The dark triad refers to three personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Here’s how to identify whether someone has one or more.
The dark triad refers to three personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
All three of these personalities have overlapping symptoms. Sometimes, a person may have signs of one or all these traits.
Someone with personality characteristics of the dark triad may:
- show no empathy
- try to manipulate people
- appear to be devoid of a moral compass
Still, there are differences between the traits, with Machiavellianism and psychopathy having more in common than narcissism.
Still, learning more about the dark triad can be the first step toward getting help.
The “dark triad” is a term coined in 2002 by researchers to identify people with personality traits that aren’t diagnosable. The dark triad consists of:
Narcissism is commonly characterized by:
- the pursuit of ego gratification
- overblown vanity
- a sense of superiority
In the dark triad, these traits are subclinical and don’t qualify for a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) diagnosis.
Machiavellianism is marked by manipulation — a calculating, duplicitous and amoral personality focused on self-interest and personal gain.
Psychopathy is distinguished by:
- enduring antisocial behavior
- lack of empathy or remorse
Psychopathic behaviors often otherwise appear typical, except the person might use charm and charisma to manipulate others. They may also lack remorse for their actions and empathy for others.
Can these traits be diagnosed?
Machiavellianism and psychopathy aren’t official diagnoses. Someone with psychopathy behaviors might potentially be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (APD) and someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Research from 2013 suggests that consistently harsh or unstable parent-child relationships — which can often lead to insecurities related to attachment — could be a key contributing factor to these personality traits.
According to Gauri Khurana, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist and a clinical instructor at Yale University School of Medicine, causes of the dark triad personality may be linked to:
- childhood neglect
- physical, verbal, or sexual abuse in childhood
- genetic factors
In situations of neglect or abuse, “a child [may act out] from a young age, either receive attention or to engage in what they would consider a soothing behavior, such as lying, cheating, and abusing others,” Khurana explains.
Showing a few symptoms might not qualify someone as expressing traits of one or more of the dark triad.
Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy all exist on a continuum. That means many people might have a few symptoms to varying degrees.
For example, you may be prone to moments of self-centeredness, a lack of empathy, or entitlement, though this may not be a constant or enduring experience.
Individuals with dark triad characteristics might act aggressively out of self-interest and lack empathy or remorse. Machiavellianism and psychopathy are more closely correlated due to their malicious behavior, whereas traits of narcissism tend to be defensive and more fragile.
People with dark triad personality traits may exhibit:
- an unhealthy fascination with themselves
- lack of empathy and respect for others
- a preoccupation with obtaining power by any means
- manipulation and lying
- stealing and potentially criminal behavior
- violence or explosive anger
- violating social norms, especially around empathy
- lack of remorse for any harm caused
- a need for praise and attention
According to a 2017 research article, men might score higher on the dark triad scale than women, especially when psychopathic traits come into play. This difference may be linked to the overt antisocial behavior associated with psychopathy, suggesting that it may be due to biological factors, such as testosterone and social norms.
There are several mental health disorders associated with the dark triad personality.
Antisocial personality disorder (APD)
One of the most common conditions related to the dark triad is antisocial personality disorder (APD), which figures prominently in people with the dark triad, Khurana says.
APD is considered the clinical diagnosis someone with the colloquial term “psychopathy” might qualify for based on the number and severity of behaviors.
Characteristics of APD can include:
- a lack of regard for others
- manipulation, especially by using charming behavior
- substance misuse
“The fact that it has been classified as a personality disorder is important because it indicates that this is an enduring aspect of their personality and how they interact with the world at large,” Khurana explains.
This means significant behaviors — such as disregard for others, impulsivity, or aggression — may have become a pattern that could lead to more serious or dangerous behaviors over time.
The ‘childhood triad’
Similarly, a triad in childhood may evolve into the dark triad in adulthood.
According to Khurana, childhood triad can be characterized by:
- harming animals
Common symptoms in childhood and adulthood versions of the dark triad are a disregard for social norms and a lack of remorse.
Conduct disorder can also feature prominently in analyzing childhood behaviors, Khurana says.
Symptoms of conduct disorder can include:
- lying and manipulation
- violence and all types of abuse
While the characteristics of the dark triad may be alarming, there still may be hope to change for someone with these personality traits.
Though no specific treatment for the dark triad exists yet, people with these personality traits could successfully address the individual parts of the dark triad — narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism — depending on severity.
Typically, this is done through psychotherapy. But each trait is often challenging to treat. The true difficulty may be simply getting help because many people with these personality traits don’t see their behavior as harmful.
Seeking treatment for mental health conditions co-occurring with the dark triad may be more common, such as substance use disorders (SUD) or rageaholism.
If you or someone you love seems to have a dark triad personality, know that you are not alone. Maintaining a relationship with someone with a dark triad personality can be taxing, and your well-being is important.
Consider seeking help from a therapist if you feel overwhelmed or unsure about the best path forward. Your therapist can help you talk through your experiences and help you determine whether you’re in a dangerous situation.
If you need help
If you’re experiencing domestic violence, support is available:
- You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for free, confidential, 24/7 care and support.
- You can call loveisrespect.org at 866-331-9474 or text LOVEIS to 22522 for support if you think you could be in an abusive relationship.
In addition, you can visit The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), a domestic violence prevention advocacy group with a list of resources for relationship abuse help.