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How to spot psychopaths, narcissists and Machiavellians, based upon behavior before bonus time

Do you suspect colleagues of being psychopaths? How about Machiavellian schemers? Or self-regarding narcissists? Suspect no more. A group of academics at the University of Texas El Paso has come up with a method of identifying so-called 'dark side behaviors' based upon what people do when they think they're in line for a bonus.*

The academics recruited 257 adults to participate in an online study titled ‘‘bankers and betting – a game for real money." Participants were screened for psychopathy ('callous and erratic anti-sociality'), narcissism ('over-confidence, self-deception, and focus on their own identity and ego') and Machiavellian (scheming and strategizing) traits.

Under the experiment, everyone was paid a $2.50 bonus simply for being in the study. Participants were given the opportunity to gamble with the next person's bonus by investing it in one of five companies, only one of which was guaranteed to earn money (the rest would lose). Ultimately, they could keep gambling until the entirety of the next person's bonus had been depleted. They were also given an indication how much of their bonus had been gambled away by the participant before them. And in a final sting, they were told that the subsequent participant could punish them by taking away their bonus if he/she felt so inclined.

The researchers found that:

  • Only 28% of individuals decided to gamble with the next person's bonus.
  • Those who did were more likely to be psychopaths.
  • Psychopaths kept gambling with the next person's bonus, even when they knew they could be 'punished' and have their bonus removed by the next player.
  • Narcissists gambled, unless they thought they'd be punished by the next player.
  • Machiavellians didn't gamble unless they thought the risk of winning outweighed the risk of being punished by the person coming next.


What does this mean? As the academics point out, it implies that banks need to screen heavily for psychopathy if their want to rein-in risk taking. It also means that if you have a colleague who persists in taking risky bets, even when the whole team's bonus is in jeopardy and he's at risk of being laid off, he may be a psychopath. If you have a colleague who likes to gamble, unless he's going to get found out, he may be a narcissist. And if you have a colleague who likes to take big risks after calculating whether they're really worthwhile, he may be a Machiavellian.

Sounds like most banks want to employ Machiavellians then.

*Risk in the face of retribution: Psychopathic individuals persist in financial misbehavior among the Dark Triad

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Ge
    Geoffrey Harris
    5 July 2022

    Actually, thought this was useful to know.

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