Dark Personality Traits and Internet Usage

It’s a common recognition these days that the internet has a dark side. The anonymity, lack of face-to-face interaction, and low amount of effort required are all a natural fit for the less noble side of human nature.

Psychologists researching the relationship between the dark side of the internet and the dark side of the human mind have found that different online activities seem to go hand-in-hand with different “dark” personality traits. For example, a recent study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions looked at four such traits:

  • Narcissism: A tendency to be grandiose, selfish and self-absorbed
  • Machiavellianism: A tendency to be manipulative, deceptive and exploitative
  • Sadism: A tendency to enjoy the suffering of others
  • Spitefulness: A tendency to try to harm others in response to perceived slights

As it turned out, all of these less-than-wholesome personality traits correlated with elevated levels of engagement in certain online activities:

  • Narcissism correlated with social media usage. People who can’t get enough of themselves also can’t get enough of social media, apparently.
  • Machiavellianism correlated with online gaming, online gambling and online sex.
  • Sadism also correlated with online sex.
  • Spitefulness correlated with online sex, online gaming and online shopping.

This isn’t to say that every Facebook user is a raging narcissist or that behind every Amazon Prime account is a vengeful mind. It’s just that these personality traits are associated with higher-than-average engagement in certain online activities, suggesting some sort of psychological affinity.

It’s not just a matter of quantity, though. Previous research has suggested that, at least to some extent, people with dark personality traits engage in online activities differently.

For example, people with high levels of narcissism tend to use their Facebook profiles to promote inauthentic images of themselves. Meanwhile, people with high levels of sadism are, perhaps unsurprisingly, drawn to the pastime of trolling.

Some researchers have made the case that the causality goes in the other direction as well – that time spent online can increase people’s levels of dark personality traits.

Elias Aboujaoude, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, cites research suggesting that internet usage can apparently increase people’s levels of impulsivity and their propensities for compulsive shopping. Given these findings, it’s not a stretch to hypothesize that online time could directly foster other personality traits that have been linked to internet usage, like narcissism.

Cause-and-effect is one of the murkiest points in our understanding of the link between computer usage and dark personality traits. Do online activities attract people who already have high levels of dark personality traits? Or does extensive time on the internet actually increase people’s levels of these traits?

It’s possible that both are true. Imagine, for example, people with preexisting antisocial tendencies coming together in an online community and reinforcing each other’s beliefs. It’s also possible that the explanation is more complicated than a direct relationship between internet usage and dark personality traits – that other psychological factors contribute both to a penchant for using the web and to these personality traits. What does seem clear at this point, though, is that the internet has become a go-to outlet for humanity’s darker psychological impulses.