The "dark triad" sounds like the title of a horror movie or video game, but it's actually the name for a disturbing mix of malevolent personality traits some people have. We asked experts to break down everything you need to know about the dark triad: what it is, what the signs of a dark triad personality are, and why an individual with them can be dangerous.
What Is the Dark Triad? was coined by two researchers in 2002. It describes a witches' brew of three different but interrelated negative personality types. You've probably heard of them:
- Narcissism: defined as feeling superior and entitled, but underneath the grandiosity is typically a sense of inadequacy
- Machiavellianism: being highly manipulative, willing to deceive others to get what they want and having a cynical view of the world
- Psychopathy: lacking empathy and being emotionally cold, while also impulsive and prone to taking big risks
"Central to these types is a person's disregard for others and an obsession with self," Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough, tells Health. "They lack compassion, empathy, and a moral compass."
People with dark triad traits rate high in their willingness to exploit anyone to get ahead, and they experience little remorse when they cause harm to others. They can also be duplicitous and aggressive.
How common are dark triad personalities?
"It's a bit hard to know exactly how many people fit this description, since technically it isn't an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, our 'psychiatric bible,'" Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells Health. "The closest we have to this diagnosis is antisocial personality disorder."
Often called sociopathy, ASPD is a known mental disorder. People who have it repeatedly disregard rules and ignore the feelings of others. And like those with dark triad traits, they show an alarming lack of empathy-and plenty of hostility and aggression.
Sadly, [dark triad personalities] seem to be reasonably common given the available data," Plante says, "and [they're] often reinforced in our culture, too."
How can you tell if someone has dark triad traits?
It can be difficult to recognize a person with a dark triad personality because "they're charismatic and charming," says Hokemeyer. "They're masters at flattery and making a person feel like they're special and fortunate to be in the presence of a person of elevated taste, intelligence and compassion."
But people who have a dark triad personality can't sustain this perception forever. "They eventually burn out relationships by exploiting the people with whom they become close," explains Hokemeyer.
These behaviors can signal someone who has dark triad traits:
An inability to sustain long-term relationships
This doesn't only mean romantic partners, but friends, family, and work colleagues. "They have a string of unsuccessful relationships where they have 'cut off' significant people in their lives," Hokemeyer says.
A history of being a ‘victim’ in relationships, and in life
"People with a dark triad personality are masters in what's known as the narcissist cycle of abuse and gaslighting," says Hokemeyer. "When challenged, they quickly turn the tables to become the victim."
Inconsistencies in their stories
While they're pros at manipulating facts for their own benefit, over time "they're unable to sustain their perfect veneer," Hokemeyer says. So-called facts and background details of their lives are inconsistent and don't add up.
A chronic need to be fulfilled
"Individuals with a dark triad personality always have to be fulfilled at the expense of everyone around them," Hokemeyer explains. "If you're left feeling depleted-emotionally, physically, or even financially-chances are you're being manipulated and used for their personal advantage."
Can you be friends or in a relationship with someone who has a dark triad personality?
Hokemeyer doesn't recommend it. "It's dangerous to be in any kind of relationship, be it a friendship, an intimate affair, or a business association, with someone with a dark triad personality profile," he says. "These individuals are hardwired to exploit and will proceed to do so, regardless of how much you want them to change."
Sure, people with dark triad personality traits may be able to change, but the likelihood of that happening is "minuscule," Hokemeyer believes. "The personality traits that make up a dark triad are deeply ingrained in their psyche and highly resistant to any sort of challenge that would manifest a change. The best strategy is to move away from them as quickly as possible." If you're in a situation where you're not sure if the individual has a dark triad personality, or you can't simply get away, seek help from a therapist or counselor.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter