More common for people with narcissistic and psychopathic traits to go to private school

Narcissistic or psychopathic traits are more common among students who went to private schools compared with those who went to state schools, according to new research from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University.


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Research shows that students with a number of psychological traits, collectively referred to as “The Dark Triad”, are more likely to have graduated from a private school than from a state school.

The collective term “The Dark Triad” covers three personality traits: Narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. The latter centres around stopping at nothing to achieve one’s goals. Research based on studies carried out at a number of English universities shows that these personality traits are found more often in students from private schools than from state schools.

“Our research reveals quite substantial group differences in personality traits between students from private schools and students from state schools,” says Anne Pacak-Vedel, postdoc. in psychology from Aarhus BSS.

The research has been published in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences1) and was conducted in collaboration with researchers from Durham University in England, the University of Padova in Italy and the University of Kardinal Stefan Wyszynski in Poland.

"In Denmark, we’re actually seeing a movement where municipal schools are increasingly being deselected by families with the financial means to pay for schooling. In the long term, this could lead to a pattern that is more similar to what we found in the UK" 

Anna Pacak-Vedel, post.doc, Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Aarhus BSS

Intellectual humility

Based on their research, the researchers are able to demonstrate that students who score high on Dark Triad traits have less intellectual humility and poorer academic performance. Intellectual humility means the willingness and ability to revise one’s point of view, for example when presented with better arguments or knowledge. People with intellectual humility are humble about their knowledge, and they acknowledge that others may have greater knowledge or a superior intellect. In short, intellectual humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance. The study also showed that men were higher on the Dark Triad traits than women.

“Our finding that intellectual humility is negatively correlated with the Dark Triad traits makes good sense, because Dark Triad traits are characterised by a certain arrogance, grandiosity and a desire to position oneself,” says Anna Pacak-Vedel and she continues:

“That intellectual humility also turns out to be positively correlated with grades may be explained by the notion that people with intellectual humility are more aware of the limitations of their own knowledge, and therefore they’re also more motivated to learn. All things being equal, this is conducive to learning.”


Results might transfer to a Danish context

The results are based on studies conducted in the UK. In every way, the social-class divide is much more pronounced in the UK than in Denmark, but the researchers still believe that parallels can be drawn to Denmark:

“If we made the same study in Denmark, we would probably not find such substantial group differences between students from private schools and municipal schools. But I’m convinced that we would find the same overall pattern, just less pronounced” says Anna Pacak-Vedel.

“In Denmark, we’re actually seeing a movement where municipal schools are increasingly being deselected by families with the financial means to pay for schooling. In the long term, this could lead to a pattern that is more similar to what we found in the UK,” says Anna Pacak-Vedel.


Correlation between corporate career and psychology

The researchers were also able to demonstrate that people who score high on the Dark Triad are more likely to select academic majors suited for corporate careers. This applies in Denmark as well as in the UK.

“That this is a factor in the UK, and at their top universities, is essential knowledge, because the political elite in the UK is almost 100% dominated by people who went to prestigious private schools and moved on to study law, economics or similar fields at the most esteemed universities. And the UK is a major political and economic player, so who leads in the UK is not entirely unimportant in an international context,” says Anna Pacak-Vedel.

If more people who score high on Dark Triad traits strive for a corporate career, this may potentially lead to more economic crises, because a higher number of what is referred to by researchers as “corporate psychopaths” will be employed, especially in the business sector. As an example, the article mentions the top management of Volkswagen, the German automobile manufacturer, which, in 2015, acted as if they did not seem to care about the consequences of their actions but were only concerned about the financial benefits, a scandal that became known as Dieselgate.

Business programmes in the UK have previously been criticised2) for not teaching students about ethics and morals to a sufficient degree to avoid financial crises such as Dieselgate. However, the research results presented by Anna Vedel and her colleagues offer a certain “excuse” for the English business schools, because students selecting a business programme often have a different personality from those choosing another career path, even before they enter a business school.


Further information

Anna Pacak-Vedel

Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Aarhus BSS
Aarhus Universitet

Fastnet: 87166173 


  1. The dark and not so humble: School-type effects on the Dark Triad traits and intellectual humility”. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 163, 1 September 2020, 110068.
  2. Gudmundsson, A & Southey, G. (2011) Leadership and the rise of the corporate psychopaths: What can business schools do about the ´snakes´ inside. E-journal of Social & Behavioral Research in Business, 2, 18-27.