more theoretical integration between clinical and personality psychology. These two research areas have a common history and are based on a number of common assumptions, but have progressed largely in isolation. This is unsatisfying as it inhibits a better understanding of the dispositional side of (antagonistic) human behavior.

Further integration of the two fields will also be beneficial to society, as researchers and therapists will be able to find better suitable treatments for those in need. Ideally, at some point, we would arrive at a common language for mainstream and clinical personality research, i.e., common models of personality, that will help us understand which traits keep people healthy, which cause them (or others) suffering, who needs professional help, and how best to design this help.

Research has a long way yet to go, but without a shared map (in this case a common model of personality and personality processes) there is limited hope to get very far.