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The Four “Dark Personality” Traits

Distinguishing psychopaths, narcissists, Machiavellians, and everyday sadists.

In the last few years, the “Positive Psychology” movement has been all the rage. Let’s stop fretting about the underside of human nature and study people who are happy, courageous, productive, and self-actualized!

But Del Paulhus has bucked the trend with a series of studies delving into the dark side of human personality. As he notes in a paper released today in Current Directions in Psychological Science: "Our work on the 'dark side' stands in stark contrast to the popular work on positive personality traits. In our view, dark personalities are more fascinating than shiny, happy folks."

Paulhus and his colleagues have enumerated four different kinds of self-centered and socially offensive people who most of us encounter in our day-to-day lives: narcissists, Machiavellians, nonclinical psychopaths, and everyday sadists.

Paulhus notes that psychologists often confuse these types of individuals, who all share a tendency to score especially high on measures of callousness (or lack of empathy for other people). Each of these types also tends to be extroverted and sociable, so often make good first impressions, before going on to make life miserable for those who are exploited by them. But there are important differences, and those distinctions have important implications for the kinds of harm these folks can do to their relationship partners and coworkers.

Narcissists are “grandiose self-promoters who continually crave attention.” Paulhus notes that: “You have undoubtedly been annoyed by these tiresome braggarts.” Frank Sinatra, the great crooner of my mother’s generation, was something of a narcissist, a trait he shared with any number of super-stars in the performing arts, then and now.

Machiavellians, according to Paulhus, are “Master manipulators… one of them has cheated you out of something valuable—a fact that you may not have realized until it was too late.” They differ from narcissists in their especially high scores on tests of manipulativeness, and their inclination to be involved in white collar crime. The stock swindler Bernard Madoff, who worked his way up to the leadership of the New York Stock Exchange, only to use his position to bilk his investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars, is the classic Macchiavellian.

Psychopaths, as Paulhus notes, are “arguably the most malevolent,” scoring high on measures of callousness, impulsivity, manipulativeness, and grandiosity, thus being dark across the board. They often do harm to others as they go about seeking thrills with little concern for who gets hurt along the way. Their impulsiveness makes them less adept at white collar crime of the Bernie Madoff variety, and often inclines them towards violence when others get in their way. Charles Manson and Whitey Bulger are classic cases of psychopathy (see Do You Have Criminal Genes?). But Paulhus notes that there are many people whose psychopathy is low enough to keep from landing in jail, while nevertheless leading to costs for those who are drawn close to them.

What is especially troubling about this first set (the original “Dark Triad”) is that they are often socially adept, and can make very good first impressions. For example, they do better on job interviews than normal people, advantaged by their lack of anxiety about the opinions of others, and greater willingness to show off their strengths to strangers while playing it smooth and comfortable.

Everyday sadists share the trait of callousness with the first three types, but they are distinguished not by their impulsiveness or manipulativeness (which are in the normal range), but instead by their enjoyment of cruelty. As Paulhus notes, everyday sadists may be drawn to jobs such as police officers or the military, where they can harm others in a legitimate guise. Paulhus is not saying, incidentally, that all law enforcement personnel are sadistic, but simply that their ranks may have a higher than average number of everyday sadists (who, as noted by a police official interviewed recently on NPR, can do great damage to police-community relations).

If you read Paulhus's paper, you might start to wonder about its author — why would anyone be drawn to research on narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism? I have known Paulhus for at least two decades, and enjoyed many conversations with him during long walks around Vancouver (usually after dark, because he is a night owl). He is anything but a narcissist or a psychopath, it turns out. Indeed, he is a really nice guy, humble, and a group player. When he read this blog post this morning, he sent me this note: "Don't know if it messes up the flow, but could you stick in something about my several generations of student collaborators? If there's room for their names, they are: Kevin Williams, Craig Nathanson, Peter Harms, Dan Jones, Erin Buckels." That's decidely non-narcissistic!

Instead, Del is a tiny bit introverted and highly conscientious, spending a great part of his life working into the wee hours while the rest of his colleagues are fast asleep. What drives Del is a fascination with the meticulous measurement of personality traits. Although his work on the dark side of personality is quite well known, he is better known for his work rooting out response biases in personality tests, and distinguishing the different forms of social desirability that can taint our answers to those tests. He especially loves to uncover distinctions that other researchers have missed, as in the distinction between self-deception versus impression management — that might lead two different people to rank themselves at the 90th percentile on “niceness” for different reasons (I am fooling myself, but you may simply be trying to fool potential employers).

Paulhus's work on the dark side of personality stems from that same scientific module in his mind. In the recent article on the dark side of personality, he notes that he got into this area because of his concern about “construct creep.” He became worried about how researchers who studied narcissism, for example, without simultaneously thinking about Machiavellianism or psychopathy, would start to expand the term to encompass the other related, but distinct, concepts. Paulhus thinks it is critically important to distinguish the different types of dark personalities, because there are practical consequences — an employee who is Machiavellian will do a different kind of damage than one who is narcissistic or psychopathic, for example. Because these individuals share a tendency to do well in initial interactions, Paulhus argues that it is important that employers use good clean measures of those constructs as part of their personnel assessment batteries. And judging from what some of my friends have told me, some people would have liked to have those measurements on hand before they chose their long-term mates.

Douglas Kenrick is author of The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think and Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life.


Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the fate of organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Paulhus, D.L. (2014). Toward a taxonomy of dark personalities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 421– 426.

Paulhus, D. L., & Jones, D. N. (in press). Measures of dark personalities. In G. J. Boyle, D. H. Saklofske, & G. Matthews (Eds.), Measures of personality and social psychological constructs. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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