What is the Dark Triad?

The Dark Triad Image
We are simultaneously drawn to and repelled by sensationalized stories of serial killers and mass murderers, seeking to understand how one of our fellow humans could commit such atrocities against innocent victims. Are these offenders vastly different from us in their genes, early environment, and/or recent life stressors, or are we all capable of such cruelty under the right set of circumstances? We wonder about what dark aspects of the human personality might be involved in such horrific acts. The question of why people violate social norms, commit moral transgressions (e.g., deceit, manipulation), and inflict harm on others has long intrigued psychologists and the public alike.

The Dark Triad refers to three overlapping but distinct personality traits associated with a variety of antisocial and morally transgressive behaviors: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavelianism (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). Considered together, these traits involve emotional coldness, a lack of empathy, the desire for personal advancement at the expense of healthy relationships, grandiosity, and a willingness to manipulate others (Jonason, Lyons, Bethell, & Ross, 2013). Although there are well-known clinical manifestations of psychopathy and narcissism, work on the Dark Triad has emphasized the goal of understanding the subclinical forms of these traits found throughout the population (Furnham, Richards, & Paulhus, 2013). That is, most of the Dark Triad research seeks to understand the dark personalities we encounter in our daily lives.

Psychopathy

Psychopathy describes a specific constellation of affective, interpersonal, lifestyle, and behavioral characteristics. These include impulsivity; callous affect; poor reliability in performing various roles; a lack of remorse, empathy, or guilt; and a tendency toward rule violation (Hare, 2003; Jones & Paulhus, 2014). Although psychopathy is associated with criminality and violence (Hare & Neumann, 2009) and is considered to be the most dangerous of the Dark Triad traits, its utility is not restricted to criminal and forensic contexts. For example, subclinical psychopathy predicts a variety of behaviors that are not necessarily criminal (e.g., academic dishonesty, relational aggression, cyber aggression, substance misuse) but still likely to be of interest (Kokkinos, Antoniadou, & Markos, 2014; Williams, Paulhus, & Hare, 2007).

Narcissism

Much like the clinical version (i.e., Narcissistic Personality Disorder), subclinical narcissism involves grandiosity, as well as entitlement and a sense of superiority; however, this grandiose narcissism is only one part of the construct. Another important aspect involves narcissistic vulnerability, which refers to a vulnerable self-concept and efforts at self-enhancement (Morf & Rodenwalt, 2001). While grandiose narcissism tends to be emphasized in much of the Dark Triad literature, vulnerable narcissism appears to be relevant in many areas of emotional and interpersonal functioning. Subclinical narcissism has been linked to aggression (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998), online antisocial behavior (Carpenter, 2012), and a number of other variables of interest.

Machiavellianism

Machiavellianism is probably the least understood of the Dark Triad traits. It refers to a manipulative interpersonal style named for Niccolò Machiavelli (Christie & Geis, 1970). In The Prince (1513), Machiavelli described several behaviors most of us would regard as immoral (e.g., lying, deceit, and even murder) as effective strategies for a ruler to maintain power. Machiavellianism is perhaps best characterized as the perspective that the ends justify the means. People high in Machiavellian traits are described as cynical on morality, focused on personal gain, and willing to manipulate and exploit others to achieve their goals (Jones & Paulhus, 2009). Machiavellian personality traits have been linked to online relational aggression (Abell & Brewer, 2014) and a number of other antisocial behaviors.

At the Anger and Traffic Psychology Lab, our primary interest with regard to the Dark Triad traits involves their role in nonclinical populations (i.e., individuals in the community who are not currently receiving treatment for diagnosed personality disorders or other mental health problems) of emerging adults. That is, we are interested in how individual differences in scores on subclinical measures of Dark Triad traits relate to a variety of socially undesirable behaviors (e.g., overt and relational aggression, cyber aggression, dysfunctional anger expression, jealousy, academic dishonesty, aggressive driving) among young adults.

References

Abell, L., & Brewer, G. (2014). Machiavellianism, self-monitoring, self-promotion and relational aggression on Facebook. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 258-262.

Bushman, B. J. & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 219-229.

Carpenter, C. J. (2012). Narcissism on Facebook: Self-promotional and anti-social behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 482-486.

Christie R. & Geis F. L. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.

Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The dark triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Compass, 7, 199-216.

Hare, R. D. (2003). Manual for the Revised Psychopathy Checklist (2nd Edition). Toronto, ON, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Hare, R. D., & Neumann, C. S. (2009). Psychopathy: Assessment and forensic implications. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54, 791-802.

Jonason, P. K., Lyons, M., Bethell, E. J., & Ross, R. (2013). Different routes to limited empathy in the sexes: Examining the links between the Dark Triad and empathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 54, 572-576.

Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Introducing the Short Dark Triad (SD3): A brief measure of dark personality traits. Assessment, 21, 28-41.

Jones, D.N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2009). Machiavellianism. In M.R. Leary & R.H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior. New York: Guilford.

Kokkinos, C. M., Antoniadou, N., & Markos, A. (2014). Cyber-bullying: An investigation of the psychological profile of university student participants. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 35, 204-214.

Morf, C. C. & Rhodewalt, F. (2001). Unraveling the paradoxes of narcissism: a dynamic self-regulatory processing model. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 4, 177-196.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556-568.

Williams, K. M., Paulhus, D. L. & Hare, R. D. (2007). Capturing the four-factor structure of psychopathy in college students via self-report. Journal of Personality Assessment, 88, 205-219.
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Savannah Merold Proposes Thesis

Savannah Merold's thesis proposal
Savannah Merold, a second-year student in the Counseling Psychology doctoral program at the University of Southern Mississippi, successfully proposed her master’s thesis today. Savannah’s thesis will examine the role of social intelligence and psychopathic personality traits in relational aggression among emerging adults.

There is reason to believe that social and emotional intelligence are positive predictors of relational aggression, and some have suggested that certain levels of these forms of intelligence might be necessary for relational aggression to occur (or at least to be successful). At the same time, there is no reason to think that social or emotional intelligence would be sufficient to produce relational aggression. Thus, we plan to examine the degree to which psychopathic traits might inform our understanding of this relationship.

Congratulations to Savannah on a successful thesis proposal!
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The Dark Side of Personality

The Dark Side of Personality
I recently picked up a copy of The dark side of personality: Science and practice in social, personality, and clinical psychology, edited by Zeigler-Hill and Marcus (2016). As you can likely infer from the title, it focuses on dark personality traits, starting with the Dark Triad but including others (e.g., sadism, spitefulness, authoritarianism). What is less apparent from the title is just how far beyond the traditional dark personality variables the book goes, addressing topics around the periphery of dark personality (e.g., self-esteem, dependency, urgency). I was pleasantly surprised at how much more comprehensive it was than what I was expecting.

The book is easy to recommend to anyone wanting to improve their knowledge of dark personality research. Here are a few of the things I found most impressive:
  • Many of the most influential researchers in the dark personality literature contributed chapters to the book, providing an excellent representation of the scope and complexity of this area of study.
  • Readers are presented with information on both the adaptive and maladaptive features of each dark personality trait. This provides important context and helps one reconcile what can sometimes appear to be inconsistent findings in the literature.
  • Dark personality traits are addressed in the larger context of broad models of personality (e.g., the Five Factor Model). Again, this helps readers new to the dark personality literature understand how these traits fit into systems with which they will be more familiar.
  • The book is organized using some of the recent work on pathological personality traits reflected in DSM-5. This is effective here because it helps the reader group variables that might not initially seem connected into broader domains.
I have been surprised by how few scholarly attempts there have been to synthesize the vast number of studies including dark personality variables during the last decade. This book is a major step in that direction and should be helpful in making this literature more accessible.
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