A Narcissist, a Psychopath and a Machiavellian Walk into a Bar…

dark triad

The bartender asks, ‘who has the darkest personality out of you three?’ The Narcissist says ‘me’, the Psychopath says, ‘I don’t care’ and the Mach says ‘it’s whoever I want it to be’.

All embarrassing jokes aside, the Dark Triad of Personality rather ominously named, is an area of Psychological research which is attracting significant attention. It is however only a young field, in fact it was just over a decade ago that Paulhus and Williams (2002) coined the term ‘Dark Triad’. It’s an area of research that seems to intrigue Organisational, Clinical and Forensic Psychologists alike and of course has important implications for society as a whole. However, is there any real merit, use and/or empirical rigour in the study of these traits? I was inspired to delve a little deeper into the Dark Triad after last month’s blog on office politics, which touched on certain characteristics which fall within the remit of these traits i.e. manipulating others for self gain.

So what does the Dark Triad consist of?

Narcissism: characterised by grandiosity, entitlement, dominance and superiority (Corry, Merritt, Mrug, & Pamp, 2008). The scale largely used to measure this trait is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI; Raskin & Hall, 1979).

Psychopathy: characterised by high levels of impulsivity and thrill-seeking along with low levels of empathy (Hare, 1985). It has been described as the most ‘malevolent’ of the Dark Triad (Rauthmann, 2012).  The scale which is largely used in the literature to measure Psychopathy is the Self-Report Psychopathy (SRP) scale, version III forthcoming (Paulhus, Neumann, & Hare). It was modelled on the Psychopathy Check List (Hare, 1991), which is largely seen as the ‘‘gold standard’’ for the measurement of forensic Psychopathy.

Machiavellianism: characterised as being cynical, unprincipled and using manipulation of others for self-gain and life success (Jones & Palhaus, 2009). The scale which is most used to measure this construct is the Mach IV (Christie & Geis, 1970).

Global measures of the triad have recently been created such as the Dirty Dozen, a 12 item scale (Jonason & Webster, 2010) and the Short Dark Triad, a 27 item scale (SD3; Jones & Paulhus, forthcoming).

Both Narcissism and Psychopathy have migrated from the clinical literature as personality disorders found in DSM-IV, whilst Machiavellianism has been distilled from the philosophy and tactics of Nicolo Machiavelli. In this instance they have been applied to the sub-clinical population in much the same way as the Big Five personality factors.  It is suggested that there are extreme personalities in our communities, which cross the boundary over into subclinical Dark Triad territory. In fact, a recent TED talk* highlighted the fact that as many as 1% of ‘normal people’ could be classed as a Psychopath, rising to 4% in CEO’s and business leaders.

Much of my research into the Dark Triad was precipitated by an excellent new review of the literature by Furnham, Richards & Paulhus (2013). Hence please refer to this for a more detailed account of this area. They do a particularly good job at highlighting the major outcomes which the Dark Triad predict, across the workplace, educational and evolutionary literature.

Focussing on workplace behaviours, they cite research which shows that while leaders who are high in such traits can be successful in navigating their way to the top (when coupled with high IQ and attractiveness, apparently), most eventually fall or derail in the end (Furnham, 2010). They are described by Hogan (2007) as being able to ‘get ahead’ but not ‘get along’ – which eventually comes back to haunt them. Specific behaviours include Narcissists’ softer methods of manipulation, while Psychopaths use harder, more direct methods and Machs are able to be flexible and switch between both methods (Jonason, Slomski, & Partyka, 2012). With extremely successful publications such as Snakes in Suits raising awareness of Dark Triad traits and behaviours, leadership derailment and management style are more relevant and important than ever.

In terms of specifics, research indicates that Psychopaths tend to make negative impressions in short meetings (Rauthman, 2012), while Machs have the most questionable morals and are most cynical towards others (Rauthman, 2012). Lastly, Narcissists believe themselves to be good leaders, with high emotional intelligence even though they are perceived negatively by those around them (Petrides et al, 2011). Globally however, all three Dark Triad traits exhibit a drive for ruthless self-advancement (Zuroff, Fournier, Patall, & Leybman, 2010).

A word of warning; whereas Psychopaths react aggressively to physical threat, Narcissists do so to ego-threat (Jones & Palhaus, 2010). However, Machs are more deliberate and cautious as to how they react and respond as they don’t give into temptation as easily as the other two typically do (Williams, Nathanson & Paulhus, 2010). Therefore, when thinking about corporate crime, Jones et al (2012) suggest that it is the Mach who is unhindered by the impulsivity of the Psychopath, and displays of hedonism of the Narcissist to be the most successful perpetrator of white-collar crimes.

All jokes aside, the next time you face an aggressive bully, you could be dealing with a Psychopath. The next time you face an overtly arrogant manager, you could be dealing with a Narcissist. And finally, the next time you find yourself manoeuvred out of an opportunity, you may have just been made a victim of a Mach’s manipulation. The Dark Triad does exist, perhaps in all of us. However in the vast majority of us, they do so to a much lesser extent than that 1% of the population that they truly manifest themselves in.

Written by Raj Chopra, TPF committee member.

Follow me on Twitter: @Raj_Chopra24, follow TPF on Twitter: @TPF_UK.

* TED Talk on Psychopaths by Jon Ronson: http://www.ted.com/talks/jon_ronson_strange_answers_to_the_psychopath_test.html??utm_medium=social&source=email&utm_source=email&utm_campaign=ios-share


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Corry, N., Merritt, R. D., Mrug, S., & Pamp, B. (2008). The factor structure of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 90, 593–600.

Furnham, A. (2010). The Elephant in the Boardroom: The Causes of Leadership Derailment. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Furnham, A., Richards, S.C. & Paulhus, D.L. (2013) The Dark Triad of Personality: A 10 Year Review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7/3, 199–216,

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Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. forthcoming. Introducing the Short Dark Triad (SD3): A brief measure of dark personalities. Manuscript under review.

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