Dark Triad Personalities
Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 21, 2019 (modified December 27, 2022)
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 21, 2019 (modified December 27, 2022)
The dark triad of socially adverse personalities. We all possess some of the characteristics. We must monitor ourselves to keep self-absorbed goals and evaluations from poisoning our lives.
The deeper I delve into the human psyche, the more unsettling the discoveries. We prefer a definable and safe boundary between sanity and madness—but no comforting division exists. Even the healthiest mind carries embryos of dysfunction, hate and violence. In 2002, Delroy Pauthus and Kevin Williams published research on narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy; they labeled these socially adverse personalities as the Dark Triad.
The dark triad is a subject of interest in the personality field of study. Perhaps, because we all know some people that annoyingly fit into one of these categories and make our lives hell. But the qualities of this shadowy triad don’t only exist in others, they also live in us. We house these demons of dysfunction—most of us successfully moderate their influence. Knowledge of dysfunctional styles can serve us well. We can cautiously protect from abusive others and run when the dangers are too extreme. Another value of knowledge about selfish strategies is identifying the personality quirks in ourselves, using the wisdom for self-examination, exposing the seeds of personal maladaptations that prevent intimate connection.
Societies overrun by dysfunctional and selfish beings collapse. Our first line of defense to protect the world is examining ourselves. We cannot change the world, rooting out evil from all the hidden corners; but we can change ourselves and changed people change the world.
"People with these traits tend to be callous and manipulative, willing to do or say practically anything to get their way. They have an inflated view of themselves and are often shameless about self-promotion." ~Psychology Today
Typically, personalities tainted by the traits of dark triad struggle in this relationship dominated world. They fail with intimacy, business and life—but not unilaterally. Some of the socially adverse succeed. A few socially misaligned people frighteningly rise to the top where their callousness is magnified, and their influence grotesque, spreading hate and hurt to many innocent and vulnerable others. Hitler is an apt example. The darken stars sometimes align, and dysfunction prevails.
A more likely ending for those steeped with the offensive personalities is criminal offending, destroyed relationships, and substance abuse. The fast life strategies of cheating the system, stepping on others, and ignoring social standards has costs. Attainment of professional and personal goals through the narrow focus of self-interest and anti-social action is a cancer that destroys both the person and society.
Dark Triad Personality Traits
The dark triad findings are included under the wider umbrella of personality types. Social scientists utilize common measures and definitions to compare and replicate findings. Without agreed upon terms, replication would be impossible. For personality studies, a common foundation is the Big Five. The Big Five utilizes a five-factor approach to personality assessment: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Another model is HEXACO which adds honesty and humility.
Without universally accepted measurements, we would grovel in the chaos of unrelated findings. Divisions, labels and clinical diagnoses are tools designed to assist understanding. Tools are creations, like a ruler—a measuring device. Human measuring device are helpful but limited. They share the common weakness of shoving complex, diverse human beings into confining defined boxes. We need theories and measurements for comparisons but must cautiously allow flexibility to refrain from inadequate and hurtful biases.
Under these personality models, the dark triad score low in agreeableness and low in the HEXACO measure of honesty and humility. Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, however, differ in some of the other measurements, making them distinct from each other.
The three members of the Dark Triad—Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy
The word narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus, an attractive young man, was on a quest to find love. Narcissus sought the perfect mate, rejecting anyone that fell short of his idealistic expectation. One day, Narcissus discovered his own reflection in a pool of water. He was smitten by the beauty of his own image. Frozen in his uninterrupted gaze of admiration of himself, he eventually dies (Twenge and Campbell, 2010, Location 304).
Blinded and lost in self-admiration, the narcissist disconnects from others. The unrelenting drive to promote the self prevents healthy connections. Others are only objects—the water—only useful for a sanitized reflection. The reflection is distorted, filtered to only project fundamental superiority to others. The narcissist sees themselves as special, entitled and unique. In service to this fragile reflection, the narcissist is driven to continually gather evidence. This drive is incompatible with the quid pro quo of intimacy; they sacrifice emotional warmness, caring and loving relationships in their never-ending quest to paint the world to support their unsupportable conclusion of greatness. (2010, Location 313).
The narcissist’s inflated self-evaluation is inextricably bound to recognition. The self looks to others for definition—the reflection. Compliments, blind loyalty, and gushing admiration are constantly sought. (Lansky & Morrison, 1997, location 437). People that provide realistic feedback, challenging the misperceived interpretation of superiority, incite aggression and retaliation. The narcissist minimizes their cognitive dissonance between the reality of normalcy and fallibility and their perception of specialness by ignoring reality. The waters reflecting the special image must not be disturbed.
Because of their self-ordained superiority, the narcissist claims entitlement to special treatment—an exception to societal rules. The narcissist relishes in rules that govern the ordinary person. Others should be punished; while the narcissist should be excused. The narcissist will berate and hate with unsupported assertions, but when someone challenges the ethics or actions of the narcissist, the accuser is a terrible person and should be harshly punished.
In the book, The Narcissist Next Door, the author presents the narcissistic personality as “a toxic mash-up of grandiosity, an unquenchable thirst for admiration and a near-total blindness to how other people see you.” (Kluger, 2014, Location 217). These three traits aptly portray the narcissist.
"After using people to get what they want, victims are casually disregarded by the narcissistic personality disorder." ~Ed Smith | Infomania
Sadly, narcissism is resistant to treatment. This mind disease relies on grandiose scripts that define experience, treatment challenging these scripts and suggesting normalcy fails. Freud called this resistance to change as the “stonewall of narcissism.” The Narcissist filters information with such veracity that only to receive messages that magnifies the self-image. Therapy cannot survive this narrowing filter.
The narcissist fails to learn from setbacks because the ego prevents honest self-examination. Any interruption, failure, or collapse in the narcissist’s life is quickly excused by blaming someone else. Others are pawns to serve the narcissist’s needs; independent wisdom and individuality is interpreted as betrayal and subject to violent ridicule and attack.
In the Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch lists exploitativeness, lack of empathy and entitlement as the “three crown jewels of narcissistic personality.” (2018, location 1665). The need for self-enhancement is driving force behind the narcissist’s socially abrasive behaviors. They lack empathy and are blind to the emotional life of others. The lack of empathy is expressed through lack of commitment to promises, incessant lying, and inability to compromise. They are exempt from these normal rules of society.
The term Machiavellianism was first coined by Christie and Geis (1970). Machiavellianism is named after a sixteenth century, Italian political philosopher and poet—Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli.
Machiavelli wrote that immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing of innocents, was normal and effective political behavior. His book gained notoriety over the centuries as a handbook for tyrants, providing unscrupulous advice for maintaining power. (Machiavelli, 2017).
Machiavelli is known for his controversial stance that politics have no relation to morals, and it is better for a leader to be feared than loved. In line with Machiavelli’s philosophy, the Machiavellian personality focuses on ends not means. Machiavellianism is a cynical unprincipled path to key life successes. Ethics and others take a back seat to goal attainment.
Machiavellians disregard morality and focus on personal gain, utilizing callused manipulations and strategic alliance building. Their actions are cautious and deliberate. Machiavellians don’t have the narcissist’s drive for grandiose superiority but are motivated for achievement—obtained at any cost. Perhaps, the Machiavellian personality is the darkest of the three members of the dark triad because of the calculating coldness and explosiveness, exercised with the purposeful intent in route to a goal. White collar crime, political deception, and criminal behavior to eliminate competition are common tools of the Machiavellian man (or woman) (Furnham, Richards & Paulhus, 2013).
The psychopath, similar to the narcissist, is self-centered with a grandiose picture of self-importance, dodging responsibility for failures and shortcomings with blame and deception. Like the Machiavellian, they willingly use charm, power or promises to manipulate others. Their expressions of emotions are shallow and insincere. The psychopath experiences little guilt or remorse. They are callused and cold—and dangerous.
The characteristic that sets psychopaths most apart from Machiavellianism and Narcissism is a dysfunctional high impulsivity. The psychopath lives the fast life, acting fearless, having little concern for punishment, injury, or social repercussions. The psychopath often fails to succeed because they chase novelty and pleasure in the moment, failing to yield to actions that follow a productive life plan. The psychopath has increased risk of imprisonment for street level crimes and addiction. (Glenn & Raine, 2014, p. 3).
Extremes of Normality
These personality characteristics are the extremes of normality. At limited and controlled levels, these traits have some adaptive qualities for success in competitive environments. However, when practiced to extreme, they destroy the individual and harm those around them. Society, as a whole, can absorb some selfishness; but when too many people become self focused, communities collapse. It is incumbent, as members of a society, to balance personal achievement with compassion for the impact our success has on the wellbeing of others. The behavioral strategies of the dark triad should be carefully monitored and modified.
In an intriguing book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, authors Kashdan and Biswas-Diener suggest some positives to each of the dark triad strategies. They say that Machiavelli provides rules for living in an imperfect world, suggesting decisions should consider the surrounding context, “making the right choice, at the right time, for the right reasons in the real world.” (2015, location 2254). The narcissist has less internal conflict with their desires. They are people of action. “When narcissistic people wanted something, they wanted it without regret, guilt or second thought.” (2015, location 2271). And that the psychopath acts in the moment, undeterred by fear.
"Experienced psychologists stress that there are many subtleties and gradations of personality types, and the behaviors associated with them can change from day to day." ~Mind Tools
Like a nice glass of wine, too much consumption and the benefits quickly deteriorate. Kluger elaborates on this comparison: “Indulging in it too deeply, however, leaves you sorry and sick and wishing you’d been more moderate in your pleasures. We would feel poorer in a world without liquid spirits, just as we would without the manifold elements of the human spirit. But they are all volatile spirits. They effervesce and enliven or they singe and scald. The difference, as with so many things, is in knowing how to control them.” (2014, Location 3591)
The warning sign of over-indulgence in shadowy strategies is when our self-absorbed pursuits become more important than outside connections. Self-promotion must be done selectively. We can cultivate ourselves, enjoying the pursuit of knowledge and economic security without sacrificing relationships.
Many personality traits associated with the dark triad are only harmful when possessed in the extreme.
Ervin Staub writes, “people can see self-actualization in relationship to other people, as part of a community.” He continues, “People who fully develop and harmoniously integrate their capacities, values, and goals will be connected to others. The full evolution of the self, the full use of the human potential, requires relationships and the development of deep connections and community – as well as the capacity for separateness” (1992, p. 268-269).
Our self-focused culture “causes all the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values.” (Twenge & Campbell, 2010, location 200). We are raising a generation of people that claim rights they do not have. Other entities and people’s rights seem to be lost in the barrage of self-fulfillment. “You can’t tell me what to do“ echoes through the halls of businesses, schools and courthouses. Blinders narrow our vision to the surrounding others.
In our decision-making matrix, we must place higher value on relational contracts rather than relying on momentary benefits of action on self-serving aims. Transactional focused decisions over-emphasis personal impact while ignoring essential relationship building behaviors (compromise and sacrifice). Each action has relationship building currency. We either strengthen or erode the bonds.
Game Theory and the Prisoner's Dilemma
Game theory studies give insight to these concepts. These studies are structured around the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma is a hypothetical situation where two prisoners are arrested for several crimes. The police do not have enough evidence for full conviction. Without a confession, the criminals will be convicted for a lessor crime and incarcerated for a shorter period (five-years of imprisonment each). However, if one of the suspects defects, providing evidence and a confession, he will be released, and the other criminal will be subject to a weighty sentence for all the crimes (twenty-years imprisonment). If both confess, each suspect will receive a ten-year sentence. This creates the premise for the dilemma—self-benefit versus group benefit.
For the criminals, the best collective outcome is for neither to defect, remaining loyal to each other, and each receiving an individual sentence for five-years—a total of ten years (5+5=10). Weighing total imprisonment time, this is the best option—a total of ten years compared to twenty years for the other two options (20+0=20; 10+10=20). This best option is risky. By failing to defect, the criminal is dependent on his partners loyalty. Even though the best collective decision is loyalty, the best personal choice is confession and the partner remaining loyal. A dark triad move would be to convince the partner to remain loyal, and then exploit that loyalty by confessing.
In these studies participants submitted computer programmed strategies for the prisoner dilemma to compete against each other. The strategies that sought the highest self-benefit (always confessing) fared better than loyalty only with one-on-one transactions. However, when placed in a community of multiple transactions and partners, the self-promoting strategies accumulated greater jail time than more congenial programs that utilized cooperation (tit for tat).
For more visit: How Game Theory Works
The Dark Triad personalities engage in selfish strategies without balance or concern for the wider impact, viewing others as objects to be used, not as autonomous people with individual goals and desires. We must routinely check ourselves, examining behaviors that carelessly damage and destroy while we seek personal fulfillment.
Personality Inventory Tests
In 2010, Jonason and Webster produced a simplified measure for the Dark Triad, consisting of twelve items they named the Dirty Dozen (2010). The items are divided in to three groups (Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy). The dirty dozen is measured using the 7-point Likert scale from 1 (= strongly disagree) to 7 (= strongly agree). Like all self-reporting measures, the dirty dozen loses strength from the lack of objectivity. The narcissist will answer the way that he/she perceives will provide the brightest spotlight, the psychopath really doesn’t care about the test or results, and Machiavellian will evaluate the situation and possible outcomes before committing to a response.
For those who struggle with the demons, but honestly desire to improve, the simple format of the dirty dozen can assist. Rate each statement with a 1 to 7 rating, where 1 equals strongly disagree and 7 equals strongly agree. Calculate the score for each section.
The Dirty Dozen
The scores from this practice are for informational purposes only, providing insights for self-examinations, not for harsh condemnation. With honest assessment, we may discover areas to focus attention, discovering some inconsistencies in our action. Demons of survival exist in all of us. Biologically, some are more sensitive to environmental triggers. For others, childhood exposures created a dangerous framework for interpreting the world.
There will always be tyrants and saints. When we feed the demons of selfishness, they gain strength, it is incumbent for us to step back, free ourselves from the grip of the moment, and examine ourselves with more objectivity. Abandoning selfishness to act with more loving kindness and compassion.
Christie, R., Geis, F. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press
Furnham, A., Richards, S.C., Paulhus, D.L. (2013) The Dark Triad of Personality: A ten Year Review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(3).
Glenn, A. L., & Raine, A. (2014). Psychopathy: An Introduction to Biological Findings and Their Implications (Psychology and Crime). New York: New York University Press. Retrieved from Questia.
Jonason, P.K., Webster, G.D. (2010) The dirty dozen: A concise measure of the Dark Triad. Psychological Assessment, 22, 420-432
Kashdan, T., Biswas-Diener, R. (2015) The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self--Not Just Your "Good" Self--Drives Success and Fulfillment. Plume; Reprint edition
Kluger, J (2014) The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed-in Your World. Kindle Edition. Riverhead Books
Lansky, M. R., Morrison, A. P. (1997). The Widening Scope of Shame. 1st Edition. Routledge
Lasch, C. (2018) The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations 1st Edition. W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition.
Machiavelli, N. (2017) The Prince. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition
Pauthus, D. L.; Williams, K.M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality. December 2002.
Staub, E. (1992). The Roots of Evil (Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence). Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition
Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K. (2010) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Atria Books
Other Flourishing Life Society articles of interest on this topic: