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Dark Triad

What Everyone Should Understand About the Dark Triad

Jingle, jangle, and the challenge of defining personality.

Key points

  • People with aversive personalities that seem to fit the Dark Triad are a source of fascination, both in the media and academic psychology.
  • A recent study shows that these characterizations miss the mark because they don’t get to the core of aversiveness.
  • By disentangling the "jingle" and "jangle" of the Dark Triad, you can gain understanding of aversiveness and of personality in general.

You may be familiar with the Dark Triad, a collection of the undesirable traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Even if you have never heard the term, the chances are good that you’ve seen individuals with these qualities portrayed in the recent crop of television shows, movies, and real-life crime documentaries that chronicle their many terrible exploits.

If you’re unlucky, you may also personally know someone who qualifies for the Dark Triad distinction. Perhaps you’ve been lured into making some unnecessary repairs to your home by a fast-talking salesperson whose advice you foolishly didn’t bother to check out. You assumed this person to be truthful because the story they spun about your home’s condition sounded so compelling. Only after sinking a small fortune into the project did you realize that you should’ve taken those extra steps to check out their credentials.

If you had to describe such a person in terms of their traits or underlying dispositions, what words would come to mind? If such terms as manipulative, cunning, and self-assured pop into your head, then you may very well think that this is the personification of those Dark Triad traits.

Jingle, Jangle, and the Dark Triad Traits

The term “Dark Triad” emerged 20 years ago when personality psychologists Paulhus and Williams (2002) put together three sets of qualities that they believed constituted the core of people such as your repair person: psychopathic, in that they callously lie; Machiavellian, in that they seem to know how to get you to say “yes”; and narcissistic, in that they repeatedly insist that they’re “the best in the business.”

As it turns out, although the Dark Triad’s seeming explanatory value is so strong, from an empirical standpoint, it may not actually hold up to scrutiny.

According to the University of Oregon’s Cameron Kay and Holly Arrow (2022), in their recently published critique of the Dark Triad’s history in personality psychology, “the study of these ‘dark’ or aversive personality traits is still mired in confusion” (p. 1). In part, the confusion comes from the technical definition of the term “trait.” As an enduring pattern of “emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and desires,” a trait is supposed to refer to a unique entity, one that cannot be confused with any other qualities. Unfortunately, this is not what’s happened with either the Dark Triad itself or even its component qualities.

Over the past several years, there has been a number of published critiques of the Dark Triad and its ability to do its job of describing something about an individual that is distinct from just plain aversiveness (or nastiness). The U. Oregon researchers suggest that the difficulties stem in large part from the failure of each of its component traits to refer to “unique” entities that share common qualities that distinguish them from related traits.

Believe it or not, there are formal terms that sound more like nonsense than legitimate psychology that describe the Dark Triad’s problems. Appearing in the literature from time to time, no one put them together in quite as succinct and understandable a fashion as Kay and Arrow.

Summarizing them here, the first problem is called the “jingle” issue, meaning, as the authors define it, that researchers assume “conceptualizations with the same name are assessing the same thing” (p. 4). One measure that purports to measure psychopathy, in other words, may be measuring something other than another measure also designed to test psychopathy. Researcher A develops a 21-item psychopathy questionnaire, for example, and so does Researcher B, but the responses to these questionnaires don’t completely map onto each other. The “jingle” here is that they “sound” the same, but they really are two separate entities.

Then there’s the second issue, called the “jangle” issue. More or less a play on words, this issue in personality psychology means that “putatively distinct traits share too much content” (p. 2). The problem with Dark Triad research is that actual measures of psychopathy tend to overlap to a considerable degree with measures of Machiavellianism. Specifically, this overlap involves such qualities as coldness, anger, distrustfulness, manipulativeness, arrogance, callousness, and rashness. The only qualities that don’t overlap are impulsiveness (psychopathy) and deliberateness (Machiavellianism).

Narcissism has its own set of problems. You may be familiar with the distinction popular now in the literature between the grandiose and vulnerable varieties. Although both share the features of entitlement and callousness, the grandiose type is gregarious while the vulnerable type is self-conscious. Jangle enters into the equation, as you may already have noticed, in that they do share some of the antagonistic qualities endemic to psychopathy and Machiavellianism. How would you know, then, that a study of narcissism alone isn’t actually tapping one of those other two “dark” sets of traits?

Lest you think that all of this is fine for personality psychologists to debate in just some abstract theoretical sense, consider the practical implications in everyday life. Do you commit the jangle fallacy yourself when you label someone as having one set of traits when they actually fit a different profile? As a result, couldn’t you be making the wrong assumptions about what drives their behavior? Not only might you leave yourself open to the kind of problems caused by your smooth-talking repairperson, but you could also make incorrect judgments about people who either would or would not be good for you to become involved with in a relationship.

It May All Come Down to the Elements

There may be a solution to these thorny problems, fortunately. The U. Oregon researchers propose that the jingle-jangle issues can begin to be resolved first by zooming in and then by zooming out on the qualities that make up each of these undesirable sets of qualities.

The first step zooms in by taking each of the imprecise components of the Dark Triad and looking at each, one by one. Pull the individual traits out of their catchall names and the result is a set of individual qualities that on its own can be measured by a standard personality trait measure. In this case, that measure is based on the Five Factor Model (FFM), which itself defines an empirically solid set of 30 “facets” or clearly defined and distinct qualities. By definition, although the facets organize into five factors, they each stand on their own.

With clarity on the individual facets that are incorporated in each cluster within the Dark Triad, the zooming-out part can then occur. Here, the task becomes one of identifying the core or central concepts that provide the purest index of overlap. No longer bogged down by the name given to a scale, researchers can explore the true features that unite whatever it is that previously was called the Dark Triad.

This central core, Kay and Arrow propose, is simply “aversiveness.” The name may not be as catchy as Dark Triad, but it avoids the methodological baggage attached to that more popular term.

This analysis begs the question of what constitutes this cleaner version 2.0 of the Dark Triad. After examining the vast literature on psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism, the authors arrive at this “central core,” as follows: assertive, self-assured, manipulative, self-centered, arrogant, and callous. Depicted as three overlapping circles, all three Dark Triad qualities fall into the aversiveness core. Adding on to Machiavellianism are the traits of active, competent, deliberate, and ordered. Psychopaths have such unique qualities as being angry, rash, impulsive, and oppositional (among others). Only narcissists are characterized by gregariousness and proneness to fantasies.

In evaluating their reconfiguration of the Dark Triad, the authors suggest that it’s no longer necessary to use a term that is so sloppy that it “provides very little information about the nature of these traits other than implying that “they are bad in some vague and poorly articulated way” (p. 11). Better yet, using the term “antagonistic” not only is “explicit about what unites these traits” but also suggests a framework for discovering new traits that might attach to this concept at some point in the future.

What to Do With Your New Knowledge

The greater precision that the elemental approach provides, beyond its research value, can also help you as you think about the people you encounter. It’s all too common for people in their everyday lives to use some of the terms that make up the Dark Triad if not the Dark Triad itself when analyzing other people’s personalities. How often do you find yourself calling someone you don’t like a “narcissist”?

How about that repair person? Are they really psychopathic or maybe just high on the personality trait of being overly self-assured and distrustful? And does it really matter what you call them? It's more important to understand how to avoid people like this in the future, even if it’s too late to change the outcome of the mess you've gotten yourself into.

To sum up, the jingle-jangle problem may have seemed a bit arcane to you when first reading about its application to the Dark Triad. However, personality judgments enter every area of life from relationships to decisions you make about life’s practical matters, not to mention understanding yourself. Knowing how best to make those judgments can become the basis for new and more informed paths to fulfillment.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock


Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556–563.

Kay, C. S., & Arrow, H. (2022). Taking an elemental approach to the conceptualization and measurement of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 16(4).

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