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Psychopathy

Are Dark Triad Traits Adaptive?

The sad truth about psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

Key points

  • The dark triad traits have a common core of antagonism to other people. People high in these traits are more likely to violate social norms.
  • Some argue that psychopathy and Machiavellianism are associated with maladaptive outcomes, although narcissism seems more benign.
  • Although the dark triad traits share a common core, narcissism may be the lightest triad member.

In personality psychology, debate exists about whether socially aversive traits are adaptive in an evolutionary sense or whether they are pathologies that decrease an individual’s reproductive fitness. In particular, there has been interest in how the “dark triad” of personality – socially aversive traits that include psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism – might affect a person’s health, well-being, and social functioning. Evidence exists that narcissism (i.e., a grandiose sense of one’s own superiority) is adaptive in various respects, while psychopathy and Machiavellianism (i.e., callous disregard for the rights of others and a cynical, manipulative approach to social interaction, respectively) appear to be more maladaptive.

Dennis Trevisan, licensed by Pixabay
Source: Dennis Trevisan, licensed by Pixabay

Cheating and aggression: An adaptive niche strategy?

The dark triad traits have a common core of antagonism to other people, and people high in these traits are more likely to violate social norms of cooperation and mutual respect. As such, people with these traits are likely to incur social sanctions that might reduce their evolutionary fitness. Despite this, all these traits have high heritability (Vernon et al., 2008), which suggests that the genes that influence the development of these traits have not been removed from the gene pool by natural selection.

Therefore, some have speculated that these traits might confer adaptive advantages, at least under some circumstances. For example, it has been argued that some individuals might engage in a social strategy of extracting resources from others through cheating and aggression, which could be adaptive under some circumstances (Book et al., 2019). That is, as long as most people in society follow a cooperative social strategy, a few deviant individuals might find a niche that allows them to take advantage of others; however, if too many people adopt this strategy, it becomes untenable, so antisocial traits might remain adaptive only if a minority of people manifest them.

Additionally, it has been argued that dark triad traits facilitate short-term mating (Jonason et al., 2010); that is, people high in these traits, particularly psychopathy, have more sexual partners, which might increase their reproductive fitness by affording them opportunities to procreate without a long-term commitment to investing in a relationship.

Melancholy by Odilon Redon, image provided by Rawpixel Ltd via Flickr, creative commons license
Source: Melancholy by Odilon Redon, image provided by Rawpixel Ltd via Flickr, creative commons license

Live fast, die young?

On the other hand, others have argued that the deviant lifestyles associated with dark triad traits, particularly psychopathy, incur personal costs that make them maladaptive. For example, it has been argued (Pemment, 2015) that psychopathy is an abnormality with no adaptive value. There is evidence that psychopathy and Machiavellianism are associated with maladaptive outcomes, although narcissism seems more benign. For example, research (Jonason et al., 2015) has found that people high in psychopathy and Machiavellianism had poorer self-reported health, were more depressed, were more insecurely attached in their relationships, and had poorer self-reported social skills.

On the other hand, people high in narcissism had a more secure attachment and better social skills. Additionally, using an assessment tool developed by an insurance company showed that psychopathy and Machiavellianism were associated with lower life expectancy, while narcissism was associated with longer life expectancy. The authors suggested that narcissists tend to have larger social networks, which may have a protective effect on health. In contrast, people high in psychopathy and Machiavellianism tend to avoid close relationships and engage in more risky health behavior.

Although the dark triad traits share a common core, narcissism has been described as the “lightest” triad member. At the same time, psychopathy is regarded as the “darkest,” with Machiavellianism being closer to psychopathy than narcissism in this respect.

Therefore, it seems fair to say that the latter two darker traits appear to be maladaptive, while narcissism has adaptive features despite certain drawbacks. In the follow-up to this article, I discuss how the dark triad, especially psychopathy and Machiavellianism, are related to anti-natalism (Schönegger, 2021), which from an evolutionary perspective, is likely to make them maladaptive.

References

Book, A., Methot-Jones, T., Blais, J., Hosker-Field, A., Volk, A., Visser, B. A., Gauthier, N., Holden, R. R., & D’Agata, M. T. (2019). Psychopathic Traits and the Cheater–Hawk Hypothesis. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(15), 3229–3251. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260516669168

Jonason, P. K., Baughman, H. M., Carter, G. L., & Parker, P. (2015). Dorian Gray without his portrait: Psychological, social, and physical health costs associated with the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 78, 5–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.01.008

Pemment, J. (2015). The reappearing psychopath: Psychopathy’s stain on future generations. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 25, 237–242. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2015.09.007

Schönegger, P. (2021). What’s up with anti-natalists? An observational study on the relationship between dark triad personality traits and anti-natalist views. Philosophical Psychology, 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2021.1946026

Vernon, P. A., Villani, V. C., Vickers, L. C., & Harris, J. A. (2008). A behavioral genetic investigation of the Dark Triad and the Big 5. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(2), 445–452. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.09.007

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