Why was Darth Vader such a bad dude? According to a team of psychologists led by Peter Jonason, it’s down to his lack of parental care: the fact he was separated from his mother at age 9, and his father’s absence. The researchers believe such circumstances can catalyse the emergence of the Dark Triad of personality traits: Machiavellianism, Narcissism and Psychopathy. These traits are usually seen as negative, but Jonason and his colleagues believe they may be an adaptive response to tough early circumstances that signal to a child “life is bad”.
To test their theory, Jonason and his colleagues surveyed 153 students online and 199 other adults (across both groups, average age was 25, and there were 60 men). The participants answered questions about their personality, in terms of the Dark Triad; about the care they received from their parents; and about their adult attachment style.
The results threw up a web of correlations. Untangling the threads, Jonason’s team say their analysis suggests that poor maternal care increases the likelihood of people developing insecure attachment styles, and in turn this increases levels of Machiavellianism, Primary Psychopathy (i.e. callousness) and the entitlement and exhibitionist elements of Narcissism. There were also direct associations between better maternal care and lower levels of the leadership and grandiosity elements of Narcissism. Better quality paternal care was associated, rather oddly, with increased avoidant attachment styles, but it had few if any links with the Dark Triad traits.
The researchers acknowledged some of the limitations of their study, including the fact the correlations were mostly weak. But they said they’d “provided unique insights into the Dark Triad.” And returning to their assessment of Darth Vader, the researchers said their results suggest the reason Vader became a ruthless baddie while his son (Luke Skywalker), who shares many of his genes, did not, comes down to their contrasting parenting experiences.
Whereas Luke was raised by a loving Aunt and Uncle, argue Jonason et al., “[Darth Vader], in contrast, arguably lacked any such parental figure, indeed his mother died in his own arms only after he had been taken from her when he was just a child a decade or so earlier.” They added: “[Vader], then, lacking the anchor provided by good parents, was easily swayed by the appeal of the ‘fast life’ offered by the dark side of the force. For those like [Vader], perhaps turning to the dark side of the force – and the Dark Triad – is an adaptive response.”
Sceptical readers may not be convinced that the data back up these bold conclusions. Any studies that look at the effects of parenting style on children need to control for the parallel influences of genetic inheritance, otherwise the results are virtually meaningless. For instance, it’s possible, indeed likely, that genetic influences on parenting style in the parent also have a bearing on the development of personality traits in offspring. Moreover, because this study was cross-sectional in design (i.e. the data present a single snapshot in time), it’s just as likely that the participants’ personality influenced the way their parents treated them, as it is that their personality was shaped by their parents’ style of care. In the words of C-3P0, ” I suggest a new strategy.”
Jonason, P., Lyons, M., & Bethell, E. (2014). The making of Darth Vader: Parent–child care and the Dark Triad Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 30-34 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.10.006