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The H Factor of Personality

The H Factor of Personality

Why Some People are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive—And Why It Matters for Everyone
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Excerpt from The H Factor: Why Some People are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive—And Why It Matters for Everyone by Kibeom Lee and Michael C. Ashton


Chapter One: Meet the H Factor


Mary and Jane have a lot in common. Both are young women in their last year of study at the same law school. Each grew up in a two-parent family in a middle-class neighbourhood. Yet in some crucial ways they could hardly be more different.


To Mary, the law is like a martial art—a way to defeat opponents by mastering many complex manoeuvres. She chose law as a career because she wanted to make a lot of money, and with that aim in mind she has mainly studied the more lucrative legal specialties, such as corporate law and litigation. To achieve her career goals, Mary has made a point of skilfully ingratiating herself to certain influential professors. By applying just the right amount of flattery, she hopes to make the connections she needs for a good position after completing her degree.


Jane’s approach to the law is much more idealistic. She views the law as a means of achieving justice, and her goals in studying law are “to help people” and “to make a difference.” She’s trying to decide whether to work in the criminal justice system as a prosecutor or public defender, or to work for a not-for-profit organization. Jane has had some contact with her professors, chiefly when she has asked them to explain some of the finer points of the law. She tries to be pleasant and polite with her professors, but she would be uncomfortable trying to curry favour with them.


Mary and Jane are both single, but both plan to marry someday. For Mary, any prospective husband must hold some prestigious position in society; besides being wealthy, he should carry the trappings and the appearance of a very important man. Anything less just wouldn’t be worthy of her. For Jane, these considerations of money and status don’t really matter. She’s much more concerned with finding a man she can love, and although she might not realize it, this will probably mean a man who shares her values.




As with Mary and Jane, Bill and Dave are similar in some ways. They’re both middle-aged men, and both own small automobile repair shops in towns just an hour’s drive apart. But again, in some ways they are opposites of each other.


Bill and Dave have entirely different outlooks on how to run a business. Bill’s motto could be summed up as “Let the buyer beware”: when customers come to his shop, he’ll often recommend repairs that aren’t really necessary, and he’ll often save money by substituting lower-quality parts for those that are intended for a given vehicle. Often, if Bill judges that a customer will take the deal, he offers to do the work for cash, so that no receipts are kept and no taxes are paid.


Dave, by contrast, never deceives his customers or the tax authorities. He recommends only the repairs that are really required, which often means that his customers have less repair work done than they thought they would need. The parts he uses are always as stated on the invoice to the customer. Every transaction is recorded for tax purposes.


Both Bill and Dave are active in their local communities, but here again their styles are a study in contrasts. Bill was recently elected president of his town’s minor sports association, and since assuming office he has been quite impressed with his own importance. He’s very generous to himself in claiming expenses associated with his duties, and he likes to have his name on many plaques and newspaper articles. Dave, on the other hand, has done a lot of volunteer work for his local sports association, but he often pays out of his own pocket, and he certainly doesn’t look for special recognition.


Finally, Bill and Dave differ in their married lives. Over the years, Bill has carried on a series of affairs; from his perspective, a virile and successful man such as himself is entitled to some extramarital excitement. (His wife wouldn’t share this point of view, so he must be crafty enough to conceal these adventures from her— and also from any husbands of his mistresses.) Dave, by contrast, has never cheated on his wife. He finds other women attractive, and he could likely find a willing partner rather easily, but he simply couldn’t bring himself to betray his wife’s trust.


The above vignettes illustrate the opposite extremes of a dimension of personality: Mary and Bill are at one end, Jane and Dave at the other. We call this personality dimension the H factor. The “H” stands for Honesty-Humility, and it’s one of only six basic dimensions of personality. In this book, we’ll tell you about all six of those dimensions—the HEXACO personality factors—but the H factor will be our main focus.


The H factor hadn’t been recognized by psychologists until about the year 2000. Back then, most of them believed that people’s personalities could best be summarized in terms of exactly five dimensions. Those five personality dimensions, known collectively as the Big Five, don’t fully capture the H factor, and therefore they can only partly capture the differences between Mary and Jane and between Bill and Dave.


Research in the past decade has shown how the H factor matters in many aspects of people’s lives: It underlies their approaches toward money, power, and sex. It governs their inclination to commit crimes or obey the law. It orients them toward certain attitudes about society, politics, and religion. It influences their choice of friends and spouse. Throughout this book, we’ll be explaining the role of the H factor in these various domains of life.


Considering the importance of the H factor, you might wonder why it had gone missing for such a long time—and how psychologists finally did recognize it as one of the basic dimensions of personality. We’ll begin with the story of how we happened to find the H factor—largely by accident—back during our days as graduate students.

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The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side
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The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1881: ‘Böse denken heißt böse machen’ – thinking evil means making evil. Only when we assign something the label ‘evil’, only when we think that something is evil, does it become so. Nietzsche argued that evil is a subjective experience, not something that is inherent to a person, or object, or action.

This book explores some of the science behind this sentiment, ranging across a spectrum of concepts and notions that are often associated with the word evil. It is a study of human hypocrisy, the absurdity of evil, ordinary madness and empathy. I hope to challenge you to rethink and reshape what it means to be bad.

Over the past thirteen years, as a student, lecturer and researcher, I have enjoyed discussing the science of evil with anyone who is willing to listen. What I like most is destroying the fundamental conceptualisations of good and evil as black and white, replacing them with nuance and scientific insight. I want us all to have a more informed way of discussing behaviour that at first we feel we cannot, and should not, begin to understand. Without understanding, we risk dehumanisingothers, writing off human beings simply becausewe don’t comprehend them. We can, we must, try to understand that which we have labelled evil.

Let’s start by doing an evil empathy exercise. Think about the worst thing you have ever done. Something that you are probably ashamed of, and that you know would make other people think less of you. Infidelity. Theft. Lying. Now imagine that everyone knew about it. Judged you for it. Constantly called you names arising from it. How would that feel?

We would hate for the world to forever judge us based on the acts we most regret. Yet this is what we do to others every day. For our own decisions we see the nuances, the circumstances, the difficulties. For others we often just see the outcome of their decisions. This leads us to define human beings, in all their complexity, by a single heinous term. Murderer. Rapist. Thief. Liar. Psychopath. Paedophile.

These are labels bestowed on others, based on our percep­tion of who they must be, given their behaviour. A single word intended to summarise someone’s true character and to disparage it, to communicate to others that this person cannot be trusted. This person is harmful. This person is not really a person at all – rather some sort of horrible aberration. An aberration with whom we should not try to empathise because they are so hopelessly bad that we will never be able to understand them. Such people are beyond understanding, beyond saving, evil.

But who are ‘they’? Perhaps understanding that every single one of us frequently thinks and does things that others view as despicable will help us to understand the very essence of what we call evil. I can guarantee that someone in the world thinks you are evil. Do you eat meat? Do you work in banking? Do you have a child out of wedlock? You will find that things that seem normal to you don’t seem normal to others, and might even be utterly reprehensible. Perhaps we are all evil. Or, perhaps none of us are.
As a society, we talk about evil a lot, and yet we don’t really talk about it at all. Every day we hear of the latest human atrocities, and superficially engage with constant news chatter that makes us feel like humanity is surely doomed. As journalists often say, if it bleeds it leads. Concepts that elicit strong emotions are distilled into attention-grabbing headlines for newspapers and shoved into our social-media feeds. Seen before we get to breakfast and forgotten by lunchtime, our consumption of reports of evil is phenomenal.

Our hunger for violence in particular seems greater now than it ever has. In a study published in 2013 by psycho­logical scientist Brad Bushman and his colleagues which examined violence in movies, they found that ‘violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and that gun violence in PG-13 films [12A] has increased to the point where it recently exceeded the rate in R-rated films [15]’. Movies are becoming more violent, even those which are specifically for children to watch. More than ever, stories of violence and severe human suffering permeate our daily routine.

What does this do to us? It distorts our understanding of the prevalence of crime, making us think crime is more common than it actually is. It impacts who we label evil. It changes our notions of justice.

At this point I want to manage your expectations regarding what this book is about. This is not a book that dives deep into individual cases. Whole books have been dedicated to specific people who are often referred to as evil – like Jon Venables, the youngest person ever to be convicted of murder in the UK and labeled by the tabloids as ‘Born Evil’, or serial killer Ted Bundy in the US, or the ‘Ken and Barbie killers’, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, in Canada. These are fascinating cases, no doubt, but this book is not really about them. It is about you. I want you to understand your own thoughts and proclivities more than I want to pick apart specific examples of other people’s transgressions.

This is also not a philosophical book, a religious book, or a book about morality. It is a book that tries to help us understand why we do terrible things to one another, not whether these things should happen or what the appropriate punishments for them are. It is a book filled with experiments and theories, a book that tries to turn our attention to science for answers. It tries to break down the concept of evil into many pieces, and to pick up each one to examine it individually.

This is also not a comprehensive book about evil. A life­time would be insufficient for such a task. You may be disappointed to learn that I will spend almost no time discussing crucial issues like genocide, abuse of children in care, children who commit crime, election fraud, treachery, incest, drugs, gangs or war. If you want to learn about such issues, there are many books out there for you, but this isn’t one of them. This is a book that seeks to expand on the currently available literature and bring in the unexpected. This book provides an overview of important and diverse topics related to the concept of evil that I think are fasci­nating, important, and often overlooked. 

Before we slip into the science of evil, let me explain who I am and why you can trust me to walk with you through your nightmares.

I come from a world where people hunt monsters. Where police officers, prosecutors and the public collectively take their pitchforks and search for murderers and rapists. They hunt because they want to maintain the fabric of society, to punish those who are perceived to have done wrong. The problem is that these monsters sometimes don’t actually exist.

As a criminal psychologist who specialises in false memories, I see cases all the time where people search for an evil perpetrator even though no transgression has actually taken place. False memories are recollections that feel real but are not a representation of something that actually happened. They sound a bit like science fiction, but false memories are all too common. As false-memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has said, instead of being an accurate record of the past, memories are much like Wikipedia pages – they are constructive and reconstructive. You can go in there and change them, and so can other people.

In extreme situations our memories can end up so far from reality that we can come to believe that we have been the victim or witness of a crime that never took place, or that we perpetrated a crime that never happened. This is something I have studied directly in my lab. I have hacked people’s memories to, temporarily, make them believe they did something criminal.

But I don’t just study this in the lab. I also study it in the wild. I sometimes get mail from prisoners. These letters are quite possibly one of the most interesting things I receive by post. One letter came in early 2017. The letter was written eloquently with beautifully legible handwriting, both of which are rather unusual characteristics for a prison letter.

It explained that the sender was in prison because he had stabbed his elderly father to death. He hadn’t just stabbed him once though; he had stabbed him fifty times. The perpetrator was a university lecturer at the time of the murder, with no criminal record. He’s not the kind of guy we would expect to go around stabbing people.

So, why did he do it? I was startled when I learned the answer to this. The reason for the letter was to ask me to send him my book on false memories, as it ‘was not yet available at the prison library’. He had seen it mentioned in The Times, and said that he wanted, he needed, to know more about this area of research. The reason he wanted to know more was that he had come to realise, while in prison, that he had killed his father because of a false memory.

Here’s what he claims happened. While undergoing treat­ment for alcoholism, it had been suggested to him that one thing that explains alcohol dependence is a history of child­hood sexual abuse. He had it repeatedly suggested to him by therapists and social workers that he must have been abused. While he was undergoing therapy, he was also the primary carer for his elderly father. He was exhausted. One evening, while taking care of his father, he claims that the memories all rushed back. In anger, and as an act of revenge, he committed the murder. Once in prison he realised that these events never actually happened, and that, instead, he had been led to falsely believe and remember a terrible childhood that never was. He’s now sitting in prison, not denying the act, but having difficulty understanding his own brain, his own behaviour. He had thought, for a period of time, that his father was evil. He then committed a terrible crime. If we believe his version, can we really say that he is evil?

I sent him my book, and in return he sent me a letter and a painting of a pink flower. I keep it on my desk. It’s a reminder to me that through research and science commu­nication we can give understanding and humanity back to a group that is too often deprived of both.

It is easy to forget that the complexity of the human experience does not stop just because an individual has committed a crime. A single act should not define a person. Calling someone a murderer because they once made a decision to murder someone seems inappropriate, oversimplified.

Convicts are people too. For 364 days of the year a person can be completely law-abiding, and then on the 365th they can decide to commit a crime. Even the most heinous convicted criminals spend almost all of their time not commit­ting crimes. What do they do the rest of the time? Normal human stuff. They eat, they sleep, they love, they cry.

Yet it is so easy for us to write off such people and to call them evil. And this is why I love doing research in this area. And it’s not just memory that fascinates me in understanding how we create evil. I have also done academic work on the topics of psychopathy and moral decision-making, and I taught a course on evil where I explored topics as diverse as criminology, psychology, philosophy, law and neurosci­ence. It is at the intersection of these disciplines that I believe the true understanding of this thing we call ‘evil’ lies.

The problem is that instead of facilitating such under­standing, heinous crimes are generally seen as more of a circus show than something we should try to understand. And when we do try to lift the curtain to see the humanity behind the exterior, others often stop us from taking a good look. Discussing the concept of evil is still largely a taboo.


When attempts at empathy and understanding are made, there is often a particularly vicious utterance that is used to shut them down; the implication that some people should not be empathised with, lest we imply that we too are evil.

Want to discuss paedophilia? That must mean you are a paedophile. Mention zoophilia? So, you are saying you want to have sex with animals. Want to talk about murder fanta­sies? You are clearly a murderer at heart. Such curiosity-shaming tries to keep a distance between us and the people who are perceived to be evil. It’s ‘us’, the good citizens, versus ‘them’, the baddies. In psychology this is called ‘othering’. We other someone when we view or treat them as inherently different to ourselves.

But such a distinction is not only adverse for discourse and understanding, it is also fundamentally incorrect. We may think that our labelling of others as evil or bad is rational, and our behaviour towards such individuals justified, but the distinction may be more trivial than we expect. I want to help you explore the similarities between the groups of people you consider evil and yourself, and to engage with a critical mind to try and understand them.

Our reactions to deviance may ultimately tell us less about others and more about ourselves. In this book I want to encourage a curiosity, an exploration of what evil is and the lessons we can learn from science to better understand humanity’s dark side. I want you to ask questions, I want you to be hungry for knowledge, and I want to feed your hunger. Come with me on a journey to uncover the science of your living nightmares.

Let me help you find your evil empathy.

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In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World
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The Irresistible Introvert

The Irresistible Introvert

Harness the Power of Quiet Charisma in a Loud World
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