With the headlines full of horrific violence, appalling ethical lapses, and just general day-to-day seediness and corruption, it can be easy to get down on human nature. But it's important to remember these stories make the news because they're exceptional. Quiet decency and moral courage just don't get as many clicks.

But just because the depression fest in the media misses everyday goodness, doesn't mean there is plenty of it going on in the world. Psychologists recently vowed to bring compassion and decency out of the shadows and give it a proper definition and measurement tool of its own.

The dark side gets more publicity, but the light side is powerful too.

As anyone who has seen Star Wars can tell you, the dark side is alluring, which may be why psychologists have been studying our real world equivalent for decades. This work has laid out the so-called "dark triad' of nasty personality traits -- psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism -- and even come up with an IQ-like test to measure them.

Now, the same team behind some of this work on evilness, led by Barnard College psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, has turned its attention to the light side.

"Too much focus on one aspect of human nature at the expense of the other misrepresents the full capacities of humanity," the authors write in their recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology. To remedy this imbalance they've come up with a catchy name for the goodness in human nature -- the Light Triad.

Drawing on four studies of over 1,500 subjects, as well as the expertise of a diverse group of collaborators, the team claims to have pinned down the essence of decency, and as the name implies, it too is made up of three parts.

  • Kantianism: "Treating people as ends unto themselves, not as mere means to an end."
  • Humanism: "Valuing the dignity and worth of each individual."  

  • Faith in Humanity: "Believing in the fundamental goodness of humans."

Just reading that list is like a breath of fresh air. And better yet, the study showed that the higher you score on these measures, the more likely you are to be happy and satisfied with your life. Just like they taught you in elementary school, being evil really doesn't pay, this science confirms.

It should be noted, however, that scoring extremely high on 'Light Triad' traits -- or, in other words, being what authors term "an everyday saint" -- does have downsides, namely less ambition and a weaker drive towards self-improvement. Still, the psychologists conclude, "Light Triad individuals are more enjoyable to be around and likely to exert a more positive net effect on the world."

Exactly the test the world needs right now.

Even with this caveat, fundamental kindness seems like a trait just about all of us should aim to pursue. How are you doing on this front? The psychologists also came up with a simple test to measure how close you are to being an everyday saint. Take it online here.

The results could even nudge you towards foregrounding these 'Light Triad'' characteristics in your daily life. 

Accomplishing this could "include engaging regularly in a loving-kindness meditation, using new virtual reality technologies to engage in self-transcendent experiences (see David Yaden's work) - such as awe (e.g., viewing images that are beautiful or inspiring), and even intentionally engaging in the perspectives of others that are very different from ours with rational compassion (see Paul Bloom's work), curiosity, and loving-kindness," Kaufman explains to the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog

More than anything though, this research is a reminder that, even in grim times, humans are capable of breaking out of their bubbles and practicing breath-taking selflessness. That's something many of us could do with hearing about a whole lot more frequently, Kaufman believes.

"We live in such a world where everyone thinks their own problems and causes are more important than everyone else's central causes, and we have lost an appreciation for the fundamental dignity of each other, even if they have very different political beliefs or come from a very different culture. The light triad worldview is desperately needed in the world today," he commented. Amen to that.

Published on: Mar 27, 2019
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