Your Field Guide to the Colorful Personality

How to identify them, and what to expect from them.

Posted Sep 26, 2015

The "colorful" personality is a subclinical form of histrionic personality disorder, which refers to a pattern of attention-seeking behavior featuring exaggerated, even theatrical displays of emotion and shallow relationships. 

Personality disorders were once thought to be categorically distinct from normal personality, but today many psychologists prefer to view them as on a continuum with normal personality traits. Hence, personality psychologists now refer to "subclinical" manifestations of things like psychopathy and narcissism as less extreme versions of what are usually considered personality disorders. The "subclinical" part means that these traits can appear in people who are otherwise well adjusted in their daily lives.

A recently published study examined how the colorful or histrionic personality fits with the traits from the Big Five model. The colorful personality combines socially desirable and undesirable traits and seems to have a family resemblance to members of the infamous "Dark Triad" of personality, particularly narcissism, although with distinctive features. From an evolutionary perspective, the colorful personality seems to involve a fast life history strategy, in which a person aims to extract social resources from others while giving as little as possible in return. People with colorful personalities might be able to do this because they are charismatic and charming and therefore might beguile people into overlooking their other character flaws.

The Peacock Masquerade by Nocturnal-Rapture
Some have a flair for flamboyance
Source: The Peacock Masquerade by Nocturnal-Rapture

Personality disorders are long-standing, deeply ingrained patterns of behaving and relating. The traditional diagnostic view sees them as discrete categories that people either do or do not fit into. However, there is evidence that personality disorders involve extreme manifestations of traits found in most people. For example, each personality disorder can be described in terms of how its profile fits into the well-known Big Five model of personality with its five broad factors—extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Each of these factors can be further broken down into a number of more specific traits. One common approach assigns each of the five factors six facets, so that the total model has 30 facets. Hence, personality disorders can be understood in regard to their typical facet profile (Bagby, Costa, Widiger, Ryder, & Marshall, 2005).

Although personality disorders as such are maladaptive, many people who are reasonably well-adjusted have traits that resemble less extreme forms of these syndromes. For example, subclinical narcissism may be viewed as a less extreme form of narcissistic personality disorder. These subclinical syndromes have been called "dark side" traits because they may become problematic at times, particularly when a person is under pressure or stress (Furnham, 2014).

A very interesting paper recently looked at the Big Five profile of the subclinical form of histrionic personality disorder, also known as the colorful personality (Furnham, 2014). People with this personality profile have a very strong motivation to seek approval, are good at calling attention to themselves, have a flair for the dramatic, dress to impress, and are often the life of the party. Among their strengths, they are fun, entertaining, flirtatious, and make an impression. Among their weaknesses, they are disorganized, do not listen to feedback, overcommit themselves, and are very self-aggrandizing.

Furnham’s study assessed more than 5,000 people in Britain, mostly in middle-class occupations, such as management. The study found that the colorful personality profile was associated with higher levels of extraversion and openness to experience, and with lower levels of neuroticism and agreeableness. The study also looked at the 30 facets of the Big Five to produce a more detailed profile, finding that the colorful personality was associated with a distinctive blend of socially desirable and undesirable traits.

In summary, people with the colorful personality tended to be:

  • High in all facets of extraversion: They were typically gregarious, assertive, enthusiastic, and excitable.
  • High in most facets of openness to experience, and so were generally imaginative, emotionally expressive, artistic, inquisitive, and willing to try new things.
  • Low in some facets of neuroticism, tending to be self-assured, not anxious or emotionally vulnerable, but also tending to act impulsively and to be quick to anger.
  • Mixed in tendencies regarding agreeableness: They were very low in straightforwardness, modesty and compliance, suggesting that they are manipulative, arrogant and boastful, and have little respect for following rules. On the other hand, they can also be somewhat trusting, helpful, and kind-hearted, perhaps when it suits them.
  • Finally, in regards to conscientiousness, they tend to be ambitious and sure of their abilities, but also to be disorderly and undisciplined: They do not plan ahead, and tend to be lax about keeping their obligations.
PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock
Source: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

The overall impression one gets of people who fit this profile is that they seem like rather selfish individuals who put on a good show, but are more concerned with satisfying their own ambitions than they are with making a substantive contribution to society. They may be entertaining and fun to be around, but do not necessarily care about doing high-quality work or meeting social obligations when it does not suit them.

The colorful personality seems to have a great deal in common with socially exploitative trait profiles known as "dark personalities" (Paulhus, 2014). The most well-known taxonomy of these profiles is the "Dark Triad"—psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. (More recently, sadism has been added to this list to create a "Dark Tetrad.") The colorful personality seems to share a great deal in common with narcissism in that both are driven by a desire to be regarded as special and manifest a strong degree of psychological entitlement—that is, the belief that one is deserving of special treatment. However, compared to the narcissistic personality, the colorful personality tends to be more gregarious, warm, and tender-minded, if also more disorganized (Furnham & Crump, 2014), suggesting a somewhat distinctive profile.

The various dark personalities are distinct from each other, but have considerable overlap, and there are a number of theories about what constitutes their common core. One is that a common feature of all members of the Dark Triad is a low level of the characteristic known as honesty-humility, which manifests as the willingness to exploit other people for selfish gain (Paulhus, 2014). Honesty-humility is a feature of the six-factor HEXACO model of personality, one of the main alternatives to the Big Five model. However, in the 30-facet model, honesty and humility are basically identical to the agreeableness facets of, respectively, straightforwardness and modesty.[1] As noted, people with the colorful personality are strikingly low in these facets, just like people with Dark Triad traits.

Another theory proposes that while low honesty-humility is a common factor of the Dark Triad, its core consists of a callous disregard for the needs of others (Jones & Figueredo, 2013). I do not think it is clear that the colorful personality is quite this callous, though, since the profile is also positively associated with the tender-mindedness facet of agreeableness. That is, even though they tend to be self-centered, they might not be quite as malicious as other Dark Triad types.

Depending on one’s perspective, the colorful personality may or may not belong with the Dark Triad, but it does seem to have a family resemblance.

Another perspective that may be helpful for understanding the colorful personality is life history theory. According to this approach, people may vary in regard to whether they have more of a fast or a slow life history strategy.

  • The slow strategy is mutualistic: It emphasizes cooperation with other people for mutual benefit.
  • The fast strategy is antagonistic: It emphasizes using other people to extract resources while attempting to minimize the cost to the self. (In other words, try to get as much as possible while giving as little as possible in return.)

Antagonistic strategies are risky, so a challenge for fast strategists is how to extract resources from others without incurring punishment. People with a warrior-hawk approach use intimidation and aggression to get their way (Book, Visser, & Volk, 2015). This strategy is associated with psychopathy—and extremely risky. Less aggressive strategies involving good social skills, such as the ability to persuade others to give in to one’s demands, might be more socially acceptable and involve less risk. Selfish individuals may be more likely to succeed at manipulating others if they are charming and entertaining. By presenting an attractive façade, they may become popular and influential. This may compensate for their lack of more substantial contributions, their unreliability, and their failure to meet social obligations.

In a previous post, I noted that fast and slow strategies each seem to be associated with a mixture of attractive and undesirable traits. People who match the slow pattern tend to be reliable and honest, yet shy, socially awkward and self-effacing. Those who match the fast strategy tend to be more socially skilled and charming, yet selfish and deceitful. The colorful personality seems to match this latter pattern: Their life strategy might be to get their way through theatricality and charm. Other people might find them so entertaining that they are willing to overlook their repeated failures to measure up to a reasonable standard of social responsibility. Delroy Paulhus (2014) has suggested that each of the dark personalities may thrive in a specific niche where their traits prove useful. This may also apply to the colorful personality, as it has been suggested that they make good sales people, but terrible managers (Furnham, 2014). 

[1] Proponents of the HEXACO argue that straightforwardness and modesty are not properly facets of agreeableness and therefore should be considered a separate factor. However, this is a technical debate that would lead off topic so I will not get into it at this time. 

Other Posts about Dark Personalities 


  • Bagby, R. M., Costa, P. T., Widiger, T. A., Ryder, A. G., & Marshall, M. (2005). DSM-IV personality disorders and the Five-Factor Model of personality: a multi-method examination of domain- and facet-level predictions. European Journal of Personality, 19(4), 307-324. doi: 10.1002/per.563
  • Book, A., Visser, B. A., & Volk, A. A. (2015). Unpacking “evil”: Claiming the core of the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 73, 29-38. doi:
  • Furnham, A. (2014). A Bright Side, Facet Analysis of Histrionic Personality Disorder: The Relationship Between the HDS Colourful Factor and the NEO-PI-R Facets in a Large Adult Sample. The Journal of Social Psychology, 154(6), 527-536. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2014.953026
  • Furnham, A., & Crump, J. (2014). A Big Five facet analysis of sub-clinical narcissism: Understanding boldness in terms of well-known personality traits. Personality and Mental Health, 8(3), 209-217. doi: 10.1002/pmh.1262
  • Jones, D. N., & Figueredo, A. J. (2013). The Core of Darkness: Uncovering the Heart of the Dark Triad. European Journal of Personality, 27(6), 521-531. doi: 10.1002/per.1893
  • Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Toward a Taxonomy of Dark Personalities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(6), 421-426. doi: 10.1177/0963721414547737

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.