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How to Spot a Dark Personality

... and a deeper look at a fourth dark trait: sadism.

Psychologists have long sought to understand the personality traits that lead to offensive, socially inappropriate, or even criminal behavior.

One of the most well-known constellations of negative personality traits is known as the Dark Triad. According to researchers, the Dark Triad consists of three groups of noxious personality traits:

  1. Narcissism, a term most of us are familiar with, applies to someone who is self-obsessed and who feels that they are very unique, very talented, and superior to others. Narcissism comes in different flavors. Some narcissists are more focused on viewing themselves as dominant and high-achieving while others exhibit defensive and hypersensitive attitudes in social contexts.
  2. Machiavellianism refers to someone who is deceptive, tricky, and ingratiating.
  3. Psychopathy describes someone who lacks empathy and is dangerously risk-seeking. This is where the word "psychopath" comes from.

Interestingly, a growing body of literature argues that a fourth dimension—sadism—should be added to the Dark Triad. According to a research paper published in the European Journal of Psychological Assessment, sadism “satisfies the criteria of callousness or impaired empathy” while adding a “unique element not covered by the Dark Triad members, namely, intrinsic pleasure in hurting others.”

Defining a new personality structure is one thing, but measuring it is another thing altogether. To this end, a team of Canadian and American personality psychologists developed a 28-item scale to measure narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. Here is the final result of their research project. (All statements are asked on a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree.)


  1. People see me as a natural leader.
  2. I have a unique talent for persuading people.
  3. Group activities tend to be dull without me.
  4. I know that I am special because people keep telling me so.
  5. I have some exceptional qualities.
  6. I’m likely to become a future star in some area.
  7. I like to show off every now and then.


  1. It’s not wise to let people know your secrets.
  2. Whatever it takes, you must get the important people on your side.
  3. Avoid direct conflict with others because they may be useful in the future.
  4. Keep a low profile if you want to get your way.
  5. Manipulating the situation takes planning.
  6. Flattery is a good way to get people on your side.
  7. I love it when a tricky plan succeeds.


  1. People often say I’m out of control.
  2. I tend to fight against authorities and their rules.
  3. I’ve been in more fights than most people of my age and gender.
  4. I tend to dive in, then ask questions later.
  5. I’ve been in trouble with the law.
  6. I sometimes get into dangerous situations.
  7. People who mess with me always regret it.


  1. Watching a fistfight excites me.
  2. I really enjoy violent films and video games.
  3. It’s funny when idiots fall flat on their face.
  4. I enjoy watching violent sports.
  5. Some people deserve to suffer.
  6. Just for kicks, I’ve said mean things on social media.
  7. I know how to hurt someone with words alone.

These questions offer a deeper view of the personality traits that characterize potentially dangerous and toxic people. Although a short personality test, the team found this scale to reliably predict people’s “true” standings on the four personality dimensions of interest.

They conclude, “Despite their brevity, the final four 7-item subscales had acceptable psychometric properties.” They also found that the scales replicated across different sample populations and showed consistency with other well-known personality scales such as the Big Five.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Rahul Ramachandram/Shutterstock


Paulhus, D. L., Buckels, E. E., Trapnell, P. D., & Jones, D. N. (2020). Screening for dark personalities: The Short Dark Tetrad (SD4). European Journal of Psychological Assessment.

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