Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Do Mean People Get Ahead?

Research into why traits we loathe can make people a success.

Source: OPOLJA/Shutterstock

Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory,” basketball great Bill Russell once said. He was referring to his sport, but his insight applies to human nature as well.

A new study has explored whether mental toughness explains why scheming individuals excel in their professional lives—and whether genetic contributions might play a role. Technically, such people are said to exhibit the "Dark Triad," a personality constellation comprised by the traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (e.g., guile).

Though usually cast in a negative light, previous research has demonstrated that these three traits do have an upside when it comes to work. In an effort to further understand why the odious ways of the Dark Triad may be potentially adaptive, Michael Onley of the University of Western Ontario and his colleagues examined the relationship between this personality constellation and mental toughness, which has been carved out as a core trait in human resiliency.

Mental toughness encompasses dedication, motivation, focus, resilience, and an appetite for a challenge. The authors broke it down into four factors—control; commitment; challenge; and confidence. As noted, previous research established that the Dark Triad traits—and mental toughness—have advantages in the workplace, including achieving goals and finding personal success in competition. Even narcissistic tendencies, such as goal-striving, charisma, and high aspirations, can be parlayed into professional boons. Similarly, a positive link has been found between Machiavellianism and income among educated men, revealing that the trait may be helpful in securing senior positions. What's more, in studies of sales-based organizations, individuals showing high levels of Machiavellianism tended to be most successful in such unstructured work environments which allowed them the freedom to manipulate others at will.

Overall, the evidence suggests that these individuals possess the cool, calm, and confidence to excel in high-demand work settings.

In addition to the relationship between the Dark Triad and mental toughness, Onley and his team were interested in possible genetic contributions to this relationship. This information can be ascertained by comparing the responses of monozygotic (MZ) and same-sex dizygotic (DZ) twins on a given trait. If the environments among identical and fraternal twins are equal, then the only way in which they should differ is because of their genes: MZ twins share 100% of their genotype, whereas DZ share only about 50%. If genetics play a larger role in the development of a given trait, MZ twins should give more similar responses with respect to a trait than should DZ twins. Previous research has uncovered that individual differences in each of the Dark Triad traits are heavily influenced by genetic factors, while both genetic and nonshared environmental factors account for individual differences in mental toughness.

In order to test the relationship between mental toughness and the Dark Triad, the researchers had participants fill out four self-report questionnaires that inquired about the traits in question—narcissism; psychopathy; Machiavellianism; and mental toughness. The final sample was comprised of 210 same-sex twin pairs—152 MZ pairs, of which 128 were female, and 58 same-sex DZ pairs, of which 53 were female.

As expected, narcissism showed positive correlations with all factors of mental toughness. But unexpectedly, both psychopathy and Machiavellianism demonstrated negative correlations with most of the mental toughness factors. One interpretation of this result offered by the authors is that narcissism is “qualitatively unique” among the Dark Triad traits in that it embodies both positive and negative social behaviors.

There was partial support for the role of genetic contributions to this relationship. As hypothesized, and in keeping with previous research, genetic influences were found between the Dark Triad traits of psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Moreover, the links between psychopathy and mental toughness were wholly accounted for by common genetic factors. However, while it was expected there would be a strong genetic link between narcissism and mental toughness, the analysis revealed a significant relationship between narcissism and only the challenge factor of mental toughness.

Onley and his team recognized the limitations of this study and advised the usual cautions in scientific research. At the same time, their work has opened up a compelling area of inquiry, helping us better understand what to many is a daily frustration: Why mean people so often get ahead at work.

Connect with Vinita Mehta on the web at and on twitter and Pinterest!

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Vinita Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.