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.