According to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, staying true to yourself in a relationship leads to the best outcomes, except among people who are high in psychopathy.
Authenticity is when a person knows who they are and behaves in ways that correspond with this true self. Put more simply, being authentic is being yourself. Behaving authentically has been found to provide psychological benefits — an important one being greater relationship satisfaction. Researchers Elizabeth Seto and William E. Davis wondered whether these mental health benefits would extend to people of all personality types.
“Research has demonstrated time and time again that the subjective experience of authenticity is associated with positive well-being outcomes,” explained Seto, an assistant professor of psychology at Colby College.
“My colleague and I were interested in whether the benefits of authenticity persist when individuals identify as having dark personality traits. This was an important boundary condition to consider in the extensive literature. We were especially interested in this research question in the context of interpersonal relationships, as authentic expressions of dark personalities may exacerbate negative social interactions.”
The Dark Tetrad traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism are negative personality traits that each carry a lack of empathy at their core. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these traits are typically associated with negative relationship outcomes. Seto and Davis proposed that people with the Dark traits should not see the same benefits from being their authentic selves.
In an initial study, the researchers analyzed data from 380 college students who had answered questionnaires regarding their personalities and their interpersonal relationships. The students had also completed the Authenticity Scale, which included the facet of authentic living (e.g., I live in accordance with my values and beliefs”).
An analysis of the student responses offered initial support for the study authors’ hypothesis. Among those low in psychopathy and sadism, living authentically predicted lower hostility toward others and having less “rocky” relationships. However, among those high in psychopathy or sadism, these ties were weaker or no longer existent. Neither narcissism nor Machiavellianism interacted with authentic living to predict either of these interpersonal relationship measures.
The findings indicate that “the relationship between authenticity and well-being may depend upon the personality traits being expressed,” Seto said. “In our research, authenticity was associated with positive interpersonal relationship quality when psychopathy was low, but not when psychopathy was high. This means that authentic expressions of psychopathy may impair interpersonal relationship quality.”
To further explore this, the researchers conducted a high-powered follow-up study. This time, 486 United States residents between the ages of 19 and 76 completed a similar questionnaire. For the most part, the results mirrored the findings from the first study. However, this time, among those low in sadism, authenticity predicted less rocky relationships but not lower hostility.
The link between psychopathy and poor relationships is not surprising given that the personality trait is characterized by low levels of empathy and remorse — two qualities that are important for maintaining positive relationships. Psychopathy also tends to be conceived as a “darker” trait compared to Machiavellianism or narcissism.
“In our studies, only psychopathy consistently influenced the relationship between authentic self-expression and our interpersonal relationship measures. Although the Dark Tetrad is a constellation of four socially aversive traits, there is value in examining each Dark Tetrad trait separately,” Seto said.
While authenticity normally paves the way for positive interpersonal experiences, the study authors say that people who are high in psychopathy are likely unfazed by the prospect of affecting others with their negative behaviors, owing to their cold-hearted nature. This likely spurs further adverse interactions.
The researchers note that it would be interesting for future studies to explore how the Dark Tetrad traits might interact with authenticity to predict other relationship outcomes.
“Examining different facets of each Dark Tetrad trait may provide a fuller picture of our current findings, as we used broad Dark Tetrad measures in our studies,” Seto noted. “Given that our studies were correlational in nature, experimental designs can illuminate causal mechanisms underlying the relationships found here.”
The study, “Authenticity predicts positive interpersonal relationship quality at low, but not high, levels of psychopathy”, was authored by Elizabeth Seto and William E. Davis.