The Dark Triad of Personality


This is an essay I wrote for first year psychology at uni. It argues that the components of the ‘Dark Triad’ (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) should be evaluated separately because they are separate things. I haven’t edited it since I’ve gotten it back from my tutor, so this is basically what a Distinction essay looks like at my 1st year uni psyc course (the highest mark being High Distinction).

The Dark Triad of personality has seen an increase in interest recently and many have looked for ways to quantify or measure it. According to Paulhus and Williams (2002), the Dark Triad consists of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. In order to accurately measure the Dark Triad, one needs to be able to distinguish whether these three constructs are in fact distinct or equivalent. This essay will argue that the three are closely related but dissimilar personality traits. Seminal research is looked at in order to define the three parts.

Narcissism was typified by Kernberg (1975) as relating to someone who is grandiose, extremely egoistical, and has low empathy despite needing to be liked by others (p. 228). Object-relations, which is the way in which the self externalises or internalises other people or objects (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983. p. 13-14) is an important element of narcissism (Kernberg, 1975). Narcissists need to have continual reinforcement for their egos (Kohut, 1951), and with the reinforcement feel that they are superior and so permitted to exploit others because they are entitled to do so (Kernberg, 1975). Narcissists can be manipulative, and will do anything to fortify their identity (Paulhus & Jones, 2011). There is also a subclinical form of narcissism that can be measured with Raskin and Hall’s Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) (1979) which still preserves such components of narcissism as “grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority” (Paulhus & Williams, 2002, p. 557).

Machiavellianism was a term based on the book The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli of 16th century Italy by Richard Christie (Christie & Geis, 1970). A person with this trait tends to be very manipulative and focused on achieving long term goals through any means, and is an individual with a good command of impulsivity (c.f. Jonason & Tost, 2010) and is well adaptable (Christie & Geis, 1970). Christie also developed a way to measure this trait with a test called the Mach IV. Further studies added coldness and a lack of sincerity and care to the typical Machiavellian personality (Jakobwitz & Egan, 2006).

Psychopaths, according to Cleckley (1976) have inconsistent, impulsive behaviour and are inclined to take action with disregard for reputation, regret, or consequence. They seem to have no disposition to forming long term goals because of these factors (Jones & Paulhus, 2011). Subclinical psychopathy was defined by Hare (1985) who created the SRP (Self Report Psychopathy) and the SRP II (Hare, Harpur, & Hemphil, 1989) to measure degrees of psychopathy in normal populations. This could predict whether the person was more likely to cheat, or be violent, anti-social, thrill seeking or a delinquent (Paulhus & Williams, 2002).

There are similarities between these three traits that some would reason is sufficient to say they’re equivalent. However, this paper will argue that the differences can adequately distinguish each from the other based on the Big Five, traits such as aggression, mating methods and societal advantages, as well as genetics and sex differences.

The Big Five is often used to compare the relationship between narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. It has been shown that they all share a consistent low in agreeableness (Paulhus & Williams, 2002; Miller & Campbell, 2008). However, it has been argued that there can be different types of disagreeableness, stemming from different types of conflicts (Miller, Dir, Gentile, Wilson, Pryor, Campbell, 2010). So despite the apparent similarity between the three, a deeper look demonstrates the inadequacy in deeming each the same because of this correlation.

According to Paulhus and Williams (2002), psychopathy and Machiavellianism shared low conscientiousness, and psychopathy and narcissism shared higher extraversion and openness. These results favour some researchers’ claims that the factors in the Dark Triad are equivalent. For example, Machiavellianism and sub-clinical psychopathy was shown to be interchangeable since sub-clinical psychopathy could be detected using the Mach IV in normal populations (McHoskey, William, Christopher, 1998). Gustafson & Ritzer (1995) showed that there is a significant overlap between sub-clinical psychopathy and narcissism and used them somewhat interchangeably in their study of ‘aberrant self-promoters’ (the same study regarded Machiavellianism as too different to put under the same heading). Both these correlations were supported by a genetics study done by Vernon, Villani, Vickers & Harris (2007) who also reported no correlations between Machiavellianism and narcissism. But the latter result is not consistent with studies done by Paulhus & Williams (2002) and Jakobwitz & Egan (2006) who say that there is still a small correlation between narcissism and Machiavellianism. Nevertheless, the similarities based on the Big Five can be looked over as there are differences between the three that make it harder to establish all as identical structures. For example, in the same Paulhus and Williams study, neuroticism was only seen to negatively correlate with psychopathy, therefore distinguishing psychopathy from both narcissism and Machiavellianism. Only narcissism had a higher level of conscientiousness, and only Machiavellianism had a negative correlation with openness. Due to these findings, an argument claiming that these constructs are equivalent cannot be made based on the Big Five alone.

Another distinguishing feature is aggressiveness. It is widely agreed upon that psychopaths are prone to be aggressive and impulsive (Jones & Paulhus, 2010; Jonason & Webster, 2010; Gustafson & Ritzer, 1995; Cleckley, 1976). Machiavellianism has some divided literature, some saying that they could employ the use of aggression to achieve their aims (Jonason & Webster, 2010) whereas others find that Machiavellians tend not to overtly display any aggression they might feel (Lau, 2010; Jones & Paulhus, 2011). Machiavellianism has been shown to correlate negatively with impulsiveness (Gupta, 1991), which is the opposite of the definition of psychopathy. The varying results in aggressiveness imply a definitive difference between psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Narcissists were shown to be hostile but not aggressive in some studies (Jonason & Webster, 2010) but in others were shown to be highly aggressive, especially when their ego was threatened (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998; Bettencourt, Talley, Benjamin, & Valentine, 2006). The differing results and lack of consensus suggest further evidence of discrepancy between the three constructs.

A similarity within the Dark Triad is that despite generally being negatively viewed by society, they may have some adaptive advantages in regards to mating strategies and psychological health. However, the way in which each of the three pillars contributes to being an advantage is different.

In mating strategies, the Dark Triad has been linked to short term mating and having more sexual partners (Jonason, Li, Webster, & Schmitt, 2009; Jonason, Li, & Buss, 2010) which is beneficial to them in that their genetics will be continued, and certain traits aren’t discontinued due to sexual selection. The difference is in the how. Short term mating in narcissists seems to have come about because narcissists have a positive correlation with attractiveness (c.f. Gabriel, Critelli & Ee, 1994) and the traits required to not form attachments to their mates (Holtzman & Strube, 2010). Psychopaths, on the other hand, seem to have developed short-term mating strategies due to their general deceptiveness and duplicity (Seto, Khattar, Lalumière, & Quinsey, 1997) and probably because of their impulsiveness and overall lack of empathy or anxiety. According to Jonason, Luevano and Adams’ (2012) study of different types of short-term mating strategies, narcissists were open to many types of relationships (for example, friends with benefits and one night stands) and have  tendency to score high in sociosexuality (Reis & Wright, 1996). In contrast, psychopaths were more disposed to choose exploitative relationships (Jonason et al., 2012).

In regards to psychological health, according to some (Bach, 1977; Emmon, 1987; Kohut, 1951) narcissist have a low perception of themselves and this delicateness could lead to feelings of grandiosity. However, other researchers have found that narcissist reported the same, if not a better self-view than non-narcissists and that this aspect of narcissism has psychological health benefits (Rhodewalt & Morf, 1995/2001; Sedikides, Rudich, Gregg, Kumashiro, & Rusbult, 2004). Interestingly, in a study designed to test how “darkly” people see each of the three constructs, narcissists were seen as “brighter” than the other two, with some favourable aspects denoted to them (Rauthmann & Kolar, 2012). This study hints that being at least sub-clinically narcissistic is beneficial in that with the higher self-esteem that comes with the condition, other’s perceptions become more positive as well. Nonetheless, narcissism is presented as a separate paradigm within the Dark Triad in this regard.

A Machiavellian personality can lead to good when dealing with corporations or companies, especially if the bettering of said company would be seen as a personal success, or long term goal for the Machiavellian (Christie & Geis, 1970). With subclinical psychopathy, it’s been pointed out that one could strive to achieve their goals in contrary circumstances due to their lack of anxiety (Taylor & Armor, 1996). Although the two can be seen as positive outcomes of a negative personality, the way in which each of the constructs work to gain the positive ground is dissimilar. This can be likened to convergent evolution, which is when two unrelated animals develop similar characteristics based on similar needs. For example, both birds and bats can fly despite not being genetically akin.

Recently, genetic studies have been conducted to verify differences between psychopaths, Machiavellians and narcissists. It has been concluded in a few studies that psychopathy (Larsson, Andershed, & Lichtenstein, 2006) and narcissism were heritable traits, but Machiavellianism was heritable only slightly (Vernon et al., 2008,). Machiavellianism as a learned trait is supported by research from Brumbach, Figueredo and Ellis (2009) who predicted that the dark personality could become apparent after a rough upbringing. Another study was conducted to see whether morality could be correlated with the Dark Triad and whether it had a genetic basis (Campbell, Shermer, Villani, Vickers, & Vernon, 2009). Results showed that higher scorers on psychopathy had low scores on morality and moral development. Similar results were shown for Machiavellianism, although the negative correlation between moral development and Machiavellianism was not significant. The study concluded that morality was based almost entirely on environmental factors and not genetic ones, but it is suggested that Machiavellians, unlike psychopaths, can attain a higher stage of moral reasoning and act immorally despite knowing what they do is wrong (Jones & Paulhus, 2011). Further research can be done in regards to genetic and environmental factors that link the Dark Triad traits to outward behaviour, but as of now psychopathy and narcissism seem to be separable from Machiavellianism developmental-wise, in regards to being genetic or environmentally based.

A lot of evidence points to how men often score higher in Dark Triad tests than women (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). In Machiavellianism and narcissism, the difference between sexes was shown to be very little (Jonason, et al., 2009). In contrast, the difference between males and females in levels of psychopathy was shown to be significant (Cale & Lilienfeld, 2002). However, more studies should be carried out in this area since the majority of the literature on the Dark Triad is either male oriented, or the differences in sexes aren’t the main focus.  Also, a lot of the research is done on either college students or delinquents in Western societies, despite there being evidence showing that the three traits are seen in other societies as well (Jonason, Webster, Schmitt, Li, Crysel, 2012). Perhaps further cultural research can garner more evidence to clearly state how the three constructs differ.

In conclusion, the only similarities between Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy, and possibly that which puts them all under the banner of the Dark Triad, is that they are all duplicitous, disagreeable, aggressive, and have mostly short-term mating strategies. On the other hand there are differences in the aggression, and in genetic and environmental factors, Big Five personality traits, strategies with regards to goals and motives, and self-view. Therefore it is most viable that Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy are overlapping but distinct constructs, a conclusion agreed upon by most current research (Chabrol, Van Leeuwen, Rodgers & Séjourné, 2009; Lau, 2010; Paulhus & Williams 2002; Jones & Paulhus, 2011; Vernon et al., 2007).


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