When psychologists talk about the Dark Triad, they mean narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. But that list doesn’t cover all the dark-side personality characteristics.
Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, spoke with Peter Harms, PhD, professor of management at the University of Alabama, about dark-side behaviors not covered by the Dark Triad.
Peter has studied the dark side of personality for more than 20 years. He started his career working with Dr. Delroy Paulhus, who coined the phrase “Dark Triad” in 2002.
Let’s dive in and explore what the Dark Triad misses and dark-side tendencies in leadership.
What Is the Dark Triad?
The Dark Triad refers to three personality-based syndromes or behaviors: (1) narcissism, (2) Machiavellianism, and (3) psychopathy. The syndromes in this triad are considered subclinical, meaning not a clinical disorder but lying right on the edge of legality.
- Narcissism – Toxic self-esteem that combines believing you are great and wanting to be admired to the extent that you compete with or exploit others
- Machiavellianism – Pleasure in manipulating others with chronic, habitual lying
- Psychopathy – Impulsivity, recklessness, and lack of ability to experience emotions, especially empathy
A common element shared among the Dark Triad is being willing to exploit or hurt other people to pursue one’s agenda. A narcissist typically seems energetic and confident in the short term but may become aggressive or competitive in the long term. A Machiavellian tends to seem politically savvy but uses lies to stay ahead. A psychopath can be curious about others but also act vicious or brutal toward them. “They’ve all got this common hostility towards others or an ambivalence towards the feelings of other people,” Peter said.
The Dark Triad isn’t a theoretical model but a way to think about trends in psychological literature. Social psychologists studied narcissists, personality psychologists and political psychologists studied Machiavellians, and forensic psychologists and clinical psychologists studied psychopaths. These elements of personality and behavior weren’t well represented in the Big Five, or five-factor model (FFM), which categorizes more positive or neutral aspects of personality.
The Dark Triad can be challenging to study for two reasons. The method of study is usually self-report and questionnaires. However, because people who have these characteristics habitually exaggerate, lie, or fail to comprehend emotion, interpreting these measurements is hard. As well, the behaviors associated with each syndrome often overlap, leading to difficulty differentiating them.
Other Dark Personality Characteristics
In 1997, Drs. Robert and Joyce Hogan introduced the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), which measures 11 potentially career-derailing behaviors. The HDS isn’t a clinical assessment and doesn’t diagnose clinical conditions. However, certain HDS scales do align somewhat with the Dark Triad.
- Narcissism corresponds to HDS Bold. Bold has elements of entitlement, overconfidence, and exaggerating one’s abilities, but it doesn’t measure the vanity or exploitative behaviors that characterize narcissism.
- Machiavellianism corresponds to HDS Skeptical. Skeptical has elements of being cynical and mistrusting, but it doesn’t measure the manipulativeness that characterizes Machiavellianism.
- Psychopathy corresponds to HDS Mischievous. Mischievous has elements of risky and impulsive behavior, but it doesn’t measure the inabilities to experience emotion or learn from negative feedback that characterize psychopathy.
A more significant difference between the Dark Triad and the HDS is intent. The HDS measures personality strengths. When overused, these can become obstacles that can derail career success. Fundamentally, though, the scales on the HDS are positive. The characteristics of the Dark Triad are not positive. “They are almost uniformly negative in how they impact other people,” Peter said.
What the Dark Triad Misses
The Dark Triad isn’t a complete taxonomy of dark-side characteristics. Organizational psychologists should recognize that the other characteristics are important too. Seemingly positive characteristics can turn negative depending on the context or degree—such as perfectionism, dependency, and competitiveness. Spitefulness and greed are also becoming newly popular dark characteristics to study.
The Dark Triad misses listing quite a few dark characteristics. Peter specifically called out paranoia as the biggest gap in studying dark characteristics. “It can feed on itself,” he said. “If you treat other people skeptically, then they act in a way that justifies your skepticism.” A need exists for research to understand how this characteristic plays out in the workplace.
Another thing the Dark Triad misses is the moral element of behavior. In addition to unwillingness to trust and engage in emotional intimacy, the three syndromes of the Dark Triad tend not to be concerned with morality. A narcissist isn’t likely to wish they were less arrogant; instead, they would wish others could understand their greatness. Many Machiavellians would agree that they are immoral. They might justify their actions by saying the world is an immoral place and a smart person rises above morality. Some psychopaths would be aware they don’t experience emotions and would feel curiosity and regret about their lack of empathy. But overall, morality just doesn’t interest the Dark Triad: “The people who exhibit these characteristics don’t want to change that much,” Peter said.
The Dark Triad in Leadership
“Pretty much anytime you’ve got a leader, they’re a narcissist,” Peter said, especially national leaders. They tend to believe that they personally are the solution to national or global problems.
Peter described the narcissism of former US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and the paranoia of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama seemed to view himself as a world-changing leader whose time in office would be an inflection point in global events. Similarly, Trump said he was going to be the best president and get the most done. Getting to the top in politics requires self-confidence, which can easily become overconfidence given the nature of the office itself. President Putin displays many characteristics on the Dark Triad, as well as paranoia. As a former KGB agent, Putin continues to operate in his present role as a spy who is surrounded by spies. Peter said that deceptive behavior has helped Putin get ahead sometimes, but it also causes him problems. “His paranoia has created so much distance that it’s causing his downfall,” he added.
Power can act as a key to opening Dark Triad tendencies, which aren’t always evident when leaders are still striving to reach their goals. Having attained an elite role, leaders may become unguarded. “That’s when the dark side really starts leaking out—when you’re on top,” Peter said.
What Organizations Can Do
Organizations need to understand the nature of dark-side traits. Not all of them are explosive headline grabbers. It’s vital to pay attention to leader behavior, measure dark-side tendencies, and provide coaching and resources for leadership development.
Organizations should also be aware that men tend to score higher on Dark Triad characteristics such as boldness, self-promotion, and excessive risk taking, which can lead to company-destroying news events. Women tend to score higher on dark-side characteristics such as perfectionism, passive aggression, and eagerness to please, which can lead to toxic work environments and decreased retention. These differences may also bias leadership selection in favor of men. Gender inequity issues matter greatly to employee and organizational well-being.
“We can’t just look for the bright red flashing lights. We have to look at all the warning signals,” Peter said.
Listen to this conversation in full on episode 72 of The Science of Personality.