Think of the Dark Triad of Narcissism, Psychopathy, and Machiavellianism as the Bermuda Triangle – it’s perilous to get near it! The traits of all three often overlap and create personality profiles that are damaging and toxic, especially when it comes to intimate relationships, where we let our guard down.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship expert and author of “Codependency for Dummies” and “Conquering Codependency and Shame: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You,” as well as five ebooks. She has worked extensively in the field of addiction and codependency. Her work is informed by training in Self-Psychology, Voice-Dialogue, Dream Analysis, Jungian Therapy, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, EFT, and Hypnosis. She has also previously supervised other therapists as an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and practiced law as an entertainment attorney.
One woman was the subject of identity fraud. Her bank accounts and credit cards were compromised. At the time, she was in love with her boyfriend who lived with her in her apartment. She was speaking regularly with the FBI and suffered extreme anxiety and emotional stress. The authorities were unsuccessful in finding the culprit. Her fiancé was very supportive in doing research to try to find him. He comforted her, occasionally bought her gifts, and paid her monthly rent out of the money she gave him. When the landlord confronted her about months of delinquency, she realized that the criminal was in fact her own boyfriend, who had been pocketing her rent money, except to buy her gifts. Her denial made it difficult to accept the truth about his ruthless gaslighting.
What is the Dark Triad
This is a popular term was coined in 2002 by Paulhus and Williams. Dark Triad refers to three unusually negative personality traits—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. The latter two share more traits with each other than with narcissists. Generally, the term refers to individuals with “subclinical” symptoms, meaning that they may not necessarily fully have a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or anti-social personality disorder (ASPD). Machiavellianism arose out of Machiavelli’s philosophy and is not a mental health disorder.
• Narcissism is characterized by the pursuit of ego gratification, vanity, and a sense of superiority, grandiosity, dominance, and entitlement.
• Machiavellianism is marked by manipulation – a calculating, duplicitous and amoral personality, focused on self-interest and personal gain.
• Psychopathy is distinguished by callousness, impulsivity, and enduring antisocial and bold behavior.
Common Dark Triad Traits
Recent comparative research on the Dark Triad has attempted to analyze differences among these three malevolent personalities. To varying degrees, all act aggressively out of self-interest and lack empathy and remorse. They’re skilled at manipulation and exploiting and deceiving others, though their motivations and tactics vary. They violate social norms and moral values and lie, deceive, cheat, steal, and bully. It’s thought that genetic factors underlie their personality.
Machiavellianism and psychopathy are more closely correlated due to their malicious behavior; whereas narcissists are defensive and more fragile. This is because their grandiosity and arrogance are a façade for deeper feelings of inadequacy. (See “Relationships with Narcissists.”) Men outnumber women, primarily when psychopathic traits were measured (i.e., not just deceit, manipulation, etc.) This difference is linked to the overt antisocial behavior associated with psychopathy, suggesting that it may be due to biological factors, such as testosterone, and social norms.
All three types (narcissism to a lesser degree) scored low on agreeableness, measured by the Big Five personality test that assesses extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. Agreeableness differs from charm and charisma. It involves trustworthiness, unselfishness, straightforwardness, compliance, kindness, and modesty, which are essential for good relationships.
Machiavellians and psychopaths are more lacking in conscientiousness. (Why work when you can cheat and steal!) Psychopaths have the lowest level of neuroticism or negative emotions, which makes them the most sinister. Predictably, narcissists scored higher on openness and are much more extroverted. Openness correlates with evidence that narcissists tend to be creative.