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The Dark Triad

The Dark Triad

Today I am going to write about a subject often considered “dark”The Dark Triad. In Psychology The Dark Triad comprises the personality traits of Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. They are called “dark” because of their malevolent qualities. It is my hope in learning more about the The Dark Triad, to be able to better understand the mechanisms of our own mind and psyche while being able to discern between a person who likes to impose fear and pain vs. a person who makes mistakes.

In 1998, Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams published an article of special interest within the branch of psychology, in it they proceeded to explain the results of their empirical study on three especially aversive and shadowy personality traits; they wanted to check if and to what extent they were similar to each other.

Although I am going to give a brief explanation on Narcissism as a personality disorder, as well as psychopathy in relation to what is an antisocial disorder; their presence in the triad is conceived at a subclinical level; this means a symptomatology referring to alterations that are not expressed with signs or symptoms which are “detectable” but which are revealed based on the effects they generate within the performance and general functionality of the subject in question. On the other hand Machiavellianism isn’t recognized within the DSM V (The medical manual on mental disorders) rather it is often mentioned as a symptom; not as a disorder on itself. In order to better understand why this is is, let’s take a look at each aspect of the triad:

Narcissism.- The word Narcissist derives from the mythological character Narcissus, who fell in love with himself after looking at his reflection for the first time on a pond. He spent hours contemplating his reflection for he believed himself to be the most beautiful and perfect being. He became so obsessed with himself to the point where he was unable to separate his gaze from the water, until one day the inevitable happened, he fell and drowned. Since then Narcissus became the archetype of vanity and irrational self-centeredness. A man who did not love himself with passion but rather glorified his delusions and fell victim to a dark madness which claimed his own life.

Narcissism is a mental disorder in which the individual has an inordinate perception of his own importance. A deep need for approval and superficial admiration and lacks empathy towards others. The Narcissist feels the prevailing need to project before the world, an idealized, grandiose but false image of himself. In other words a narcissist wants the admiration and none of the work or responsibility. The narcissist requires to be considered as someone extremely relevant, virtuous and influential; if he or she aren’t given the admiration they feel they deserve, they like to seek revenge by quietly causing problems in the lives of others–it’s always someone else’s fault because they lack the ability or desire to look in and accept they are not perfect or innocent but just like everyone else they make mistakes and need to work on their self healing and self development.

An interesting fact about a Narcissist is his proclivity towards egotism and his constant “I deserve this” are usually the product of a pressing sense of insecurity and current lack of personal worth, which he tries to compensate by distorting his social mask; this is why any criticism towards his behavior will usually result on the unrevealing of more and more conflict. They have an inability to recognize the merits of others and they do not like to rectify their own mistakes, more often than not they rather put on a fake smile than to admit they were wrong.

We all can expose narcissistic traits, however, a narcissist is one who believes the world owes him and that he should be the center of attention for he sees himself superior to everyone else; confusing self love with self delusion. Studies have shown a person can often develop a narcissistic personality when life experiences have not been properly taught by his caregivers; for example: The kid who is always complimented on his superficial “talents” or “likeable attitude” yet his personality is not ever taken into consideration; it’s always the outside that matters. The case of the kid who grows up to be given everything he asks for and believes suffering is not getting his way or the kid who is raised to always be treated as special and superior to his other siblings, where his “pain” (or lack of) is validated while the actual pain of his siblings is not recognized. Lastly the kid whose parents always like to cover up his mistakes, making sure others perceive their child as perfect and incapable of any mistakes.

Because there are different types of narcissism and plural gradients; for example, martyr, megalomaniac, dependent, perverse, manipulative, etc. It would be inappropriate, imprecise and damaging to qualify someone as such just for exhibiting one or more of the above characteristics. Also, let’s not forget, not all these behavior patterns fit into the dark triad. According to meta-analytic research, the narcissistic facet of the respective trio is more empirically associated with those who like grandiosity, domination, loudness, arrogance, animal exhibitionism and the exploitation of others than those who show vulnerability, shyness, mistrust in others, and who may exhibit open mental instability (such as depression/bipolar/DID) or who like to self-criticized.

Psychopathy.- The word psychopath is made up of two lexical components which come from the Greek: Psyche, which means soul or activity and Pathos which means emotion or feeling. As such the proper translation is “the one who lacks emotion or feelings”. However, in our modern society we have erroneously confused Psyche with mind; believe it or not this has tremendously affected how we treat mental disorders and illnesses; we have gone from talking to heal the soul to numbing (overuse of pills/zero communication) the soul–but that is a subject for another day. In line with the aforementioned, there is no single defined behavior from which the figure of the psychopath can be distinguished unequivocally and conclusively. David Marcus and John Eden, jointly carried out a metric analysis on “psychopathic personality” in which they found it is not appropriate to polarize a person under the label of psychopath, since there is a wide amalgam of degrees and variants within a person. Broadly speaking, psychopathy has to be conceived in the triad as a subclinical expression within a continuum.

Likewise, there is currently some ambiguity regarding its clinical position within the scientific community; while some see it as a subtype of antisocial personality disorder with extra nuances, others judge it as a mere construct and not as a mental or personality disorder. When referring to antisocial in regards to Psychopathy, the term is not to be confused or used on people who like to be loners or are shy but feel for people; instead it refers to people who could act very sociable yet despise people.

In 1941 a predominant psychologist made up a list which encompasses some of the characteristics or substantial attributes of the Psychopathic personality: Absence of psychoneurotic manifestations, poor affective reactions, tendency to lie pathologically, inability to express remorse, guilt or shame.

These people are very skilled at hiding their true intentions and representing specific emotions only when is convenient for them. They show propensity towards manipulation, poor impulse control when it comes to anger, loss of moral sense, cruelty, promiscuity, and lack of empathy; this last one can often been misunderstood, as people erroneously believe psychopaths behave coldly; on the contrary, most people find them charming and are often considered the life of the party, approachable, friendly, diplomatic and easy to talk to, yet in reality all they are doing is assessing the subject to see what they can get out of the situation. Thanks to MRI, we now know there are psychopaths who fit just fine within the “normal” spectrum and there are those who show no response.

Machiavellianism.- In the 16th century, the Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a political treatise entitled “The Prince” in which he explained in detail the way rulers must deal with various situations in order to successfully retain power. Although this work is considered of great value for its knowledge on the human psyche, its pragmatic thinking and its “common sense”; added to the fact some people chose only a good handful of phrases and paragraphs; are what have generated controversy in philosophers, politicians and writers of various times. Quotes such as: “Never attempt to win by force that which can be won by lies”, “It is better to be feared than to be loved”, “It is not only possible but necessary to make good use of cruelty”, “Men must either be caressed or else destroyed” are often the ones the masses use when referring to Niccolo Machiavelli.

Having read his works parallel to Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”, I can say some of the above quotes have been taken out of context and although I agree with the book’s value on human behavior, I do not agree with most of his way of thinking where “The end justifies the means”. It is imperative however when reading books such as this one, to make sure one reads it as a critic or a philosopher would, trying to be neutral, always reminding oneself the book was not written for the masses but as a tactic of war. It was the overuse and misunderstanding of the context in which those phrases were used which gave birth to the term “Machiavellian”.

Its common, vulgar and popular use of the above phrases by those who often have not read the works or have study the times in which they were written and the purpose at hand, is what has denoted the term Machiavelli to hold a derogatory and pejorative connotation, used to condemn immoral, malevolent or autocratic practices. Because of its popular use, Psychology uses it as a definition; but it is aware of why the book was actually written; this helps explain why Machiavellianism is not part of the DSM V.

As a common terminology, Machiavellianism refers to a set of personality traits that shows an absolute prioritization towards one’s own interests and a tendency to see others as pawns; this is a good parallel, for as mentioned before the book was written as a tool to be used by kingdoms regarding wars and invasions; wars are a chess game. However, when the tactics taught in the book are no longer used for its intended purpose, one loses the ability to care for others and often becomes obsessed with power and success, to the point that nothing is ever sufficient.

The person who is commonly term as Machiavellian, is often cold and manipulative. Most people who live like that, are often seeking to use people in order to get ahead in life; they are opportunists. For example the person who is willing to forget about his so called values and is willing to step on someone else in order to get a promotion, better pay or to become popular. They are very good at giving lots of compliments to those they want something from, in order to get their trust; in reality they are not trustworthy, they don’t see a person, they see an opportunity. A “Machiavellian” does not present himself as a cold person, many times he presents himself as a “moral” person; a tactic often used by politicians in order to get votes or to maintain power.

Machiavellian traits in someone can be good or bad; in other words Machiavellianism can equate to analytical (the ability to read people and a situation quickly); however, in the Machiavellian case, the trait is not used for the benefit of others but for the benefit of self. Because of their ability to read people quickly Machiavellians often know when to be nice and polite and when to bully someone in order to get what they want. A very important difference to point out is this; Machiavellians often have no problem acting candid and try to say the right things while an analytical person is often shy but direct; as such when a Machiavellian has to come face to face with an analytical person, they often feel threatened. However, despite their fear, they will try to act cordial for they do not like the direct approach, this is where Narcissism overlaps a Machiavellian personality; it is important for these people to look as if they are the ones being disrespected or attacked when in reality they are the ones who like to instigate or and fear the analytical person for such person can see past their masks.

As you can see people within the triad expose lack of feelings towards others (they pretend to care but in reality they don’t). They can understand at a logical level how to react to someone in distress, hence seeming as if they care; however, they can’t feel or actually relate to the pain and distress of others. If they have to act as if they “care” or “help” others, it will be done so in exchange for accolades, or other “benefits”.

Research on the dark triad is used in applied psychology, especially within the fields of law enforcement, clinical psychology and business management. People scoring high on these traits (especially within Narcissism and Sociopathy) are more likely to commit crimes, cause social distress and create severe problems for an organization, especially if they are in leadership positions. On the other hand but same spectrum, people who exhibit the “popularized term” for Machiavellian thinking, are often sought by great corporations, defense law firms and politics; here is where the debate continues–are they actually putting their “skills” to good use?

After learning about the triad and the “attributes” each exposes, perhaps now you can see the difference between a person who makes mistakes who is called bad and a person who is bad yet might be considered “good” and “amicable”.

Sofia Falcone


Sofia Falcone

Sofia Falcone
I passionately believe one person can make a difference. I write from my own experiences and interests. It is my greatest hope that by writing about my own challenges and hopes, others may feel inspired to believe more in their inner power and to fully embrace themselves.

Reprinted on crystalwind.ca with permission from Sofia Falcone.

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