Decoding the Dark Triad: Recognizing and Differentiating Narcissists, Machiavellians, and Psychopaths

“Decoding the Dark Triad: Understanding the Differences and Discovering Traits of Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy”

Have you ever heard of the Dark Triad character? Dark Triad personalities have trouble holding on to healthy relationships and tend to exploit others for their own selfish needs. Read on to learn more about who they are and how they work.

the main points

The three dark triad personality subtypes are narcissistic, Machiavellian, and psychopathic.
People with dark triad personalities tend to form unstable relationships and take advantage of others.
A person who becomes involved with someone who has a dark triad personality must find support from others to uphold and defend their sense of self.
In 2002, psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin M. Williams describes three personality types that are generally recognized as pathological, but that do not meet the strict criteria for a personality disorder or for an Axis I pathology.

Because this group of personality types includes psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism, it has come to be known as the dark triad.

People with any of these distinctive and unpleasant traits may not meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do you any harm. Here’s how to identify people like this, and what to do if you encounter them.

If you’ve never met someone with a Dark Triad personality, consider yourself in luck: These traits are reasonably common in our culture, according to Thomas Plant, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.

Indeed, contemporary American society may reward or reinforce the self-serving behavior engendered by the dark triad.

Dark triad types’ lack of empathy and tendency to manipulate others usually results in their relationships being one-sided and difficult: research on dark triads has linked traits to significant relationship problems, and to a wide range of unpleasant interpersonal behaviors.

This means aggression, violence, coercion, or manipulation in the workplace (Kaufman et al., 2019) or hedonism, one-night stands, and “using” people for sex (Jonason et al., 2008; Lee et al., 2013; Kajunyos et al., 2015; Jonasson and Ferrell, 2016; Balakrishna et al., 2017).

The Dark Triad personality might best be summarized by saying that it is associated with the Seven Deadly Sins (Veselka et al., 2014; Jonason et al., 2017, as reported in Kaufman et al., 2019).

How are the characters of the Dark Trilogy different

To be more specific about the expression of the Dark Triad personality, one must distinguish its three types separate from each other.

First, narcissists—in the popular sense—are exactly what you’d expect: They’re vain, arrogant, disingenuous, and possess a sense of unearned superiority. By contrast, Machiavellians are mostly manipulators and deceivers, often seeking self-gratification at the expense of others.

Worst of all, psychopathic personality types—sometimes called psychopathic or antisocial—are characterized by callous, callous impulsiveness, and an almost complete lack of empathy.

All three of these personalities, according to Psychology Today’s Darlene Lancer, tend to “act aggressively out of self-interest”, and “violate social norms and moral values” by lying, cheating, stealing, and bullying their way into getting what they want.

The three subtypes also differ in the ways psychological research has isolated them.

According to Paulhus and Williams (2002), the only Big Five personality factor common to all three subtypes was a lack of conformity—a distinct “incompatibility,” one might say politely.

Subclinical psychopaths stand out from the other two types by being less neurotic — that is, less prone to feelings of anxiety or guilt.

This makes sense, as the brains of sociopaths have been shown to show fewer connections between neural regions that give rise to anxiety (according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison).

Psychopaths, as well as Machiavellians, displayed low conscientiousness (that is, they didn’t seem to feel any desire to “do the right thing”), and narcissists generally showed the expected tendency toward self-promotion.

What to do if you are in a relationship with a dark triad
So, what should you do if you find yourself in a relationship with a dark triad personality? Get away, according to psychotherapist and author Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D.

You might at first think you’re making a charming and charismatic new friend, but people with Dark Triad personalities can’t maintain that positive charade for long (according to Hokemeyer).

You may notice that your new friend often talks about being a victim of others; You may also notice disturbing inconsistencies in the stories they tell. Or, you may begin to feel as though you are serving their chronic need for validation.

If and when you approach someone like this, be sure to keep alternative sources of support in your life (such as other close friends, family members, or a trusted therapist). Don’t allow yourself to be isolated.

Ultimately, says Hokemeyer, people with Dark Triad personalities are less likely to change as they age, so you may have to end the relationship unequivocally.

If you need to stop a relationship like this, seek support from people who aren’t manipulating or controlling you so that you can maintain and defend your sense of self.