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Dark Triad

3 Ways to Protect Yourself From the Dark Triad

3. Pay attention to what others say about them.

Key points

  • Knowing how to avoid people high in dark triad (DT) traits can be beneficial.
  • A new study on DT traits in salespeople suggests Machiavellianism seems to lead to greater success.
  • Finding the people who have our best interests at heart will lead us to more fulfilling life outcomes.
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

People with so-called “dark triad” (DT) traits get through life trying to deceive, manipulate, and trick others into falling prey to their influence, often to gain financial benefits for themselves. Defined as being high in the personality traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism (using others to further their ends), and narcissism, these DT individuals can cost you pain, harm, and even money.

One type of DT individual has caught the attention of a group of researchers headed by the University of New Hampshire’s Cinthia Satorino and colleagues (2023)—namely, people who sell insurance. Although the majority of insurance salespersons certainly are honest individuals who try to match customers to the right policies, this area of the financial sector would seem to attract the not-so-honest who lure customers into expensive commitments that have little potential to benefit them (or their heirs). It may even scare you somewhat to start negotiating with an insurance salesperson just because there are so many stories about people buying more than they need or not getting the payments they were promised. Importantly, research into the DT salespersons in the insurance game can provide lessons in how to catch anyone whose personality fits the DT profile.

What Relationships With Dark-Triad People Are Like

When you need to buy insurance, you’re probably on the lookout for loopholes and sales tactics that seek to sway you. Again, the majority of insurance agents don’t have DT personalities, but as Satorino et al. note, “Salespeople score higher on these traits than all other professions except CEOs, lawyers, and celebrities” (p. 298). Despite the overarching values of fairness and honesty that trade organizations among salespeople aim to foster, the very nature of the business would seem to attract those who want to make money, even if it means doing so in a way that doesn’t benefit their clients.

As a long-term strategy, though, can’t being a DT person backfire? Not only would their customers eventually catch on to them, but so could their managers. The research question that the UNH team decided to address was whether those high in DT would show this downward trajectory in their careers. To do so, the researchers needed to enlist a sample of employees who could be tracked over time in terms of sales and personnel ratings.

Two underlying frameworks informed this research, making it applicable beyond insurance sales to ordinary interactions with DT people. First is "uncertainty reduction theory" (URT), the idea that when you become involved in any relationship, you are at first unsure of whether you want this to continue. If, in the early stages of this relationship, you sniff out DT traits, you’ll make the decision pretty soon that you want to exit. You can reduce your uncertainty, the theory goes on to propose, by observing the other person, asking other people what they think of the person, and talking to the person yourself.

The second framework is that of the "ego network structure" (ENS). URT is intended to explain new relationships, but ENS refers to the nature of ongoing relationships over time. If everyone in the network related to the person (the “ego”) is aware of their DT traits, things will only get worse for that person. Less efficient network structures benefit the DT individual, then, because they won't be subject to “friend of a friend” revelations that could harm their reputations. The term that Satorino uses to capture this quality is “reach efficiency.”

Testing the DT Success Rates

If people high in DT turn off both their clients and their co-workers (and ultimately their managers), then URT predicts that their effectiveness will quickly dissipate. If reach efficiency is high, DT people should lose out in terms of how their coworkers regard them. To test these predictions, the authors recruited 82 insurance salespeople who agreed to complete DT personality questionnaire measures and to report on their sales earnings over an 18-month period. This was the URT study, because it was based on newly hired salespeople. The second study looked at ongoing relationships and thus tested the ENS theory. In the first wave of testing, 286 employees completed surveys and 135 remained for the second. People in this second study provided the names of those they knew in the organization, making it possible to draw network maps of worker-to-worker relationships.

Looking first at job productivity, as measured in sales, there were three distinctly different patterns of performance over the 18-month period. People high in psychopathy basically nosedived in sales figures, though they started out as much more successful than everyone else. The narcissists started out doing somewhat well, but never really changed. The only DT trait to be associated with good performance was Machiavellianism. These individuals were slow to show progress, but by the end of the period, their sales not only shot up but exceeded everyone else's.

In explaining this finding, the authors concluded that “Machiavellians … can engage in successful manipulation while avoiding discovery." Unlike people high in psychopathy, they don’t seem to be out to get you but they are good at the subtle sell. This is why, over time, their seemingly innocuous behavior allows them to hook others into their web of exploitation.

When it came to the reach efficiency portion of the study, Machiavellianism also proved to have positive functions. The higher the reach efficiency, the worse the outcomes for psychopaths and narcissists. As the authors concluded, “In ongoing relationships…psychopaths and narcissists rapidly squander their performance advantage through conspicuous or severe transgressions, but Machiavellians’ strategic approach generates different outcomes” (p. 312). In other words, Machiavellians don’t outright step on people or show their dark tendencies but instead use their savvy to take advantage of reputational benefits throughout their social networks.

How to Protect Ourselves

The rather chilling result that you can be taken in completely by a Machiavellian due to their ability to adapt to whatever social environment in which they’re dropped could leave you feeling helpless. If, as the authors assert, people high in DT traits do tend to be attracted to sales, this means that even if you try to avoid such individuals in your personal life, you’re at their mercy in your commercial dealings.

There is hope, however. Based on their findings, the UNH research team believes they’re found three essential elements to keep you from this unfortunate scenario. They are as follows:

  1. Be on the lookout for DT traits. Ask “behavioral” questions that will allow you to tell whether the other person is a cagey manipulator, such as having them tell stories about times that they were successful, and see if you can detect signs that they did so by conning the other person.
  2. Look at their behavior over time. Machiavellians seem to be able to gain ground as they learn more about whatever environment they happen to be in. If someone brags about their ability to “work the angles,” this can mean that they’re cagily trying to manipulate you as well.
  3. Listen to what others have to say. Using the reputation factor, be open to getting others to weigh in on the person. If they appear to be a lone wolf, in particular, this can signify that they have burned through the bridges via their bad behavior.

URT also implies that you take your time before rushing into any decision with a new person, especially in the context of their trying to sell you something or get you to do something that might not be to your benefit. There’s no reason to rush into a decision and every reason to question the sincerity of someone whose patter seems too good to be true.

To sum up, DT personalities can certainly get you into trouble if you’re not wise to their tactics. Finding the people who do have your best interests at heart will lead you to a much more fulfilling set of outcomes in life.

Facebook image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock


Satornino, C. B., Allen, A., Shi, H., & Bolander, W. (2023). Understanding the Performance Effects of “Dark” Salesperson Traits: Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy. Journal of Marketing, 87(2), 298–318. doi: 10.1177/00222429221113254

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