In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the dark triad/dark tetrad.
The dark triad was first described in a 2002 paper by psychologists Paulhus and Williams, who happen to be researchers at my alma mater. They studied the three most common “offensive yet non-pathological personalities,” meaning the personality traits that were most aversive to others but didn’t represent a clinical disorder.
The dark triad traits
The personality traits involved are:
- Machiavellianism: includes manipulative and exploitative behaviours, callousness, and elevated levels of self-interest
- Narcissism: includes grandiosity and lack of empathy
- Psychopathy: includes impulsivity, callousness, remorselessness, selfishness
The dark triad involves narcissism and psychopathy at a subclinical level. With regards to narcissism, this is narcissism that doesn’t meet the full criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Regarding psychopathy, this means psychopathic traits that don’t meet the full criteria for psychopathy on an assessment like the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
More recently, the concept of a dark tetrad has been proposed. This involves the dark triad traits as well as sadism, which is the enjoyment of cruelty. The dark tetrad hasn’t been as well studied as the dark triad.
Correlates of the dark triad
Paulhus and Williams found that while there were areas of overlap among the three traits, they were distinct. All three were correlated with low levels of agreeableness in Big Five personality trait scores. The researchers said that:
“To varying degrees, all three entail a socially malevolent character with behavior tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness.”(Paulhus & Williams, 2002)
People displaying the dark triad traits are more likely to be male and relatively younger. They tend to be motivated by power, use sex as a tool, and have conspicuous consumption. This group of traits is also linked with selfishness and immature defense styles, as well as a lack of compassion, empathy, and conscientiousness.
A study of high school students (Chabrol et al., 2015) found that students with dark tetrad traits displayed the most antisocial behaviours. Concerningly, they also had high levels of suicidal ideation.
People with dark triad personality traits are more likely to commit crimes, cause social distress, and create problems in the workplace. Internet trolling has been linked to dark tetrad traits, particularly sadism.
On a more positive note, the dark triad is correlated with creativity, leadership, and assertiveness.
Psychometric tests used for measuring these traits include:
- Short Dark Triad Scale
- Mach-IV test for Machiavellianism
- Narcissistic Personality Inventory measures subclinical narcissism
- Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (SRP-III): used for measuring subclinical psychopathy, but not freely available
Having clear definitions of what constitutes a personality trait is important, as it allows for terms to be used in a descriptive way rather than the pejorative, vaguely defined way that these terms tend to appear in common parlance.
How does it develop?
There’s no clear understanding with any personality trait exactly how much nature and nurture play a role. There appears to be a strong heritable component to narcissism and psychopathy, while environmental factors appear to play more of a role in the development of Machiavellianism, which has a more moderate heritable component. I didn’t come across any information specifically pertaining to sadism. Some researchers have suggested that dark personalities may have had an evolutionary advantage resulting from short-term mating strategies.
While people who engage in very harmful behaviour may display extreme levels of these traits, the dark triad describes nonclinical or everyday manifestations of those traits. “Everyday sadism” is an actual term that appears in research. While most people’s personalities don’t involve this cluster of traits, there are “normal” people who do have some of these characteristics. The world is full of all sorts of people.
- Chabrol, H., Melioli, T., Van Leeuwen, N., Rodgers, R., & Goutaudier, N. (2015). The Dark Tetrad: Identifying personality profiles in high-school students. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 97-101.
- Kaufman, S.B. (2019). The Light Triad vs. Dark Triad of Personality. Scientific American Blogs.
- Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Toward a taxonomy of dark personalities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(6), 421-426.
- Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556-563.
- Wikipedia: Dark triad
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.
25 thoughts on “What is… the Dark Triad/Tetrad”
I am allergic when this of a person appears in my surroundings. I have the feeling they always win. Sometimes, when I see trolls torturing, I step in. I’ve always tended to oppose these people or subtly let them know I know what they are about. Doesn’t move them tho.
Yes it can be an exercise in futility.
I was always wondering, is there a way to stop them. I guess only silent treatment works. Narcissists can be made feel inferior, some kinds of them. I tend to enjoy that. But it is important not to disclose anything of oneself.
I don’t know if there is a way to stop that kind of behaviour. If there is, I wish I knew what it was.
Probably there is none. It is who they are, as long as they breathe, but at times it is possible to stop them from reaching some filthy goal.
An interesting piece and makes me wonder how many of our World leaders display the dark triad personality….
It probably wouldn’t be a small number…
When do these personality traits become a clinical disorder?
The research that’s been done around the dark triad has focused on less extreme subclinical manifestations of these traits. For more extreme versions of narcissism someone would meet the full diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, while at a subclinical level someone would only meet some of the criteria.
This discussion helped me better understand the behavior of my thesis advisor during my thesis research in college. I am not sure exactly if he has the clinical or the other Narcissism disorder but definitely one of them. Thanks as always for the education.
I’m glad it was helpful!
Always interesting! In my last year at uni I followed a course about pedophilia and psychopathy (which included sadism). Living alone and being set up with internet I did my research for this course. And I discovered what kind of place the internet could be!!
Besides that surprise I found the topic very interesting.
What I find particularly disturbing is how much of a genetic component there is, because how do you “fix” that?
By further research I guess. Till then there is nothing we can do in terms of therapy when speaking about psychopathy.
You wrote about my mom lol. But seriously.
So odd, I was just thinking about the dark triad yesterday and then here you are with this interesting article. I have never heard of the “tetrad” aspect, that’s something worth learning about!
When dating I generally ask potential partners to take a variety of tests: The MBTI, the Enneagram, and the Big Five Personality test. Quite interested to see that “low agreeableness” can be a warning sign, that is legitimately useful information. Thank you!
My Mach-IV score has dropped from 89 in 2015 to 61 today. So I’m still a manipulative asshole, just not as big as before recovery. I finally read The Prince a while back. It’s as timely today as it ever was.
I haven’t read it yet. I bet it’s fascinating.
Good that the score is coming down!
Excellent article. Thank you!
We think nurture might play a large role, even when children display these tendencies, because we are humans and are motivated by what we need. Why do jons have OCD? Because they needed to have control when their life was a chaotic torture chamber of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect. OCD creates an artificial sense of control. Meets that need.
We wonder if the same can be applied to other disorders, such as these? Who knows how early it starts or what starts it. Kids get exposed to popular culture so early. A little kid playing could look up at the tv to see violence and not understand it is fiction. What is fiction to an 18-month old? And they may recognize violence.
Therapists have told us that most of their adult clients—whether they know it or not—are trying to make sense of/process childhood experiences.
We presume there could be neurological explanations (nature), which could mean these people aren’t trying to be “bad” (pejorative judgment of their disorder). If you see the world as we do, Bass people do not exist. We recognize almost no one sees the world the way we do.
Also, we object to Paulhus and Williams’ use of “dark” to refer to harmful traits. We find using darkness to describe things we dislike and light to describe things we do like as (subtly) reinforcing racism. We feel obligated to raise an objection in order to reduce racism in institutions, such as Psychology. Names for things, such as this triad, are not sacrosanct to us. We could call it the MPN Triad or any acronym. This is not intended as offense to you, the author. Our love for you is not conditional on your agreeing with us❤️ We wish you and everyone Peace.
The research into heritability has looked at monozygotic twins to try to figure out the role of inheritance of shared genes and how much of a role non-shared environments played. The traits of psychopathy and narcissism were strongly related to genetics, while Machiavellianism had a stronger environmental component.
I can definitely see the issue with the term “dark.” Reading the papers by Paulhus and Williams, I was actually struck by how non-judgy they seemed. The papers conveyed a stance of curiosity, and a fairly balanced view of harmful behavioural consequences and adaptive value. Like you, I don’t see people as being bad or good, but I do think behaviours can be harmful or not harmful. Perhaps through better understanding of how personality traits contribute to harmful behaviours, that link between trait and behaviour can be broken, since people aren’t their behaviours.
Thanks for the thoughtful, thorough reply with many details. It is useful to know that the researchers seemed nonjudgmental 💕❤️
I’d hope that these were not inherited traits as my ex had them and I’d hate to think my sons would inherit these traits too. None of my in-laws and their close family had these traits. O maybe they did, and I just didn’t know or notice back then? Scary.