Understanding bad character: Research into the Dark Triad, digested

By Emma Young

Twenty years ago, two Canadian psychologists published a paper that instantly captured the imagination of researchers — and reporters. Del Paulhus and Kevin Williams argued that a “Dark Triad” of “overlapping but distinct” toxic traits — subclinical psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism — explained much of what we might otherwise call a “bad” character. Research into the Dark Triad shows no signs of slowing. But the concept is being challenged. And other psychologists are proposing different ways to get to grips with the darker side of human nature…

What exactly is the Dark Triad?

Paulhus and Williams focused on people who fell within the normal range of functioning. So, not diagnosed clinical psychopaths in jail for murder, say, but the kind of person you might find yourself sharing an office with; or, worse, a home. The three Dark Triad traits cover a range of anti-social beliefs and behaviours:

Psychopathy is associated with low levels of empathy, and being high in impulsivity and thrill-seeking.

Machiavellianism was named, in 1970, after the philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli; people who score highly on this scale are cynical and unprincipled manipulators of others.

Narcissists are entitled types who believe that they are superior beings, and should be treated that way.

Paulhus and Williams argued that each of the Dark Triad traits has its own psychological profile, but they share a common core of “callous-manipulation” — a disregard for the feelings and wellbeing of others, for personal gain. Dark Triad scales have now been used in literally hundreds of studies, with plenty of headline-grabbing findings.

Dark traits = more attractive dates?

This surprising conclusion from a 2016 speed-dating study garnered global coverage. Both men and women who scored highly for narcissism were rated as being more attractive prospects for both short- and long-term relationships. Also, women — but not men — who scored higher for psychopathy received better ratings from their dates.

However, as the Digest also reported, participants’ ratings actually seemed to be influenced by other factors that were merely associated with dark traits: women who scored highly for psychopathy and narcissism were also considered to be more attractive, and male narcissists were more appealingly extraverted. Once the researchers controlled for the influence of attraction and extraversion, it didn’t matter how narcissistic a potential date was.

Researchers have also recently disputed suggestions that scoring highly on dark traits might bring some other benefits, such as hedge fund success. In fact, unsurprisingly, most links between the Dark Triad and functioning in society have been distinctly less positive…

Faking and ghosting

Dark Triad traits have been linked to everything from faking in job interviews and exploitation of colleagues (a 2018 review in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour summed up research on workplace behaviour) to criminal behaviour, and ghosting. A 2020 study of students in Spain, for example, found that two combinations of Dark Triad traits (being Machiavellian and narcissistic or Machiavellian and psychopathic) best predicted risky behaviours, such as getting into a fight or gambling. And a 2021 study of American adults also found that those who’d scored higher on a Dark Triad scale were more likely to find it acceptable to ghost someone — to end a relationship by abruptly ceasing communication.

Challenges to the Triad

Though hugely popular, the concept of the Dark Triad has been challenged. In 2019, Joshua Miller at the University of Georgia, US, and colleagues published a review of work in the field in Current Directions in Psychological Science. “Unfortunately, several limitations to this research are unrecognised or ignored,” they wrote. They argue that one of the biggest is an oversimplification of personality traits in the scales that are used. A study might identify someone as being “narcissistic”, say, simply on the basis of a high self-esteem score, when narcissism itself is more complicated (and “vulnerable” narcissism is linked to low self-esteem). Neither is there a single disorder of “psychopathy”, argue other researchers, but rather a spectrum of psychopathic disorders, influenced by various factors, including brain structure, early life experience and genes. This would imply that a single “psychopathy” label within the Dark Triad isn’t appropriate.

However, for others, the issue isn’t so much the rigour and quality of Dark Triad research, but whether a triad is enough….

Should it be a “Dark Tetrad” — or more?

Various other dark traits have been put forward as equals to those in the triad. Sadism — getting pleasure from inflicting physical or emotional pain on others — has perhaps the biggest backing.

The Digest has covered all kinds of research on sadism, including a 2021 study finding that boredom can drive even people who are low in trait sadism to punish others, just for the minor thrill. Sadism proponents (from an academic perspective…) argue that it has a unique profile, while also being an expression of the “Dark Tetrad”. Some psychologists meanwhile argue that “spite” (hurting an opponent even when there is a cost to yourself) should also be considered alongside psychopathy and the rest. But yet others see our dark sides differently again…

The “D factor”

“Over the years, more and more allegedly distinct and increasingly narrow aversive traits have been introduced, resulting in a plethora of constructs lacking theoretical integration”. So argue three psychologists who in 2018 published a popular paper in Psychological Review arguing for a core general “D-factor” (Dark factor) of personality. In this model, 9 related dark traits fall within D, which in essence is this: a motivation ruthlessly to put your own interests above other people’s, and to behave accordingly, even when it causes harm to others or even to yourself. This does sound rather like “callous-manipulation” plus spite. Anyway, the nine are: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism, sadism and spitefulness plus Moral disengagement (being able to behave unethically without feeling bad), Psychological entitlement (believing you deserve more and are better than others), Self-interest (a desire to boost your own social or financial status) and Egoism (being concerned with your own goals and achievements at the expense of others’).

So, 20 years on from the explosive emergence of the Dark Triad concept, where are we, in terms of really understanding “bad” character? The answer, it seems, is all over the place. Is the Dark “Triad” enough? Are Dark Triad scales useful for screening potential employees, say? Do we really need “psychological entitlement” plus narcissism, in a round-up of dark traits? All these questions, and many more, are still hotly debated. But one thing is for sure: scholarly and public fascination with the darker sides of human nature show no sign whatsoever of abating. So we can expect lots more “dark” research and stories to come. 

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest