The Dark (and Ruthless) Side of Mental Toughness

Pursuing goals no matter who or what stands in the way.

Posted Jun 04, 2016

Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock
Source: Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock

The ability to tough it out when we're faced with a difficult situation is a trait we generally think of as highly desirable. When life presents you with challenges, you want to be able to overcome them, sometimes at all costs. But can this effort come at too high a psychological price? For example, what if, in order to get the romantic partner you long for, you have to lie? You’d like your online dating profile to attract desirable offers, but you feel that being honest about your lack of steady employment will be a turn off. So, rather than describe yourself as semi-employed, you call yourself a “consultant.” And what if you and a friend are competing for the same potential guy or girl who’s expressed an interest in both of you? Would you tell a few small lies about your friend so that you look more appealing?

Mental toughness sounds like a desirable attribute, and it is in fact one that seems to help athletes win, according to Sarah Sabouri and colleagues (2016). Regarded as a “cognitive strength variable” (p. 230), people high in this quality are more resistant to stress, sleep better, are happier, and are more physically active. However, as the authors point out, mental toughness can also have a “dark” or “down” side. More mentally tough athletes don’t listen to their bodies after an injury and don’t seek medical care or rehabilitation. They can be overconfident and so committed to their goals that they disregard the negative consequences, such as physical injury, caused by their intense desire to win.

Sabouri and her fellow researchers believed that the overcommitment to winning shown by the mentally tough athlete can morph into Machiavellianism, a “Dark Triad” trait that reflects a person’s willingness to do anything to get ahead. To test this hypothesis, the team examined the three Dark Triad traits of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism, as well as mental toughness, in non-elite but physically active adults. Their sample of 341 Iranians ranging from 18 to 37 years old (with a mean age of 29) completed a set of online questionnaires designed to assess the above qualities.

Mental toughness, as originally conceptualized by Peter Clough at the United Kingdom's Manchester Metropolitan University, divides into four main components: control, commitment, challenge, and confidence. Control means the ability to control your emotions as well as what happens to you more generally. Commitment involves setting goals and then achieving them; confidence includes your belief in your own abilities and in your ability to influence others.

The Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ) has 48 items that assess these qualities; Sabouri and her team used a shorter version in their study to reduce the amount of strain on participants, but it relates well to the original measure.

How do you score on these sample questions from the original MTQ?

  1. I bounce back quickly from setbacks, bad breaks, and mistakes.
  2. I can keep myself calm and composed under pressure.
  3. I have no trouble focusing on what's important and blocking everything else out.
  4. I'd rather compete against a better opponent and lose than go up against a weaker opponent and win.
  5. I feel more motivated after failures and setbacks.
  6. I have clear goals that are important for me to achieve.

People high on psychopathy, as measured by the self-report measure used in this study, agreed with statements such as “I never feel guilty,” and “I think I could beat a lie detector.” Scale items for Machiavellianism included “Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so.” Finally, narcissism was assessed by items such as “I am an extraordinary person.”

As expected, participants high in all three Dark Triad traits also had higher mental toughness scores across all three components of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Regarding psychopathy, Sabouri et al. concluded that “mentally tough individuals trying to achieve their aims could disregard others’ needs as those scoring high on psychopathy tend to do” (p. 233). They may also do so at the expense of others, as suggested by the relationship between Machiavellianism and mental toughness. Regarding narcissism, the mentally tough may be unwilling to admit to their weaknesses, even though others might easily be able to spot those weaknesses.

When it comes to physical activity, not only are athletes more likely to be mentally tough, but as Sabouri and her team found, so are ordinary individuals. The mentally tough scored higher on self-reported physical activity involving exercise on a daily basis. Mental toughness gives you the ability to discipline yourself so that you follow through on your goals to stay active and fit. Even a psychopath, according to these findings, can commit to physical fitness.

The good side of mental toughness is that it will help you to become more organized and persistent in attaining your goals of physical fitness. The negative side comes when mental toughness combines with Dark Triad traits so that you pursue your goals regardless of who or what gets in your way.

In short, you may want to steer clear of the person whose burning ambition can hurt you in the process. Mental toughness can easily become ruthlessness, and if you stand in the way of this type of person, that ambition is likely to burn you. Seeking fulfillment of our goals is an admirable quality, as long as that fulfillment doesn’t come at the expense of the people you care about most.

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Sabouri, S., Gerber, M., Bahmani, D. S., Lemola, S., Clough, P. J., Kalak, N., & ... Brand, S. (2016). Examining Dark Triad traits in relation to mental toughness and physical activity in young adults. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 12, 229-235.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016