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The Dark Triad


Explanations > Personality > Personality Disorders > The Dark Triad

Description | Discussion | See also



The 'Dark Triad' is a group of three personality traits, each of which may be considered not only anti-social but socially dangerous, as the person affected not only ignores the feelings of others but will use and abuse people for their own ends.

The three characteristics of the dark triad are:

The common thread within the dark triad is a combination of callousness and manipulation that ignores social values. Callousness is a blatant disregard for the feelings and safety of others. Manipulation is an active use of persuasion that seems to be intended to help others, but in practice is not. Together, they lead to self-focused actions that harm others, including active and deliberate harm, for example where a workplace perpetrator gets a colleague sacked in order to take their place.

The dark triad is related to aversive ways of behaving such as bullying and general aggression as well as overt bias against stereotyped others, including those of different ethnicity, gender, ability, age and so on.

While generally disagreeable, these are not black-and-white conditions and we all may be affected by any or all of them to a greater or lesser degree. We all seek a sense of control and identity, and sometimes put these needs before those of others.


In the dark triad, only narcissism is one of the ten DSM-IV personality disorders. Psychopathy is contained within the antisocial personality and Machiavellianism (which has a more political origin) is an addition. It may be wondered whether sociopathy should be included, but this is a journalistic rather than a clinical term. Debate as to the distinctiveness of different disorders led to the research of Paulhus and Williams (2002) that identified clear differences between the three aspects.

Perhaps most disturbing is the way that those affected by any of the dark triad seem to do well in business, where the end often justifies the means and where those in power can often get away with abuse of those below them.

Even though we may have dark triad tendencies, a significant barrier for most people are values that forbid putting urges into practice. This gets more difficult where we believe we can get away with selfish actions without being caught. There is also a greater temptation for powerful people who can get away with abusing others.

Those in the Dark Triad need not be criminals, though they are disproportionately found in prison populations. The cleverer ones are never caught and may well manipulate others to do their dirty work for them. They seldom harm people just for the pleasure of doing so, although they may feel smug about their darkly effective actions. They seek to succeed, just like others, but do so in ways that most of us would never consider.

Jonason and Lyons (2013) found that people who scored higher on dark triad questionnaires also had a preference for night time, with darker personalities having a greater preference for the night. Perhaps this equates to criminals who use the dark as cover and take to the streets when most others are inside.

The Dark Triad is sometimes extended to the Dark Tetrad. The fourth factor is sadism, in particular casual, everyday pleasure in causing discomfort and pain to others. Where it is difficult to hurt other people, this may be displaced towards cruelty to animals. Like the other factors, sadism has a strong element of control in it.

Another variant is the Vulnerable Dark Triad (VDT), where the person may be more emotionally vulnerable and hence more withdrawn and passive in their approaches. Instead of being Machiavellian, they are more likely to suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder.

See also

Power Corrupts, Powerful People, Needs, Values


Paulhus, D. L., Williams, K. M. (2002). "The Dark Triad of personality: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality 36, 6, 556–563

Jonason, P.K. and Lyons, A.J.M. (2013). Creatures of the night: Chronotypes and the Dark Triad traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 5, 538–541

Miller, J.D., Dir, A., Gentile, B., Wilson, L., Pryor, L.R. and Campbell, W.K. (2010). Searching for a vulnerable dark triad: comparing Factor 2 psychopathy, vulnerable narcissism, and borderline personality disorder. Journal of Personality, 78, 5, 1529-64

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