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Dark Triad

Why Dark Triad Personalities Are So Hard to Please

Their desire is to be mean, so give them fewer opportunities.

Key points

  • People who constantly complain can become a source of annoyance when they always try to make you look bad.
  • New research suggests how the dark triad personality traits could drive the complainer's behavior.
  • By understanding the dynamics of the complainer, you can sidestep their attempts to derail you.

Working with people who constantly complain can be not just a chore, but a curse. You do your best to make them happy, but it’s never enough. Perhaps you made or bought what you thought was the perfect cake for a birthday celebration. As you proudly present your creation, you hear not the thanks you expected, but a snide comment from the honoree that the cake is too sweet, not sweet enough, or the wrong flavor entirely. (“You know I hate chocolate!”) What makes the whole episode even more upsetting is the fact that this person has so publicly humiliated you. It’s almost as if they’re going out of their way to make you look incompetent.

Why would someone be so ungracious as to snub the product of what clearly took a lot of effort on your part? New research in the area of consumer satisfaction can provide some insight.

The Dark Triad, Dissatisfaction, and the Need for Revenge

According to Hangyang University’s Jiseon Ahn (2023), certain personality traits can potentially explain the behavior of the consumer whose dissatisfaction extends beyond rage to revenge. Specifically, it’s the combination of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (the tendency to manipulate and deceive) that can lead an individual to rage against the machine that technology presents to produce online reviews or angry interactions with a customer service representative.

Ahn, working from the vantage point of what’s called “the cognitive-affective-personality system" (CAPS), notes that each dark triad trait has its own predictive value in understanding the antecedents of “negative engagement” with online sites providing services to consumers. The traits are as follows:

  • Machiavellianism: A high need to control others regardless of ethical considerations.
  • Narcissism: Feelings of excessive self-love and importance.
  • Psychopathy: Lack of empathy and antisocial behavior, producing behavior such as trolling.

Taken together, Ahn predicted that people high in dark triad traits would both exaggerate negative comments in online reviews and try to enact revenge on who they were reviewing. Ahn decided to use online reviews of restaurants, as these are often the target of grumpy customers.

Putting the Dark Triad to the Test

With their online sample of 162 U.S. adults (grouped by age categories from 20 to 50+), Ahn ascertained that all had used some type of food service provider. In addition to providing scores on standard dark triad measures, the participants rated themselves on scales of negative engagement: “I blog against this restaurant.” Revenge: “If this restaurant does not meet expectations, I would want to get even with this restaurant.” And intention to exaggerate: “If this restaurant does not meet expectations, I may exaggerate the negative aspects of my experience.”

You can see from these items that all present what may seem like typical rants that you’ve read in a one-star review of your favorite local eatery. Maybe you’ve wondered how, when this is a place you know and like, someone could spew such vitriol.

Ahn’s first step in testing the predictive value of personality on angry and vindictive reviews was to ensure that the measures met the statistical criteria of acceptability, given that the scale items were new ones. Then, testing personality’s contribution to the three sets of negative engagement categories, Ahn was able to establish the relative ranking of each.

The findings showed that the largest predictor of negative engagement was Machiavellianism, followed by psychopathy, and finally by narcissism. There was a difference across demographic groups, however, in who was most likely to use which form of negative engagement. The link with Machiavellianism was stronger for older women of low education but high-income groups and for psychopathy with younger male consumer groups.

Understanding How to Deal with the Complainer

Translating the Hangyang University findings into everyday life, you can now see how your cake recipient may have been prompted to provide their own “negative engagement” by the desire simply to be mean. Any one of the three dark triad traits could have become the antecedent for their behavior. They may have felt that your cake was just so good that it took the luster off the occasion when they, not you, should have been the center of attention (narcissism). It’s also possible that if psychopathy is in the mix, they just enjoyed the opportunity to hurt your feelings. Machiavellianism’s role may have been to try to humiliate you, perhaps reveling a bit in the revenge they’ve enacted.

Now that you know what might be behind the chronic complainer, how can you use the findings to help you manage both their behavior and your feelings about their behavior? First, as difficult as this might be, you need to face the fact that there’s really nothing you can do after the fact. Should you get embroiled in your own revenge-seeking with a snappy retort, others will conclude that you and the complainer are cut from the same despicable cloth.

In a more proactive manner, though, you can consider ways to protect yourself from their nastiness in future occasions. Maybe you just don’t bother to put yourself in a position where they can get at you. The birthday cake was an optional behavior, so that should be fairly easy. Next time, just say no.

However, if you’re dealing with people who present you with no choice but to set yourself up for the kind of criticism that can impact your life (job or relationships), you need a different strategy. Head them off before they launch into their public tirade by enlisting their cooperation in whatever it is you’re trying to produce. Once engaged in a joint enterprise and feeling that their own reputation is on the line, they may be less likely to make you, their collaborator, look bad.

To sum up, the chronic complainer certainly can make your life less pleasant. Understanding the personality traits that prompt their negative behavior can help you rise above whatever fray they try to create.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: guruXOX/Shutterstock


Ahn, J. (2023). Brief report: The roles of the customer dark triad of personality and of demographic characteristics on negative engagement. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. DOI: 10.1007/s12144-023-05211-x

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