Dark Triad Personality Traits 

Have you ever experienced being manipulated or used by someone? Perhaps you've encountered someone who consistently asked for favours, leaving you with a gut feeling that something was off. If these scenarios sound familiar, you might have crossed paths with an individual possessing what psychologists term the ‘dark triad’.

The dark triad comprises three personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, which together create a complex and often challenging interpersonal dynamic. In this article, we will unravel the characteristics associated with each of these dark triad traits, shedding light on the behaviours that define this enigmatic personality constellation.

What are personality traits?

Personality traits are enduring and distinctive qualities that shape an individual's behaviours, thoughts, and attitudes. They offer a way to understand and categorise different people. These traits are influenced by both genetics (nature) and environment (nurture). For example, some individuals are naturally sociable, while others tend to be more introverted.

Researchers have studied personality traits extensively, particularly since the 1940s when the ‘Five-Factor Model of Personality’ was developed. This model, also known as the Big Five, includes openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These traits provide a framework for understanding human personality. Notably, individuals with dark triad traits often score lower in agreeableness, indicating a tendency towards interpersonal hostility and manipulation.1

What is the dark triad?

The dark triad refers to a set of personality traits encompassing narcissism, Machiavellianism,  and psychopathy. Individuals displaying these traits often exhibit harmful, callous, and manipulative behaviour towards others. Common dark triad behaviours include self-centeredness, lack of empathy, exploitation of others, and absence of remorse or regret.


Narcissism is typically defined by traits such as grandiosity, excessive pride, self-centeredness, and a notable absence of empathy. This term finds its origins in the Greek myth of Narcissus, a hunter who became infatuated with his reflection, leading to his demise. 

Individuals with narcissistic tendencies often exhibit arrogance, selfishness, and a heightened sensitivity to criticism. Narcissism is a personality trait characterised by a strong belief in one's superiority and a feeling of entitlement to special treatment.3 To receive a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), individuals need to display a minimum of five out of nine specific traits.


Machiavellianism is defined by the manipulation and exploitation of others, a lack of moral principles, callousness, and extreme self-centeredness. The term originates from the 16th-century Italian figure Niccolò Machiavelli. He was a political leader who emphasized the importance of manipulation for personal gain in his renowned work, The Prince. Consequently, 'Machiavellianism' became synonymous with the art of deception. 

According to a 2017 study, Machiavellianism is characterised by a manipulative interpersonal approach, a willingness to exploit others, and a preference for emotionally detached relationships.4

Subclinical psychopathy

Individuals with subclinical psychopathy (often referred to as adaptive or successful psychopathy) display key psychopathic traits commonly associated with psychopathy but to a lesser degree.5 They may utilise psychopathic traits, such as charm, manipulation, and lack of empathy, to achieve personal goals without necessarily causing significant harm or breaking the law.6 

Subclinical psychopathy exists on a spectrum, with individuals displaying some psychopathic traits but not meeting the criteria for a full diagnosis of psychopathy. Clinical psychopaths share similar traits, lacking moral values, empathy, and guilt regarding the harm they inflict on others. Consequently, they are less inclined to adhere to societal norms or obey laws.

Common traits of the dark triad

Some of the traits include:

  • Absence of empathy
  • Habitual dishonesty
  • Lack of moral principles
  • Manipulative strategies
  • Intense self-centeredness
  • Impulsiveness
  • Disregard for consequences
  • Exploitation of situations for personal gain
  • Inclination towards promiscuity and unfaithfulness
  • Self-promotion or boasting about achievements

What causes the dark triad personality?

The precise origin of the dark triad personality traits remains elusive. Detecting individuals with this personality type can be challenging without a formal assessment. However, if someone exhibits consistent dishonesty, a lack of empathy, or resorts to bullying to achieve their objectives, these could be typical indicators of the dark triad. 

Specialists suggest that this condition might arise from a blend of biological, environmental, and evolutionary factors.

  • Biological Factors: All three traits of the dark triad have a genetic component influencing personality.  Research evidence indicates that psychopathy and narcissism exhibit significant heritable components, whereas Machiavellianism is moderately influenced by genetics, according to various studies.7
  • Environmental Factors: The impact of environmental factors on the development of this personality condition remains uncertain. Some researchers suggest that Machiavellianism is primarily influenced by environmental factors, including experiences such as abusive childhood or sexual trauma.8
  • Evolutionary Factors: Evolutionary theory not only anticipates the emergence of dark triad traits but also their prevalence in society. A scientific review revealed that individuals with dark triad personalities can achieve considerable success in society, although this success is often short-lived.

Impact on society

Dark triad traits in the workplace

Individuals with dark triad traits can create toxic work environments. Their manipulative and exploitative behaviours can harm relationships with colleagues, hinder teamwork, and impede overall productivity. 

Moreover, their ability to charm and manipulate others might enable them to climb the corporate ladder, causing long-term damage to the workplace culture.9

Influence on social relationships and communities

In personal relationships and communities, individuals with dark triad traits can cause emotional distress and harm. Their exploitative tendencies may lead to broken relationships, damaged families, and disrupted communities. Trust and social cohesion can be eroded, leading to a decrease in overall well-being and a rise in interpersonal conflicts.

Dark triad traits and criminal behaviour

There is a link between dark triad traits and criminal behaviour. Individuals possessing these traits might engage in various forms of criminal activity, ranging from white-collar crimes (like fraud and manipulation) to more severe offences like emotional or physical abuse, domestic violence, and even homicide. Their lack of remorse and empathy can contribute to the severity and persistence of criminal behaviour.

Treatment and interventions

While there is no definitive 'cure' for individuals displaying dark triad traits, talk therapy, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), has shown some effectiveness in addressing these traits. CBT focuses on preventing negative thoughts from translating into negative actions. 

It's important to note that people with these traits rarely seek therapy voluntarily; they typically enter therapy when compelled, like if they are incarcerated. In such cases, therapy may be less effective since it is involuntary, and individuals with dark triad traits may attempt to manipulate the therapist. 

Psychopathy, a component of antisocial personality disorder, is especially challenging to treat. Personality disorders, including psychopathy, are deeply ingrained ways of perceiving the world and are generally considered resistant to change. The best approach in managing psychopathy involves controlling the trait through positive reinforcement and rewards.10


The dark triad, comprising narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, represents a cluster of personality traits characterised by manipulation, callousness, and self-centeredness. These individuals lack empathy, display habitual dishonesty, and exploit others for personal gain. The origins of these traits are complex and influenced by a mix of biological, environmental, and evolutionary factors. 

In society, the impact of the dark triad is profound. In workplaces, individuals with these traits create toxic environments, damaging relationships and hindering productivity. Personal relationships and communities suffer as well, with broken relationships, disrupted families, and eroded trust. Moreover, there is a strong link between these traits and criminal behaviour, ranging from white-collar crimes to domestic violence. Despite the challenges, therapeutic interventions like CBT offer some hope. However, the often involuntary nature of therapy for individuals with dark triad traits hampers its effectiveness. 

In summary, the dark triad traits pose significant challenges to individuals and society. While therapy can help, the intricate interplay of genetic, environmental, and societal factors underscores the complexity of these personality traits and their impact on the world around us.


  1. Hudson NW. Lighten the darkness: Personality interventions targeting agreeableness also reduce participants’ levels of the dark triad. J Pers. 2023 Aug;91(4):901–16.
  2. Book A, Visser BA, Volk AA. Unpacking evil: claiming the core of the dark triad. Personality and Individual Differences [Internet]. 2016 Oct 1 [cited 2023 Oct 26];101:468. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019188691630455X
  3. Grapsas S, Brummelman E, Back MD, Denissen JJA. The “why” and “how” of narcissism: a process model of narcissistic status pursuit. Perspect Psychol Sci [Internet]. 2020 Jan [cited 2023 Oct 26];15(1):150–72. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6970445/
  4. Brewer G, Abell L. Machiavellianism, relationship satisfaction, and romantic relationship quality. Eur J Psychol [Internet]. 2017 Aug 31 [cited 2023 Oct 26];13(3):491–502. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5590532/
  5. Smith CS, Hung LC. Subclinical psychopaths: How they adapt, their interpersonal interactions with and effect on others, and how to detect them. Springfield, IL, US: Charles C Thomas Publisher; 2013. xiv, 251 p. (Subclinical psychopaths: How they adapt, their interpersonal interactions with and effect on others, and how to detect them).
  6. Lilienfeld SO, Watts AL, Smith SF. Successful psychopathy: A scientific status report. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2015;24(4):298–303.
  7. Vernon PA, Villani VC, Vickers LC, Harris JA. A behavioural genetic investigation of the Dark Triad and the Big 5. Personality and Individual Differences [Internet]. 2008 Jan 1 [cited 2023 Oct 26];44(2):445–52. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886907003054
  8. Jones DN, Paulhus DL. The role of impulsivity in the Dark Triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences [Internet]. 2011 Oct 1 [cited 2023 Oct 26];51(5):679–82. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886911002017
  9. LeBreton JM, Shiverdecker LK, Grimaldi EM. The dark triad and workplace behaviour. Annu Rev Organ Psychol Organ Behav [Internet]. 2018 Jan 21 [cited 2023 Oct 26];5(1):387–414. Available from: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032117-104451
  10. Fisher KA, Hany M. Antisocial personality disorder. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Oct 26]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546673/
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Styliani Tsolka

MSc, Health Psychology, University of Surrey, UK
BSc, Psychology, University of Surrey, UK

Stella is dedicated to promoting Mental Health Awareness, among people of all backgrounds and knowledgeable in applying theoretical concepts with real-life scenarios. In the future, Stella aspires to qualify as a Counselling Psychologist, focusing on individualized holistic care.

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