Dark Triad

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Dark Triad

Narcissism: walking down Lover’s Lane and holding your own hand. (Colin Bowles, The Wit’s Dictionary, 1984)

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. (Bertrand Russell)

There is a relatively new area of research into a concept called the ’Dark Triad’ which is an individual differences construct proposed by Paulhus and Williams (2002). The use of the term ’dark’ reflects the idea that these traits, independently and together have interpersonally aversive qualities. There are three factors. They are Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.

Narcissism is characterized by vanity, arrogance, egotism and a lack of empathy. People who score highly on this trait want others to admire them and pay attention to them. They expect special favours from others and they are very hungry for prestige and people status.

Oldham and Morris (1991) note nine characteristics of these types they call ’Self-confident’:

1 Self-confident individuals believe in themselves and in their abilities.

2 They have no doubt that they are unique and special.

3 They expect others to treat them well at all times.

4 They are surprisingly open about their ambitions and achievements.

5 They energetically and effectively sell themselves on all occasions.

6 They are shrewd in their dealings with others.

7 They are eager and constant competitors, they love getting to the top and they enjoy staying there.

8 They always accept compliments, praise and admiration gracefully and with self-possession.

9 However, they are deeply sensitive.

Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulative exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for laws and morals and a focus on self-interest and deception. Such people use flattery and lies to get what they want and almost revel in their skill at duping others.

They are characterized by four things:

1 A relative lack of affect in interpersonal relationships, low in empathy, little concern for morals, but task-oriented.

2 A lack of concern with conventional morality. They are often amoral as well as immoral with a utilitarian perspective.

3 A lack of gross psychopathology. They have good reality checks and do not fit into any other established category.

4 Low ideological commitment: short term, tactical, goal achievement is their major task.

Psychopathy is characterized by antisocial behaviour, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness and remorselessness. Psychopaths seem totally insensitive to the feelings of others and deeply cynical about human nature.

These types are also called ’Adventurous’ and ’Mischievous’ and they live by their own internal code of values. They are not strongly influenced by other people or by the norms of society. They love the thrill of risk and routinely engage in high-risk activities. They never worry too much about others, for they expect each human being to be responsible for him- or herself. They are often very persuasive, gifted in the art of winning friends and influencing people.

They live well by their talents, skills, ingenuity and wits. They can be easy and generous with money, believing that money should be spent and that more will turn up somewhere. They are courageous, physically bold and tough. They will stand up to anyone who dares to take advantage of them. Most of all they do not feel guilty about the past or anxious about the future.


Dark Side researchers noticed an overlap between the features: specifically all three entail a socially malevolent character with behavioural tendencies towards self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity and aggressiveness. They did not give a specific theoretical reason for why the three should or would be related or studied together. Their reasoning was based on the observed similarities between the triad. There are two areas of research which do give some substance to the dark triad.

To not feel emotion or show or feel sympathy for someone else may be because their characteristic disagreeable nature, shown by cold egocentrism and realism, makes it logical to not have or show emotion or be moved by pleas of pity so that they can more easily manipulate those around them and their environments.

The Dark Triad may refer to these traits at only a subclinical level. All three traits have been associated with a callous—manipulative interpersonal style in personal and work life. Until the triad was proposed these three concepts were considered in isolation. Indeed, lots of work in the area has shown that the three concepts when measured independently are related and that it is possible to create a single measure of the triad.

Jonason, Koenig and Tost (2010) gave three explanations for how those dark beliefs would be functionally adaptive and related to the triad, each corresponding to a particular triad construct.

They first proposed that because those who score higher on the Dark Triad are conceptualized as more agentic, meaning proactive in the manipulation of their environments; they are more successful in the control of outcomes, and therefore more accurate in their perceptions. Machiavellianism may be the contributor to this situation with their characteristic manipulative nature.

The second proposition is that narcissism facilitates social exploitation through high degrees of self-confidence because of previous findings that communicating confidently increases persuasiveness. This may be true when conceptualizing the Dark Triad as a ’frequency-dependent, “cheater” strategy’.

The third alternative is related to those who score higher on the Dark Triad and their exploitation of high-risk, high-payoff niches like ’gambling for high stakes’.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest people with elevated Dark Triad scores will have problems at work. They tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, risk takers. They tend to revel in schadenfreude: the experience of pleasure at another’s misfortune.

Because ’People of the Dark Triad’ are selfish and self-serving their valuation of reward and costs, willingness to overlook obligations and reciprocity, and lack of emotional commitment to others likely undermines work relationships. Machiavellians are cynical and distrustful, and less likely to assume that they will be paid reciprocally for any extra effort they put in on the job. Narcissists feel they always outperform their fellow co-workers so the rules about reciprocity and obligation do not apply to them. Psychopaths’ celebrated insensitivity to others means they are less likely to act in ways that will please or help others.


Furnham, A., Richards, S., & Paulhus, D. (2013). The Dark Triad: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 199—215.

Jonason, P. K. & Koenig, B.L., Tost, J. (2010). Living a Fast Life: The Dark Triad and Life History Theory. Human Nature. 21, 428—42.

Oldham, J., & Morris, L. (1991). The New Personality Self-Portrait. New York: Bantam Books.

Paulhus, D. & Williams, K.M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556—63.