Are Negative Personality Traits Linked to Cruelty to Animals?

Two very cute kittens next to each other on a settee
By Zazie Todd, PhD

Scientists have long wondered if there is a link between cruelty to animals and other criminal acts. However, not much attention has been paid to the link between personality and attitudes to animals. Now a team of scientists led by Phillip Kavanagh at the University of South Australia have investigated whether negative personality traits are associated with negative attitudes to animals.

The paper focusses on three personality traits that are known as the “Dark Triad”: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Narcissists think they are special, better than other people, and lack warmth. Machiavellianism involves a propensity to deceive other people and to be detached from moral standards. Psychopathy includes interpersonal factors such as lack of empathy as well as lifestyle factors which include impulsiveness and juvenile delinquency. 

The personality traits were assessed using standardized tests, or shortened versions of these tests. There were four questions about whether participants had ever been cruel to animals. Participants also completed a set of questions about their attitudes to animals, with questions which ranged from hunting animals for food to how they feel about deliberate cruelty to animals. 

The questionnaire was completed by 205 women and 22 men who responded to a request for participants on Facebook or via email. Most were Australian.

Scores on the three personality traits were linked to both attitudes to animals and behaviours to animals. People who scored highly on the “Dark Triad” had more negative attitudes to animals, and were more likely to have shown cruelty to animals. Gender and age were also important: men and younger people were more likely to have negative attitudes and show cruelty. 

Some people started but did not complete the questionnaire, suggesting that it was onerous (perhaps especially since it was asking people to reflect on negative topics). Although it would be interesting to have more demographic information about participants, it’s good that the researchers invited ordinary people to take part, instead of just targeting students. The relatively small proportion of men is an issue, but one that is common in research. 

It should be remembered that, as far as is known, the people who completed this survey were normal. It would be very interesting for future research to include both normal and clinical populations, and to see if there are risk factors that make someone more likely to move from the normal to clinical end of the spectrum. A larger sample with a wide age range would be especially interesting, since other research suggests that cruelty to animals is more prevalent amongst young people. 

These results show a connection between negative personality traits and negative attitudes to animals. Psychopathy was the most important predictor, which suggests that empathy plays a role in how we feel about animals. It also suggests that empathy for people and empathy for animals go hand-in-hand.

Kavanagh, Philip S., Signal, Tania D., and Taylor, Nik (2013) The dark triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes, and dark behaviours. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(6), 666-670.

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