Sexual Well-Being and the Dark Triad

The good and bad effects of so-called dark traits on sexuality.

Posted Jun 24, 2019

In personality psychology, there has been great interest in understanding the so-called “dark triad” – socially aversive traits that include psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Although one theory is that the dark triad are traits that facilitate short-term mating — casual sexual encounters without a long-term commitment — little is known about how these traits are related to the quality of a person’s sexual functioning.

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The Seduction by Gaspare Traversi
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A recent study (Pilch & Smolorz, 2019) found that while these traits are generally associated with having more sexual partners, psychopathic and Machiavellian traits are also associated with poorer outcomes such as sexual fear and anxiety, while narcissism and the trait of boldness seem to be associated with more adaptive outcomes including higher sexual self-esteem and assertiveness.

While various so-called dark traits may facilitate short-term mating, they might do so for different reasons. Furthermore, these traits comprise a mix of psychologically healthy and unhealthy characteristics that can positively or negatively affect a person’s sexual functioning. Hence, it may not be a common core of “darkness” that facilitates short-term mating, but two distinct factors with divergent outcomes. 

The concept of the dark triad of personality was introduced to highlight common features of three different concepts related to selfish and antisocial attitudes and behavior.

Psychopathy refers to callous disregard for the rights of others and is considered the most malevolent, and therefore the ‘darkest,’ of the triad.

Machiavellianism, a cynical, manipulative approach to social interaction, is the next most dark and is sometimes considered a milder variant of psychopathy.

Narcissism, which refers to a grandiose sense of one’s own superiority and feelings of entitlement to special treatment, on the other hand, is considered the ‘lightest’ of these traits, as narcissists are often superficially attractive to others, at least initially, and have high self-esteem.

People high in dark triad traits have an increased interest in short-term casual sexual relationships and prefer to avoid entangling commitments. Hence, it has been argued that dark triad traits have evolved as a way to facilitate short-term mating, such as through the application of manipulative, aggressive, and exploitative interpersonal behavior (Jonason, Valentine, Li, & Harbeson, 2011).

Although previous research has found that people with dark traits tend to have more lifetime sexual partners, the quality of their sexual experience, such as sexual satisfaction and sexual self-esteem, has been overlooked, so a recent study (Pilch & Smolorz, 2019) explored this. Specifically, it examined how a number of dark traits were related to aspects of sexual self-concept, such as preoccupation with sex, sexual motivation, self-esteem, assertiveness, sexual fear and anxiety, and so on.

In this study, narcissism and Machiavellianism were each assessed as single traits. On the other hand, psychopathy was assessed in terms of three traits, based on the Triarchic model that assumes that psychopathy consists of three components of meanness (interpersonal antagonism), disinhibition (reckless impulsivity), and boldness (social confidence and poise). However, it is important to note that the validity of the Triarchic model as a representation of psychopathy has been criticized (Miller, Lamkin, Maples-Keller, & Lynam, 2016).

Specifically, while meanness and disinhibition are generally accepted as core features of psychopathy, boldness has been found to be a marker of good mental health and to have little or no connection with antisocial behavior that is typically associated with psychopathy. Hence, boldness may not even be a “dark” trait at all.  

In the study’s results, the general pattern was that narcissism, boldness, and disinhibition were related to most of the sexual variables in some way in both men and women, while Machiavellianism was related to most of them in women but not men, and meanness was largely unrelated to sexual variables in either sex (apart from two specific correlations).

More specifically, the number of lifetime sexual partners and sexual motivation were both positively related to narcissism, boldness, and disinhibition in both men and women. Sexual preoccupation was also positively related to narcissism and disinhibition in both men and women, to boldness and Machiavellianism in women only, and to meanness in men only.

Unexpectedly, meanness in women only was related to lower sexual motivation. Another pattern that emerged was that boldness and narcissism tended to be related to more positive aspects of sexuality. Specifically, higher sexual self-esteem and sexual assertiveness were associated with boldness and narcissism, but not the other, darker traits. In fact, in women only, Machiavellianism and disinhibition were related to lower sexual assertiveness.

Additionally, higher sexual satisfaction in both men and women was related to boldness only, while Machiavellianism was related to lower sexual satisfaction in both men and women. Furthermore, sexual anxiety and fear tended to be related to higher levels of Machiavellianism and disinhibition, and to lower levels of boldness and narcissism. 

Since the dark traits have considerable overlap, the authors performed an analysis controlling for the shared variance of the traits to determine which were unique predictors of the outcomes. They found that boldness was positively associated, and Machiavellianism was negatively associated with sexual satisfaction. Furthermore, sexual motivation was positively associated with narcissism and disinhibition, and negatively associated with meanness.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
Source: Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

The patterns in the results seem to suggest that several of the so-called dark traits tend to facilitate short-term mating as most of them, with the notable exception of meanness, were associated with higher sexual motivation and having more sexual partners.

However, it might not be the common core of “darkness” that explains this. One explanation of the dark triad is that they share a common core of interpersonal antagonism, that is, selfish motivation to put one’s interests ahead of others and willingness to use aggression to get ahead. In terms of the well-known Big Five model of personality traits, the three members of the dark triad have a common core of low agreeableness, a trait related to the quality of one’s interpersonal relationships (O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, Story, & White, 2015).

Additionally, psychopathy and Machiavellianism are similar in being typically associated with low conscientiousness (a trait related to self-discipline), which indicates that they are each related to recklessness and impulsivity. On the other hand, narcissism differs from the others, in that it's also associated with high extraversion, which is related to their social confidence and assertiveness.

However, there is some disagreement about the components of psychopathy. As noted earlier, the study by Pilch and Smolorz used the triarchic model of psychopathy, which comprises meanness, disinhibition, and boldness. In terms of the Big Five model, meanness is most strongly associated with low agreeableness, disinhibition with low conscientiousness, and boldness with a combination of high extraversion and low neuroticism. Hence, meanness and disinhibition capture the antagonistic and impulsive aspects of psychopathy, while boldness is thought to capture an element of fearlessness.

Critics of the triarchic model have argued that meanness and disinhibition seem to capture the core features that are thought to be associated with psychopathy, but boldness seems to be an unrelated construct (Sleep, Miller, Lynam, & Weiss, 2019). For example, meanness and disinhibition are known to be associated with violent and antisocial behavior, while boldness is not; additionally, boldness is associated with good mental health, while disinhibition in particular is associated with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

The fact that boldness is associated with good mental health, while disinhibition is associated with mental health problems, might help make sense of the finding that boldness was associated with good sexual health outcomes, such as sexual satisfaction and sexual self-esteem, and reduced sexual fear and anxiety, while disinhibition had the opposite effects. Furthermore, narcissism was to a lesser extent associated with healthier outcomes, such as sexual self-esteem, while Machiavellianism was associated with poorer outcomes such as sexual fear and anxiety, and lower sexual satisfaction.

This is in line with the idea that narcissism is the ‘lightest’ of the dark triad, because although it is associated with low agreeableness, it is also associated with high extraversion, which tends to be associated with social self-confidence and self-esteem. On the other hand, Machiavellianism is associated with low conscientiousness, although to a lesser extent than disinhibition.  

Putting this together, it seems that short-term mating does not seem to be particularly facilitated by interpersonal antagonism, as indicated by the fact that meanness was generally unrelated or even in some ways negatively related to indicators of short-term mating, such as the number of partners and sexual motivation. This is despite the fact that interpersonal antagonism is considered the “dark core” of the dark triad.

On the other hand, there were two factors that did seem to facilitate short-term mating: impulsivity and social boldness. However, these two traits seemed to have opposite effects in terms of the quality of a person’s sexual life. This might be because impulsivity-related traits might predispose a person to engage in reckless sexual behavior that they might regret later. On the other hand, boldness might be associated with increased charisma that potential sexual partners find attractive, which might lead to more satisfying encounters. Hence, the effects of so-called “dark traits” on short-term mating might not spring from a unitary base, but from at least two different pathways, with divergent outcomes in terms of the quality of one’s sexual functioning. Additionally, the path associated with boldness does not seem to be particularly “dark,” in the sense of being socially aversive.

Perhaps future studies might consider whether short-term sexual encounters are associated with different mental health outcomes that depend on whether these encounters are facilitated by impulsivity or social boldness.  

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


Jonason, P. K., Valentine, K. A., Li, N. P., & Harbeson, C. L. (2011). Mate-selection and the Dark Triad: Facilitating a short-term mating strategy and creating a volatile environment. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(6), 759-763.

Miller, J. D., Lamkin, J., Maples-Keller, J. L., & Lynam, D. R. (2016). Viewing the triarchic model of psychopathy through general personality and expert-based lenses. Personality Disorders, 7(3), 247–258.

O’Boyle, E. H., Forsyth, D. R., Banks, G. C., Story, P. A., & White, C. D. (2015). A Meta-Analytic Test of Redundancy and Relative Importance of the Dark Triad and Five-Factor Model of Personality. Journal of Personality, 83(6), 644–664.

Pilch, I., & Smolorz, K. (2019). The Dark Triad and the quality of sexual life. Personality and Individual Differences, 149, 78–82.

Sleep, C., Miller, J., Lynam, D., & Weiss, B. (2019). An Examination of the Triarchic Model of Psychopathy’s Nomological Network: A Meta-Analytic Review.