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Why Dark Triad Personalities May Be Thriving Around the World

New international study shows the value of knowing about the Dark Triad.

Key points

  • The Dirty Dozen is a 12-item measure that taps into the dark triad traits of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.
  • New international study shows that the Dirty Dozen spans boundaries in its ability to measure the dark triad qualities.
  • Knowing its warning signs, no matter where you live, can help you steer clear of people who show the dark triad personality traits.
Mangostar/Shutterstock
Source: Mangostar/Shutterstock

Personality researchers believe that underlying the set of traits with the nefarious name “the Dark Triad” is a common core linking narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (the tendency to exploit others). Even “darker” is the name that researchers use to label a 12-item test, known as the “Dirty Dozen,” intended to understand these decidedly unpleasant qualities and how they fit into an individual’s overall patterns of personality and behavior.

Originally developed by the University of Padova’s Peter Jonason and University of Florida’s Gregory Webster (2010), the Dirty Dozen Dark Triad (DDDT) questionnaire readily gained support as a way to measure these qualities without overburdening research participants. However, questions remain in the academic community about how such a brief instrument could do the job of the lengthier inventories it’s intended to replace. If someone asked you 12 questions, even if they were very well-written, would you be willing to bet that your answers could capture central elements of your personality? Even more to the point, given that the questions ask participants to admit they have undesirable qualities, would you be all that ready to confess to your true nature?

Somewhat surprisingly, a slightly longer measure, a 27-item Short Dark Triad (SD3), appears to hold up less well to statistical tests examining its underlying structure. If the DDDT performs the same, or better, then it would have a number of advantages as a test that can be incorporated into larger studies.

According to Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University’s Radoslaw Rogoza and a large team of international colleagues (2021), the DDDT’s merits include not only its brevity and statistical qualities, but also its proven ability to be translated into multiple languages. The DDDT also appears to apply across a variety of cultural contexts. These advantages led the 53-member research team, representing universities around the globe, to choose the DDDT for their attempt to understand the universality of the Dark Triad.

What is the Dirty Dozen?

This 12-item personality test is not openly available online, but you can get an idea of what it’s like from these sample items. Try seeing how much each one applies to you on a 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much) scale:

  1. I tend to expect special favors from others.
  2. I tend to seek prestige or status.
  3. I tend to lack remorse.
  4. I tend to be cynical.
  5. I tend to manipulate others to get my way.
  6. I have used flattery to get my way.

These 6 items break down into 3 subscales: Items 1 and 2 reflect narcissism, 3 and 4 reflect psychopathy, and 5 and 6 reflect Machiavellianism.

Now think about whether you believe these items could apply to anyone from any culture or country. Indeed, as the international author team noted, most of the tests of the DTDD involve what researchers refer to as “W.E.I.R.D.” samples (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). If you have family or friends from non-W.E.I.R.D. backgrounds, or if you yourself are, would the questions seem valid to you?

Can the Dirty Dozen Survive the W.E.I.R.D. Test?

These questions about the DTDD’s validity served to guide the work of the Polish-led team as they explored both the internal structure of the instrument as well as its validity in terms of its associations with other theoretically related measures. Substantial evidence exists that the DTDD items align along the three factors of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. However, researchers with participants from non-W.E.I.R.D. countries developed another approach in which they separate a so-called “general” factor from the 12 items based on the commonalities that the items have, apart from the three independent factors. The resulting “bifactor” model would represent a divergence from the three-factor approach that keeps intact the initial theoretical basis for the DTDD.

In non-technical terms, the possible problems with these divergent approaches would mean that the DTDD’s scores would differ based on the nature of a particular set of respondents. Your scores, if you’re from a W.E.I.R.D. background, would therefore have different meanings than your scores should you be from another culture. From a research standpoint, the DTDD would lose its potential to provide a snapshot of an individual's dark triad tendencies that would cut across populations.

To test the DTDD’s universality, Rogoza and his fellow researchers obtained data from 13 samples from 3 W.E.I.R.D. world regions and 36 samples from 5 non-W.E.I.R.D. regions. The 11,723 participants (mostly university students) were all part of the “Cross-Cultural Self-Enhancement Project,” involving over 70 academics from 56 countries. The requirements for participation by these researchers included being able to recruit at least 250 participants and pass a set of data quality tests, leading to a final sample of 49 countries. The researchers took steps to ensure that the translation of this measure into the languages of their respective nations maintained the integrity of the English version.

Turning now to the findings, as the authors predicted, the DTDD’s three-factor structure held up consistently across all eight world regions and provided a better fit to the data than did the bifactorial model. Additionally, the authors were able to demonstrate that the sex differences obtained in prior research on the DTDD applied across all regions, with men receiving higher scores than women. The only exception was that men and women scored similarly in Asia on the psychopathy dimension, especially in Japan and Korea.

It Takes Only 12 to Measure the Dark Triad

With these worldwide data, it’s now possible to conclude that the dark triad does exist, and that it can be measured with one 12-item test without being limited by national or cultural constraints. People can be “dark” regardless of where they were born or what social influences they may be subjected to throughout their early adult years. Less well understood is what might happen to these individuals as they age and whether lifestyle factors influence them based on education, occupation, relationships, and family status.

Despite these limitations, this large international and cross-cultural study suggests that there is a measurable set of traits that characterize where people stand on the less-than-desirable qualities of the dark triad. That a simple, 12-item test can reveal these tendencies consistently around the globe suggests further that variations in dark triad qualities reflect a fundamental quality of personality.

In terms of how these findings might relate to the dark triad people you might encounter in your own life, it would appear that the items on the DTDD could be useful warnings to avoid being entrapped by their manipulative, self-aggrandizing, and deceitful ways. Although all 12 are needed to provide a complete characterization of these qualities in a given individual, knowing that a person shows one or two of these might be enough to cause you to enter into any relationship, whether personal or professional, with caution.

From a scientific point of view, the findings from this international scientific team can provide an excellent model for future personality researchers. Although the findings support the global applicability of the DTDD, there were subtle differences, such as the male-female comparisons in Japan and Korea, that suggest it’s important to look beyond one narrow cultural boundaries, particularly if those boundaries are limited to the “W.E.I.R.D.”

To sum up, there are good reasons to be wary of people whose dark triad personalities could draw you into relationships that you will later regret. The dark triad does seem to be able to travel the world, so knowing its warning signs can help you keep them out of yours.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Mangostar/Shutterstock

References

Jonason, P. K., & Webster, G. D. (2010). The Dirty Dozen: A concise measure of the Dark Triad. Psychological Assessment, 22(2), 420-432. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019265

Rogoza, R., Żemojtel-Piotrowska, M., Jonason, P. K., Piotrowski, J., Campbell, K. W., Gebauer, J. E., Maltby, J., Sedikides, C., Adamovic, M., Adams, B. G., Ang, R. P., Ardi, R., Atitsogbe, K. A., Baltatescu, S., Bilić, S., Bodroža, B., Gruneau Brulin, J., Bundhoo Poonoosamy, H. Y., Chaleeraktrakoon, T., … Włodarczyk, A. (2021). Structure of Dark Triad Dirty Dozen across eight world regions. Assessment, 28(4), 1125–1135. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191120922611

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