Understanding the Dark Triad Personality Disorder

If ever there was an ominous sounding personality disorder, it would probably be the ‘dark triad personality disorder’. And indeed, this is a disorder that is probably just as ominous as it sounds.

Also in keeping with the name, this disorder is actually characterized by three separate traits. These are:

  • Narcissism
  • Machiavellianism
  • Psychopathy

Those possessing all three of these qualities can be considered to have ‘dark’ personalities, in that they may appear to be malevolent. It is generally understood that those people who score highly on these separate measures are more likely to commit crimes, inflict social distress on others and create problems for broader organizations. This is particularly true where those characters find themselves in leadership positions.

Breaking it Down

To better understand the dark triad personality disorder as a whole, it makes sense to begin by looking at how each of these traits are expressed on their own.

Those displaying narcissistic qualities then, are more likely to demonstrate grandiosity, pride, egotism and a lack of empathy. Narcissism can be described as ‘self love’; these are people who value themselves highly and put themselves above others. They tend to be vain and may also demonstrate arrogance or even delusions of grandeur.

Machiavellianism meanwhile is characterized by the manipulation and exploitation of other people. The term comes from the famous writer Machiavelli, whose most famous text The Prince exists today as one of the premiere treatise on psychological warfare and manipulation. Those who can be classified as having Machiavellian personalities, will be more likely to manipulate others to get their own ends – to use people in relationships and to happily trample on others to get ahead.

Finally, psychopathy is characterized by impulsivity, antisocial behavior, callousness and a lack of empathy and remorse. This is closely related to sociopathy and generally involves a lack of regard for others or consideration for their feelings. Psychopaths are more likely to break rules or hurt others if it means getting what they want.

What Does it Mean?

Note that none of these traits on their own is enough to make someone a ‘bad person’ – and even when all three are present, this doesn’t always lead to criminal or even truly antisocial behavior. In fact, there are many psychopaths in position of power and responsibility – many CEOs, politicians and other prominent figures find themselves rising to the top of their respective hierarchies to take on leadership roles and to bring about a lot of social change, positively for the greater good.

It’s also important to note that people exhibiting these traits might find themselves at different points on the spectrum. Many people can be considered a little vain, which is not to say that they’re going to make a bid for world domination!

Nevertheless, the likelihood of someone exhibiting all these traits committing a crime is higher than it is for others. This makes sense when you consider that they are people who put their own needs above others, believe they are more important than others, are highly driven and ambitious, have no concern for the welfare of those around them and are willing to do what it takes to achieve their goals. Indeed, many stereotypical antagonists from fiction would likely be diagnosed with the dark triad personality disorder. Your Doctor Dooms, Darth Vaders and Wicked Witches would all tick many of these boxes.

The Dark Triad in the Real World

So do you know anyone, or are you likely to have encountered anyone, who would fall into this category?

As mentioned, psychopathy correlates with success in many workplaces and this is also true to some extent for the other triadic personality traits (see the book Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks).

Just as the dark triad can be indicative of success in the workplace, it is also suggested that it may be adaptive as a mating strategy. Studies have shown that those who exhibit the dark triad of personality traits report having more sexual partners and are more willing to participate in casual sex (1). That said, studies also show that they are generally ‘less picky’ when it comes to choosing sexual partners.

Even more interesting, is that studies show a correlation between dark triadic traits and attractiveness; that is to say that people who exhibit dark triadic personality traits are generally rates as being more attractive at first sight (2). There are numerous potential explanations for this. It might be that attractiveness changes the way that others react to a person in such a way that cultivates dark triad traits. Alternatively, it might be that those with triadic qualities present themselves in a different way – perhaps exhibiting an air of confidence.

Those with triadic personality traits are generally inclined toward a ‘fast life strategy’. These are people who are highly impulsive, who are risk takers and who have little regard for the consequences to themselves or others.

It has also been speculated that people who identify as internet trolls may indeed be more likely than other members of the population to have dark personality traits. They may also exhibit signs of sadism. It has also been speculated that bullying – and therefore dark triadic traits – could be linked to internet trolling.

What to Do If You Meet a Dark Personality

So what do you do if you meet someone who shows these traits? Best is likely to avoid them as far as possible. But when that’s not possible, just remember that these people are not ‘evil’ and none of this means that they don’t also have positive qualities.

In fact, according to some theories, many of these traits are actually a sign of insecurity or a lack of self-esteem. Narcissism, for example, is believed to be a defence mechanism adopted by those who feel they aren’t getting the love they crave from others. Their remaining recourse then is to turn inward and provide the love themselves. They project an image of great confidence and even believe it themselves – but actually this may be their way of hiding a serious insecurity.

Next time you encounter dark personality, just remember that they’re probably quite lonely and perhaps they’re just looking for some appreciation.

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