The Dark Triad of Personalities: Traits of the Everyday Villain

Conflict makes for good prose. We all adore a well written and thought out villain, often finding their domineering character and dark complexity more compelling than your average heroic do-gooder. As we grow up, we come to realize that the childhood idea of the villain: The do-evil-for-evil’s-sake, aim for world domination and chaos; Is usually a theatrically dressed strawman of real-life bad. We realize people are rarely so black and white as to adhere to either good or evil, and instead possess qualities that make them these things only to an extend.

All of us have committed regrettable actions in the past or thought unfairly of someone, hurt someone’s feelings or selfishly grasped for something we maybe did not deserve. But on rare occasions you meet individuals with a deeper, underlying darkness. They are a malicious force that leaves chaos and heartbreak in their wake, and they seem to be able to move on, ruthlessly and untouched. If ever you have wondered what combines all things dark and villainous into one person, you might not need to look further than the Dark Triad of Personality: A conjuction of three subclinical set of traits that describe individuals that are aggressive, egocentric, and self-serving.

The Dark Triad hence describes personality traits often found overlapping in individuals where some of these symptoms can be found. Like the three witches conspiring in McBeth, these are the names of general disagreeableness:

Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy.

Whilst Narcissism and Psychopathy are considered their own personality disorders, subclinical traits have been identified that can be found in individuals to a less threatening extend. So let’s dissect these three categories.

Machiavellianism describes individuals that are excessively self-serving, and willing to exploit others by means of manipulation, flattery and deceit to gain whatever it is they desire. They often feel the need to exert revenge and protect their own best interest, even at the depriment of the people around them. The word derrives from philosopher and writer Niccolò Machiavelli whose most famous work ‘the Prince’ expressed the view that “glory and survival justified any means, even ones that were considered immoral and brutal” (Harley Therapy, 2015). Machiavellianists will rarely share their true intentions and calculatingly identify traits of others to use them against them if it benefits them.

Narcissism , derriving from the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, is a personality disorder in itself. (Narcissistic personality disorder). For the dark triad, subclinical traits, short of the DPS acknowledged personality disorder, are considered. “Facets retained from the clinical syndrome included grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority.”(Paulhus & Williams, 2002). There is strong evidence that elements of narcissism can be found in ‘normal’ individuals, whereby such items were listed in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI).

Psychopathy is a personality disorder often associated with criminals and villainous masterminds, and is perhaps one of the most famous for its association to what we cosider ‘evil’. In the subclinical sphere considered for the Dark Triad, traits include “high impulsivity and thrill-seeking along with low empathy and anxiety” (Paulhus & Williams, 2002), the presence of which has been confirmed in non-criminal samples. Psychopathy is also characterized by a tendency to deceive and manipulate and a lack of remorse for one’s actions.

The personality types incorperated in the Dark Triad are often overlapping. Paulhus and Williams hence investigated whether the traits were infact indication of one single personality type, but found that, whilst there were distinct similarities between some of the components, traits were seperate constructs, with the greatest correlation linking the three being ‘disagreeableness’. Whilst individuals displaying an excess of one of these personalities are often accompanied by some of the other two traits, no correlation has yet been proven.

Links between the constructs are easily enough identified: Both narcissisism and machiavellianishm share a sense of self-importance and superiority. Psycopathy and Machiavellianism share their deceitful nature and lack of remorse were the fight for ones own gain is concerned. All three are distinctly selfish and lack regard for other’s wellbeing: They centre their focus on themselves and protect their interests and grandeur by any means. All three are characterized by individuals whose sense of supriority and manipulative calculations makes them oftentimes confident, dominant and charming. It is unsurprising then that such traits can often be identified in highly successful people who may have built their careers on sharp calculations and ruthlessness. All three are less likely to form emotional attachments or commit to a relationship and will often times seek thrills and casual sexual encounters.

In the past, the three constructs and their associated personality traits were measured using seperate, specialized tests. With the introduction of the ‘dirty dozen’ scale by psychologists Peter Jonason and Gregory Webster (2010), it is now possible to rate extend of the troublesome constructs on a 12-item scale, the points of which are noted below:

  1. I tend to manipulate others to get my way.
  2. I tend to lack remorse.
  3. I tend to want others to admire me.
  4. I tend to be unconcerned with the morality of my actions.
  5. I have used deceit or lied to get my way.
  6. I tend to be callous or insensitive.
  7. I have used flattery to get my way.
  8. I tend to seek prestige or status.
  9. I tend to be cynical.
  10. I tend to exploit others toward my own end.
  11. I tend to expect special favors from others.
  12. I want others to pay attention to me.
Found on Psychology Today: Susan Krauss Whitbourne, “Shedding Light on Psychology’s Dark Triad’

Machiavellianism (1, 5, 7, 10), Narcissism (3, 8, 11, 12), Psychopathy (2, 4, 6, 9)

The total score can range from 12-84. Don’t worry if you identified with some of these items: The average person reports about a 36.

And there we have it: Three traits that, if tweaked higher than average, are the perfect recipe for a modern, every-day bad person. Whilst not necessarily criminal or dangerous, individuals with these character traits will often hurt those in their lives repeatedly and be a danger to their mental health, hurting trustand self-esteem.


Krauss Whitbourne, Susan, 2013, “Shedding light on Psychology’s Dark Triad: A dirty dozen test to detect Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy”, Psychology Today

Paulhus, Delroy L., Williams, Kevin M.,  2002, “The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism,
Machiavellianism, and psychopathy”, Journal of Research in Personality 36 (2002) 556–563

Harley Therapy, 2015, “What is Machiavellianism in Psychology?”, Harley Therapy Counselling Blog, accessed December 2017


One thought on “The Dark Triad of Personalities: Traits of the Everyday Villain

  1. Quite a scary read. One of the worst things about people who exert features of the dark triad is that they are so good at sucking people in and camouflaging themselves so they look like normal people. They test limits to see what they can get away with and can destroy peoples lives. So many people I know have been affected by those with these personality disorders- mostly narcissism, and it’s horrible when you’re on the outside looking in because the victims get so hoodwinked. It’s amazing how much power a person has over others without using anything but their minds, eyes and mouth…


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