Bright Minds, Dark Hearts: Intelligence in the Dark Triad

Machiavellians may be the most intelligent of the dark personalities.

Posted Dec 16, 2019

In popular culture, “evil genius” characters—that is, someone who combines brilliance with malevolence—have had recurring popularity. There is even a widespread misconception, which I have discussed in a previous post, that psychopaths are more intelligent than the average person (Furnham, Daoud, & Swami, 2009), even though research has not found this to be the case (O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, & Story, 2013). On the other hand, a recent study suggests that Machiavellianism, a cynical and manipulative approach to interpersonal relations, actually may be associated with high intelligence (Kowalski et al., 2018), which might mean there is a grain of truth to the “evil genius” trope after all. Furthermore, this might also help explain the fundamental difference between psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

There has been considerable research into the “dark triad,” a trio of malevolent personality traits consisting of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Although these three traits share a common core of interpersonal antagonism, they are each supposed to have distinctive features that set them apart from each other. Narcissism is generally accepted to stand out from the other two, as it contains a mix of adaptive and maladaptive features, and therefore has been considered the “lightest” member of this triad. However, as I noted in a previous post, there has been considerable controversy about whether Machiavellianism is actually distinct from psychopathy. Specifically, psychopathy combines callous disregard for others with reckless impulsivity, lack of self-control, and deficient ability to adhere to long-term plans. In theory, although Machiavellianism is also characterized by callousness, it should also be associated with the ability to delay gratification and focus on long-term planning. For this reason, it has been argued that Machiavellianism, unlike psychopathy, should not be associated with impulsivity or low conscientiousness, which is a trait associated with self-control and deliberation before taking action. However, research has found that measures of Machiavellianism are associated with low conscientiousness and with greater impulsivity, although to a less extent than psychopathy (Vize, Lynam, Collison, & Miller, 2018). Hence, critics have argued that existing measures of Machiavellianism largely tap the same traits as psychopathy, and therefore are redundant (Miller, Hyatt, Maples‐Keller, Carter, & Lynam, 2017).

 Wikimedia Commons
Cesare Borgia: Poster boy for Machiavellianism.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, despite these similarities, a number of studies have found behavioral differences between Machiavellianism and psychopathy that are consistent with the notion that people high in Machiavellianism (“Machs”) are capable of long-term planning while those with predominantly psychopathic traits are not. As I noted in a previous post, a study linked Machiavellianism with political ambition and a positive attitude to political campaigning, while psychopathy was associated with a lack of such ambition and a dislike of campaign activities (Peterson & Palmer, 2019). Other research has found that being high in Machiavellianism was associated with a greater likelihood of working in a managerial position, while psychopathy was associated with a lower likelihood (Spurk, Keller, & Hirschi, 2016). Additionally, other studies have found that when given the opportunity to cheat on a virtual task with no chance of punishment, both Machiavellianism and psychopathy were associated with increased cheating, but when there was a high risk of punishment, only psychopathy continued to be associated with cheating (Jones & Paulhus, 2017). This supports the view that psychopaths engage in risk-taking recklessly, while Machs take a strategic approach to dishonest behavior in which they consider potential negative consequences. Another study found that Machs reported greater willingness than psychopaths to put cognitive effort into planning a lie, which suggests that Machiavellianism may be associated with greater cognitive control than psychopathy (Baughman, Jonason, Lyons, & Vernon, 2014).

 Wikimedia Commons
Cheating may be a way of life for dark triad personalities.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the behavioral differences between Machs and psychopaths, despite their similarities in their personality traits, such as low conscientiousness, can be explained by differences in cognitive ability. A review of studies concluded that there were no relationships between any of the dark triad traits and intelligence (O’Boyle et al., 2013). However, the authors of a recent study on Polish students (Kowalski et al., 2018) suggested that this lack of a relationship might have occurred because most of the studies focused on measures of mainly crystallized intelligence, which emphasizes acquired knowledge, rather than measures of fluid intelligence, which refers to abstract reasoning ability. The authors suggested that fluid intelligence might be particularly relevant to Machiavellianism, considering Machs’ purported ability to engage in long-term planning, whereas crystallized intelligence might be less important. To test this, they examined the relationships between each of the dark triad traits and participants’ performance on Raven’s Matrices, a well-known measure of fluid intelligence. As expected, they found that Machiavellianism was significantly related to higher scores on fluid intelligence, albeit to a modest extent, whereas narcissism and psychopathy were completely unrelated to fluid intelligence. They argued that this suggests that Machs have an enhanced capacity for abstract thought and inference and that this would assist them in strategic thinking and planning.

If it is generally true that Machiavellianism is associated with higher fluid intelligence, this might help explain why Machs can succeed in long-term planning despite being low in conscientiousness. Previous research has found a slight negative relationship between intelligence and conscientiousness, meaning that highly intelligent people, in general, tend to be low in conscientiousness, and vice versa. Despite claims that this inverse relationship was due to sampling bias and was therefore restricted to college students (Murray, Johnson, McGue, & Iacono, 2014), a study using a nationally representative sample in Germany found that the negative relationship between conscientiousness and intelligence applied in the general population, and not just in selected samples, such as college students (Rammstedt, Danner, & Martin, 2016). One proposed explanation of this effect is that there is a compensatory relationship between conscientiousness and intelligence, such that people with high levels of cognitive ability can succeed in life despite not working as hard as highly conscientious people with less cognitive ability. Additionally, it has been found that higher intelligence is associated with greater ability to delay gratification (i.e. forgo a small but immediate reward for a larger but delayed one) (Shamosh & Gray, 2008). This might be because intelligence is associated with working memory capacity, which enables one to keep in mind goal-relevant information when dealing with potential distractors. Additionally, intelligence may facilitate deliberative, controlled processing by allowing one to focus on abstract information without being distracted by emotional considerations. That is, one can think about one’s decisions “coolly” without being derailed by “hot” emotional considerations. For these reasons, higher intelligence might allow Machs to engage in calculated long-term planning and delay of gratification, despite lacking the natural self-discipline associated with conscientiousness. Hence, higher intelligence would help explain why there are differences in outcomes between Machs and more psychopathic individuals, despite the similarities in their personality traits. If so, it might not be too far from the truth to suggest that “evil masterminds” are better described as Machiavellian than psychopathic.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original post is provided.


Baughman, H. M., Jonason, P. K., Lyons, M., & Vernon, P. A. (2014). Liar liar pants on fire: Cheater strategies linked to the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 71, 35–38.

Furnham, A., Daoud, Y., & Swami, V. (2009). “How to spot a psychopath”: Lay theories of psychopathy. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 44(6), 464–472.

Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2017). Duplicity among the dark triad: Three faces of deceit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(2), 329–342.

Kowalski, C. M., Kwiatkowska, K., Kwiatkowska, M. M., Ponikiewska, K., Rogoza, R., & Schermer, J. A. (2018). The Dark Triad traits and intelligence: Machiavellians are bright, and narcissists and psychopaths are ordinary. Personality and Individual Differences, 135, 1–6.

Miller, J. D., Hyatt, C. S., Maples‐Keller, J. L., Carter, N. T., & Lynam, D. R. (2017). Psychopathy and Machiavellianism: A Distinction Without a Difference? Journal of Personality, 85(4), 439–453.

Murray, A. L., Johnson, W., McGue, M., & Iacono, W. G. (2014). How are conscientiousness and cognitive ability related to one another? A re-examination of the intelligence compensation hypothesis. Personality and Individual Differences, 70, 17–22.

O’Boyle, E. H., Forsyth, D., Banks, G. C., & Story, P. A. (2013). A meta-analytic review of the Dark Triad–intelligence connection. Journal of Research in Personality, 47(6), 789–794.

Peterson, R. D., & Palmer, C. L. (2019). The Dark Triad and nascent political ambition. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 0(0), 1–22.

Rammstedt, B., Danner, D., & Martin, S. (2016). The association between personality and cognitive ability: Going beyond simple effects. Journal of Research in Personality, 62, 39–44.

Shamosh, N. A., & Gray, J. R. (2008). Delay discounting and intelligence: A meta-analysis. Intelligence, 36(4), 289–305.

Spurk, D., Keller, A. C., & Hirschi, A. (2016). Do Bad Guys Get Ahead or Fall Behind? Relationships of the Dark Triad of Personality with Objective and Subjective Career Success. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(2), 113–121.

Vize, C. E., Lynam, D. R., Collison, K. L., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Differences among dark triad components: A meta-analytic investigation. Personality Disorders, 9(2), 101–111.