Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Light triad

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Light triad:
What is the light triad, what are its impacts, and how can it be cultivated?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever wondered whether you are a good person? Have you ever thought about what things make a good person good and what things make a bad person bad? The idea of good and evil has been around for as long as human history, but it is a dilemma that continues to this day. It is a dichotomy that has spanned cultures, generations, and religions – from the Judaeo-Christian ‘God and Satan’ to the philosophy of the ‘yin and yang’ from Taoism (see figure 1). In many ways, this duality is reflected in the contrast between the light and dark triads of personality. The dark triad has a focus on the self, whilst the light triad focuses on others. Additionally, the dark triad correlates with anti-social behaviour and the light triad correlates with pro-social behaviour (Kaufman et al., 2019). Understanding what makes people good and bad, is a problem as old as time. Fundamentally, the light triad aims to provide a goal for humanity to look towards – a way of seeing just a couple of things that make us good.

Focus questions:

  • What makes me a good person?
  • Why is it important to look at the light side of people, rather than the dark?
  • Can I become more good, or is my personality fixed?

Figure 1. The Yin and yang - an ancient Chinese symbol representing the interconnection between good and evil.

What is the light triad?[edit | edit source]

Whilst the archetypes of light and dark have flowed throughout the span of human history, what exactly do they look like in the context of contemporary psychological theory? Well in terms of a total body of research, the dark triad of personality has done the majority of the heavy lifting (Kaufman et al., 2019). And so, in order to better understand the full extent of psychology’s latest developments towards a light triad, it is crucial to first understand its antithesis.

The Dark[edit | edit source]

Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy make up the dark triad of personality (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). People with a strong combination of these three personality traits are often described as 'obsessed with themselves', with little regard for anyone else (Hokemeyer, 2019).

Table 1

The three personality components of the dark triad

Trait Description
Narcissism Based on narcissistic personality disorder. Describes a tendency towards self-entitlement, dominance, and superiority (often used to hide an underlying sense of inadequacy).
Machiavellianism Describes a tendency towards the manipulation of others, with an underlying sense of cynicism towards the world.
Psychopathy Describes people with a lack of emotionality/empathy, with a tendency to act on impulses and take risks.

Whilst these traits have been widely used amongst clinical populations and in criminology, Paulhus & Williams’ (2020) initial paper on the dark triad suggested that, as a spectrum, they can apply to parts of any person’s personality. The more extreme outliers on this spectrum often demonstrate more severe behaviours. Since its formation, the dark triad has been used to examine and associate more extreme criminal behaviour (e.g., serial murder/rape). However, the general consensus has indicated that, in the wider population, people with higher scores on the dark triad tend to behave in a more socially aversive manner (Kaufman et al., 2019).

Case study: Jim enjoyed his job but found himself dreading shifts whenever his colleague Mike was working. Mike had a massive sense of self-entitlement and self-importance, often acting like he was in charge of the store, even though he worked in the same role as Jim. Mike would frequently tell unbelievable stories of his trips overseas – furthermore, he became very irritated by anyone who didn’t provide him with constant admiration after sharing these tall tales. Most of the staff at Jim’s work agreed that Mike was a bit of a narcissist.

The Light[edit | edit source]

light triad factor loading
Figure 2. Level of correlation between the light triad factors and questionnaire items.

Contrastingly, the framework by Kaufman et al. (2019) proposes that if some people can act in more malevolent ways, than certainly others can be more beneficent. Building upon the humanistic psychology movement and stemming from modern positive psychology¸ they created a personality structure for people to strive towards. It was called the light triad.

Kantianism[edit | edit source]

In the light triad, Kantianism describes a way of thinking and acting that views another person as an end to themselves – rather than as a means for personal gain (Wood, 2008). This concept originated from the work of 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant dubbed the term 'categorical imperative' in an attempt to rationalise human morality and formulated that, to act morally, people should try to reflect how they themselves would want to be treated (Kant et al., 1993). This conclusion forms the basis of Kantianism in the light triad – which Kaufman et al. (2019) intended to act as a conceptual opposite of the dark triad’s Machiavellianism. The questionnaire items used to demonstrate Kantianism included statements describing people’s level of comfort with manipulation, desire to be authentic, desire to be honest and intention to use people for personal gain (see figure 2).

Case study:

Jenny walks past a fudge stall everyday on the way to work. Jenny notices there is hardly ever a staff member at the front of the stall when she walks past and feels like she could easily steal a piece without anyone realising. A Kantian approach to ethics would suggest that Jenny chooses not to steal anything because she knows she doesn’t want a universe in which everyone steals from each other and because she doesn’t want to use someone else’s livelihood for her own personal gain.

Humanism[edit | edit source]

Along a very similar vein to Kantianism, humanism describes a philosophical approach that places value on people because of their humanity alone (Law, 2011). Stemming originally from the Latin word humanitas (describing the maximisation of human goodness) humanism grew out of Renaissance era philosophy, blossoming during the Enlightenment era and the rise of rationalism (Chambers, 2013). Humanism places value on individuals because of their ability to act with agency and their ability to think consciously – with the potential to use these abilities for the benefit of others. In the light triad, humanism is used more simply, to describe the process of placing worth on individuals and valuing their dignity. To better distinguish this component, Kaufman et al. (2019) used statements asking about people’s admiration for others, their tendency to value others and their inclination to congratulate others when they succeed.

Case study:

Ben’s neighbour often forgets to take the bins out for pickup days. Ben knows that his neighbour rarely leaves the house and that they usually keep to themselves. Ben doesn’t know his neighbour’s story and doesn’t really want to intrude. But every fortnight, Ben takes his neighbour’s bins out for collection. Ben feels he doesn’t need to hear about his neighbour’s hardships to empathise with them. Instead, Ben chooses to act kindly just to help a fellow human.

Faith in humanity[edit | edit source]

The final trait is 'faith in humanity'. This tenet fundamentally affirms that, underneath everything, people are mostly good. Whilst this trait shares some similarities with its triad siblings, ‘faith in humanity’ focuses more on how people view others, rather than how they treat them – although these two focuses are certainly interdependent (Preston-Roedder, 2013). In Kaufman et al. (2019), people demonstrated high levels of ‘faith in humanity’ through a tendency to see the best in others, an inclination to think most people are good, a predisposition to forgive quickly and/or a desire to trust others. As with all three triad factors, ‘faith in humanity’ centres around individual attitudes towards others, contrasting with the focus on ‘self’ seen in the dark triad.

Case study: Kate often finds herself feeling down after scrolling through her social media feed for too long. Oftentimes, she feels like terrible stories on the news are the only thing people talk about today. One day however, her little brother bursts into her room wearing some running gear that is several sizes too big. He said he wanted to join his teacher in a full-length marathon that was raising money to support refugees. Kate saw how special this moment was and felt that her ‘faith in humanity’ had been restored ever-so-slightly.

Test yourself![edit | edit source]

Follow this link to complete the Scott Kaufman's light vs dark questionnaire for yourself!

What impact does the light triad have?[edit | edit source]

mobile phone addiction
Figure 3. Mejia-Suazo et al. (2021) found that Kantianists were less prone to mobile phone addiction.

In many ways, the development of the light triad's intention to provide a goal-oriented personality structure – rather than one focused on personality detriments – reflects a broader shift in psychological research and clinical practice (Gillham & Seligman, 1999; Reis & Gable, 2003; Slade, 2010). The light triad’s theoretical underpinnings in positive psychology may provide some explanation as to why, despite its relatively recent conception, the triad has already made an impact on contemporary personality research.

The positive approach: A goalpost for humankind[edit | edit source]

Martin Seligman famously wrote that the field of psychology has become quite good at pulling people from a negative state to zero, but has not yet discovered how to take people from zero to a positive state (Reis & Gable, 2003). Sheldon & King (2001) undertook a literature search for positive terms like ‘virtue’ and ‘strength’, comparing them to detrimental terms like ‘error’ and ‘bias’. The positive keywords provided around 7,000 results compared to 19,000 results for the negative keywords. Simply put, the light triad, and positive psychology as a whole, aim to address the negative bias of traditional psychology – which has primarily concentrated on the treatment of detriments, rather than the restoration of wellness (Kaufman et al., 2019; Sheldon & King, 2001). But more than this, the light triad is an optimistic and undoubtedly necessary perspective on humanity itself. Frameworks like the light triad help move the conversation from ‘how to stop being unwell’, towards ‘how to start being well’ – providing a goal post for the world to aim at (Andrews, 2019; Kaufman et al., 2019).

The light triad in the real world[edit | edit source]

Kaufman et al. (2019) found that across a sample of over 1,500 participants, the three facets of the light triad reliably predicted life satisfaction significantly better than previous personality frameworks. It also provided excellent predictions of several growth-focused/self-improvement outcomes. These results have attracted other new studies, and, in its short lifespan, the light triad has already begun to make an impact on the current personality literature. Malik et al. (2020) utilised the light triad while examining the role that abusive supervision has on creativity at work – suggesting that people who score higher on the light triad are better at handling negative emotions/experiences at work. Another study (into online dating) by Sevi and Doğruyol (2020) found that people with high light triad scores were more likely to seek long term, cooperative relationships. Mejia-Suazo et al (2021) concluded that people were less likely to have an addictive dependency on their mobile phones when they demonstrated higher scores of the light triad’s 'Kantianism'. Additionally, Ebrahimi (2020) found that humanism and Kantianism in leadership increased the level of gratitude and the number of supportive behaviours of followers. Of course, the light triad’s impact on personality research is only in its early days and its impact in the real world is still being examined. Kaufman et al. (2019) themselves have suggested that future research needs to focus more on the light triad’s relationship to behaviour to reveal more practical implications. However, the triad’s role in future research and practice remains an exciting prospect and, for many psychologists, it symbolises a positive shift in the language surrounding mental health – both in the field and across society (Andrews, 2019).

Test yourself![edit | edit source]

1 The positive psychological approach focuses on:


2 The following light triad component was associated with reduced likelihood of mobile phone addiction:

Faith in humanity

How can we cultivate the light triad?[edit | edit source]

Creating a world full of Kantianism, humanism and faith in humanity is, of course, a complete chimera. Whilst the light triad has been used to demonstrate behaviours and attitudes that might improve the wellbeing of individuals in certain situations, it is not without its own downsides. Kaufman et al. (2019) showed that aspects like interpersonal guilt, susceptibility to manipulation and a lack of ambition are all possible detriments of individuals with high light triad scores. However, as with all things ‘personality’, Kaufman et al. (2019) suggest that the importance of the light triad lies in its potential to provide balance. Tools like the light and dark triads can have a symbiotic relationship – pointing out where certain tendencies have the capacity to help or hinder the growth of individuals and societies.

mindfulness and coping
Figure 4. Mindfulness can mean looking down on our problems from a long-term perspective

Research, education and awareness around the light triad and other personality structures may hold the key to helping people understand themselves and their place in the world around them. Cultivation starts in therapeutic settings when clinicians set out to help clients explore their strengths. This does not mean eliminating tradition detriment-centred therapy, but instead involves walking a fine balance between both approaches. Acknowledging the underlying battle between an individual’s strengths and weaknesses will assist people in their daily struggles and support traits like empathy and optimism. Research like that of Fredrickson (2001) has already suggested the importance of positivity to humanity’s flourishing. Other cornerstones of the positive psychological approach include:

Table 2

Key findings of the positive psychology movement

Citation Findings
(Seligman et al., 2005) Fostering gratitude leads to a more content life.
(Fowler & Christakis, 2008) The happier our friends/family are, the happier we are.
(Aknin et al., 2009) Money only has a small influence on happiness
(Jenkinson et al., 2013) Following a cause, you’re passionate about increases your life-wellness

But in addition to this, cultivation of the light triad and other personality strengths requires awareness beyond therapy. Changes in the language around mental wellbeing and conversations on stigma have both enabled radical changes in the psychological landscape of society. Structural shifts like these have begun to pave the for more honest conversations in private and public settings (Corrigan, 2000; Sampogna et al., 2017). In many ways, this chapter is itself a tool towards change. And, with this in mind, here are a few self-help tips to help cultivate the light triad in your own life!

Be curious. In his personal works, Scott Kaufman uses the metaphor of a sailboat. Fundamentally based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, the sailboat splits the hierarchy into security needs and growth needs. Kaufman emphasises our need for growth – stating that it lies at the centre of our wellbeing. He also affirms that exploration and curiosity are the primary force behind growth, helping us to learn, create and integrate with the people around us. This curiosity also underlies the potential for discovery, allowing us to contribute something significant to the universe and share it with the people we love.

Be mindful.

The world can be loud, and life often demands our attention a dozen ways at a time (see figure 4). Practicing mindfulness has become an increasingly popular practice – with a solid foundation of research to support it. Amongst a large number of other findings studies have linked mindfulness to reduced stress and increased productivity (Parsons et al., 2017). Wellness organisation provide a range of information modules on mindfulness practice (from mediation to journaling).

Laugh… as much as you can!

As well as being positively associated with the light triad itself, humour has been widely researched as a mature defence mechanism (Kaufman et al., 2019). Humour is often crucial to the way we deal with stress and oftentimes allows us to express our lives and struggles more honestly (Ruch & Heintz, 2016). Research also suggests that humour helps us make the people around us feel better (Lurie & Monahan, 2015).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

So, what does all of this mean for you? Are you a good person? Well, at the end of the day, we all fall somewhere on both the dark and light triad spectrum. The encouraging thing is, our personalities are not entirely rigid and evidence points towards people being able to change themselves over time (Dweck, 2008). This change is often undertaken through a process of self-examination and maturation. Discovering and staying aware of your own strengths and weaknesses is key to this process. The light triad is an excellent tool towards this end. It points us away from ourselves and towards our belief in humanity as a whole – providing a small definition of what it means to be good. Optimism, by definition, describes a certain degree of irrationality in the way we see and think. However, the light triad suggests that perhaps the only way in which to create a fundamentally better reality is through this positive irrationality and the corresponding belief that we are good (and getting better)!

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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Andrews, K. (2019, May 15). Three traits decide whether you’re a good person—Do you have them? ABC News.

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External links[edit | edit source]