“Dark Tetrad” Personality Traits Predict Right-Wing Extremism

Last year saw an election in which the established political order was disrupted and a right-wing populist gained a momentum that few people expected. I’m talking, of course, about the 2016 Austrian presidential election.

Traditionally, Austrian politics has been dominated by the center-left Social Democratic Party and the center-right Austrian People’s Party. Last year, though, the two candidates who made it to the final round of the presidential election were Alexander Van der Bellen, former chairman of Austria’s Green party, and Norbert Hofer, a far-right candidate representing the Freedom Party. Van der Bellen ultimately won, making an appeal to centrists who felt caught between left and right.

For psychologists, this polarizing election provided a perfect opportunity to learn about how people’s personalities play into their tendencies to lean to the left or to the right, and to embrace centrism or extremism.

So a pair of researchers from University of Innsbruck recruited 675 Austrian voters, asking them about their political inclinations and personality characteristics. The researchers focused on four personality traits known as the “dark tetrad”: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and everyday sadism.

Narcissism is a tendency to be egotistical, grandiose and excessively self-absorbed. Machiavellianism is associated with being manipulative and using other people. Psychopathy involves engaging in antisocial behavior and lacking remorse. And everyday sadism is about enjoying inflicting suffering on others. Basically, people who score high on all these traits aren’t the most warm and fuzzy.

As it turns out, these “dark tetrad” traits were associated with political preferences in the study of Austrian voters. In particular, all four traits correlated with a right-wing political orientation. On top of that, two of the traits – narcissism and psychopathy – correlated with political extremism.

In other words, people who were more narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic and sadistic tended to also be more right-wing. Meanwhile, people who were more narcissistic and psychopathic tended to have more extreme political views in either direction.

These results point to possible psychological factors that fuel right-wing extremism. And they suggest that in the future, psychologists might expand the “dark tetrad” to the “dark quintad”: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, everyday sadism and voting for Donald Trump.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore