Understanding the Dark Triad of Personality Disorders

Updated: Mar 31

~ In the mind of a dark personality individual, an insecure sadist sits on God’s throne. In reality, he is a demon in disguise.

What is the Dark Triad?

As the name suggests, the dark triad is synonymous with the darkness of human personality. The term was first described by Paulhus and Williams as a constellation of disturbing malevolent personality traits, mainly including Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy. These socially toxic traits are distinct in their characteristics but with a certain overlap, a common core that includes age and stage-specific patterns, insensitivity and cruel disregard for other people’s emotions, manipulation, deceit, and disagreeableness.

This article will focus on defining each trait individually and as a whole, as well as treatments and therapies involved.

Recent research emphasizes the inclusion of sadism in the triad. Some distinguishing features of such personalities are:

• Machiavellianism: A cynical perspective towards the world, manipulative tendencies, and willingness to be deceitful are identifiable traits of a machiavellian.

• Narcissism: A grandiose sense of self-importance with an underlying sense of inadequacy and insecurity are some common traits amongst narcissists.

• Psychopathy: Characterized by impulsivity, callousness,and thrill-seeking attitude, psychopaths lack empathy and persistently display anti-social behaviour.

Relationships with a Dark Triad Personality

In comparison to machiavellians, psychopaths are more reclusive and act without strategic planning. They are easily identifiable with their evident bad behaviour while lacking remorse, making them less sensitive to interpersonal relationships. They are pathological liars who often feel sadness, loneliness but are unlikely to develop deep, meaningful bonds with others.

Covert narcissists on the other hand, are so discreet with their lack of self-worth and empathy and so proficient with the mind games that they are not easily identifiable in the early stages of relationships. Their pattern follows idealization (involving love bombing), devaluation, and finally discarding, leaving the victims confused and traumatized.

Since emotional manipulation is nearly impossible to prove, victims of associated abuse are often misunderstood for being naïve and delusional when seeking help. This coincidentally supports a masterstroke approach of the narcissist who is trying to invoke self-doubt in the victim (usually an empathetic individual), to amplify long-term effects, thus delaying recovery from the abuse. Emotional manipulation is targeted towards controlling the victim to achieve personally satisfying outcomes in a sadistic manner.

Clinical Perspective and Therapy

These traits are mostly studied amongst clinical populations, such as criminals. It is believed that Machiavellianism positively correlates with the interpersonal dimension of depressive symptoms. People with high scores in psychopathic traits find difficulty in managing their emotions and can experience severe depression. Associated researchsupports theories that Psychopathy positively correlates withthe cognitive dimension of depressive symptoms. Narcissists exhibit higher levels of mental toughness and thus lower levels of depression. They tend to be more adaptive against psychopathology symptoms and thus show a negative correlation with dimensions of depression. The structural equation model for understanding the dark triad traits depicts Psychopathy and Machiavellianism to be one latent variable, also called the dark dyad and Narcissism as an individual construct that correlates with the dyad.

There isn’t a cure for the dark triad traits, but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can improve behaviour and the negative impact on the victims. These personalities often do not seek treatment as their self-centered, and self-aggrandizing personality supports their positive illusions about themselves. This in turn leads to a poor conscience and lack of remorse when called out for their abuse. Psychopathy is the least treatable. But each of the 3 personalities tends to manipulate even their therapist.


A better understanding of differences amongst dark triad traits would help recognize the underlying mechanisms of the relationship between such traits and outcomes. Ultimately, every individual has dark and light within them; what matters is the part we choose to act on. The habitual choice of selfishness and lack of empathy sustains the darkness of the dark triad.


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A friendly reminder: We've done our research, but you should too! Check our sources against your own and always exercise sound judgment.

Shih, S.I., Chi, N.W., Wu, C.C. and Wang, S.Y., 2021. When dark meets blue: The relations between dark triad personality and depression symptoms. Current Psychology, 40(12), pp.6110-6117.
Waddell, C., Van Doorn, G., March, E. and Grieve, R., 2020. Dominance or deceit: The role of the Dark Triad and hegemonic masculinity in emotional manipulation. Personality and Individual Differences, 166, p.110160.

Image Credit: https://newatlas.com/psychopath-brain-mri-study/50365/ 


About the Author

Kanikah Mehndiratta

Guest Writer for the Hope Project

Kanikah Mehndiratta is a geneticist, currently based in Chandigarh, India. She has worked on various scientific research projects that centered around genetic and genomic approaches that can bring a translational impact on healthcare. Her primary focus is neurological and psychiatric disorders,and she avidly promotes education and awareness regarding mental health.

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