One of the current problems faced by contemporary society is the continuous increase of couple break-ups; hence, many children grow up under the protection of only one of their parents. When a couple that has children breaks up, it is difficult to be detach the children from the fight between the parents; what is even worse, the opposite may happen and the children become a weapon to attack the (ex-)partner. In line with these tenets, Gardner [1
] created the concept of the parental alienation syndrome (PAS), which claims that often one of the parents (normally the mother, who tends to be the custodial parent) mentally manipulates children so they will not wish to have contact with the other parent (usually the father and non-custodial parent). Thus, the alienating parent induces the child to lie about the other parent harming them. Children would then start elaborating on these false claims and deluding themselves into believing that the other parent has actually harmed them. According to PAS, the alienating parent manages to convince the child that the other parent assaulted them physically. The goal of the manipulative parent is that the justice system intervenes to punish the ex-partner and to prevent contact between the child and the allegedly aggressive father. A problem with PAS assumptions is the belief that children routinely lie and are easy to manipulate against the noncustodial parent, making up claims of non-existent aggressions.
Sometimes, the accusation is of sexual abuse, which often cannot be medically proven, and this inability to provide evidence is taken as a confirmation of PAS. However, the fact that it cannot be proven does not mean it does not exist, and there are cases of children’s physically and sexually abused by their parents that do not show medical signs of the damage caused. In these cases, the only way to discover the existence of the abuse is by resorting to the testimony of the minor (if the child is old enough) or through the detection of some typical signs of abuse. Abusive parents may argue that it is an invention of the child, who has been convinced by the other parent to lie and invent non-existent aggressions. Therefore, they will state that the abuse is exerted by the parent who is allegedly manipulating the child. Subsequently, they will claim that the court must act to prevent it and protect the child, who is being manipulated and the parent the child refuses contact with. The existing evidence shows that complaints of abuse and, specifically, of sexual abuse are very rarely false [5
] and that parents, specifically the guardian, normally do not invent aggressions that the child has not suffered nor do they instill any belief in the child. Hence, parental complaints are most times the result of actual child abuse and the Justice system runs the risk of failing to provide protection, based on a false argument that the minor is being manipulated by the custodial parent [6
]. However, despite this evidence, some authors still support that accusations of maltreatment or abuse toward minors advocated by Gardner are frequent [18
Although from a legal point of view, the topic (protection of minors) is of great relevance, it is no less relevant from a psychological perspective, because a variable—manipulation—is introduced in the parent-child relationship. Thus, from the perspective of psychology, it is important to determine whether parents offer affection and sincerity to their children, doing everything they can to educate them in positive values, or, in contrast, they don’t mind using their children to attack the other parent, often as vengeance for breaking up the relationship. Up to 75% of parents report difficulties in the relationship with their ex-partner [30
], and custody conflicts, often accompanied with financial conflicts, are related to negative emotional, behavioral and academic effects on children [31
], both externalizing and internalizing [32
]. So judicial manipulation is harmful and devastating for the victim parent, but also extremely serious for the child. As stated above, the PAS, which focuses on the effect of manipulative behavior on the parents and the children, provides a popular approach to this issue [18
]. However, other authors [13
] argue that most assumptions derived from the PAS are questionable.
Rather than adopting the PAS approach, evaluating specific traits that predict manipulative behavior seems more promising. Narcissistic individuals have lower ethical standards in their pursuit of self-interest, and thus are more prone to manipulative behavior [35
]. Machiavellianism is also a good indicator of lying in different situations [36
] and dark traits of personality influence willingness to make false claims in legal settings [37
]. Traits in the dark triad may be sound indicators of manipulative behavior against the ex-partner. In related domains, psychopathy [38
] predicts divorce and undermines marital relationship functioning. High Narcissism is also related to conflicts over visitation and custody of children after divorce [39
] and disengagement from children in the non-custodial parent after divorce litigation [40
]. Currently, research has established that Machiavellianism, subclinical psychopathy, and subclinical Narcissism are inter-correlated and are part of the “dark triad” construct. The dark triad of personality provides a framework to explore specific traits to predict detrimental and manipulative behavior. It encompasses Narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism into one latent superordinate trait that subsumes all their common characteristics of malevolence [41
Regardless of the individual scores in manipulators, one of the topics of debate is whether men or women score higher in dark triad variables. Gardner thought, at least initially, that the mothers were most often the manipulators, and many female authors think that fathers are the manipulators. Nevertheless, there is evidence that males score higher in dark triad traits [42
] and cultural gender roles also influence the expression of dark triad traits [44
]. Additionally, we must consider that children can also show dark traits like, Machiavellianism [45
So far, the relationship between dark traits and the manipulation of children to attack the other partner has not been examined. The purpose of the current research is to determine whether people who are in a process of couple break-up and who are willing to lie in issues concerning their children possess higher levels of the three dimensions that comprise the dark triad. Whether people with higher levels of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and/or Narcissism (that is, the “dark personality”) will admit they are more capable of deceiving and lying in court is of practical interest. The objective of this study is to build a judicial manipulation scale to measure willingness to lie and use children to harm the other parent that could be used in professional practice. Our main hypotheses are that this scale would be correlated to each of the traits in the dark triad, so that these traits could be used as potential indicators of judicial manipulation during or after child-custody litigation. Dark triad variables are thus expected to be predictors of an individual’s agreement with “dirty” judicial behavior.
There are a number of parents who are willing to lie in a judicial process and even manipulate their children in order to harm the other parent. These parents are more Machiavellian, Narcissistic, and they have a subclinical psychopathic personality. The scale developed in this study, in which parents are asked whether they would be willing to deceive and lie to the court to achieve their goals—which is often a revenge on the parent who broke up the relationship—comprises both the willingness to provide false information about the other parent and manipulating children. The scale shows a high reliability and loads primarily on to a single factor in EFA and is confirmed by CFA. This scale correlates significantly with the variables that make up the dark triad. Therefore, the judicial manipulation scale makes an important contribution to the scientific advancement in the field of psychological-forensic assessment and, consequently, to help the courts to determine which parent should be assigned as the children’s guardian, and what kind of visiting regime should be established for the other parent. Its primary use would be in research of which variables predict judicial manipulation. We showed that dark triad traits are adequate indicators of judicial manipulation, and the scale can serve as a criterion to check other possible indicators.
As with other essential premises that support the PAS ideas of Gardner [13
], the results of this study confirm that parents’ possible manipulative behaviors during and after the family break-up are explained by specific personality traits of the parents, rather than by a parental alienation syndrome as Gardner [1
] stated. Rather than evaluating custody disputes drawing from models like the PAS, we propose the dark traits provide a more promising framework. Thus, dark traits of personality are a good indicator of parent’s manipulative behaviors and lying to attack the other parent. Variables in the dark triad are significantly correlated with the scale developed for this study. Psychopathy seems to be the best predictor of judicial manipulation among dark traits and it also shows a lack of sensitivity to socially desirable responding. Additionally, contrary to other authors [42
] we found scarce evidence for sex differences in dark traits.
We think that an important aspect in this research is determining which variables predict whether an individual is a judicial manipulator, which has a direct use in practice, and the vignettes used in this study stand as a useful tool for examining other possible indicators of manipulative behavior in a court setting.
This research presents some limitations that should be overcome in future research: we did not get the chance to measure the responses of parents who were currently litigating for the custody of their children as a validation criterion of the scale. In addition, its self-report and correlational nature advises for caution when drawing conclusions from these results.
A relevant issue when exploring dark traits, manipulation or any attitude or behavior that may be socially questionable is whether it is subject to socially desirable responding. Although the participants answered anonymously, there may still have been some social desirability response bias. We did not use a measure of socially desirable responding to control for possible biases in responses and this is another limitation in our research. However, evidence shows that psychopathy is negatively associated with social desirability, suggesting that individuals who score high in psychopathy may not value social acceptance [61
]. Other research results [62
] show that individuals high in Machiavellianism and Psychopathy are more unconcerned with social desirability. Psychopathy is associated with a diminished sense of morality and is associated with a worse understanding of what is socially desirable. Neither Machiavellianism nor Narcissism show a consistent association with social normativity. Lastly, Machiavellian individuals seem to care more about their own goals rather than about social impressions, and the more antagonistic a dark trait is, the less important is for the individual to respond in a socially desirable way [63
]. As for gender differences, females score higher in social desirability, and it has been argued that this may partially explain why they score lower in dark triad traits [64
]. Nevertheless, motivational goals and socially normative biases in parents’ responses may certainly obscure the relationship between dark trait indicators and judicial manipulation, and extensive research is needed to check which indicators provide less biased responses.
However, being able to resort to indicators which are not domain-specific or directly related to gaining advantage in a judicial setting may provide a useful tool for professional practice. We have examined just the three most prominent dark traits in literature, although there are many other variables that could be considered as indicators of judicial manipulation.