What Is the Dark Triad?

David Beckerby David Becker

It’s not an Iron Maiden album, nor is it an alliance of supervillains bent on world domination. Coined by Paulhus and Williams (2002), the term Dark Triad refers to three strikingly negative personality traits—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Research shows that individuals who score high in these traits are more likely to commit crimes, cause social distress, and create problems in the workplace. These individuals exhibit several core features, including “disagreeableness, callousness, deceitfulness, egocentrism, lack of honesty-humility, and tendencies toward interpersonal manipulation and exploitation” (Zeigler-Hill & Marcus, 2016, p. 5).

Although many people know the terms narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, not everyone fully appreciates their intricacies. Narcissism, for instance, does not simply refer to an inflated ego—or what is known in the literature as narcissistic grandiosity. A person with narcissistic tendencies may in fact have low self-esteem and feel helpless, empty, and ashamed of themselves (a.k.a., narcissistic vulnerability). For this person, narcissism may be an unhealthy adaptation to their negative feelings. Likewise, someone with Machiavellian tendencies might not simply seek dominance at the expense of others. He or she might actually have limited power and be the victim of unfair, discriminatory, and abusive treatment. This person may have developed Machiavellian characteristics as a self-defense mechanism. Darth Vader, for instance, is certainly prone to acts of extreme Machiavellianism, but his desire for ultimate power can be seen as the result of a childhood spent in slavery, and of feeling unfairly treated by the Jedi Council.

the dark side of personality

Psychopathy may be the most complex trait of the Dark Triad. In their book, The Dark Side of Personality: Science and Practice in Social, Personality, and Clinical Psychology (2016), Virgil Zeigler-Hill and David Marcus describe psychopathy as a multidimensional construct made of three loosely connected components: boldness, meanness, and disinhibition, which they correlate with fearless dominance; callousness; and sensation seeking, urgency, and distractibility.

In their exploration of the Dark Triad, Zeigler-Hill and Marcus (2016) acknowledge that it is not necessarily a fixed construct. They point to recent research arguing that sadism shares enough similarities with narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism for it to be studied as part of what could be called the “Dark Tetrad.” Even traits that are often regarded as positive, like perfectionism and high self-esteem, or traits typically associated more with self-harm than outward harm, such as anxiousness, can have dark features that may warrant their study alongside the more archetypical dark traits within the Dark Triad. With so many new avenues to explore, Zeigler-Hill and Marcus (2016) wonder, “Will the Dark Tetrad expand at some point to be the Dark Pentad? Would the Dark Hexad be far behind?” (p 7).



Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556–563. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00505-6

Zeigler-Hill, V., & Marcus, D. K. (2016). The dark side of personality: Science and practice in social, personality, and clinical psychology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/14854-000

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