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The Toxic Factor that Narcissists and Psychopaths Share

The trait of "D" may help explain both grandiosity and lack of empathy.

Key points

  • Psychopathy and narcissism are two aversive personality traits. Research suggests that they may have the same underlying features.
  • The dark triad may boil down to "D," the tendency to maximize one's own fortunes at the expense of others.
  • Identifying the tendency of "D" can help avoid people who have the potential for exploitation or manipulation.

The concept of the Dark Triad in psychology represents the inherently selfish and manipulative qualities that incorporate the traits of psychopathy (lack of remorse), narcissism (grandiosity and lack of empathy) and Machiavellianism (the tendency to exploit others). Whether or not you’ve ever heard of this term, it’s likely that you’ve experienced the results of knowing or being in a relationship with someone high in Dark Triad traits.

Perhaps you’ve had a coworker who seems to revel in taking center stage during meetings, later bragging about having waylaid the agenda completely. The person might, alternatively, be someone who arrives late for get-togethers among friends and then proceeds to dominate the conversation with derogatory comments about the host.

On the one hand, you’d readily categorize these individuals as narcissistic, but on the other hand, don’t they also seem to possess some pretty antisocial qualities too? Worse still, what about people who create havoc in your life when their deception and utter selfishness cost you money, sap your emotional energy, or thwart your goals?

The Core Quality of "D" in the Dark Triad

According to new personality research by Ulm University’s Martina Bader and colleagues (2021), there may be a toxic underlying quality that goes deeper into personality’s core in explaining the people who can cause so much pain in your life. Previous researchers, the German authors note, labeled this core quality as “D,” the “dark factor of personality.” The unpleasant traits in people who fit the “D” designation are “flavored manifestations” of a central set of qualities that lead them into “pursuits of personal interest" that are completely self-aggrandizing.

People high in D, furthermore, “hold implicit or explicit beliefs that serve as justification for socially and/or ethically aversive behavior, including, for example, a sense of entitlement, generalized distrust and cynicism, or demeaning others or certain groups as ‘losers.’”

This idea of having a “flavor” of D would explain why not all people high in this quality would show the same manifestations of the core quality. As the authors go on to explain, some people will be higher in some of these offshoots than others, leading them to show specific, unique features. For example, people high in narcissism are not only likely to try to exploit others, but additionally continue to seek validation to bolster their inflated self-images. The psychopathic individual would have the additional features beyond D of engaging in dishonest behavior along with also having a strong dose of grandiosity.

You can think of D, then, as a central defining attribute of a person who you would regard as having a toxic personality. What makes people with this quality unique is the “flavor” of D that they have in addition. To test this idea, Bader and her fellow researchers used what’s called the “bass-ackwards” approach in personality research. Rather than start with trying to fit all their data into one factor, they performed a series of iterative analyses intended to find out whether they could build the structure of D up from analyzing lower-level commonalities in the data from relevant personality measures.

The Relationship Between D, Psychopathy, and Narcissism

The first set of analyses, on over 158,000 online survey participants, produced a statistical solution revealing that D had the five defining features of callousness, sadism, vindictiveness, deceitfulness, and narcissistic entitlement. This kind of rogue’s gallery of qualities, as you can see, seems to capture the various facets of D. See how the D people in your life might see the world with these 5 sample questions:

  1. Callousness: It is hard for me to see someone suffering (reverse coded).
  2. Narcissistic entitlement: I do not deserve more in life than others (reverse coded)
  3. Vindictiveness: I would like to make people suffer even though I would go to hell with them.
  4. Deceitfulness: If a short-cut to success is illegal, it is not smart to take it (reverse coded)
  5. Sadism: I cannot imagine how being mean to others could ever be exciting (reverse coded).

Now that you have an appreciation for just how aversive these qualities are, think about how they may be manifested in people’s behavior. In the second study, Bader and her fellow researchers examined the relationships between each factor and its potential behavioral indicators. The five behavioral indicators, in turn, fell into the categories of lack of compassion, illicit behavior, status seeking, vandalism, and vengeance. These are indicators of each criterion:

  1. Lack of compassion: I tend to feel compassionate for people, even though I do not know them (reverse coded).
  2. Illicit behavior: I have cheated on taxes when I had the chance.
  3. Status seeking: It’s important to me that other people look up to me.
  4. Vandalism: Sometimes I think about destroying objects just for fun.
  5. Vengeance: If I am wronged, I can’t live with myself unless I get revenge.

Each of these five behaviors was associated, in the statistical analyses, with overall scores on D, but each also showed specific relationships with their associated personality traits. People high in callousness were, as expected, high in the quality of lack of compassion. Those high in deceitfulness were most likely to engage in illicit behavior. The narcissistically entitled were most likely to get high scores on status seeking. Sadism was linked to vandalism, and vindictiveness to vengeance.

Following the logic of the investigation, then, you can see that the constellation of traits that make up D form a core set of negative qualities which become expressed in specific categories of actions. The authors summarized this core feature as the tendency to maximize “one’s own utility unhindered by the resultant disutility for others” (p. 10). Although each of the five qualities stemming from this core have unique associations to specific behaviors, this commonality means that in most circumstances, those high in D will look out for themselves without regard for others.

Along the way in developing this framework, the authors answer the question of how psychopathy and narcissism are so centrally related. Given that all people high in D try to maximize their own opportunities and outcomes, psychopaths and narcissists share in particular the quality of selfishness. In the words of the authors, they are willing to engage in deceitful behavior because they see themselves as more important and deserving than others. This combination forms “a particularly strong belief that can be used as justification for malevolent behavior.”

Thinking now about the people in your life who show “utility maximization” toward themselves, it may not matter whether you think about them as psychopaths or narcissists. You may not even have to wonder if they have that third dark triad trait of Machiavellianism. The individual high in narcissism may not seem to have any psychopathic qualities, but if the Bader et al. study is to be believed, there is reason to worry about the “malevolent” behavior that will be turned against you even if you can't see those callous and deceitful qualities right away.

To sum up, as Bader and her colleagues note, psychology and the public continue to be fascinated with “understanding what drives individuals to engage in transgressive and unethical behaviors” despite how unsavory these qualities may be. It may not be pleasant, but there can be protective value in identifying the risk these individuals pose toward your own ability to live a fulfilling life.

Facebook image: Improvisor/Shutterstock


Bader, M., Hartung, J., Hilbig, B. E., Zettler, I., Moshagen, M., & Wilhelm, O. (2021, March 29). Themes of the dark core of
personality. Psychological Assessment. Advance online publication.