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Confused About Successful Jerks? Get to Know the Dark Triad

A primer on traits that most people reject but some embrace.

Imagine two types of people. Type One is selfish, dishonest, hostile, and cold-hearted. Type Two is generous, honest, friendly, and warm. Which one do you like better? Which one would you pick to be your boss, friend, or partner? Which type would you want your child to be, and to befriend? Which type would you want to see succeed?

My guess is that you, and most people, would choose Type Two. And there’s the paradox: If most people prefer Type Two, why do we see so many successful, well-connected, and powerful people who are decidedly Type One?

One way to understand this paradox is through the concept of the “Dark Triad.” The Dark Triad is a term used in psychology to describe three aversive yet functional (subclinical) personality traits—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Narcissism consists of dominance motivation, a sense of entitlement, and perceived superiority combined with intolerance to criticism. Machiavellianism includes facile social charm, deceitful behavior aimed at undermining others, and a reliance on manipulation. Psychopathy shows itself in low or absent empathy, high impulsivity, heartless social attitudes, and interpersonal hostility. Taken together, the most powerful tendency underlying all three Dark Triad traits is a knack for exploiting others.

From an evolutionary perspective, otherwise socially "dark" traits may be selected if they confer an advantage. Psychologist Peter Jonason and colleagues (2009) argued that Dark Triad traits facilitate success in short-term mating: "[S]ubclinical psychopathy is associated with a lack of neuroticism and anxiety, which may facilitate the pursuit of one’s goals through adverse conditions… Similarly, narcissism is associated with aggrandizement, and Machiavellianism is associated with being socially manipulative, both of which may aid in reaping benefits for oneself at the expense of others, especially in initial periods of acquaintance.”

It stands to reason that, just as they confer an advantage in the mating game, the absence of anxiety, coupled with a knack for self-promotion and a facility with social manipulation, will provide advantages in other competitive arenas, including business and politics.

Indeed, research has suggested that narcissism correlates positively with salary, while Machiavellianism has been linked to career advancement and satisfaction. Some evidence suggests that psychopaths are present in business leadership positions in a greater percentage than their population base rate.

In other words, the ability to put our own interests first, manage people’s impressions of us, and pursue our goals with confidence may provide a route to success. Life is hard, and a measure of inner "hardness" is adaptive.

Alas, success achieved using Dark Triad means comes at a cost, to both self and (often more acutely) others, as Dark Triad traits are associated with problems including unethical behavior, white-collar crime, lying, deception, and cyber-aggression.

In a recent review of the literature (2013), Adrian Furnham and colleagues note: “All three of the Dark Triad admit prejudice against immigrants and, more generally, proclaim a social dominance orientation… All three are rated high in ruthless self-advancement.” While they positively correlate with one another, each of the three Dark Triad traits also predicts different, specific behavioral tendencies. For example, Machiavellians are more likely to plagiarize essays and avoid risky bets; narcissists tend to be aggressive after an ego threat; and psychopaths bully others and are more likely to carry out revenge fantasies.

A 2012 meta-analysis of studies of the Dark Triad (DT) by Ernest O’Boyle and colleagues at the School of Business and Economics at Longwood University in Virginia examined their implications for job performance and counterproductive work behavior (CWB) in 245 studies published between 1951 and 2011 (N=43,907). They found that “reductions in the quality of job performance were consistently associated with increases in Machiavellianism and psychopathy and that CWB was associated with increases in all three components of the DT.”

In their review, Furnham and colleagues assert, “One or more of the Dark Triad personalities invariably emerge in analyses of counterproductive behavior… They are evident in notions of ‘toxic leadership,’ ‘snakes in suits,’ and ‘bad bosses.’ Such leaders typically derail somewhere down the line.”

More recently (2016), Andrew Harrison at the Cincinnati University College of Business, and colleagues James Summers and Brian Mennecke of Iowa State, evaluated the effects of the dark triad on fraud intentions and behaviors. They concluded: “Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism affect different parts of the unethical decision-making process. Narcissism motivates individuals to act unethically for their personal benefit and changes their perceptions of their abilities to successfully commit fraud. Machiavellianism motivates individuals not only to act unethically, but also alters perceptions about the opportunities that exist to deceive others. Psychopathy has a prominent effect on how individuals rationalize their fraudulent behaviors. Accordingly, we find that the Dark Triad elements act in concert as powerful psychological antecedents to fraud behaviors.”

Dark Triad traits may be measured in multiple ways. One of the more popular instruments is a 12-item questionnaire nicknamed the “Dirty Dozen,” which was published in 2010 by Jonason of the University of West Florida and Gregory Webster of the University of Florida. Below are the questions (Items 1-4 measure Machiavellianism; items 5-8, psychopathy; and items 9-12, narcissism) which are rated on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The higher the score, the higher the Dark Triad tendencies:

  1. I tend to manipulate others to get my way.
  2. I have used deceit or lied to get my way.
  3. I have used flattery to get my way.
  4. I tend to exploit others toward my own end.
  5. I tend to lack remorse.
  6. I tend to be unconcerned with the morality of my actions.
  7. I tend to be callous or insensitive.
  8. I tend to be cynical.
  9. I tend to want others to admire me.
  10. I tend to want others to pay attention to me.
  11. I tend to seek prestige or status.
  12. I tend to expect special favors from others.

People who rate high on Dark Triad characteristics may find career success, but not in the way most of us want our kids to achieve it, and they are likely to finish their careers in some form of disrepute. You probably wouldn’t want one as your boss, friend, or long-term partner.

LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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