Inside the Dark Triad

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Inside the Dark Triad

The world can be a dark place, and examining that problem has been an enormous question throughout history. What drives evil? How can seemingly ordinary people do self-interested, misguided, or simply awful things?

Though many governments claim to not negotiate with terrorists – or other similar criminals – it is important to understand them. In applied psychology, experts have identified three primary traits that contribute to this type of malevolent behavior, and have called them “the dark triad.”

The Three Traits

The dark triad consists of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

  • Narcissism is unhealthy and delusional self-obsession. It often manifests with a lack of empathy for others, constant boasting and lying, and a lack of remorse or gratitude.
  • Psychopathy isn’t always as violent as you see in the movies, but maintains the same cruelty. Psychologists characterize it as a mixture of disinhibition, boldness, and meanness.
  • Machiavellianism is pragmatism taken to the extreme. It is self-interest and power-seeking at the expense of morality and others.

Dark triad traits are extremely difficult to treat for several reasons. For one, sufferers rarely want treatment due to the nature of their conditions. For another, their innate skill at lying and manipulation can convince even informed people of their normality. Tests do exist, but getting accurate responses is obviously challenging.


Like most non-neurotypical qualities, the causes behind dark triad traits are hotly debated. There is a genetic component of some kind, particularly for psychopathy. Environmental factors and/or trauma are suspected by many, but primarily as an assumption, since the genetic factors are nebulous.

A particularly interesting theory is that these traits are evolutionary in nature. This has some basis in reality, as dark triad people can be as successful as they are disliked. While they may have difficulty in interpersonal relationships, the cutthroat nature of certain businesses is perfect for them.


Because of their aforementioned frequent success, dark triad individuals often end up in leadership positions at companies. Naturally, working under them is extremely unpleasant and causes productivity and morale problems.

As humans have become more reliant on the internet, the dark triad can be used to understand internet trolls. As coordinated harassment becomes more of an issue online, studying the dark triad can help understand the viciousness and persistence of some of the internet’s meanest inhabitants.


Because dark triad individuals are not always easily identified, the best offense is a good defense: understand your personal boundaries, nurture your self-esteem, and don’t be afraid to stand your ground if you feel you are being exploited.

Of course, this kind of strength may be easier at work, where you have the support of HR, colleagues, and labor laws. In interpersonal relationships the same rule applies, but you may want to consider avoiding the person altogether. If contact is inevitable or unavoidable – such as with a family member – therapy can help you know how to stand up for yourself. Strategies for loved ones with BPD or narcissism have similar applicability to dark triad individuals.

Do you need assistance negotiating boundaries or managing your self-esteem? Azevedo Family Psychology can help. Contact us today and learn about how therapy can transform your life!

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