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How to Look for the Good Guys
Separating the light from the dark
I spend a lot of time writing about the darker side of human nature. In fact, my very first post on this Substack, "The Dark Psychology Behind the Trans Movement," discussed how dark tetrad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism) relate to trans activists and trans activism as a whole. It remains my most viewed and most successful post.
Because this is something I write and think about so much, I often lament that people seem to miss these dark traits so easily, whether in their own personal lives or in broader societal movements. If people only knew what traits to look out for, I tell myself, they could avoid such individuals and they could be happier.
But this is only one side of the story.
I got to thinking about how I choose my own close friends, who I feel very blessed to know, and it became obvious that my criteria go above and beyond simply “isn’t a psychopath.”
I’ve realized over the past couple of years just how important it is to wisely choose the people I want to be close with, work with, confide in, trust, defend, and be loyal to. I think more people would be well served by making these decisions carefully and knowing what to look for in others.
So, I wondered if there was an opposite to the dark tetrad (which, minus sadism, is sometimes more commonly known as the dark triad), that could offer something like a guide. And there is!
Naturally, it hasn’t garnered anywhere near the same attention as its dark counterpart, but two theories of a “light triad” personality have been proposed over the past several years.
It seems that one of the first forays into the development of a light triad theory of personality was a 2018 master’s thesis by Laura K.D. Johnson at The University of Western Ontario titled, “The Light Triad Scale: Developing and Validating a Preliminary Measure of Prosocial Orientation.”
The abstract begins:
Most research on prosocial behaviour focuses on situational factors rather than individual differences. Empathy, compassion, and altruism are three constructs related to prosocial behaviour that also overlap theoretically. However, prosocial traits are rarely studied together, and measures of prosocial orientation are lacking. To address this gap, the Light Triad Scale (Light-3) was developed to assess individual differences in prosocial orientation.
The focus on individual differences was immediately interesting to me, because I feel like, as a society, we have come to attribute far too much to situational factors and not enough to individual character differences between people, both when talking about negative and positive behavior.
Situational factors are always important, but they will never explain everything.
“Individuals high in prosocial traits are other-oriented,” Johnson writes in Chapter 1, “in contrast to those high in antisocial personality traits, who are self-focused.”
She noted that research into prosocial traits had been lacking and so she sought to address the gap by developing a scale to measure the “light triad” of empathy, compassion, and altruism.
Empathy is defined as the ability to experience, recognize, and understand another’s emotions and point of view. Compassion, though often conflated with empathy, is recognized as its own trait characterized by an other-oriented motivation to reduce another’s distress. Finally, altruism is the actual act of helping another individual in need with no expectation of reward, even at a cost to oneself.
The study found that:
The Prosocial Orientation factor identified in the current study encompasses individual differences in understanding how others feel (empathy – perspective-taking), responding emotionally to other’s affective states (empathy – emotional contagion), experiencing concern for others in distress (compassion - concern), being motivated to comfort and help others in distress (compassion – desire to help), feeling good after helping others (altruism – warm glow), and believing that helping others is the right thing to do (altruism – principle of care).
It also discussed a negative correlation between light triad traits and all of the dark tetrad traits.
I found Johnson’s paper helpful as the beginning of a character sketch of a light triad individual, but it was perhaps lacking in what external signs one should look for in identifying such an individual. Noting that someone is acting in an altruistic manner is a good start, but we may not always have the opportunity to witness altruistic behavior for a while after meeting someone.
In 2019, another paper was published on the topic of the light triad, one that has since sparked more research in this area: “The Light vs. Dark Triad of Personality: Contrasting Two Very Different Profiles of Human Nature.”
Scott Barry Kaufman, one of the authors, also discussed the paper in a Scientific American article titled, “The Light Triad vs. Dark Triad of Personality.”
“Socially aversive people certainly exist, but what about everyday saints?” Kaufmann asks.
I'm not talking about the person who publicly does a lot of giving, and receives many public accolades and awards for all of their giving (and who constantly gives to others in order to achieve personal success). I'm talking about the person who, just by their being, shines their light in every direction. The person who isn't constantly strategic about their giving, but who emits unconditional love naturally and spontaneously because that's just who they are.
He and his fellow researchers set out to find out more about such people and, over the course of their studies, three distinct factors emerged, which they came to call the light triad.
Kantianism (treating people as ends unto themselves, not mere means), Humanism (valuing the dignity and worth of each individual) and Faith in Humanity (believing in the fundamental goodness of humans).
The paper goes into much greater detail in describing what such a person would look like:
In general, the light triad was related to being primarily motivated by intimacy and self-transcendent values. Many character strengths correlated with the Light Triad, including curiosity, perspective, zest, love, kindness, teamwork, forgiveness, and gratitude.
While we might not always have the chance to see someone performing altruistic acts as in Johnson’s version of the light triad, I believe that noticing the traits above in a person, even if we have just recently met them, is fairly easy to do.
The researchers in this case also found a negative correlation with the dark triad, but it was only a moderate correlation. Kaufman writes that this means the light triad is not merely the opposite of the dark triad/tetrad. It reaffirms why I believe it is important to know what to look for in people rather than just what to avoid.
A 2020 follow-up paper by Kaufmann and colleagues, “Light and dark trait subtypes of human personality – A multi-study person-centered approach” delved into this idea further:
The extent to which individuals display light versus dark propensities has implications for how our society functions, particularly in terms of knowing who we can trust, and who we should be wary of, who is benevolent and who is malevolent.
The researchers found that “light subtypes were motivated to affiliate, empathize, and cooperate with others: dark subtypes were motivated to dominate via status, aggression, and money.”
A 2021 paper by different authors titled, “Shedding light on the Light Triad: Further evidence on structural, construct, and predictive validity of the Light Triad also corroborated the previous findings of Kaufman’s research team.
As I was reading these papers, I recognized the light triad traits as those I look for in my personal relationships, as I am sure most people do. Obviously, we don’t need studies and research papers to tell us who is a good person. Most of us naturally gravitate to them.
But I don’t say that to discount the usefulness of such research. Many people don’t appreciate how helpful and beneficial it can be to describe something clearly, even if we have a general intuitive sense of what it is—like the personality of an “everyday saint.”
Having the right language and ideas about what you yourself are looking for can go a long way in improving your discernment and judgment.
To be clear—I am not saying that we should only seek to extend friendship to people we deem as good representatives of the light triad. We shouldn’t be constantly judging everyone and discarding them if they are not up to snuff. These also wouldn’t be the actions of someone who embodies the light triad, making those who approach the world in this way, in my opinion, unworthy of their friendship anyway.
Plus, as Kaufman and colleagues point out, the fact that they found light and dark triad traits to not be completely mutually exclusive shows that the vast majority of us have a mix of these traits, writing in the first paper, “we’d like to emphasize that no one is all Light or Dark Triad, and we each differ in our balance of these traits.”
I quibble with this line a bit and I’ve oscillated in my thinking on this matter throughout my life. I do think—though I believe they are incredibly rare—that there are some people who have allowed themselves to become all dark, I sadly really do.
As for all light? I hesitate to put anyone in this category because we are all only human, and doing so would mean putting the person on a pedestal. But some people sure do come close.
So no, I don’t think we should limit our friendships and connections to people who we believe are saint-like. But we all have the right to boundaries and discernment when it comes to who we really trust, and it is there that I think more people would be well-served by paying attention to the traits that signify a person with a prosocial orientation who is more likely to deserve your friendship, trust, and loyalty.
We all simply get unlucky in life, love, and friendship—this is true—but you can certainly increase your chances of happiness if you look for the right things in people.
Lastly—if these are the traits we are seeking in our friends, we owe it to them to cultivate these traits in ourselves as well. Finding the good guys, at the end of the day, is not about a quest for perfect people but a relationship of reciprocity between two people trying their best to be those good guys.
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