Understanding Animal Cruelty: The Dark Triad
When we try to understand acts of cruelty, we often rely on psychologists to give us a sense of why people are motivated to act in ways that are horrible, mean, or violent. Since 2002, some psychologists have been studying what is known as the “Dark Triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Most of the research has focused on human-to-human manifestations of the Dark Triad, and personalities associated with “manipulation within the workplace, substance use, detached love styles, dark humor, and impulsivity and sensation seeking.” However, there has only been limited research examining the association between this personality and their attitudes to animals (ATA), and the results have been mixed. There is, of course, no doubt that animal cruelty is a big problem: some studies have shown that 2% of adults in the U.S. self-report engaging in animal cruelty at some point in their lives, while an Italian study found that up to 50% of youth admitted engaging in cruelty. Acts of cruelty appear to be more prevalent in younger age groups, which also tend to rate higher on the Dark Triad.
This study tries to connect the dots between the Dark Triad and a propensity for animal cruelty. The researchers note that “it is essential to broaden the scope of animal cruelty research to consider other known, specifically personality-based, risk factors for antisocial behavior.” They surveyed 261 participants (34 males and 227 females) with the aim of extending the understanding of the Dark Triad by combining the research with animal cruelty. The researchers focused on “simultaneously filling gaps in both bodies of literature by examining the associations between these dark personality traits and attitudes and behaviors towards animals.” They predicted that people who rate high on the Dark Triad would have less positive ATA and would report engaging in more acts of cruelty.
As they expected, the results seemed to support their predictions and, “although unique in the published literature, [the results] are not surprising given the typical profile of those high on the Dark Triad.” The study found that those who reported acts of cruelty tended towards a higher rating of psychopathy, though the scope of the study didn’t allow the researchers to directly test the unique contributions of all three traits. The findings show that sex and age weighed heavily on ATA, with younger male respondents rating lowest. Their results reinforced research that has “repeatedly demonstrated women have more pro-animal (welfare) attitudes, are more likely to be involved in animal protection movements.” The data this study uncovers suggests that further research needs to be carried out “into links between Dark Triad traits and attitudes/treatment of animals, perhaps examining the role of empathy in the determination of callous behavior.”
The link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to people may be essential to our understanding, but it is still an “often overlooked” behavior, according to the researchers. If the abuse of animals does indeed serve as a “red flag” for human cruelty, perhaps people will take animal cruelty more seriously and address it before it spirals into further human violence. Though advocates are clearly already concerned with animal cruelty in and of itself, research like this may promote more public awareness and concern.