How to Spot Narcissistic, Manipulative Psychopaths

Recognize the dark spider on the web of deceit, and avoid getting snared.

Posted Jul 07, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams (1) identified three destructive core qualities among people who habitually cause misery for others. They called them Dark Triads (DT):

1. Narcissism refers to a vain, often arrogant, person with an inflated sense of self-importance, entitlement beliefs, and superiority complex.

2. Machiavellianism refers to a cunning, manipulative, calculating, duplicitous, strategic style that would bring applause from Niccolò Machiavelli, who, in The Prince, taught how scurrilously to secure and keep power.

3. Psychopathy refers to a superficially charming, remorseless, callous, cynical, rule-breaking, individual who is prone to rationalize abusive behavior: The jerk had it coming, or I did this for a good cause.

Psychopathy and Machiavellianism are primary dark core qualities (2, 3). This lifestyle reflects a treacherous, change-resistant, power pathology characterized by asserting control over others for gratification and gain. Most antagonize their intended victims (4), and this hostility can extend to spiteful responses when rebuffed (5).  Often, DTs have a sadistic side and regularly take pleasure at the pain that they instigate (6, 7). Thus, the name, Dark Tetrads.

DTs operate alone as well as in packs. The osteopath-pedophile, Larry Nassar, is a probable extreme example of a DT  exploiting on his own.  Nassar sexually abused young US women gymnasts, while calmly explaining that he was treating them to improve their performances. He sometimes pulled this off in front of the girl's parents! Nassar's expression was bland. He didn't send facial emotion distrust signals. He was a doctor, and that gave him credibility. His bizarre behavior went unquestioned until his victims broke their silence. (See the HBO documentary, At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal.)

Here is another extreme example. Princeton University psychologist Gustave Gilbert (8) assessed Herman Goering, who was mass murder Adolph Hitler's next in command. Goering shows psychopathic, Machiavellian, and narcissistic qualities. He fit in well with his Nazi cohorts.  Goering had an illusion of invincibility that harm would not befall him (8, p 213). DTs may act as if they believed they would escape consequences for corrupt activities (9).

Detecting Deception

DTs have other things to do besides exploiting. For example, they work, have hobbies, go on trips with their families, etc. Their nasty and destructive streak concerns us here.

You may experience a sickening feeling if manipulated, deceived, or snookered by a DT.  However, DTs don't advertise their intentions: I love cheating people. Will you be my victim? Your job is to figure things out sooner than later. Let's explore warning signs.

  • DTs generally act in sneaky and underhanded ways. They also vary in their approach.  For example, some sweet-talk, mislead, and box you in to get what they want.  Others will disarm you with a favorable first impression then coerce you into giving them what they want. 
  • Concealment is essential to cloak nefarious activities and keep a favorable public image. If you hear smooth words or slogans, to make cruelty sound reasonable, still attend to the activities.
  • Watch facial expressions. Some show saucer (bug) eyes or look placid when fictionalizing or when challenged.  Others get hostile to intimidate and silence opposition. When these expressions link to exploitations and deceptions, either presentation merits attention.
  • DTs' are adept at prevarications and dissimulations.  Patterns of smoothly lying, obfuscating, and denying intentions, support exploitive strategies (10). Inconsistencies between reassuring words and duplicitous actions are potential DT indicators.
  • After being caught scamming, some show an attitude of complacency that is incongruous with the situation. In comparison, light triads have a positive view on life (11). This far larger group have generally positive views toward humanity and normally act contritely if caught acting badly.
  • Watch for red flag behaviors. If someone repeatedly acts to exploit you, you may be dealing with a DT.
  • You'll find DTs in positions of authority who create disunity, thrive on chaos, abuse others (belittle, disparage), and exploit because they can.
  • Victim blaming is a deflection strategy. By smearing their victims, DTs can pull the wool over the eyes of interested parties, and possibly fool these parties into disparaging the victim(s), too.
  • A unique deception is to shift public attention from cruel behaviors by playing the role of a virtuous victim. This shift can coax others out of their resources in sympathy for the DT (12).

Some DT situations are ongoing, such as might occur on the job,  in your club, or your primary relationship. I'll address these organizational and personal DT situations in a future blog on this subject.

Is Setup-Ambush-Exploit a DT Signature Ploy?

After I thought of writing this blog, a long-lost memory sprang to mind. It was from the summer of my 13th birthday. I was fishing while playing with a combination lock. A strange kid passed by and asked, "Any luck?" We spoke for a while. Then he asked if he could see me use the combination.  He next asked, "I'll bet you can't do that again." I locked and opened it again.  He said. "Look. You've got a bite." I put down the lock and grabbed for my pole. He grabbed the lock and ran off on his bike. I wondered, was this my first encounter with a Dark Triad?

Looking back, the kid was smooth and manipulative, as if he had done similar things before. He enacted a setup, ambush, and exploit (SAE) ploy that I have since seen among people with DT profiles (and non-DTs, but far less often).

  1. The setup was to act friendly.
  2. The ambush was to deceive to see the combination to the lock.
  3. The exploitation was to steal the lock.

If you see an SAE pattern, you can predict the person will do this again. Past performance is the best predictor of future performance. Forewarned is forearmed.


1 Paulhus, D. L. and Williams, K. M. 2002. "The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy." Journal of Research in Personality 36: 556–563.

2 Dinić, B. M., Wertag, A., Tomašević, A., and Sokolovska, V. 2020. “Centrality and redundancy of the dark tetrad traits.” Personality and Individual Differences 155: 109621.

3 Schermer, J. A., and Jones, D. N. 2020. "The behavioral genetics of the dark triad core versus unique trait components: A pilot study." Personality and Individual Differences 154: 109701.

4 Vize, C. E., Collison, K. L., Miller, J. D., and Lynam, D. R. 2020. "The 'core' of the dark triad: A test of competing hypotheses." Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment 11(2): 91–99.

5 Marcus, D. K., Zeigler-Hill, V., Mercer, S. H., and Norris, A. L. 2014. "The psychology of spite and the measurement of spitefulness." Psychological Assessment 26(2): 563–574.

6 Lobbestael, J., van Teffelen, M. and  Baumeister, R. F. 2020. "Psychopathy subfactors distinctively predispose to dispositional and state-level of sadistic pleasure." Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 67: 101458.

7 Chester, D. S., DeWall, C. N. and Enjaian, B. 2019. "Sadism and aggressive behavior: Inflicting pain to feel pleasure." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 45(8), 1252–1268.

8 Gilbert, G. M. 1948. “Hermann Goering, amiable psychopath.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 43(2): 211–229.

9 Zhao, H., Zhang, H., & Xu, Y. 2016. “Does the dark triad of personality predict corrupt intention? The mediating role of belief in good luck.” Frontiers in Psychology 7: Article ID 608.

10 Jonason, P. K., Lyons, M., Baughman, H. M., & Vernon, P. A. 2014. "What a tangled web we weave: The Dark Triad traits and deception." Personality and Individual Differences 70, 117–119.

11 Kaufman, S. B., Yaden, D. B., Hyde, E., and Tsukayama, E. 2019. “The Light vs. Dark Triad of Personality: Contrasting Two Very Different Profiles of Human Nature.” Frontiers in Psychology 10: 467.

12 Ok, E., Qian, Y., Strejcek, B., and Aquino, K. 2020. "Signaling virtuous victimhood as indicators of Dark Triad personalities." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Advance online publication, July 2, 2020.