The Dark Triad: Understanding The 3 Dark Personality Types, From Psychologists
The term "Dark Triad" sounds ominous, but what does it actually mean? Misdiagnoses abound, but this trio of so-called dark personality types—narcissists, psychopaths, and Machiavellians—are not just flippant labels meant to insult. Rather, there is scientific evidence that this trifecta has unique difficulty relating to others, and their sense of self is misaligned with prevailing moral codes. They are highly disagreeable, lacking in empathy, highly self-interested, and/or manipulative.
Research is still being done to better understand individuals who demonstrate these traits and to help others learn how best to interact with them, so to clearly discern fact from fiction, we reached out to psychologists and personality researchers to explain the Dark Triad, identify associated traits, and suggest ways to interact and cope with these dark personalities.
What is the "Dark Triad"?
The Dark Triad refers to three personality traits—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism—characterized by malevolence or negativity, hence the name "dark." The phrase was coined in a 2002 study by psychologists Delroy Paulhus, Ph.D., and Kevin M. Williams, Ph.D.
"The dark triad traits share a common core of antagonism (or low agreeableness)," says Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Ph.D., a social personality psychologist at Oakland University and associate editor at the Journal of Personality. "More specifically, issues surrounding callousness and a willingness to manipulate or exploit others appear to be particularly important for understanding these traits."
The three personality traits are not diagnosable mental health conditions themselves, he notes. "However, narcissism and psychopathy have clear connections with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, respectively." The traits are not interchangeable with their respective personality disorders, he adds, but it is easy to mix them up. For example, he says researchers sometimes conflate psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder, which clearly have important similarities but are not identical.
The 3 dark personality types.
These similar but distinct dark personality traits present themselves in different ways. Unless you're a psychologist, it is easy to misdiagnose one bad behavior for another. And that could be a dangerous miscalculation—some are more physically aggressive, while others are more emotionally manipulative.
Peter K. Jonason, Ph.D., is a social personality psychologist with the University of Padova in Italy and a prominent researcher on the Dark Triad, and he co-created the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen, a four-item scale for each trait. He says that if you can't tell these personalities apart, then you're not alone. Because they are so deeply correlated, a lot of research highlights the selfish commonalities they share. Disentangling them can often be determined by looking at the costs imposed on others, whether that's hurt feelings, abuse, theft, or other harms.
Here's what to look out for:
Greg Park, Ph.D., a personality researcher and founder of TraitLab, says that narcissists tend to self-enhance: "They have an unusually strong motivation to maintain a positive, attractive, or successful image in the eyes and minds of other people. Narcissists are also more likely than the other triad-mates to defend their image or reputation very aggressively, even in response to relatively minor threats or comments." Because narcissistic people have extreme admiration for themselves, conversation with them is likely to focus on their successes: physically, professionally, financially, and more.
Jonason adds that narcissism is characterized by expected entitlement and grandiosity. He says there once was the assumption that narcissism is actually associated with outwardly overcoming low-self esteem, but narcissists can be vulnerable. Those who can't may simply be revealing an overlap with psychopathy.
"Psychopaths have a much greater capacity to act aggressively or cruelly to other people or living things," Park tells mbg. Psychopaths lack a natural aversion to harming others but tend to operate on a shorter timeline than Machiavellians. "Psychopaths are much more likely to bully, troll, or take revenge on others," he adds.
Psychopathy can share a lot with narcissistic tendencies. However, its exploitative nature distinguishes it from the other dark triad personality traits. Jonason says that psychopathy comes down to ruthless selfishness coupled with interpersonal boldness. As such, many of the measures of psychopathy come from clinical psychology frameworks.
Jonason also observes that people with psychopathic tendencies seem reckless or careless because they like to take risks. People with psychopathic tendencies don't have cautious inhibitions, so they tend to bend or break the rules.
Jonason says to look no further than Darth Sidious for a model of Machiavellianism: "Episode after episode, generation after generation, he engages in this long-term plan," Jonasan explains. He credits the research of social psychologist Dan Jones for homing in on this notion that "people particularly high in Machiavellianism, as opposed to other traits, are tactical planners. They are not driven by emotion or sex. They're driven by achieving the long-term manipulation of an agenda."
Machiavellians exude duplicitousness and pragmatism. Their agenda, not the people along the way, is truly what matters most to them. They are less impulsive but are much more likely to cheat, steal, or lie when it is in their self-interest and when there is little risk of getting caught, Park says. Though most people stop themselves from lying, cheating, or stealing out of guilt or on principle, the difference for Machiavellians is whether it serves their interest and whether they can get away with it.
Research on the Dark Triad.
The term "Dark Triad" was coined in 2002 by psychology researchers Delroy L. Paulhus, Ph.D., and Kevin M. Williams, Ph.D., from the University of British Columbia. But scientists have been studying each of these traits individually for decades: Psychological research on narcissism dates back to Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank's 1911 paper on the topic, and published research on Machiavellianism1 dates back to the 1970s with professors Richard Christie and Florence Geis.
The triad and its traits have been popular areas of psychological study for the entire two decades since the phrase was initially used. Paulhus now leads a psychology research lab, and his work has been cited over 43,000 times in scholarly journals and books, many of which are specifically about these dark traits.
Some researchers had previously characterized the triad's behavioral manifestations as just variations of one singular personality type, although Paulhus and Williams' 2002 study found them to be distinct. Jonason also points out that some researchers actually believe that the Dark Triad is simply a manifestation of the Big Five personality traits, i.e., openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Zeigler-Hill notes many contemporary studies are trying to pinpoint how the Dark Triad functions in romantic relationships. He says, "I think the clearest of these studies address the multidimensional nature of these traits instead of treating them as if they are unidimensional."
For example, a recently published study by researchers in Slovakia tackled the relationship between the Dark Triad and romantic relationships among young adults. Zeigler-Hill says studies like this show the importance of distinguishing between assertive/extroverted narcissism, antagonistic/disagreeable narcissism, and vulnerable/neurotic narcissism, which each diverge in in their associations with romantic outcomes. (Here's more on the various types of narcissism.)
How to identify Dark Triad personalities.
Any online search will yield a number of tests and tools that attempt to identify the Dark Triad personality traits, each of varying quality and accuracy. Jonason is working on a book that compiles a number of tools out there to identify these traits. He notes that there is a long history of self-reported personality trait measurement tools going back to the 1970s, such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and the MACH-IV for Machiavellianism by Christie and Geis. Paulhus, one of the original researchers to give a name to the Dark Triad, has also created a series of tools, including the Short Dark Triad (SD-3), and has expanded their focus to include sadism in addition to the other three dark traits.
Jonason admits that his tool, as well as many others, has gender implications. "In the items to measure most of these types of traits, the questions are much easier for men to endorse than for women," he says. As such, these tools might artificially inflate sex and gender differences. For example, asking how many fistfights a person has gotten into usually means that more men are likely to admit to it and more likely to have done it. However, Jonason explains that there might be different manifestations of psychopathy based on gender. "What we know is about how these traits manifest in men. The things men tend to do when scoring high on psychopathy are considered to be far more heinous crimes than things women do," he adds. His recent research on cyberstalking shows the nuance of how female dark personalities differ from males.
Importantly, Dark Triad traits are not diagnosable mental health conditions. "The dark triad traits are similar to other personality traits such that each of us possesses some level of these traits," Zeigler-Hill explains. "For example, everyone possesses some level of narcissism. Most of us possess a moderate level of narcissism, whereas others possess either a relatively low level of narcissism or a relatively high level of narcissism. Individuals with higher levels of narcissism tend to have more interpersonal conflicts than those with lower levels of narcissism."
Instead of diagnosing the person's exact affliction, researchers say it is best to identify the harm the person leaves in their wake and get tactical about remedies.
Dealing with dark personality types.
When Park was asked how to deal with dark personality types, he put it plainly: "These traits are relatively stable and consistent, so any attempt to change or to persuade a narcissist, Machiavellian, or psychopath to act differently is unlikely to be successful. So don't try to change them, but work around them."
His three-step plan is clear:
- Narcissists need constant reinforcement, and they react aggressively to any slight to their image or reputation. Don't go for outright flattery, but to minimize conflict with a narcissist, avoid framing any criticism or feedback as a personal failure.
- When dealing with a Machiavellian, be highly skeptical and look for additional sources to verify their claims.
- If you find yourself working with or socializing with a psychopath, simply avoid them as much as possible. Consider new job opportunities, or find another group of friends.
In the case of all three, avoidance is the path of least resistance.
In situations where power is skewed in favor of a narcissist, Machiavellian, or psychopath, they may make it hard for you to walk away. In extreme cases, abuse—physical or mental—can be one of many unhealthy outcomes.
If you find yourself attached to a dark triad personality, seek help from a licensed therapist or psychologist who can help you establish and maintain healthy boundaries. Free domestic violence hotlines are also available to help you leave an abusive relationship.
What is the "Light Triad"?
On the other side of the personality spectrum, cognitive scientist Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., says that if there's a "Dark Triad," there must also be a "Light Triad."
The Light Triad includes humanism, Kantianism, and faith in humanity. Park explains that these three traits "describe a loving, benign orientation, in contrast to the cynical, cruel orientation described by the Dark Triad traits."
Here's how Park describes each one:
- Faith in humanity is about having a core belief in the fundamental goodness of other people. These people are trusting, quick to forgive, and try to see the best in others.
- Humanism is the idea that "every individual is valuable and deserving of dignity, as opposed to strongly valuing social status or material wealth," as Park puts it. Humanists are happy when other people succeed and are curious about people from all different types of backgrounds.
- Kantianism is the "tendency to treat people as 'ends in themselves' rather than as a means to an end." Kantians care a lot about authenticity and don't believe in using others for their own benefit.
Research on the "Dark Triad" is ever-evolving, and even scientists haven't committed to just one unifying framework. Personality traits and types are complex, and it is unclear where to draw the line between the triad tendencies.
In general, Jonasan says that there are three unifying perceptions to look out for: disagreeableness, anger, and selfishness. When all three are present, so, too, is the Dark Triad. Anyone embodying these qualities is likely to take on approaches to life that you don't want to be on the receiving end of.
People who engage in lifestyles that hurt other people are likely to score high on measures of the Dark Triad, even if pinpointing which of the three prevails more than the others is tricky. In the end, experts say that it doesn't really matter which trait you're experiencing: You should find a way to remove yourself from exposure as soon as possible.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.