Have you ever witnessed someone hurting another, and then actually justifying it? Or, have you wanted to do something morally questionable if it meant succeeding in something?
At the core of these emotions, are dark impulses, which are buried within us. It’s about how we fight them. “Dark impulses lie deep in our subconscious and often include socially unacceptable desires or thoughts,” explains Mercedes Sheen, professor, head of the psychology department, Heriot-Watt University, Dubai. Elaborating on what these impulses could mean, she says that they range from intrusive, violent, or harmful thoughts to taboo or morally questionable desires. For example, someone hurts you: You have the thought of hurting them too. The question is, do you really go through with it?
What drives our dark impulses?
These dark impulses have one common basis: Placing one’s own goals and interests over those of other, even if it hurts others – along with a host of beliefs that serve as justifications and thus prevent feelings of guilt or shame.
Sheen believes that everyone experiences these kinds of thoughts, at one point in their life or another. However, the degree to which they govern someone’s life, varies enormously. “Dark impulses can significantly influence behaviour if left unchecked and lead people to do things that are often illegal,” she adds.
When these impulses become dominant, they may lead to impulsive and potentially harmful actions, disrupting a person’s life and relationships...
There could be several reasons for why people could ruthlessly pursue their goals, even if it involves trampling on others. These could arise from various psychological factors such as unresolved traumas, repressed emotions, or even specific mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder, she adds. “When these impulses become dominant, they may lead to impulsive and potentially harmful actions, disrupting a person’s life and relationships,” she says.
Joseph Belda, a Dubai-based psychologist, asserts that some people could even cause pain out of revenge, or cause suffering to prevent others from supposedly inflicting pain on them. And there are those, who enjoy other people’s misery. “It could also be the environment that they were raised in, which compelled them to believe that such thoughts are acceptable,” he says.
And that brings us to the complicated D-Factor.
According to a 2018 research paper titled The Dark Core of Personality, published in the Psychological Review, an American peer-reviewed academic journal, a person might have rather dark impulses if they have certain tendencies. According to the research, the common denominator of dark personalities is the "general tendency to maximise one's individual utility — disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others — accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications."
In other words, the person seeks to maximise their profits at any cost, even if it involves hurting someone else. Moreover, they will justify it. The researchers from the University of Copenhagen, studied 2,500 people and asked them to agree or disagree with statements such as "It is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there", "It is sometimes worth a little suffering on my part to see others receive the punishment they deserve", or "I know that I am special because everyone keeps telling me so". Participants were assessed on their levels of aggression, impulsivity, selfish or unethical behaviour.
The researchers identified nine dark traits. The D-Factor can manifest itself as one of these, or as a combination of these. The study indicates how likely a person is to engage in behavioural patterns associated with one or more of these dark traits. This means, that a person who shows a particular malevolent behaviour such as humiliating a person, will exhibit a higher likelihood to engage in other malevolent activities, such as cheating, lying or stealing. This means, that they have a higher D-factor.
The nine dark traits
The team identified several dark personality traits
Egoism — The desire to put your own needs first at the expense of others.
Machiavellianism — The belief that the ends justify the means, regardless of how callous it is.
Moral disengagement — The ability to behave unethically without worrying about the consequences.
Narcissism — Self-obsession, delusions of grandeur, and looking down on everyone else, yet also wanting their attention.
Psychological entitlement — Believing you are better than everyone and deserve better treatment than what you give out to others.
Psychopathy — A lack of empathy or shame coupled with impulsive, reckless behaviour.
Sadism — Wanting to inflict emotional or physical harm on others because you find it enjoyable.
Self-interest — Desiring social and financial success above all else.
Spitefulness — Destructiveness and willingness to cause harm to others, even if you get hurt yourself as a result.
It’s this knowledge about the ‘dark core’, which can help researchers and therapists to work with people who have such personality traits.
Can we fight these dark impulses?
For starters, how do you really catch a person with such impulses, or perhaps notice them within yourself?
Sheen explains. The warning signs of such dominating impulses include a preoccupation with violent or aggressive thoughts. “It also indicates an increased sense of isolation, or detachment from reality, persistent fantasies about taboo actions. It also shows a person’s lack of empathy towards others. Other warning signs include sudden changes in behaviour, increased irritability, or acting impulsively without regard for the consequences of those impulses,” she says.
“Understanding the meaning and origin of our dark impulses can make the difference between being on the right or wrong side of the law,” says Sheen. Pretending to ignore the impulses, doesn’t actually eradicate them, she says.
“It is better instead to embrace and understand them to allow us to gauge the extent of their impact on our lives. The denial of darker inclinations often leads to their deep persistence, potentially manifesting in unpredictable and uncontrolled ways,” says Sheen.
On the contrary, confronting and understanding these impulses can give us a sense of control, explains Belda. When you acknowledge their existence, you gain the opportunity to assess and manage their influence. It prevents them from dictating actions without conscious awareness. “Acknowledging our darker impulses doesn't signify succumbing to them, rather, it empowers us to make conscious choices about how we allow them to shape our behaviour,” he says.
It's in this understanding and conscious evaluation that we find the pathway toward liberation, allowing us to navigate life's complexities with a sense of self-awareness and autonomy, says Sheen.