The dark side of human nature has always held captive audiences, as evidenced by the constant battle between good and evil throughout our folk culture. The divide between these two dichotomies has always been assumed to be a lot murkier in real life; a person cannot truly be labeled as one or the other. Individual personalities are mercurial, acting in ways that are sometimes good, sometimes, evil, or somewhere in the grey areas between. However, certain psychological research over the past decade has raised the question of whether some human personality types may be classified as more malevolent than others. In other words, it is possible that some people are simply born to be bad.
In 2002, two psychology researchers, Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams, published a paper identifying a cluster of three personality traits that all shared a common core of social malevolence, lack of empathy, and a willingness to manipulate others. They called this cluster the Dark Triad, a term so alluring that it has inspired over a decade of expanding literature on the topic. The three traits, while they do overlap in key areas, also stand distinct from one another, adding their own unique flavor of badness to the world. This article will give you a brief introduction to each dark triad trait, along with a example of a pop culture character that I think best embodies each.
Evelyn, I’m sorry. I just, uh… you’re not terribly important to me.-Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
The term narcissism arises from an ancient Greek myth in which Narcissus, a young god of exceptional beauty, gazes into a river and falls in love with his reflection. Unable to tear himself away from the image, he stays at the riverbank until he eventually wastes away, and in some versions of the tale, turns into the flower that now bears his name. Narcissism emerged as a mainstream psychological term when Sigmund Freud incorporated it into his conception of the ego, or a person’s sense of self. Today, the term refers to a specific personality type, one marked by grandiosity, dominance, and entitlement. Narcissists are often extremely popular and charming, at least at first impression. They are oftentimes rated as more attractive by other people and have been found to rate themselves similarly, which may be because they are more focused on self-grooming and physical enhancement than the average person. They are extremely self-confident and desire to be the center of attention at all times. Narcissists have large egos and lack remorse, which can serve to buffer them from negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, and self doubt. For example, they are more likely to blame others or external sources for their failures. Some studies have found that narcissism may help those who possess it to rise to top positions in their fields as well.
So far, this all seems great, and narcissists appear to lead charmed lives. The problem, of course, is that like all personality traits, narcissism exists on a continuum. Mild and moderate levels of narcissism may work well for an individual, but the more narcissistic a person is, the more problems they can create. One theory on this subject is that the inflated sense of self that the narcissist exhibits exists on a razor’s edge: narcissists are actually heavily reliant on the opinions of others to perpetuate their personal legacies of self-importance. When the narcissist feels threatened or confronted by anything to contradict their self-perceived grandiosity, their charm and charisma can quickly turn to wrath. Narcissists are prone to temper tantrums and tend to be unable to engage in teamwork. Their self-focus naturally leads to selfishness and lack of regard for the well-being of others, which is a common core of the dark triad traits. The culmination of these negative aspects of narcissism was once a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which generally refers to a person who is so self-centered and has such an unrealistic view of themselves and their place in the world that they are unable to function effectively in everyday life. However, as of 2013, NPD has been removed from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), for reasons I will explain later in this article.
It should be noted that much of the research on narcissism shows that it is more common in men than women. In romantic relationships, narcissists have been shown to be significantly less committed and faithful, and more interested in short-term mating strategies. Those who have been in a relationship with a narcissist report high levels of satisfaction at the beginning of the relationship, spurred most likely by the charm and sexual attractiveness of their partner. However, relationship satisfaction tends to drop quickly and dramatically, as the narcissist reveals themselves to be deceptive, controlling and prone to playing mind games with their partner. Another interesting finding is a pattern of putting their romantic partners on a pedestal of unrealistic perfection. Narcissists tend to seek out romantic partners who are of a high social status or position of power with the intentions of bolstering their own self-image through the pristine image of their partner. When the partner inevitably reveals that they are less than perfect, the narcissist may lash out against them in disappointment. Depending on the level of involvement, a romantic entanglement with a narcissist may leave one disgruntled, crestfallen, or even emotionally damaged.
It is clear from the evidence that narcissists can be a toxic presence to those close to them; in fact, living with a narcissist has sometimes been compared to living with someone in the throes of a drug addiction. They can be callous, self-serving, manipulative and demanding, and their superficial aura of charisma and sex appeal paint the extreme narcissist as something of an interpersonal steel trap that can lure you in and cut deeply once you are vulnerable.The only advice currently available to people with a narcissist in their lives is either: get out of the relationship immediately, or be ready to accept that they will never change and never truly love you. All said, this paints a pretty grim picture for those unfortunate enough to have ever even rubbed shoulders with a narcissist. But to truly flesh out this malevolent personality trait, I believe a case study is in order.
Case Study: Anakin Skywalker- The Narcissist
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed psychologist and have no authority or wish to make a formal diagnosis of any individual, fictional or otherwise. The following paragraphs are purely my opinion and are meant to enhance the reader’s enjoyment and knowledge of this facet of the Dark Triad.
What could be a better example of a Dark Triad personality than the most famous Sith Lord to ever wield the Dark Side of the Force? Ladies and gentleman, I give you Anakin Skywalker, later known as Darth Vader, as our example of the narcissistic personality. Ever since he is taken in by the Jedi as a young boy, Anakin exists in an environment that nurtures an inflated ego. He is told that he is special, destined for greatness, perhaps even the Chosen One of an ancient prophecy that predicts he will be the most powerful Jedi of all time. Couple this with a natural propensity towards arrogance, stubbornness and risk-taking and you’ve got all the ingredients for a narcissist.
Over the course of the Star Wars prequel trilogy we see many examples of Anakin’s inability to be a team player, which, it can be interpreted, is a basic tenant of the Jedi code. Anakin is drawn to the Jedi lifestyle because he is attracted to the power he can wield, but shows little interest in the discipline and humility that Jedis are required to display; in fact, he fails time and again at some of the most basic tenets. For example, a Jedi will not take revenge, is heavily violated when Anakin wrathfully slaughters an entire village of Tusken raiders for killing his mother. While this may seem a justifiable action, especially in the context of a movie, it is a clear moral travesty by the standards of reality and unforgivable for the Jedi, the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy, who are held to rigid moral standards that include having absolute control over their emotions.
Furthermore, Jedi are not allowed to marry or become romantically involved in order to avoid attachment. Anakin breaks this rule when he secretly marries Padme Amidala, which turns out to be one of the major catalysts for his turn to the Dark Side. These examples, combined with the fact that Anakin has a major issue with listening to Obi-Wan Kenobi, his mentor, or frankly anybody else on the Jedi Council, shows that he is over-confident, self-centered, and incapable of cooperation and teamwork. While many of Anakin’s actions may be optimistically interpreted as impulsive actions meant to protect the welfare of his loved ones, neither the screenwriting or acting in these movies is sufficient to convince that Anakin is not motivated by sheer narcissism. Tired criticisms of the Star Wars prequel trilogy aside, Padme is, after all, a senator and former queen of an entire planet, and as we recall narcissists are drawn towards romantic relationships with people of wealth and status. And what about this exchange from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (a truly excellent example of both horrible dialogue and narcissism) :
Anakin Skywalker: You are so… beautiful.
Padmé: It’s only because I’m so in love.
Anakin Skywalker: No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.
For my final point endorsing Anakin Skywalker as the ultimate narcissistic hero, I will point out that his very seduction by the dark side of the Force is an example of this aspect of his personality. As he himself says in Revenge of the Sith: “The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.” The Sith Order, antagonists to the Jedi and wielders of the dark side of the Force, are obsessed with power and self-reliance and view morality as an obstacle in their quest for dominance and individual glory. They are brutal, callous, and act without conscience. They live only for themselves and are not afraid to do unspeakable things to those who get in their way, including those who are closest to them. They are driven by their narcissistic urges, and the fact that Anakin succumbs to the will of the Sith is symbolic of his inability to suppress his narcissistic nature. He wants and feels he deserves unlimited power, recognition and infamy, and this is ultimately what leads to his transformation into Darth Vader.
Admittedly, looking at Anakin Skywalker through the lens of narcissism adds a perhaps undue layer of depth and sympathy to those who possess these qualities in real life. This, it could be argued, is evidence that he is not truly a narcissist, at least in the clinical sense. Anakin is burdened by his personal flaws, and an honest desire to do good is at the core of this character. However, he is tortured by his past and not strong enough to rise against the temptations of evil. Real-life narcissists, on the other hand, are doing just fine. The people around them are the ones they hurt, not themselves. Proof of this is the fact that narcissist support groups are for people who have a narcissist in their lives, not the actual narcissist. It was a point of contention in the DSM-IV whether Narcissistic Personality Disorder could truly be called a disorder, since it does not seem to fit the criteria of causing personal “distress in social, occupational and other areas,” and as a result it has been omitted from the new edition (DSM-V). By all means, narcissists may be capable of living fulfilled lives, armored by sky-high self-esteem and an ability to blame others or external sources for anything negative in their lives. The trick is identifying them quickly, and keeping them from spreading evil and injustice throughout the galaxy.
Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind. - Gordon Gekko, Wall Street
The term for this dark personality has an interesting origin story. It was coined from the name of Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th century politician and historian, most well-known for writing The Prince, which outlined his controversial and now infamous political philosophy. In this work, which at it’s essence is a guide to obtaining and maintaining power, Machiavelli endorses a less than austere tactical approach. Some guiding themes of the philosophy include the mandate that lofty or ideal political goals lead to bad rulership; in other words, Machiavelli devalues political idealism as useless and inefficient. The true key to ruling effectively lies in being able to comfortably breach the line of morality when it is necessary. Violence and dishonesty are allowable when they enable a ruler to secure power and eliminate political rivals. Essentially, says Machiavelli, the end justifies the means.
It should be noted that some scholars are of the opinion that The Prince was actually a work of satire, written not as a legitimate code of conduct but rather an example of exactly how not to rule. Since The Prince was published after Machiavelli’s death, there is no way of telling definitively. Nevertheless, Machiavelli is remembered by history as a symbol of political corruption and immorality. The term “Machiavellianism” has reached beyond the political sphere and broken into the lexicon of psychology, which is where it come into play in the dark triad. A person who scores high on measures of Machiavellianism embodies the way of living endorsed, satirically or otherwise, by The Prince. The Machiavellian personality is detached and unemotional, viewing the world, and everyone in it, in terms of how he can manipulate situations to ensure that he comes out on top. The use of “he” in this description is intentional; like narcissism, men are more likely to possess the Machiavellian personality type.
In 1970, psychological researchers Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis published the MACH-IV, a 20-item scale based on Machiavelli’s original writings, to determine how much individual’s agreed or disagreed with his statements. Those who score high in agreements, known as “high Machs” have been found, not surprisingly, to not only agree with the statements, but live their lives according to them. Some items on the scale include “never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so”, and “it is hard to get ahead without cutting corners now and then.” At their core, high Machs are manipulative, unempathic and have a cynical view of their fellow man.
A key difference between Machiavellianism and the other two points in the dark triad is their self-control. High machs are strategic, intelligent, and more oriented towards long-term goals. Their darkness is tempered by their contextual intuition; they will act on their immoral urges only when they are sure they can get away with it. In this way, high Machs are arguably the most successful dark personality. They are often able to maintain romantic relationships by faking the love they feel for their partners. Though they are prone to infidelity, they are able to remain faithful when it is in their own best interest. They also tend to be successful in the workplace; their need for control and power combined insidious charm and ability to manipulate are a winning combination. In short, they are a rational evil.
Case Study: Petyr Baelish- The High Mach
I am fond of neither Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire, probably for the very same reasons that I have chosen a character from this roster to embody the Machiavellian side of the dark triad. The world of GoT is cold, brutal, and almost completely devoid of justice. It is a place dominated by dark personalities, so grim and hopeless that it’s not even fun to read about or watch. The characters’ motivations are murky at best, and, as a viewer/reader, it is hard to shake the feeling that even the heroes may be apt to rape or murder at the drop of a hat. Considering this, it was difficult to choose just one person from this world to embody Machiavellianism, but in the end it was Petyr Baelish, also known by the nickname Little Finger, who stood out from the pack. While others act rashly and passionately and end up with their head dripping gorily from a large stick, Baelish is cunning, manipulative and good at gaining the upper hand.
For those not familiar with the series, Baelish starts out as the Master of Coins (essentially, treasurer) of the entire kingdom, and also owns a number of brothels across the land, making him very wealthy, because everyone in this GoT is also a pervert. He is a man from humble beginnings who has worked his way to a position of power purely on his own charisma and wits, and continues to do so throughout the entire series. Also, he really loves betraying people, and is a master of manipulation. For example, his entrance into the story involves a plot line wherein he feigns an alliance with Ned Stark, the newly appointed Hand of the King (advisor, second in command), and then abruptly turns on him after the King’s death, framing Ned for treason which leads to his execution. He convinces a wife to murder her husband, and he also lies about the ownership of a dagger and starts a massive war. It’s quite complicated- needless to say, his calculating and conniving is far above the heads of many of the other characters. He is a political and financial mastermind, and has no conscience to boot. In short, he is a paragon of Machiavellianism.
I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.- Dr. Sam Loomis, Halloween
The final node of the dark triad is by far the most mysterious, dangerous, and therefore, most fascinating of the three personalities. Psychopathy shares many traits in common with narcissism and Machiavellianism: they have a callous disregard for other people’s feelings, often have a grandiose sense of self, and can be superficially charismatic and persuasive. However, at the core of psychopathy lies a fundamental difference, which changes the commonalities of the other two personalities from socially abrasive to dangerous. This difference is a disturbing diversion from human nature as most people think of it, making this group of people seem almost alien. Psychopaths have a deadened capacity for emotions and empathy. They simply do not experience the world as we do, and are therefore capable of acts that for the common man would be impossible and in some cases, unspeakable.
According to William Hirstein, a psychologist whose scientific interests include psychopathy, the first use of the term psychopath was in the early part of the 19th century, when doctors in mental asylums started describing a certain type of patient that seemed to suffer from “moral insanity”; their actions went against all codes of decency that most people lived by. An important feature unique to psychopathy in the dark triad is the evidence of genetic origins. The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, a famous longitudinal study started in 1979, showed a strong genetic influence on psychopathy; between identical twins raised apart, results showed that the trait was 60% heritable. Although subsequent studies have provided evidence that this percentage may be lower, there is other evidence that psychopathy is more biological than an environmentally learned way of being. For example, MRI studies of psychopaths have observed weak connections between various structures in the brain that regulate emotional information, such as between the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which interprets the emotional information from the amygdala. The shallowness of emotion that psychopaths feel lead to enormous consequences in terms of their social functioning, which oftentimes seems to work towards their advantage. The psychopath is unhindered by such regulatory emotions such as guilt and shame. The are also unlikely to be affected by fear. In experiments where participants anticipate a mild pain or discomfort such as an electrical shock, psychopaths show far lower indications of fear, such as sweating or specific brain network activation, that control participants do. The same goes for normal feelings of disgust, activated in most people when forced to view images of violence or cruelty; the psychopathic brain is generally unaffected by such images.
The features of psychopathy may seem at first glance to describe a rare and specific kind of character, such as that of Ted Bundy, a clean-cut, handsome and charismatic man that later confessed to thirty homicides, or Charles Manson, the infamous cult leader that manipulated his followers into committing one of the 20th centuries most grisly crimes (as should be no surprise now, men are more likely than women to be psychopaths).While the link between psychopathy and serial killers is undeniably strong, this condition is complex, and it is also quite misunderstood. It is important to realize two things in order to make sense of psychopathy’s place outside of a high security prison: first, that not all psychopaths are violent, and second, that psychopaths are not psychotic.
The non-violent psychopath is perhaps more representative a dark triad psychopath: one of the qualifiers is that the psychopathy must be subclinical. This means essentially that it is not an extreme enough condition to lead to institutionalization, in either a prison or mental health facility. Therefore, dark triad psychopathy is a much more adaptive than the classic violent criminal that the word sometimes brings to mind. Many psychopaths thrive in the cutthroat worlds of business and finance, and it is estimated by some that psychopathy may be overrepresented among CEOs in America. This also demonstrates the difference between psychopaths and psychotics (such as some cases of schizophrenia): psychotics have made a break with reality, whereas psychotics are quite rational, and like Machiavellians, are quite able to strategize, manipulate and deceive.
Although psychopathy is often perceived as an untreatable condition, some psychologists hold out hope that, through behavior modification, psychopaths may be able to function in a more productive and less hurtful way in the world. Similar to work that has been done with autism, a condition which causes individuals to have trouble relating and empathizing with human reasoning and emotion, it is thought that psychopaths can be taught to recognize and respond in prosocial ways to things that they may never experience on an emotional level, such as fear and disgust. While not a “cure”, in the traditional sense, this may help psychopaths to lead more beneficial and satisfying lives.
Case Study- Androids of Blade Runner- The Psychopaths
Any android is a great fictional representation of the hallmarks of psychopathy- they are built to mimic humans in every way, but the fact that they are artificial means that they will never be able to feel emotion as real humans do. Likewise, those with psychopathy have weak emotional pathways in their brain, keeping them from feeling emotion like other humans. In the classic novel that the movie Blade Runner is based off, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? most of humanity has emigrated off-world to Mars after an apocalyptic war on Earth. Simultaneously, androids have been developed to work as a servant class for the colony of humans on Mars. Android technology has rapidly developed, and androids are almost indistinguishable from humans, except for one thing: their ability to feel empathy.
This is the point in the story where the things become ambiguous, because some androids revolt against the role they are manufactured for, which is essentially slavery, and escape from Mars to Earth. It is clear that although they cannot feel empathy, they do still have emotional lives, for why else would sense the oppression of their current lives and risk the escape? The problem with this, of course, is that in order to escape, these rogue androids always kill their human masters. Because they have no empathy, they have no qualms about killing or maiming others; they are cold, intellectual, and logical. In one part of the book, one of the androids sees a spider for the first time, and is puzzled by the fact that the spider has so many legs. To her logical mind, it seems that the spider would be just as functional with four legs. So she decides to cut off four of the helpless spider’s legs to see what happens. J.R Isidore, a human who has decided to help the androids in their escape, stands by in horror as the android gleefully cuts off leg after leg. She is immune to the pain it might be causing the spider, driven by cerebral curiosity; the human, by contrast, is deeply affected by his empathic experience of pain.
Because of the dangerous nature of these androids, human bounty hunters, such as the main character of the story, Rick Deckard, are employed to hunt down rogue androids and “retire” them: because they are not technically human, bounty hunters avoid the term “kill”. This premise makes for some fascinating moral dilemmas, and I highly recommend this book (the film is good as well, although it deviates from the book in major ways). For example, how can the killing of an android, a highly intelligent organism, be justified by the simple fact that they have been manufactured by people? How is the bounty hunter, who has to ignore the instinctive empathy he feels for the humanoid androids, any better than the androids, who are simply unable to feel, through no fault of their own?
Some similar quandaries arise when dealing with real life psychopaths. In journalist Jon Ronson’s recent book, The Psychopath Test, he interviews a man who has been in a mental institution for many years because of a brutal assault he committed as a young man. The man was intelligent, rational, and charming, yet the hospital refused to release him because of his diagnosis of psychopathy. The man claimed that he had faked the signs of psychopathy to avoid jail time; however, this kind of deceit, coupled with his violent crime, are both signs of a true psychopath, which ultimately led to his diagnosis. Is it morally acceptable to hold a rational human, arguably able to function in the outside world, in a mental hospital for years because of an ambiguous diagnosis based on a lie? A diagnosis of psychopathy today bears heavy consequences, and may even cause the individual to be perceived by society as somehow less than human. Should we have empathy for those who feel none in return? These are only some of the unanswered questions created by this most troubling of the dark triad traits.
The Dark Triad: Final Notes
Callous, self-centered, unemotional, cruel: we have hit all the corners of the dark triad but the question remains: why do these traits exist? Especially from an evolutionary perspective, it seems that such traits, being inherently antisocial, should have been weeded out long ago. However, although the traits are antisocial, this does not necessarily make them maladaptive. The fact that they have prevailed actually shows that they are quite adaptive. The prevailing theory on the cause of the dark triad’s survival comes from evolutionary psychologists, who suggest that the dark triad cluster developed as a short-term mating strategy. All members of the dark triad are skilled manipulators, prone to short relationships and infidelity, and tend to be very attractive to women, at least on first impression. A male with these traits therefore has a great reproductive advantage, increasing his chances of passing on his malevolence to the next generation. Perhaps this means that members of this dark triad will always be a part of our society. Because they are so adaptive and insidious, we may never know how much of the pain and turmoil in the world may be caused by them. All said, it is quite a compelling argument for the women of the world to educate themselves, trust their intuitions, and think twice before jumping in bed with narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths.
Articles about the Dark Triad
Shedding Light on Psychology’s Dark Triad
Psychology Uncovers Sex Appeal of Dark Personalities
How to Spot a Narcissist
A Field Guide to Narcissism
Narcissist Support Groups
Machiavelli’s The Prince
The MACH-IV Personality Test
What is a Psychopath?
What “Psychopath” Means
Academic Papers about the Dark Triad
Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556-563.
Carter, G. L., Campbell, A. C., & Muncer, S. (2014). The Dark Triad personality: Attractiveness to women. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 57-61.
Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The Dark Triad of Personality: A 10 Year Review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(3), 199-216.
Jones, D. N., & Weiser, D. A. (2014). Differential infidelity patterns among the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 57, 20-24.
Jonason, P. K., & Krause, L. (2013). The emotional deficits associated with the Dark Triad traits: Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 532-537.
Wai, M., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 794-799.
Martin, R. A., Lastuk, J. M., Jeffery, J., Vernon, P. A., & Veselka, L. (2012). Relationships between the Dark Triad and humor styles: A replication and extension. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 178-182.
Jonason, P. K., Slomski, S., & Partyka, J. (2012). The Dark Triad at work: How toxic employees get their way. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 449-453.