The Dark Triad

Have you ever had a boss that you thought might be a psychopath? Well, you may be right. Psychopathy, Narcissism, and Machiavellianism, otherwise known as the dark triad, are often well represented in upper management, an environment in which they thrive. Scroll down to learn more and to better understand why these personality traits have survived.

“Finally, I understand machiavellianism. Before I didn’t know how they would specifically manipulate,…I’m grateful for this video showing up in my recommended.”

The full story
dark triad

In psychology, the dark triad represents three personality traits: Narcissism, Psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

If we were to ask the three, “who has the darkest personality?” The Narcissist would say “me”, the Psychopath would say, “I don’t care” and the Machiavellian would say “it’s whoever I want it to be”.

People scoring high on the 3 traits are more likely to commit crimes, and create severe social problems in society, families and organizations. This is why the research on the dark triad is used widely in law enforcement, psychology, and business. Here is an overview of what we know.


The Narcissist displays grandiosity, entitlement, and superiority and wants nothing more than admiration. Once he gets what he wants, the narcissist is rarely interested in other people.

When he does care, it’s to enhance his status, which is why he likes to mingle with successful others.

They seem as though they’re completely in love with themselves, but at the root of their inflated egos are often deeply-held feelings of inferiority. To protect their constructed self, they can never admit to being wrong, which is why they lie or blame others.


Machiavellians are unprincipled, cold, and have a cynical view of other human beings.  

They like money, power, and winning, and they use manipulation to get what they want or exploit others.

If manipulation doesn’t work, they steal or betray. Those high on the spectrum believe it’s better to be feared than being liked and offend others as a strategy to control them.


When you are a psychopath, you come across as cold and others think you are scary. You also show little to no fear, act impulsively and you enjoy mental thrills. Those high on the spectrum don’t form any emotional bonds. The result is a complete lack of compassion. That means they have no problem being mean. If something terrible happens, they later often don’t feel any remorse or guilt. 

The research

The research tells us that men score significantly higher on all three compared to women.

And while these three personalities are empirically distinct, they do overlap. Clinically, both narcissism and psychopathy are regarded as mental disorders, while Machiavellianism isn’t.

Nature vs. Nurture

Whether nature or nurture is responsible for these traits has been somewhat answered by twin studies that show that narcissism and psychopathy have substantial genetic components. Machiavellianism seems to be less prevalent in pairs of twins. However, the environment also matters. A psychopath may not only pass down her genes but influence a child by being a role model. A machiavellian father shares with his son not only genetic material but might also show him all his tricks. The son of a narcissist, not only gets his dad’s chromosomes, but maybe also experiences his perfectionism.

The big five personality traits

With the big five personality traits, also known as OCEAN, the three correlate either positively or negatively.

  • Narcissists and psychopaths are often open to new ideas and extroverted
  • Psychopath and Machiavellians have low conscientiousness
  • All three personality types score low on agreeableness
  • And Psychopaths are hardly neurotic – whatever happens, leaves them cold

An evolutionary explanation for these traits could be sexual strategy.

Many of us pursue a  “slow life” reproductive strategy. 

We were programmed to plan for the future, invest in long-term relationships, have a few children, and spend time on parenting.

Dark triad traits may have survived because they looked to optimize a “fast life“. Their ancestors lived in an unpredictable and dangerous world. Because of a shorter life, they sought many sexual partners, spent no time on parenting, and did not invest in human relationships.

The dark triad in competitive environments

This may also explain why they strive in competitive environments, such as corporations. Here a machiavellian may use charm and insults to manipulate others. The narcissist, his physical appearance and a psychopath, physical threats. And since they all lack compassion, they often elbow their way to the top; which is maybe why all 3 dark traits are well-represented in upper-level management. 

But there are also downsides. If your mind was programmed to be impulsive, aggressive, and selfish, you are also more likely to abuse drugs, feel excluded, suffer from depression, or end up in jail. This is why we may not only find ways to protect ourselves from these darker minds, but also have empathy for them. After all, maybe they couldn’t quite choose to be that way.

What do you think?

What about you? Did you inherit some dark triad traits? And if that’s the case, and if you are aware of them, did you develop strategies to cope with them? Share your thoughts in the comments below and read the descriptions to dig deeper and find relevant links, sources and information.


Dig deeper!

Classroom exercise

What can be done to protect society from individuals scoring highly on dark triad attributes? Do you think that all individuals who score highly will act on these dark impulses and should all highly scoring individuals be treated the same? What can we do to help them overcome their dark triad traits?

These are just a few questions that can help start a discussion on the dark triad with your class. Let us know their opinions in the comments below.

One Reply to “The Dark Triad”

  1. I have none of these traits and am completely at the other end of the scale which has left me open to bullies and manipulators, stalled my career and left me at the bottom. This makes me feel worse to know that others are just out there for themselves as I always try to see the good in people but leaves me vulnerable.

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