The Dark Triad

This is one submission of many to follow that will be focusing on personality traits—such as narcissism and psychopathy—of people that when involved in romantic relationships with can be abusive and dominating as well as exhibit reckless and impulsive behavior that wreaks havoc on you and the relationship.

The machiavellian, the narcissist, and the psychopath are commonly known as the dark triad by psychologists.  And there is a very good reason for this especially if you are the victim of one of them.  But strip these words of their ostracizing power which means to rid them of their connotations, and they all have one theme in common which means to maximize personal gain, almost always at the cost of another, and then to feel justified in doing so.

Now although these labels have become stigmas for most of us – unless of course, you are OJ Simpson, Elliot Spitzer (former NY governor) or Jeff Skilling (former CEO of Enron) and so forth – I think it’s nevertheless important to realize that we all show characteristics of these traits given the right situation, but those that experience them often and do so with greater severity can be diagnosed as having one of these personality traits as an actual disorder (see notes).  Yes, these are measurable personality traits that are heritable, so, for example, the tendency to want to exploit others varies from one individual to another.

But, on the other hand, these traits through a biologist’s perspective are not necessarily disorders since their frequency of occurrence in the population is much too high but are instead adaptations that helped us to survive and reproduce.  Yes, the Machiavellian, the narcissist, and the psychopath are all here because they outmaneuvered others in this jockeying for position in this game we call life.  Now that is an unsettling fact for someone as meek and mild as I am.

The focus thus far has been on personality while ignoring the situation at play.  Social psychologists, however, know all too well that behavior is a function of not only your personality but also the very perceived social value that you hold relative to another person.  So, for instance, when I will describe the relationship that I was in, from an outsider someone could clearly see that there was a power imbalance – to be defined later – between the two of us.  If these discrepancies in social standings are great enough, then the lower-ranked member is at a higher risk of being exploited.

To briefly go over the triad’s differences which can be remembered in short as narcissism is about grandiosity and is an addiction to feeling “special” or “important”, Machiavellianism is about deception and manipulation and psychopathy is about callousness and bold behavior.  Although not thorough enough at least this gives an introduction to their essence.


The dark triad is a category that loosely refers to someone that shows signs (subclinical symptoms) of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism but may not necessarily have an NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) or ASPD (antisocial personality disorder).  To clarify, all three of the dark triad are personality traits and if extreme enough are classified by the DSM as disorders while Machiavellianism is simply a personality trait.

Some may inquiry why the sociopath is excluded.  This word, which denotes a personality trait and not a disorder although can be classified as ASPD (Antisocial Personality Disorder) if criteria are met, is sometimes used synonymously with psychopathy and other times there’s a distinction.  The big distinction is that a sociopath becomes a sociopath because of learned behavior while a psychopath has genetic dispositions or traits that incline them to be callous and bold.


[1]  Buss, David M. The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex. Free Press.

[2] Kole, Pamela. The Psychology of Abusive Relationships: How to Understand Your Abuser, Empower Yourself, and Take Your Life Back.

[3]. Lancer, Darlene.  “Beware of the Malevolent Dark Triad.”

[4]. Lancer, Darlene.  “How to know if you are a victim of gaslighting.”

[5] Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome. Henry Holt and Co..

[6] McBride, Karyl. “How does a narcissist think.”

[7] The Self-Conscious Emotions. Guilford Publications.

[8] Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy. Taylor and Francis.



    • joncavaz says

      No that is important. I just dragged him out of memory as my significant other at the time was oddly fascinated by him.

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