What Is The Dark Triad?

The Dark Triad is a constellation of three overlapping personality constructs that are seen in three independent but closely related personality traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy. These three personality types are on a continuum (each with their own substantial genetic components), and are better known by clinicians as: –

  1. The narcissist (NPD), who is characterised by grandiosity, lack of empathy, and egotism.
  2. The malignant narcissist (MN), who is characterised by deception, exploitation, and self-interest.
  3. The psychopath, who is characterised by anti-social sadistic behaviour and a callous lack of conscience.

Each of these three personality types share a number of common features, but when it comes to behaviour, each type acts-out even worse behaviour than the one preceding it (one that is lower down on the scale).

But whatever way we refer to these personality types, their pathological behaviours are always the same, they come with dark malevolent and hard to tolerate qualities. Unfortunately, people with these traits function normally, therefore they surround us daily in our lives (i.e. in the home, the workplace, and in romantic relationships and friendships.

Technically these three personalities are referred to in criminal psychology as the Dark Triad.  Many political and social leaders throughout history are examples of the powerful success that comes from the dark triad traits; for example, Gaius Julius Caesar.

Of course, we do not have to go back in time, to-day we have the United States President, Donald Trump.  Unfortunately, these personality types because of their workplace aggression, generally do not show good leadership skills in the long-run.  In fact, they usually end up costing their organisations/governments billions before they manage to get rid of them.  Furthermore, they also have negative consequences for the people that they employ to serve them.

The Russian Doll Metaphor:

A useful way of understanding the psychology of the Dark Triad (NPD, MN and Psychopath) is through the Russian nesting dolls metaphor.
The Russian doll system is a series of wooden figures that can be dismantled to reveal a series of several dolls (all similar, yet different in size) all fitting snugly encased into the largest doll.

For the purpose of understanding the full spectrum of narcissism, imagine four dolls, with each doll representing a different level of narcissism, and its own particular, recognisable, overlapping pathology.

For example, the smallest doll represents healthy narcissism; the second slightly larger doll represents narcissistic personality disorder, and the third slightly larger doll represents the malignant narcissist.
The largest doll combined with the other dolls represents the psychopath, thus covering the whole spectrum of psychopathy within one Russian doll system—all encased into one complete “whole”.
The Russian doll system demonstrates nicely how each of these three unhealthy structures are in themselves complete, yet each fulcrum (level) of pathology distinguishes one from the other, depending on the trauma caused to each fulcrum, and how it twisted and distorted the individuals’ growth as they went from childhood to adulthood.

As the narcissistic individual moves from one level of narcissism into the next level of narcissism (i.e., from NPD to malignant narcissism), each level includes its predecessor, integrating it into the new and more pathological structure of self.

The Dark Triad as a New Focus of Personality Psychology:

The Dark Triad has been known in Criminal Psychology for some time, but it is only now becoming a new focus of Personality Psychology. Therefore, it needs to be understood (even at a basic level) by clinicians. Understanding the damage these three personalities (the narcissist, the malignant narcissist, and the psychopath) types can do to their victims is vital for working with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse.
These individuals only have one goal, and that is to get their own needs met. People who score high on the Dark Tried will use any means they can to achieve their end goal, and this can be very detrimental to the
physical and mental health of anybody they have chosen to target as their victim. Anybody trying to get in their way will be treated most aggressively.

The Dirty Dozen Scale:

Jonason and Webster (2010) have come up with a scale to help others to spot these aggressive characters more easily. It is a 12 – item rating scale called the “Dirty Dozen” and is considered a concise Measure of the Dark Triad.
The Dirty Dozen asks a set of questions that are designed to highlight the individual’s behaviours, and highlight their aggressiveness, sexual opportunism, impulsivity, etc. and show where they fit in the Dark Triad scale. For example: –

Questions to detect levels of Narcissism:

I tend to want others to admire me.

I tend to want others to pay attention to me.

I tend to expect special favours from others.

I tend to seek prestige or status.

I tend to feel that things are owed to me.

I tend to try to be dominant in social situations.

I tend to be grandiose or pompous.

I tend to feel that I am more special than others.

I tend to feel that I am better than others.

I tend to have a sense of self-importance.

I tend to be egocentric.

Questions to detect levels of Psychopathy:

I tend to lack remorse.

I tend to be callous or insensitive.

I tend to not be too concerned with morality or the morality of my actions.

I tend to be cynical.

I tend to get frustrated easily.

I tend to lose my temper quickly.

Questions to detect levels of Machiavellianism:

I have used deceit or lied to get my way.

I tend to manipulate others to get my way.

I have used flattery to get my way.

I tend to exploit others towards my own end.

I tend to have trouble understanding other people’s feelings.

It is not hard to see how people who score high in any of these individual areas are going to be very hard to be around, especially when in a personal relationship with them, or working alongside them in the workplace.
Scoring above 45 would rank an individual high on the Dark Triad scale. Perhaps the reader would like to test themselves to see how they treat others… now there is a thought!

If you are interested in knowing more about this test:

(PDF) The Dirty Dozen: A Concise Measure of the Dark Triad. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44653925_The_Dirty_Dozen_A_Concise_Measure_of_the_Dark_Triad [accessed Sep 01 2018].

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Christine is a Psychotherapist, Educator, Author and Supervisor of mental health professionals for over 28 years. She was part of a team in the Trauma Unit of St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dublin, and has worked specifically with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse in her private practice for many years.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.
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