Do you tend to see the best in people, or assume that others are out to get you? And are you always honest in conversation, or do you prefer to turn on the charm?
Your answers to these questions partly determine how much of an “everyday saint” you are, according to a group of psychologists who’ve come up with a new way of looking at beneficent personality traits. In order to qualify, it helps if you see humans, and humanity at large, as fundamentally good – and treat them that way too.
Two decades ago psychologists came up with the now infamous “dark triad” of personality traits to understand why some people don’t think twice before cheating on a test or picking on someone weaker than them. Since then researchers have seized upon this trio – namely narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy – investigating how they relate to a variety of things including workplace success, relationship troubles, and even the seven deadly sins.
That’s exactly why Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York, decided it was time to redress the balance in favour of the brighter side of our inner lives. “It just really frustrated me that people are so fascinated with the dark side, but the light side of personality was being neglected,” he says.
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Like its dark counterpart, the “light triad” being investigated by Kaufman and his colleagues comprises three personality traits that together paint a picture of someone’s overall character. Each of the traits highlight a different aspect of how you interact with others: from seeing the best in people and being quick to forgive, to applauding the successes of others, to being uncomfortable manipulating people into doing something you want.
The first trait, humanism, is defined as believing in the inherent dignity and worth of other humans. The second, Kantianism, gets its name from philosopher Immanuel Kant, and means treating people as ends unto themselves, not just as unwitting pawns in your personal game of chess. Finally, “faith in humanity” is about believing that other humans are fundamentally good, and not out to get you.
William Fleeson, a psychologist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, says the three traits fit well into existing research on what makes someone a good person. In particular, believing that other people are good seems to be key. “The more one believes that others are good, the less one feels the need to protect against them, the less one feels the need to punish them when they do bad things,” he says.
Everyday saints aren’t just benefitting the rest of the world with their kindness. Kaufman found that those who rank highly for the traits said they felt more satisfied with their relationships and life in general, and reported higher self-esteem and a stronger sense of self. A whole host of character strengths were also linked to high scores, including curiosity, perspective, zest, love, kindness, teamwork, forgiveness, and gratitude.
Embracing the dark side is actually a really good thing, and harnessing it in a healthy way for optimal creative potential is more important than pretending it’s not there – Scott Barry Kaufman
Rather than being all light or all dark, though, most people will be a mix. You can take a test that will show your levels of both light and dark personality traits at Kaufman’s website.
While someone who scores highly for light personality traits is likely to score low for dark ones, it became clear during the course of Kaufman’s study that they are not actually in direct opposition to each other, supporting the idea that we’re all a bit of both.
This could be a good thing. Those with darker personalities tend to be more brave and assertive, for example – two traits that come in handy when trying to get things done. Darker personalities are also correlated with creativity and leadership skills.
“I think that this duality is in all of us,” he says. “Embracing the dark side is actually a really good thing, and harnessing it in a healthy way for optimal creative potential is more important than pretending it’s not there.”
Even if you do tip towards the light side, that doesn’t mean your life will be all sunshine and roses.
One facet of Kantianism, for example, is the idea of remaining authentic, even if it might damage your reputation. Someone who lives like that is eventually going to come up against a situation in which, to remain true to themselves, they have to do something other people disagree with. “Sometimes authenticity requires taking a stand,” says Kaufman. “But you're not doing it in a way that you're trying to manipulate someone.”
Take the example of Dorothy Day, an American journalist and activist, who died in 1980. She devoted her life to social justice and serving the poor, including by founding “houses of hospitality” that provided shelter, food, and clothing to those who needed it. Some have argued she should be declared a saint by the Catholic Church. But she wouldn’t have always been considered agreeable by everyone. “She was extremely moral, had lived in poverty, and often lost friendships over her stance on things,” says Fleeson.
There’s a difference between healthy feelings of guilt triggered by our own actions, and unhealthy ruminations that are better thought of as shame
Those with lighter personalities also tend to feel more guilty – which is not necessarily a bad thing, says Taya Cohen, at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There’s a difference between healthy feelings of guilt triggered by our own actions, and unhealthy ruminations that are better thought of as shame, she says. “Even though the feeling of guilt is unpleasant overall... it helps people behave in ways that are more appropriate.”
In fact, research has linked being prone to guilt with a variety of positive behaviours in different aspects of people’s lives. For example, if you accidentally spilled wine over a friend’s new, cream-coloured carpet, and then moved a chair to cover up the stain, how would you feel about it the next day? Those who would feel they’d acted pathetically are more guilt-prone. But that guilt is actually just feeling a deep responsibility for others, says Cohen – an inner warning light guiding us to do the right thing.
If you fear you wouldn’t come out very well on the light triad, take heart from the idea that our personalities are actually more changeable than you might think.
Though work done by Fleeson and his colleagues has found that people tend to be morally consistent in the short term, over a longer time period there could be room for manoeuvre. Day – who’s on her way to becoming an official saint – believed someone could choose to become a better person, too, by pushing themselves to change slowly but consistently over time.
While there’s not yet research to show her idea works for everyone, there is evidence that personality is somewhat malleable over our lifetimes. “I do think that personality is just a combination of habits, of states of thinking and acting and feeling in the world, and that we can change these habits,” says Kaufman.
Kaufman’s work on the light triad holds a hopeful message about humans at large
Research also shows that guilt proneness tends to increase throughout our adult lives, from age 20 to around 60, so there’s a chance you’ll ending up becoming more saintly as you age, whether you like it or not.
Kaufman’s work on the light triad holds a hopeful message about humans at large. Over a thousand people took both tests to find out their balance of light and dark personality traits – and the average person skewed substantially towards the light side. “This is kind of verification that despite the horrors of the world, people really are basically tipped towards the light side by default,” he says.
If further work on the light triad finds the same thing, it will reinforce the idea that – despite all of our flaws – people are basically good. Perhaps that will be enough to kickstart the faith in humanity of anyone who is wavering between the dark and light sides of their personality, and tip the balance in favour of everyday sainthood.
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