Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Naming Evil: Dark Triad, Tetrad, Malignant Narcissism

Does the recipe for evil mix psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, sadism?

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In psychology, we tend to avoid qualitative personal descriptors, especially evil—even though it's one of the most heavily discussed topics in the history of discussing anything. What is it? While some say actions can be evil but people cannot, much of the world disagrees with that latter notion. Most see evil people, maybe many or maybe few, but evil in most eyes nonetheless.

Psychologist Erich Fromm, who fled from Nazi Germany before World War II, spent much of his career trying to understand evil. While trying to make sense of why normal people frightened by the Great Depression allowed the Nazis to rise to power, he decided that the most basic human dilemma is the conflict between freedom and security and that people will give up one to reclaim the other, more easily surrendering liberty to feel secure.

That idea, perhaps his best known, concerned relinquishing freedom to evil, but he did not stop there. Fromm stared into the evil itself. Eventually, he coined the term malignant narcissism to describe extreme, exploitative selfishness, "the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity" which he considered to be "the quintessence of evil" (1964, p. 37). Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg (1970) followed up on this, viewing the malignant narcissist as a sadistic psychopath.

Objective assessment of these qualitative concepts could be elusive. How do we measure evil? In the 21st century, some researchers have begun to describe it in terms of three overlapping personality features for which some measurement instruments exist: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism at their most extreme, maladaptive levels—together known as the dark triad (Jakobwitz & Egan, 2006; Paulhus & Williams, 2002).

Psychopathy: Whereas diagnosticians assess the DSM diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder based mostly on overt antisocial actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), some clinicians find it more useful to look at psychopathy—a pattern defined largely by absence of empathy, lacking the emotional aspects of a conscience (Cleckley, 1941/1976). A psychopath indifferent to the feelings or fates of others might not actively want to inflict harm or control them either, so psychopathy is not by itself all-encompassing evil as most people would see it.

Narcissism: More than mere vanity, the maladaptive form of self-obsession that people usually mean by narcissism is epitomized in the DSM's narcissistic personality disorder. A massively egotistic person could still have a conscience, though, even if shortsighted and self-centered. A psychopathic narcissist, however, would be super-egotistical without a conscience to hold him or her back.

Machiavellianism: Named for Nicolo Machiavelli, who wrote about the manipulative nature of politics, Machiavellianism refers to a detached, calculating attitude regarding manipulativeness. The main test for this trait, the MACH-IV (Christie & Geis, 1970), identifies attitudes about pragmatism and manipulation rather than manipulative ability itself.

As awful as a manipulative egotist who lacks a conscience might be, that person might still take no delight in other people's pain. Cold indifference is not pleasure. The person who scores high in all aspects of the dark triad, though exploitative, might still fall short of Fromm's "quintessence of evil" if that person does not actively enjoy cruelty for its own sake. So to the dark triad, some researchers added one more item to form a dark tetrad and maybe describe evil a bit better (Book et al., 2016; Chabrol et al., 2009; Međedović & Petrović, 2015).

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sadism: Sadists enjoy hurting others. Named for the Marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, sadism means deriving pleasure from other people's suffering. When the manipulative egotist who lacks a conscience gets thrills from making people suffer, when that person enjoys ruining lives and hurts people just for the sheer fun of hurting them, that's the person more people will call evil. If all four of those overlapping qualities are so deeply, persistently ingrained in the personality that the combination defines who that person is, it might be hard not to call someone with that mixture evil.

Not every fiend will fit this description. Not every abuser, bomber, mass murderer, or other human monster will meet all four criteria, but when all four are present, persistent, and pervasive, their victims tend to suffer the worst. That, we name evil.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Book, A. S., Visser, B., Blais, J., & D’Agata, M. T. (2016). Unpacking more “evil”: What is at the core of the dark tetrad? Personality and Individual Differences, 90, 269-272.

Chabrol, H., Van Leeuwen, N., Rodgers, R., & Sejourne, N. (2009). Contributions of psychopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian, and sadistic personality traits to juvenile delinquency. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(7), 734-739.

Christie, R., & Geis, F. L. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.

Cleckley, H. M. (1941/1976). The mask of sanity: An attempt to clarify some issues about the so-called psychopathic personality. Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby.

Fromm, E. (1964). The heart of man. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Jakobwitz, S., & Egan, V. (2006). The “dark triad” and normal personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(2), 331–339.

Kernberg, O. (1970). Factors in the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personalities. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 18(1), 51-85.

Međedović, J., & Petrović, B. (2015). The Dark Tetrad : Structural properties and location in the personality space. Journal of Individual Differences, 36(4), 228-236.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, J. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556–63.

More from Psychology Today

More from Travis Langley Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today