The term “Dark Triad” refers to a trio of negative personality traits—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—which share some common malevolent features. The construct was coined by researchers Delroy L. Paulhus and Kevin M. Williams in 2002.
People with these traits tend to be callous and manipulative, willing to do or say practically anything to get their way. They have an inflated view of themselves and are often shameless about self-promotion. These individuals are likely to be impulsive and may engage in dangerous behavior—in some cases, even committing crimes—without any regard for how their actions affect others.
While many researchers consider psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism three distinct traits with overlapping characteristics, others believe the commonalities suggest an underlying personality construct that has yet to be fully understood.
Most researchers consider psychopathy—a trait characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse—to be the “darkest” of the Dark Triad, in so far as psychopaths generally cause more harm to individuals and to society than do narcissists or "High Machs." “Psychopath” is not a mental health diagnosis; the disorder that most closely represents it in the DSM is antisocial personality disorder.
Machiavellianism is not a mental health diagnosis; rather, it's a personality trait describing a manipulative individual who deceives and tricks others to achieve goals. It is based on the political philosophy of the 16th-century writer Niccolò Machiavelli. Some evidence suggests that of the dark traits, Machiavellianism is most closely tied to high intelligence. If a psychologist refers to someone as "High Mach," it means they behave in a highly manipulative manner.
The third piece of the triad, narcissism, is characterized by excessive self-regard and heightened arrogance. While many narcissists are merely frustrating, extreme or “malignant” narcissists can become emotionally abusive or even violent when they aren’t given the special treatment they believe is deserved.
Recently, researchers have begun to hypothesize that a single core factor—classified as “D”—may underlie many different negative traits, including those in the Dark Triad as well as sadism, entitlement, and others. “D” denotes a tendency to maximize one's own desires at the expense of other people’s.
Researchers have recently begun to study the so-called “Light Triad” of traits: faith in humanity, humanism, and Kantianism. The theory is often framed as the opposite of the Dark Triad, and hinges on the belief that people are inherently good and should not be treated expediently.
The Dark Triad attempts to capture manipulative, exploitative traits that are not represented by the Big 5, a five-factor model of the core traits of an individual’s personality which is considered the most reliable and widely used model of personality to date. To identify these traits in clinical settings, clinicians and researchers typically use individual scales measuring narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism separately, or a 12-item scale known as the “Dirty Dozen” that is designed to measure all three at once.
Though there are physical and behavioral cues that have been shown to be associated with the Dark Triad in research settings, individuals with these traits may excel at hiding their true nature, especially at first. Narcissists, for instance, often appear charming and likable upon first meeting; some evidence suggests that this may be due to the perception that they have high self-esteem, a socially desirable trait.
Narcissism, in particular, has been found to manifest in people’s physical appearance. Narcissists are more likely to dress nicely, be physically attractive, and wear makeup or dress provocatively. One 2018 study found that grandiose narcissists also tended to have distinctive, well-groomed eyebrows.
In response to rising interest in the Dark Triad, researchers Peter K. Jonason and Gregory D. Webster developed a concise, 12-item measure of these personality traits called “The Dirty Dozen.” The Dirty Dozen offers a faster, easier way to identify the Dark Triad traits than does testing for narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy individually.
It can be difficult to spot someone high in Dark Triad traits, and without a formal evaluation, you may never know for sure. But someone who repeatedly lies, demonstrates a marked lack of empathy, or bullies others to achieve their own goals may be high in one or more dark traits.