Dark triad

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The dark triad [1] is a group of three personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.[2][3][4] Use of the term "dark" implies that these traits have malevolent qualities:[5][6][7][8]

All three traits have been associated with a callous-manipulative interpersonal style.[12] A factor analysis carried out at the Glasgow Caledonian University found that among the big five personality traits, low agreeableness is the strongest correlate of the dark triad, while neuroticism and a lack of conscientiousness were associated with some of the dark triad members.[10]


In 1998, McHoskey, Worzel, and Szyarto[13] provoked a controversy by claiming that narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are more or less interchangeable in normal samples. Delroy L. Paulhus and McHoskey debated these perspectives at a subsequent American Psychological Association (APA) conference, inspiring a body of research that continues to grow in the published literature. Paulhus and Williams found enough behavioral, personality, and cognitive differences between the traits to suggest that they were distinct constructs; however, they concluded that further research was needed to elucidate how and why they overlap.[1]


The long-debated “nature versus nurture” issue has not escaped application to the dark triad. Research has begun to investigate the origins of the dark triad traits. In a similar manner to research on the Big Five, empirical studies have been conducted in an effort to understand the relative contributions of biology (nature) and environmental factors (nurture) in the development of dark triad traits.


All three traits of the dark triad have been found to have substantial genetic components.[14] It has also been found that the observed relationships among the dark triad, and among the dark triad and the Big Five, are strongly driven by individual differences in genes.[15] However, while psychopathy and narcissism both have a relatively large heritable component, Machiavellianism has been found to be less heritable.[15]


Compared to biological factors, environmental factors on the development of the traits of the dark triad account for much less variation in individual differences.[15] In fact, only Machiavellianism has been found to be significantly related to environmental factors,[16] and is therefore the most likely trait to be influenced by experience.[17]


A third theory that has been referred to as instrumental in the development of dark triad traits, and which can be seen to influence both biological and environmental factors, is evolutionary theory. It has been argued that evolutionary behavior predicts not only the development of dark triad personalities, but also the flourishing of such personalities.[18] Indeed, it has been found that individuals demonstrating dark triad personality can be highly successful in society (cite – from our DT reading). However, this success is typically short-lived (same citation). The main evolutionary argument behind the dark triad traits emphasizes mating strategies.[19][20] This argument focuses on the notion of life history strategy.[21] Life history strategy proposes that individuals differ in reproductive strategies; an emphasis on mating is termed a “fast life” strategy, while an emphasis on parenting is termed a “slow reproductive” strategy.[21] There is some evidence [22][23] that the dark triad traits are related to fast life history strategies, however, there have been some mixed results, and not all three dark triad traits have been related to this strategy. A more detailed approach [24] has attempted to account for some of these mixed results by analyzing the traits at a finer level of detail. These researchers found that while some components of the dark triad are related to a fast life strategy, other components are related to slow reproductive strategies.[25]

Sub-clinical dimensions vs. disorders[edit]

In general, clinicians treat these traits as pathological, something that needs to be treated, and inherently undesirable, e.g. socially condemned or personally counter-productive. However, others argue that adaptive qualities may accompany the maladaptive ones. The evolutionary perspective (above) considers the dark triad to represent different mating strategies. Their frequency in the gene pool requires at least some local adaptation.

The everyday versions of these traits appear in student and community samples, where even high levels can be observed among individuals who manage to get along in daily life. Even in these samples, research indicates correlations with aggression,[26] racism,[27] and bullying[28] among other forms of social aversiveness.

Narcissism was discussed in the writings of Sigmund Freud, and psychopathy as a clinical diagnosis was addressed in the early writings of Hervey Cleckley in 1941 with the publication of The Mask of Sanity.[29] Given the dimensional model of narcissism and psychopathy, complemented by self-report assessments that are appropriate for the general population, these traits can now be studied at the subclinical level.[30]

With respect to empirical research, psychopathy was not formally studied until the 1970s with the pioneering efforts of Robert Hare, his Psychopathy Checklist (PCL), and its revision (PCL-R).[31] Hare notes in his book, Without Conscience [32] that asking psychopaths to self-report on psychologically important matters does not necessarily provide accurate or unbiased data. However, recent efforts have been made to study psychopathy in the dimensional realm using self-reported instruments, as with the Levenson Primary and Secondary Psychopathy Scales,[33] The Psychopathic Personality Inventory,[34] and the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.[35]

Similarly, assessment of narcissism required clinical interviews, until the popular "Narcissistic Personality Inventory" was created by Raskin and Hall in 1979.[36] Since the NPI, several other measures have emerged which attempt to provide self-report alternatives for personality disorder assessment.[37] In addition, new instruments have been developed to study "pathological" narcissism [38] as opposed to "grandiose" narcissism, which is what many argue the NPI measures.[39][40]

Machiavellianism has never been referenced in any version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) for psychological disorders. It has been treated as strictly a personality construct. The original published version of the Mach-IV [41] is still the most widely used in empirical research.[42]


As noted previously, there is a good deal of conceptual and empirical overlap between the dark triad traits. For example, researchers have noted that all three traits share characteristics such as a lack of empathy,[17] interpersonal hostility,[43] and interpersonal offensiveness.[44] Likely due in part to this overlap, a number of measures have recently been developed that attempt to measure all three dark triad traits simultaneously, such as the Dirty Dozen[45] and the short dark triad (SD3).[46]

At their root, however, most of these measures are questionnaire-style and require either self-response or observer-response (e.g., ratings from supervisors or coworkers). Both methods can prove problematic when attempting to measure any socially aversive trait as self-responders may be motivated to deceive.[47] A more specific confound might also exist for dark triad traits and Machiavellianism in particular: individuals who are skilled at deceiving and manipulating others should be perceived as low in deceptiveness and manipulation by others, and are therefore likely to receive inaccurate ratings.[48]

Despite these criticisms and the acknowledged commonalities among the dark triad traits, there is evidence that the constructs are related yet distinct.


Named after the philosophy of Nicolo Machiavelli, people who score high on this trait are cynical, unprincipled, believe in interpersonal manipulation as the key for life success, and behave accordingly.[15] Scores on measures of Machiavellianism correlate negatively with agreeableness (r= -.47) and conscientiousness (r=-.34).[49] Machiavellianism is also significantly correlated with psychopathy.[50]


Individuals who score high on narcissism display grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority.[51] Narcissism has been found to correlate positively with extroversion (r = .42) and openness (r = .38) and negatively with agreeableness (r = -.36).[52] Narcissism has also been found to have a significant correlation with psychopathy.[53]


Considered the most malevolent of the dark triad,[54] indvidiuals who score high on psychopathy show low levels of empathy combined with high levels of impulsivity and thrill-seeking.[55] The similarity between psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder have been noted by some researchers.[15] Psychopathy has been found to correlate with all of the Big Five personality factors: extraversion (r = .34), agreeableness (r = .25), conscientiousness (r = .24), neuroticism (r = .34) and openness (r = .24).[56]

Group differences[edit]

The most pronounced group difference is in sex: numerous studies have shown that men tend to score higher than woman on narcissism,[57] Machiavellianism,[58][59][60] and psychopathy,[33][34][61][62] although the magnitude of the difference varies across traits and the measurement instruments used. One interesting finding related to narcissism—albeit one based on non-representative samples—is that while men continue to score higher than women, it seems that the gender gap has shrunk considerably when comparing cohort data from 1992 and 2006. More specifically, the aforementioned findings indicate that there has been a general increase in levels of narcissism over time among college students of both sexes, but comparatively, the average level of narcissism in women has increased more than the average level of narcissism in men.[63]

There is far less information available on race differences in dark triad traits, and the data that is available is not representative of the population at-large. For instance, a 2008 research study using undergraduate participants found that Caucasians reported higher levels of narcissism relative to Asians.[64][65] Similarly, another 2008 study using undergraduate participants found that Caucasians tended to score slightly higher than non-Caucasians on Machiavellianism.[66] When attempting to discern whether there are ethnic differences in psychopathy, researchers have addressed the issue using different measurement instruments (e.g., the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale and The Psychopathic Personality Inventory), but no race differences have been found regardless of the measure used.[67][68] Additionally, when comparing Caucasians and African Americans from correctional, substance abuse, and psychiatric samples—groups with typically high prevalence rates of psychopathy—researchers again failed to find any meaningful group differences in psychopathy.[69] In summary, there is some sparse evidence that Caucasians tend to score higher on measures of narcissism and Machiavellianism than other ethnicities, while no evidence exists for race differences in psychopathy.

The focal variable when analyzing generational or cohort differences in dark triad traits has tended to be narcissism, arising from the hypothesis that so-called “Generation Me” or “Generation Entitlement” would exhibit higher levels of narcissism than previous generations. Indeed, based on analyses of responses to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory collected from over 16,000 U.S. undergraduate students between 1979 and 2006, it was concluded that average levels of narcissism had increased over time.[70] Similar results were obtained in a follow-up study that analyzed the changes within each college campus.[71] Trzesniewski & Donnellan (2010)[72] present conflicting evidence and argue that there have not been large changes in disposition or behavioral strategies across generations, although they do note that the current generation is less trusting and more cynical, which are both changes that might be indicative of an increase in Machiavellianism.


In the workplace[edit]

Oliver James identifies each of the three dark triadic personality traits as typically being prevalent in the workplace (see also Machiavellianism in the workplace, narcissism in the workplace and psychopathy in the workplace).[73]

Internet trolls[edit]

Main article: Troll (Internet)

Recent studies have found that people who are identified as trolls tend to have dark personality traits and show signs of sadism, antisocial behavior, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.[74][75][76] The 2013 case study suggested that there are a number of similarities between anti-social and flame trolling activities and the 2014 survey indicated that trolling is an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism. Both studies suggest that this trolling may be linked to bullying in both adolescents and adults.

As a mating strategy[edit]

Studies have suggested that on average, those who exhibit the dark triad of personality traits have an accelerated mating strategy, reporting more sex partners, more favorable attitudes towards casual sex,[77] lowered standards in their short-term mates,[78] a tendency to steal or poach mates from others,[79] more risk-taking in the form of substance abuse,[80] a tendency to prefer immediate but smaller amounts of money over delayed but larger amounts of money,[81] limited self-control and greater incidence of ADHD symptoms[82] and a pragmatic and game-playing love style.[83] These traits have been identified as part of a fast life strategy that appears to be enacted by an exploitative, opportunistic, and protean approach to life in general[84] and at work.[85]

The evidence is mixed regarding the exact link between the dark triad and reproductive success. For example, there is a lack of empirical evidence for reproductive success in the case of psychopathy.[11] Additionally, these traits are not universally short-term-oriented[86] nor are they all impulsive.[87] Furthermore, much of the research reported pertaining to the dark triad cited in the above paragraph is based on statistical procedures that assume the dark triad are a single construct, in spite of genetic[88] and meta-analytic evidence to the contrary.[89]

Nevertheless, several academic studies have found evidence that women, in general, are more superficially and initially attracted to men who exhibit dark triad personality traits or that people with such traits are perceived as more physically attractive.[90][91][92][93][94]

Related concepts[edit]

The Big Five[edit]

The five factor model of personality has significant relationships with the dark triad combined and with each of the dark triad’s traits. The dark triad overall is negatively related to both agreeableness and conscientiousness.[95] More specifically, Machiavellianism captures a suspicious versus trusting view of human nature which is also captured by the Trust sub-scale on the agreeableness trait.[96] Extroversion captures similar aspects of assertiveness, dominance, and self-importance as Narcissism.[96] Narcissism also is positively related to the achievement striving and competence aspects of Conscientiousness. Psychopathy has the strongest correlations with low dutifulness and deliberation aspects of Conscientiousness.[95]


The honesty-humility factor from the HEXACO model of personality is used to measure sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance, and modesty. Honesty-Humility contrasts antisocial behavior at the low end of the trait with pro-social behavior at the high end which strongly theoretically links it to the dark triad traits.[97] Likewise, all three dark triad traits are strongly negatively correlated with Honesty-Humility.[95] The conceptual overlap of the three traits which represents a tendency to manipulate and exploit others for personal gain defines the negative pole of the honesty-humility factor.[98]

Dark tetrad[edit]

Several researchers have suggested expanding the dark triad to contain a fourth dark trait. Everyday sadism, defined as the enjoyment of cruelty, is the most common addition. While sadism is highly correlated with the dark triad, researchers have shown that sadism predicts anti-social behavior beyond the dark triad.[99][100] Borderline personality disorder and status-driven risk-taking have also been proposed as additions.[95]

Vulnerable dark triad[edit]

The vulnerable dark triad (VDT) comprises three related and similar constructs: vulnerable narcissism, factor 2 psychopathy, and borderline personality disorder. A study found that these three constructs are significantly related to one another, and manifest similar nomological networks. Although the VDT members are related to negative emotionality and antagonistic interpersonal styles, they are also related to introversion and disinhibition.[101]

See also[edit]


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