Dark Triad Personality Traits

Have you ever felt manipulated or used? Have you ever had a gut feeling about someone who kept asking you for favors? If so, you might have interacted with a person who has what is coined as the Dark Triad Personality (Paulhus & Williams, 2002).

The dark triad personality refers to three negative personality traits, which all share malevolent features:

  1. Narcissism (entitled self-importance),
  2. Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit),
  3. Subclinical psychopathy (callousness and cynicism)
Dark Triad Personality Traits
The Dark Triad refers to three interconnected personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy – that are characterized by callous manipulation, selfishness, and ruthlessness. Individuals with dark triad traits are motivated by their own gain with little regard for others.

Each of these traits operates on a continuum. People who have this toxic combination of these personality traits can undermine their colleagues and negatively impact them in a lasting way, masked with a charismatic and charming character.

People with dark triad traits rank high in their readiness to exploit anyone from their closest family to their work colleagues to get ahead, and they experience very little remorse when they inflict harm on others.

They can be incredibly duplicitous and aggressive. First, let us define the three personality traits, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, identified in the Dark Triad Personality.

  • Narcissism: derives from the Greek mythology story of Narcissus, a hunter who fell in love and became obsessed with his reflection in a pond of water and eventually drowned.

    People with narcissism can be selfish, arrogant, lacking empathy, boastful, and sensitive to criticism and insults. You might also find them constantly feeling entitled and superior, but all of this is masking their typical sense of inadequacy.

  • Machiavellianism: originates from the famous Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th-century politician and diplomat from Italy. The associated traits of Machiavellianism include manipulation, self-interest, lack of emotion, absence of morality, and deceit.

    Essentially, they are highly manipulative and are willing to ruthlessly deceive others to obtain what they desire while having a genuinely cynical view of the world.

  • Psychopathy: since the term “Psychopath” is more common in everyday media and culture, however, let us make the definition clear.

    The personality traits associated with psychopathy include antisocial behavior, being manipulative, expressing volatility, lacking empathy, and being without remorse. They are emotionally cold and impulsive, prone to taking significant risks.

The Dark Triad Personality attempts to capture the manipulative, exploitative attributes that other models of core traits of an individual’s personality are not represented.

These people are heartless and manipulative, willing to do or say practically anything to get their way. The main thing to know about these kinds of people is that they entirely disregard others and have an unhealthy obsession with themselves.

They lack what normal humans need for beneficial social interaction, including compassion, empathy, and a moral compass. They have an augmented view of themselves and are often shameless about self-benefit.

These individuals are likely to be rash and can engage in dangerous behavior, even committing crimes, without regard for how their actions impact others.

Do Dark Triad Personality individuals effortlessly conceal their true nature?

While many researchers consider narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy three different traits with overlapping characteristics, others believe the commonalities propose an underlying personality construct that has yet to be fully comprehended.

Another thing to consider with this being the case is how can we tell that individuals with the Dark Triad Personality actually have it. Do they easily conceal their true nature?

Many physical and behavioral cues have been proven to be associated with the Dark Triad Personality in research trials. However, when you first meet someone with this underlying personality, you will not recognize that they have the antagonistic trio of attributes.

You might actually be swooned by them. Individuals with these traits can excel at masking their true nature, especially when first meeting someone.

Honestly, it can be challenging to recognize a person with a dark triad personality because they”re charismatic and charming. Indeed, they can be the masters of flattery and can make a person feel like they”re unique and fortunate to be in the presence of a person of eloquent taste, brilliance, and compassion.

For example, narcissists can often seem charming and “likable” at first meet, but the evidence does suggest that this is due to the perception that they have raised self-esteem, which is deemed as a socially desirable trait.

But as time goes on, people with the dark triad personality cannot continue sustaining this perception other people have of them forever. Eventually, they end their relationships in a fire, where they result in exploiting the people they became close to, betraying their trust.

How to Identify an Individual with the Dark Triad Personality

Let us learn about some behaviors that can signal someone who has dark triad attributes.

Constant thirst to be fulfilled

People with the Dark Triad Personality are always trying to achieve something and fulfill themselves, regardless of the expense and harm they inflict on everyone around them.

After becoming close to someone with the Dark Triad Personality, you may feel depleted either emotionally, physically, or financially, so the chances are that you were being manipulated and used for this individual’s personal gain.

Always being the victim of relationships and life

Individuals with the damaging trio of traits are experts in the cycle of abuse and gaslighting or denying someone’s authentic experience and story and making them question their own reality.

When someone tries to confront this individual about their toxic behavior, they can quickly turn the tables and become the victim of the situation.

Unable to sustain long-term relationships

Going off of the previous point, people with the dark triad personality cannot sustain long-term friends, partners, family, or work colleagues.

If you notice from their history that they have a string of unsuccessful relationships where they say they cut themselves off from significant people in their lives, then this is something to watch out for.

 Lies and inconsistencies in stories

As stated before, people with the dark triad personality are pros at manipulating facts and history for their own benefit. But over time, they are unable to sustain their perfect image.

You will find over time, as you become closer to a person like this, the so-called “facts” and background details of their lives just don’t seem to add up.

To summarize how to spot someone with the Dark Triad Personality, it honestly can be challenging to truly realize someone has Dark Triad traits. Without a proper evaluation, you can never know for sure.

Again, someone who repeatedly lies shows a lack of empathy, or is aggressive to others to obtain their own goals may have one or more dark traits.

Being in a relationship with an individual who has the Dark Triad Personality

It can be quite dangerous to be in any kind of relationship with an individual who has the Dark Triad Personality. Whether it be your friend, work colleague, business partner, family member, or romantic lover, these kinds of people are hardwired to exploit.

They will do so without hesitation, hurting you in the process, regardless of how much you help or want them to change.

 Sure, we cannot totally disregard the possibility that people with the Dark Triad Personality may be able to change. However, the likelihood of this happening is pretty tiny and not worth the trouble.

It is essential to understand that the personality traits that make up the Dark Triad Personality are deeply ingrained in the person’s psyche and nature, so they will automatically be highly resistant to any sort of chance for change.

If you identify someone who has the Dark Triad Personality, the best strategy is to quickly move away from them as much as possible.

However, it is important to notice if you are in a situation where you are not sure if the individual you are interacting with has a Dark Triad Personality, or you simply cannot move away from them (because they live in your house or are family members), it is recommended that one seeks help from a counselor or therapist.

Dark vs. Light Triad Personality

Just as a side note, since the founding of the Dark Triad Personality, researchers have recently begun to examine the Light Triad Personality of traits which includes humanism, faith in humanity, and Kantianism – derived from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed there was an ultimate principle of morality.

The Light Triad Personality is framed as the opposite of the Dark Triad Personality and is based on the belief that people are innately good and should not be treated for personal gain.

Behavioral Outcomes

Job Performance

O’Boyle et al. (2012) conducted a meta-analysis examining how the dark triad traits (Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy) relate to job performance and counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs).

They hypothesized the dark triad would negatively impact job performance and positively correlate with CWBs due to their tendency to violate social exchange principles essential for organizational functioning. The meta-analysis included 186 studies and 43,907 participants.

Results showed Machiavellianism and psychopathy negatively correlated with job performance, although effect sizes were small. All three traits positively correlated with CWBs, with the strongest relationship between narcissism and CWB.

Moderator analyses indicated authority positions weakened the negative psychopathy-CWB link but strengthened the negative narcissism-performance link. Culture higher in ingroup collectivism strengthened the negative narcissism-performance relationship but unexpectedly weakened the narcissism-CWB relationship.

The dark triad traits were positively intercorrelated but distinct. Together, they explained substantial variance in CWB but little in job performance, driven primarily by narcissism.

The authors concluded the dark triad overall violates social exchange principles and detrimentally impacts CWBs, with nuances depending on authority and culture.

They called for improved dark triad measurement and assessment of incremental validity. Limitations included the need to examine facet-level relations and network effects.


The Dark Triad refers to three overlapping personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. These traits tend to be related to undesirable or antisocial behaviors. The Dirty Dozen was developed as a brief self-report measure combining the three Dark Triad traits into a single scale (Jonason & Webster, 2010).

However, self-reports can be impacted by self-presentation biases or limitations in self-insight. Walker, McCann, and Jonason (2023) created and validated an informant version of the Dirty Dozen called the Dark Informant-Rated Triad (DIRT) to provide an external perspective on someone’s Dark Triad traits.

Across two studies, the authors found the DIRT demonstrated good psychometric properties. The three-factor structure aligning with the three Dark Triad traits fit the data well (Walker et al., 2023).

The DIRT scales showed evidence of convergent validity with existing Dark Triad measures, discriminant validity from conceptually distinct constructs, and criterion validity via relationships with personality, emotion regulation, and empathy consistent with theoretical expectations (Walker et al., 2023).

Self-informant agreement for the DIRT was moderate to large, comparable to past work examining agreement for normal personality traits.

There were mean differences between self-report and informant DIRT ratings, with informants providing more favorable scores. This could reflect biases in either self- or informant perceptions, or differences in observability of the traits.

The study found men had higher Dark Triad scores than women on both DIRT and self-report, consistent with past findings of gender differences.

Overall, the DIRT provides a valid informant-report Dark Triad measure, allowing researchers to examine these traits from an observer’s perspective. Future work should continue examining sources of self-informant (dis)agreement and the impact of context or informant type on DIRT ratings.

Multi-informant data can increase the validity of Dark Triad assessments for applied purposes like hiring decisions or clinical treatment planning. The DIRT addresses the limitations of self-reports and enriches Dark Triad measurement.


  • Jonason, P. K., & Webster, G. D. (2010). The dirty dozen: A concise measure of the dark triad. Psychological Assessment, 22(2), 420–432.
  • Kaufman, S. B., Yaden, D. B., Hyde, E., & Tsukayama, E. (2019). The light vs. dark triad of personality: Contrasting two very different profiles of human nature. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 467.
  • O’Boyle, E. H., Jr., Forsyth, D. R., Banks, G. C., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). A meta-analysis of the dark triad and work behavior: A social exchange perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(3), 557-579.
  • Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556–563.
  • Walker, S. A., MacCann, C., & Jonason, P. K. (2023). The Dark Informant-Rated Triad (DIRT): A concise informant-rated measure of the Dark TriadEuropean Journal of Psychological Assessment. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1027/1015-5759/a000796

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Mia Belle Frothingham

Harvard Graduate

B.A., Sciences and Psychology

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard University graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Sciences with minors in biology and psychology