Dark psychology is a topic that fascinates thousands of people, many of whom generally fall into one of two camps. The first are the ones who try to research dark psychology to avoid being manipulated while the second half study dark psychology so they can be the ones to do the manipulating.
Despite its association with a branch of the sciences, there’s a certain air of mysticism around dark psychology that makes you wonder whether it’s all just party tricks.
A quick search on books about dark psychology results in titles that read less like rigorously studied papers on human behavior and cognition and more like the kind of clickbait that redirects you to a site that downloads trojans onto your computer. That said, one can’t help but wonder if there’s any truth to it.
So, is dark psychology real, exaggerated, or pure smoke and mirrors? To make a conclusion, let’s figure out what dark psychology is in the first place.
What Is Dark Psychology?
Dark psychology refers to a set of techniques that allow people to pull on their target’s mental strings and manipulate them to their advantage. While some articles online refer to dark psychology as a field of study or a science, the truth is that dark psychology isn’t a recognized branch of psychology.
It is neither taught in accredited universities as part of a psychology program or class nor is dark psychology included among widely studied techniques used in counseling rooms.
Instead, dark psychology is one of the gateway drugs into the study of actual psychology. A pop culture introduction, if you will. It’s up there with personality tests like the 16Personalities version of the MBTI, which is often taken for fun, and armchair psychoanalysis.
That being said, dark psychology isn’t all lies. In fact, it repackages already known psychological principles and adds the sales promise of being able to help people advance through their personal lives and careers through ‘dark’ tactics.
“Dark Psychology” Techniques
Dark psychology sources often promise readers that it can teach them how to get their way and trick other people into doing their bidding. However, the techniques often recommended to people looking to use dark psychology on their enemies are really just well-known principles in social psychology and other mundane psychological phenomena.
Among these “dark psychology” techniques is giving people gifts. Gift-giving is a common tradition for holidays and other important dates, such as birthdays and marriage anniversaries.
A gift encapsulates the intricacies of expectations, the strength of a social bond, and social norms around gift-giving. Dark psychology spins this social phenomenon into a sinister way to manipulate the receiver. But here’s the thing: Gifts always come with strings attached.
This is because gifts are vehicles for forming social ties. Sociologist Helmuth Berking explains this well in her book Sociology of Giving. Gifts require an investment of resources and time to acquire, making them a powerful symbolic exchange. The gift given and how it is received (or rejected) allows parties to define their relationship with each other.
Even without the explicit expectation to return a gift or favor, the intimacy and rapport that a gift creates change the way we perceive and act towards the giver.
Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
Another technique touted by dark psychology is the use of basic persuasion to manipulate people into changing their minds. To be more specific, dark psychology counts the use of ethos, pathos, and logos in persuasion as a manipulation tactic.
If those three terms are Greek to you, that’s because they are. Developed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, these three means of persuasion make the task of convincing people an easy task broken into three different fronts.
Ethos is when the speaker, or manipulator in dark psychology, convinces the other person of their credibility. For example, whenever I write an article that touches on psychology, I refer to my credentials to establish my authority on the subject.
By claiming an experience-based or academic-based high ground from the other person, the master manipulators of dark psychology suggest that expertise is a form of covert persuasion. Practical considerations as to why a face value statement from an expert is more likely to be valuable than that of laymen aside, it’s a problematic position that dark psychology implies.
Next in this subset of dark psychology methods is pathos or persuasion through emotion. Just as much as it’s important for an argument to be logically true to be appealing, Aristotle tells us that we should be capable of packaging our message in language that appeals to our audience.
A key example of this is how advocates for abortion rights never say that they are pro-abortion, but that they are pro-choice.
The last part is logos, the logical aspect of one’s argument. It calls on the user to sharpen their argument to be as logically airtight as possible to fully persuade the other party of the soundness of your position. In dark psychology, however, these three combined aren’t rhetoric, but manipulation.
If dark psychology isn’t so much a dark art as it is a rebranding of already widely observed sociopsychological phenomena and rhetoric techniques, then why do people keep seeking it out?
Dark Triad, Not Dark Psychology
While there is no real field of study called dark psychology, what has been widely studied is the Dark Triad personality traits. The Dark Triad refers to three personality traits that form the pillar of basically the worst kind of person you will ever have the displeasure of meeting.
Disagreeable, emotionally callous, dishonest, and with a knack for manipulation, high scorers on the Dark Triad test are calculating about how they approach their social interactions. These people will treat basic social interactions as opportunities for exploitation and, more often than not, will look for further ways on how to manipulate victims.
Let’s start with the first of the Dark Triad trait groups, narcissism. Narcissism describes a range of traits that point to a person’s inflated sense of self-importance. People with a high degree of narcissistic traits tend to be arrogant and put on airs of superiority.
This can be done explicitly or implicitly. Think of the difference between someone playing up their talents in front of you versus another person who thinks it’s awful that someone would boast so much like that, adding that they’d be more moral and not boast about themselves.
The second range of traits is Machiavellianism. Named after Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, Machiavellianism refers to the intellectual and moral capacity for exploitation.
People high in Machiavellianism traits have very flexible moral principles, if any, and are diehard utilitarians who believe that achieving ends that serve them are worth whatever means, despite the fact that their methods may hurt someone else.
Lastly, there’s the psychopathy group of traits. These Dark Triad traits are more about the behavioral and emotional aspects of being an untrustworthy person.
People high in these traits will have sharp tempers (even if they may view themselves as perfectly rational and cool-headed) a tendency toward risky behavior, and a generally low or even non-existent empathy for others.
The Dark Triad of personality traits may just be the true force behind dark psychology, so if you recognize strong examples of these traits in people you know, it may be in your best interest to steer clear of them.