Dark Triad: What To Know About The Personality Types

Now more than ever, people are obsessed with learning all about toxic, potentially lethal personality types. Case in point, the growing fascination with grisly serial killer docu-programming. Most people don't want bad things to happen to others, but when something awful invariably occurs they want all of the details in an effort to understand the main question — but why? Much of that "why" lies in the perpetrator's personality type.


While it's easy to play Psych 101 student and diagnose everyone you know with some type of personality disorder, the reality is that most bad behavior is just people acting like regular old flawed human beings. In fact, "only" 9% of people actually have one of the 10 diagnosable personality disorders, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Some of those include avoidant personality disorder (extreme shyness and sensitivity), borderline personality disorder (intense emotions and poor self-image, etc.), obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (obsession with control and perfection), and so on. However, none of these particular disorders fall under the umbrella known as the "dark triad."


These personality traits make up the dark triad

Not all personality traits are official psychiatric diagnoses. To that end, the term "dark triad" was created to pinpoint such traits, according to PsychCentral. The three prongs of this group are psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Although each one is distinct in its own way, they do have some commonalities. For example, it's not unusual for someone with any of these traits to try to manipulate others, usually emotionally or for their own personal gain. They also often fail to show empathy for others and don't try to abide by right or wrong, as they don't have a moral compass.


Mental health clinicians have long relied on a five-factor model of trait assessment known as the Big 5 to identify core personality traits. However, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are missing from that model. So, clinicians have to check on them separately, or they use a larger scale to measure all three at once, Psychology Today reports. It's important to reinforce that none of the three is an official diagnosis currently, but they nonetheless bear a lot of disturbing markers that are facets of other diagnoses.

The characteristics of narcissism within the dark triad

People can have narcissistic traits that are not severe enough to merit an official narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) diagnosis. People with narcissism as a trait aren't just a little bit vain or proud of their accomplishments like most of us are. Instead, they present with a whole spate of unappealing, full-blown characteristics, WebMD says. For example, narcissists typically have a sense of superiority, meaning that they think they are better than everyone else, and can quickly become abusive if they feel they are being wronged in some way. They also constantly need to have their egos massaged by others, and tend to brag about their awesomeness to anyone who will listen. A true narcissist will also always put their needs before anyone else's and feels zero guilt about achieving their goals no matter who they manipulate to get there. In fact, they have a sense of entitlement and lack empathy for others.


All that said, narcissists generally have friends, even if it might seem like a perpetually revolving door. They are often very personable and enjoyable to talk to and keep a lid on their tendencies until after the friendship/relationship has formed.

The characteristics of Machiavellianism within the dark triad

Machiavellianism is perhaps best understood as a trait in which people manipulate others for personal gain with little (usually zero) remorse. The term is so named after Niccoló Machiavelli, a political advisor from the 16th century who wrote, "It is more important to be feared than loved." He said in the same work that cunning and deception are of paramount importance compared to silly little things like morality, per PsychCentral.


Machiavellian types are typically described as calculating, cold, strategic, and unemotional. Unlike narcissists, they don't want to be the focal point of the action but are instead happy to be turning the wheels behind the scenes. Above all else, they have no qualms about exploiting people for their own gain. People with this trait are usually highly intelligent, however, making them tough to spot until the damage is done. Machiavellians are more commonly men than women and tend to abide by the by-any-means-necessary way of thought.

The characteristics of psychopathy within the dark triad

Psychopaths are very similar to Machiavellians in that they have no capacity for remorse and narcissists in that they lack empathy. However, they're also known for being quite charming when it serves their purposes and are also more impulsive. People with psychopathy are considered to be more dangerous to society at large, Psychology Today says, as they are prone to taking risks (and often those risks affect others). They are also regular engagers in antisocial behaviors like lying, reckless acts, cheating, breaking rules, resisting authority, and more. Some of that is normal in neurotypical people and can actually be rehabbed quite a lot of the time, but people who have psychopathic traits are far less likely to abandon antisocial tendencies.


The closest official diagnosis to psychopathy is antisocial personality disorder (APD), which is perhaps best illustrated by the stories of well-known criminals like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. In fact, many career criminals have APD, though this is not to say that someone who struggles with this is automatically destined to become a villain.

How to tell if someone has dark triad traits

People with dark triad traits are often able to draw people in thanks to their typically extroverted personalities and charisma. They excel at making others feel special so that they stick around to in turn make the dark triad person feel special. However, if called out for bad behavior, they're adept at flipping the script and claiming the role of victim. This gaslighting eventually wears thin on most people, and so the relationship dissolves.


People who live with dark triad personality traits are also constantly pointing out flaws and disappointments. They are nearly impossible to satisfy and are always looking for others to reinforce their perceived awesomeness with acts of loyalty, compliments, and such. They are also given to fits of rage, and either embellish or outright falsify the details of their lives to appear more impressive. So, people who habitually try to push their wrongdoings off on other people, or who nitpick the flaws and missteps of every little thing might very well have some dark triad tendencies. As a result, they have shallow relationships that don't go the distance.

Should you be involved with someone who has dark triad traits?

It's always tempting to think that we can change someone's bad behavior, but in reality, dark triad traits are so hardwired into their psyche that it's unlikely to budge just because you want them to. In fact, psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., told Health, "It's dangerous to be in any kind of relationship, be it a friendship, an intimate affair, or a business association, with someone with a dark triad personality profile." He added that such people are drawn to exploit others, and says that "the best strategy is to move away from them as quickly as possible."


Of course, this is easier said than done with a friend or coworker than it is with a spouse or co-parent. If you suspect dark triad traits in your partner, confide in others so that they know what's going on, and keep a detailed log of incidents in case legal action becomes necessary. Remember to include dates, witnesses, and other pertinent information.

Is it possible to reduce dark triad tendencies?

Some people are beyond help, as is likely the case with psychopathic killers. Such personality traits usually develop thanks to a concoction of genetics, childhood neglect/abuse, and other factors. As a result, they're nearly impossible to reverse. 


However, dark triad traits exist on a spectrum, and some research has indicated that it is possible to reduce the tendencies of those less severely affected with a little effort. In fact, one study out of SMU found that people with dark triad traits who engaged in atypical behaviors for four months enjoyed lowered traits. These behaviors included things like asking someone else about their life, donating to a charity, and such. 

Of the hundreds of students studied, many didn't actually want to change their dark triad levels but saw reductions in those characteristics anyway with these intervention methods. Anyone who suspects themselves to have one of these personality traits can certainly seek help from a licensed psychotherapist, which may result in better tools and an understanding of the problem at hand. However, this is exceedingly rare, as one of the fundamental conundrums with people with dark triad traits is that they don't see how their behavior is a problem. Vicious cycle, indeed.