Dark Triad: Understanding the Negative Side of Personality
Thu, September 29, 2022

Dark Triad: Understanding the Negative Side of Personality

The term “dark triad of personalities” was coined in 2002 to group psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. / Photo by: VdZ via Shutterstock


Most of us think of ourselves as good people. Sometimes, we only see the concept of the “dark side” in science fiction or when we talk about sociopaths and psychopaths. But that’s not really the truth of human nature. Earlier this year, a study presented 10 findings that reveal the darker aspects of human nature. For instance, people experience Schadenfreude or the pleasure felt over another person’s distress as young as four years old. 

People also tend to be moral hypocrites. Usually, those who are the quickest and loudest in condemning the moral failings of others are as guilty as themselves. In a separate study, researchers discovered that we tend to attribute other people’s bad deeds to their character while also doing the same deeds. This kind of self-serving double standards is sometimes not seen by most of us. 

Also, humans are worryingly malicious, unforgiving, and close-minded. Many of us believe that our opinions are superior to others and overconfident about how much we understand things. Other studies even showed that people are motivated by envy rather than admiration. There has also been a shocking prevalence of lying, which usually starts as young as two years old. Even babies are manipulative—they can fake cry, believe it or not.

The Dark Triad

In 2002, two Canadian psychologists coined the term “dark triad of personalities” to group psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism—traits linked by callousness, manipulation, and a lack of empathy. Since then, thousands of papers have been published on the topic. For many years, psychologists have trouble identifying the Dark Triad traits in people since they measure different personalities separately. 

According to MindTools, an online site that helps people to learn the essential management, leadership, and personal effectiveness skills that they need to build a happy and successful career, Dr. Peter Jonason, then assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Florida, and his co-author, Gregory Webster, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, developed in 2010 a 12-item methodology called “Dirty Dozen” rating scale to measure Dark Triad traits.

Some of the questions asked to people include how they manipulate people, have used deceit or lied to get what they want, exploit others toward their end, lack remorse, not be too concerned with morality or the morality of their actions, be callous or insensitive, and more. 

Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are three distinct but related personality traits. Narcissism refers to people being selfish, boastful, arrogant, lacking in empathy, and hypersensitive to criticism, while Machiavellianism refers to personality traits including duplicity, manipulation, self-interest, and a lack of both emotion and morality. Lastly, psychopathy is associated with a lack of empathy or remorse, antisocial behavior, and being manipulative and volatile.

However, studies about the Dark Triad are often far too superficial to draw any meaningful conclusion. According to Science Mag, one of the world's top academic journals, Josh Miller, a clinical psychologist at the University of Georgia in Athens, stated that one of the reasons is that these studies use only a handful of criteria to rate someone. Also, most of the work has been carried out on narrow groups. But the biggest flaw in these studies is that they can oversimplify personality traits. Thus, there’s a huge possibility that the Dark Triad traits might overlap each other. 


Machiavellianism refers to personality traits including duplicity, manipulation, self-interest, and a lack of both emotion and morality. / Photo by: Askobol via Shutterstock


The Dark Core of Personality

A 2018 study revealed nine personality traits that share a common “dark core”—egoism, Machiavellianism, moral disengagement, narcissism, psychological entitlement, psychopathy, sadism, self-interest, and spitefulness. This means that if a person is high in one of the traits, they are more likely to have one or more of the others. 

Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases and publishes lightly edited press releases about science, reported that the researchers found out that all dark aspects of human personality are very closely linked and are based on the same tendency. They are manifested by a single common underlying disposition: the dark core of personality or the “D-factor.” The D-factor is the basic tendency to maximize one's own utility at the expense of others. It is accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications for one's malevolent behavior. 

The study also explained each dark personality trait:

Egoism – the unrestrained, excessive need to put their own needs and desires first at the expense of others.

Machiavellianism – manipulating and exploiting others to gain control or maintain power over them

Moral disengagement – behaving unethically without feeling bad about it.

Narcissism – the extreme need for attention and excessive self-absorption, superiority.

Psychological entitlement – believing that one is superior to others.

Psychopathy – lack of empathy and self-control.

Sadism – the desire to impose physical or mental harm on others for their pleasure or benefit

Self-interest – the endless craving for social and especially financial success.

Spitefulness – the desire to cause harm to others even if it ends up hurting themselves.

According to iheartintelligence.com, an online site dedicated to inspiring mental growth and personal development, the researchers surveyed more than 2,500 people. They asked them to agree or disagree with several statements, including, “I know that I am special because everyone keeps telling me,” “It is sometimes worth a little suffering on my part to see others receive the punishment they deserve,” or “It is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there.” 

The researchers concluded that all dark traits are rooted in the human’s tendency to prioritize their own goals and interests to the extent of taking pleasure in hurting other people. They also tend to have beliefs that will justify others to avoid feeling guilty and ashamed. 

Humans have a dark side that needs to be exposed. It’s important that we learn these personality traits to understand why some people act in odd ways and why people still exhibit such behaviors.