Sex, Power, Money, and All of the Above

Who will win in the search for sex, power, and money?

Posted Sep 21, 2013

Freud may have believed that all humans are motivated by illicit motives, but research on the “Dark Triad” of personality suggests that some of us have stronger cravings than others.  The Dark Triad refers to the set of three personality traits or personal dispositions generally recognized as undesirable – hence the term “dark.”  

The first of these Dark Triad traits is “Machiavellianism,” named after the 16th century Italian author whose treatise, “The Prince” advocates the use of power to achieve political ends, even if this means lying and using others to get what you want.  People high in Machiavellianism, then, are calculating as well as deceitful.

The second Dark Triad trait is psychopathy, a term you might be familiar with or if not, with the related concept of “sociopathy.” People high in psychopathy are unable to empathize with others, tend to be shallow and glib, and have a lifestyle characterized by impulsive, possibly criminal, acts. They also are supreme manipulators of others in order to get their own way, and they tend to have a glorified sense of their own abilities.  

Finally, the Dark Triad personality includes the trait of narcissism, named after the Greek youth Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in the water, only to drown as a result. People high in narcissism have an exaggerated sense of their own importance or “grandiosity.” Underneath this grandiose exterior, according to some theories, they feel vulnerable and insecure.

People high on dark triad traits may not think of their personalities as being dark, and they may even like getting turned on by the rewards they seek. However, the people who are the target of their manipulative and exploitative tendencies sooner or later learn to avoid or at least be wary of them. Being high on dark triad traits hardly makes you a great romantic partner.  However, you may be very successful in finding others to succumb to your sexual powers. The “sex” in the sex, power, money reward game, then, is the no-commitment or hookup variety, not the truly intimate.

With this background in mind, University of Calgary psychologist Kibeom Lee and colleagues (2013) examined the correlations among the Dark Triad qualities and the “outcomes” (though correlational) in the tendencies toward exploitative sexual liaisons (“Sex”), to dominate and exploit others (“Power”), and to be motivated toward materialistic ends and conspicuous consumption (“Money”). They also looked at the opposite of the Dark Triad qualities in the personality traits of “Humility-Honesty.” As the term implies, people high on humility are modest and demure, and those high on honesty would not lie, cheat, or swindle to get their way.

The sample that Lee and colleagues recruited were undergraduate students, so they were not necessarily representative of the adult population. On the plus side, instead of answering questions about their own personalities, the participants were rated by a good friend who had known them for at least a year. Both participants and their partners rated themselves and their peers, and they were kept from seeing each other’s responses throughout the duration of the study. The majority of participants (about 70%) were women, reflecting the gender proportions in many psychology classes. Again, it’s important to keep in mind the nature of the sample when looking at these findings. They may not apply to men, adults in the general population, or even all ethnicities.

If you were going to put sex, money, and power into terms that could be measured, how would you make the translation? In the case of Lee and team, all of this had to be relegated to paper-and-pencil techniques, but they were nevertheless interesting and potentially useful, as I'll explain shortly.

For the “Sex” domain, participants were asked to consider whether, in a set of given situations, they would trade sex for something else such as a work-related reward. They were also asked for their “sociosexual orientation,” estimating the number of their past, current, and projected future sexual partners.  

The “Money” domain was tapped by questions assessing the value they placed on having material possessions. Participants also stated how they would spend an extra $100,000 if they had it available to them. Conspicuous consumers said they would spend the extra cash on fancy cars, lavish meals, and the like. Lee and collaborators also asked their participants to indicate how important it was for them to have the latest products in a variety of products, from sunglasses to cereal.

Sex and money were measured in relatively behavioral terms, with these young participants stating how they (or their peers) would act in a given situations. The Power dimension was measured behaviorally as well, with the researchers asking students to indicate how much power over others they hoped to have by the time they were 40 years old.  Other power questions more asked the participants to rate their views about accepting social inequalities in comparison to having more democratic ideals.

From these details about the study’s methods, you can see that the researchers approached their ambitious goals of relating personality to interpersonal motivation using a combination of traditional questionnaires with measures designed to tap their actual behaviors. Furthermore, by using participant pairs, the researchers didn’t have to rely entirely on self-report. Now let’s see what they found.

For one thing, Lee and his fellow researchers found that the so-called “Dirty Dozen” test of the Dark Triad wasn’t enough on its own to predict sex, money, and power. Those scales tapping humility and honesty also played an important role. Though it’s nice to use tests that are short and sweet, in personality psychology it’s sometimes necessary to go with the more complex options.

Now let’s get to the bottom line. Can you predict who, in your life, will be likely to exploit you, abuse power, and try to lure you into a one-night stand from these personality dimensions? The short answer is that, based on this study, yes you can.  The Dark Triad variables played a role, but not as strongly as did that Honesty-Humility dimension. Lee and his coauthors reasoned that being low on honesty and humility means that you’re interested in gaining at the expense of others. You’ll lie to get what you want and you’ll think that you’re entitled to it, as well. In fact, Lee and his team believe that low honesty-humility lies at the root of the Dark Triad.

How can you predict whether someone in your life will take advantage of you in the areas of sex, power, and money? It wouldn’t be practical to administer a lengthy questionnaire to all new and prospective dating partners, friends, or co-workers. You can instead take the tiger by the tail and throw some test questions that person’s way similar to those used in the Lee et al. scenarios. How much does this new person in your life crave high status brands?  Is the person likely to cheer for the underdog or only admire those who overpower others with their sheer strength or size? In the area of sexuality, do you get the feeling that you’ll be in this person’s life just long enough to satisfy a yen, or are there more lasting indicators of intimacy and closeness? 

The takeaway message from this study is clear. The Dark Triad is something to be on the lookout for when it comes to finding and, more importantly, trusting another person.  However, just as important is to evaluate how far that person is willing to go to take something away from you, or someone close to you. People who feel that they deserve special treatment, and will lie to get it, will cause you trouble in the long run.

When it comes right down to it, true fulfillment comes not from sex, money, and power. If you’re one of those low honesty-humility types, your happiness may prove to be fleeting as others around you become disenchanted with your shallow and exploitative style. Instead, consider finding long-term satisfaction in goals with deeper meaning.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Lee, K., Ashton, M. C., Wiltshire, J., Bourdage, J. S., Visser, B. A., & Gallucci, A. (2013). Sex, power, and money: Prediction from the Dark Triad and Honesty–Humility. European Journal of Personality, 27(2), 169-184.