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The Dark Triad and The Phenomenon of Virtuous Victimhood: A Study of Dark Personalities & Manipulative Signaling

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.



Recently a study found a strong correlation between people with dark triad traits and the phenomenon known as "signaling," specifically "virtue" and "victim signaling." This is something that could have some impact on the way pathological narcissism is viewed by the academic world, particularly the way it manifests.

As frequent readers know, the dark triad is what the traits of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism are called when they appear together in someone's personality. As readers also know, it can be argued that these things are really all the same thing: different manifestations of pathological narcissism.

Studying The Study

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigated whether people who score high in the dark triad traits would be more or less likely to engage in what is known as "virtue signaling" and "victim signaling."

They defined victim signaling as: "a public and intentional expression of one's disadvantages, suffering, oppression, or personal limitations."

They defined virtue signaling as: "symbolic demonstrations that can lead observers to make favorable inferences about the signaler's moral character."

You may be familiar with one or both of these things, as virtue signaling in particular is often referenced on social media and in pop culture. The definition most are familiar with for this kind of signaling actually goes a step farther than how it is defined here, with most people defining it as intentionally misleading or manipulative. Saying someone is virtue signaling is usually not a compliment, even if the virtue they are signaling is considered sincere.

It was the position of those conducting the study that though in many situations, claiming victimhood comes with negative connotations, it is becoming increasingly positive or advantageous to claim victim status in Western culture. It often results in resource transference, which means that people who are seen as victims are given things: money, jobs, services and other things of this nature, as well as validation, compassion, sympathy and more. There are of course very real and amazing benefits for true victims coming forward, such as justice and support.

However, the study focused on those attempting to manipulate and take advantage of these things by using signaling to achieve what they call "nonreciprocal resource extraction." Nonreciprocal means "not mutual." The person extracting the resources is not expected to do or give anything in return. They are receiving these things based solely on their status as a victim. It is probably not surprising to anyone that narcissistic people would want to get in on this - or that they would be good at it.

Researchers hypothesized that combining virtue signaling and victim signaling together into what they termed "virtuous victimhood" would result in maximum resource extraction. That makes sense, because most people feel sorriest for - or want to help the most - a good person who has been hurt or wronged. This goes along with something the author sometimes refers to as "The Perfect Victim Syndrome," which is the (unfortunately) widespread position that if someone has any flaws, has made any mistakes or any bad choices, they are not really a victim or that they must have deserved or even caused what happened to them. The Perfect Victim Syndrome is very harmful to actual victims, who may be blamed when trying to take honest accountability or become afraid to be honest at all.

In this same light, if someone is perceived as a virtuous victim, any mistakes or bad choices they make after their status is known are overlooked or downplayed. The researchers referred to this as moral immunity, meaning that if someone is perceived as a victim, any means they may use to achieve justice or retribution are considered morally justified, even things that would not be otherwise. For example, if someone is a victim of a crime and they were to use violent or illegal means to get justice or retribution, this may be considered by many to be OK - even though it would not be OK in another situation. If someone is a victim of a conman and they con them in return, most people would not think the victim was out of line. This dovetails with the idea of a virtuous victim being more likely to receive resources, and explains for example the reason that animals and children's charities are always so popular. There is perhaps no more innocent victim than an animal or a child.

The researchers guessed that people higher in dark triad traits would be more likely to engage in signaling this so-called virtuous victimhood and not surprisingly, they were right. Unfortunately, believing people to be virtuous and above reproach, giving resources with absolutely no expectation of reciprocity of any kind, holding them completely blameless and not responsible for anything they do no matter what it is, is a wonderfully supportive environment for true victims but it is also the perfect situation for pathologically narcissistic people, who are more likely to use false or exaggerated signals in order to gain these things.

Perhaps most importantly, the study found elements that suggest the use of the virtuous victim signal by dark personalities was not unintentional, but strategic. This means it was not accidental or coincidental, but purposeful and done with the intent of gain. Of course, no one familiar with pathologically narcissistic people is going to be surprised by that. It is often assumed that anyone with a mental health challenge doesn't know what they are doing, but this is not always the case at all. Intentional manipulation is part and parcel to the mental health challenge known as pathological narcissism (and to several others). The question of why it is happening may be the subject of debate, but as frequent readers here know, in practical terms, it really doesn't matter why.

Even when keeping in mind the fact that any study relying on narcissistic people to self-report is possibly untrustworthy because of their propensity to lie or present themselves a certain way, the results of this study are significant. They are also validating to everyone who has dealt with a pathologically narcissistic person who presented themselves as a victim and found that no one believed them about the narcissist's true behavior or character. There are likely many people listening to this right now or reading the study and saying to themselves, "I knew it!" This study may perhaps help shape a new understanding of the different manifestations of pathological narcissism moving forward, so that covert narcissism is included somehow. This is one of the biggest roadblocks to better recognition: not all narcissists come across as egotistical, arrogant and vain. Not all by far.

The study has its limitations in this area, of course; for example, it operates on the traditional idea that the different labels of the dark triad are all separate and independent things rather than the connected and interdependent branches of the same tree, and in keeping with this, it included verbiage to the effect that presenting oneself as a victim is probably something narcissists would balk at. But even within that traditional or perhaps outdated framework, we know that while this may be true for some narcissistic people, it is not even close to true for all of them, so a sweeping generalization like that is still somewhat damaging to the overall understanding of pathological narcissism. Still, the existence of this study and many others that have come out in the last few years demonstrate that there is a realization in the scientific and academic communities that the accepted understanding of narcissism needs to be revisited, and that's promising.

Anyone who has dealt with a pathologically narcissistic person of any type (overt, covert, predominantly psychopathic, predominantly histrionic, etc.) could have predicted the results of this study and they have been trying to get the various authorities to listen to them for a very, very long time. It's enormously validating for hundreds of thousands of people - or more - to see that they are finally starting to be heard.