Investigating The Psychology Of Dark Personalities

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Both in the sub-clinical and clinical spheres, malicious, immoral and malevolent behaviour is everywhere. For many years, psychologists have shown a pervasive interest in attempting to define and study the nature of evil. While initial research was limited to identifying these similarities and differences in criminal and delinquent populations, new conceptualisations of evil have focused on a constellation of dark personalities in the general population (Kaur, 2013). Dark Personalities refer to a set of socially aversive traits in the subclinical range, meaning that they are not severe enough to warrant forensic attention but fall outside the spectrum of normality in an everyday sense (Paulhus, 2014, pp. 422). Paulhus and Williams (2002) were the first to coin the term, ‘The Dark Triad’ describing “socially malevolent characters with behavioural tendencies towards self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity and aggressiveness” (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). The Dark Triad was developed to study three distinct yet interconnected personality features; narcissism (characterised by grandiosity, need for affirmation and entitlement), Machiavellianism (characterised by manipulation, exploitation and deceit for individual gain) and psychopathy (characterised by impulsiveness, lack of personal affect and remorselessness) (Muris et al, 2017; Paulhus, 2014; Book, Visser & Volk, 2016). Across some literature, the Dark Triad has also been extended to include Sadism (characterised by taking pleasure or enjoyment in the suffering of others), thus becoming the Dark Tretrad (Krauss, 2015). However, with the continuous developments in the way the Dark Triad is conceptualised and measured, there has been growing discrepancies as to what criteria is necessary for personality features to be considered ‘dark’ or ‘malevolent’.

Significant controversy surrounding the empirical and theoretical overlap between the core Dark Triad members has raised questions as to the extent to which the Dark Triad members should be studied in concert. Various models have been developed to test the conceptual overlap between the Dark Tetrad members, these include the HEXACO model, the Five Factor Model and the Short Dark Triad (SD3), in addition to specific inventories for each trait (MACH-IV, SRP-4, STMO) (McHoskey, Worzel & Szyarto, 1998; Roberts, 2007) However, despite their differing opinions on how closely the dark triad overlap, each model proposes that the dark triad should not be considered a single, indistinguishable unitary construct. The thesis of this research article is that the Dark Tetrad members should be studied alongside each other, as interconnected but independent parallel constructs. Empirical and theoretical research suggests that in studying the complicated relationship between individual Triad members, researchers can gain new insight and knowledge into controlling for the other members. In application, it is believed that research in this field can further knowledge on the correlation between dark personality traits and socially aversive behaviours such as racism, bullying and trolling in the student and community spheres (Buckels, Trapnell & Paulhus, 2014).

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Contrary to popular opinion at the time, McHoskey, Worzel and Szyarto (1998) proposed that Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism are more or less the same construct in non-clinical populations. However, from their study of 245 university students using a combination of self-report and laboratory measures, Paulhus and Williams (2002) concluded that the even in the general population, the Dark Triad members are differentiated enough to be studied separately. These two differing perspectives have been heavily debated among psychological intellects and subsequently, have inspired a growing body of research in the fields of applied and personality psychology.

The Paulhus and Williams study relied on the five factor (FFM) or ‘big 5’ personality model to evaluate the different relations between traits and identify the subsequent differences between personality and individual behaviours (Paulhus & Williams, 2002; Burton, Kowalski & Westen, 2018). Their results showed that the only big 5 correlate which was consistent for all three triad members was agreeableness (Book et al, 2016). Furthermore, the results exposed that while psychopaths were identified by low neuroticism, Machiavellianism’s and psychopaths were low in conscientiousness. Additionally, across two measures, self-enhancement was significant for narcissism (Paulhus & Williams, 2002. These results suggested that the dark triad lack enough of an empirical overlap to be studied simultaneously.

However, compared to the more contemporary HEXACO model of personality, the Big 5 Model has issues surrounding cross-cultural applicability (Ashton, Lee & Son, 2000; Burton, Westen & Kowalski, 2018). Therefore, has been argued that the inclusion of the Honesty-Humility factor (prosocial behaviour including fairness, sincerity, greed avoidance and modesty) in the HEXACO model, has improved reliability and validity for most measures (Book et al, 2016). However, a limitation of the Paulhus and Williams study was the use of an anonymous self-report questionnaire. In self-report questionnaires, it is common for individuals to underestimate or underreport the extent to which they hold or exhibit negative traits, especially if they have enough traits to be deemed a Dark Personality (Book et al, 2016). Subsequently, this can lead to a reduction in criterion-related validity.

In a large online study by Book et al. (2016), 490 undergraduate university students were assessed across four models; The Short-Dark-Triad, The Big Five Personality Model and the Factor 1 and Zero-Empathy Models. The degree to which participants held dark triad traits were measured using the same five-point scale. As predicted in Book et al (2015), all Dark triad members loaded on only one factor; the Honesty Humility factor. For Emotionality (observable emotional and behavioural component to emotions), Agreeableness (prosocial behaviour which supports social harmony) and Conscientiousness (ability to control, regulate and direct impulses) positive correlations were moderate to low. However, the personality traits did not have significant loadings for Extraversion and Openness to Experience (Book et al, 2016). These results suggested that while a significant proportion of the variability is common across all members of the triad, each member consists of a different combination of antisocial personality traits.

However, in a metanalysis which evaluated the strength of hundreds of Dark triad correlations across the literature, Kaur (2013) found that not only were all correlations positive but just under one quarter of correlations were below .5. Additionally, it was identified that the highest average correlation between triad members was between Machiavellianism and narcissism (Kaur, 2013). For psychopathy, research has pointed to a clear distinction between primary and secondary psychopathy. While the latter is thought to be a consequence of environmental influences such as inconsistent parenting styles, low socioeconomic status and trauma (Kaur, 2013), the former is hereditary and primarily characterised by deficient affective reactivity (Muris et al, 2017). It has been argued that by studying a dark personality solely within the constellation of the dark triad oversimplifies each construct (Muris et al, 2017). The idea that by studying all three traits simultaneously, researchers become preoccupied recognising similarities among the constructs, inhibiting their ability to identify variables which are inconsistent is common throughout the literature ( ). It is argued specifically that in the case of psychopathy, a lack of recognition for the differentiation between the two strings (primary and secondary), can negatively affect response to treatment and patterns of violence and offending in application (Levenson, Kiehl & Fitzpatrick, 1995)

In a study by Glenn and Selbom (2015) which aimed to test whether the three constructs as measured by self-report questionnaires in non-clinical samples were equivalent, yielded similar findings as the Paulus and Williams (2002) landmark study. From their data collection, Glenn and Selbom concluded that due to the close resemblance between the core traits of Machiavellians and psychopathy, it can be debated that they are essentially the same dark personality. In their principal component’s analysis, which split primary and secondary psychology between two factors, Jacobwitz and Egan (2006), found that the MACH-IV Scale correlated strongly with both strings of psychopathy. In their preceding study, McHoskey, Worzel and Szyarto (1988) proposed that since the dark personalities are often studied under different subdivisions of psychology, their strong theoretical overlap has been overlooked. However, McHoskey, Worzel and Szyarto (1988) recognise that the Mach-IV is an ineffective measure for assessing dark personality traits as a consequence of its confounding of primary and secondary psychopathy.

In a study by Paulhus (2014), the common trait of callousness (a lack of empathy towards people) was identified as the core empirical and theoretical overlap between the dark personalities. However, because of their other individual characteristics, the same trait plays a different role among each member of the triad (Paulhus, 2014). While Narcissisms lack empathy towards those in their immediate environment, the Machiavellian takes care while taking advantage (Jonason, Kavanagh, Webster & Fitzgerald, 2011; Muris et al, 2017; Paulhus, 2014). By only studying one dark personalities, a researcher may inhibit their ability to discover that a correlate could be ascribed to another variable from the Dark Tetrad (Glenn & Selbom, 2015). This argument supports the notion that this possibility is not unlikely considering the frequency of positive correlations among variables of dark triad traits.

Lincoln et al (2014) suggests two types of research data supporting the strong empirical overlap in his metanalysis of literature on the Dark Triad; factor analytical studies and correlation studies (Muris et al, 2017). In regard to the former, a well-known study by Furnham and Crump (2002), in which regressional analysis assessed various hypothesis about the empirical overlap between dark triad members, confirmed that Machiavellianism and narcissism load onto one factor (Glenn & Selbom, 2015). These overlaps were also suggested by Widiger et al (2002). However, based on these studies it is unclear the extent of the overlap considering in some studies, the same three measures do not always result in an observable correlation (Glen & Selbom, 2015). A prominent correlational study by McHoskey, Worzel and Szyarto (1988) also found evidence of correlation and psychopathy on several self-report, behavioural and personality measures.

In another metanalysis of current psychological literature, Muris et al (2017) identified 91 research papers containing 42,359 participants across 18 populations from the Web-of-Science Database. Majority of the articles which addressed either the Dark Triad or a dark triad members, highlighted a shared variance as a result of an empirical overlap across measures such as malevolent personality style. The authors findings replicate those of Paulhus and Williams (2002); that the dark triad traits are significantly intercorrelated and primarily related to the Big Five personality trait of agreeableness. Therefore, the authors conclude that the overlap between the dark triad personality traits is enough to obtain significant benefit by studying the traits simultaneously. However, it is important to recognise that simultaneously does not infer that the dark triad members should be cautioned as a single unitary construct. According to Lilienfeld and Andrews (1996), psychopathy may be a more dominant trait of the triad members. In considering a possible hierarchy among the triad members, Lillenfeld and Andrews imply that the triad members are separate yet interconnected entities. Expanding on this concept, Muris et al (2017), suggests that the current literature overlooks the multi-dimensional aspect of the dark triad traits and ignores the idea that each is formed out of a heterogeneous set of characteristics.

However, it is also fairly common in self-report measures for participants (especially those in delinquent or criminal populations) to underreport or underestimate the extent to which they hold negative personality traits or behaviours, therefore the validity of results may be questionable. Additionally, it has been proposed that the overuse of non-clinical samples can result in a low base rate of dark personality traits. Although, Roberts et al. (2007) suggests that rather than focusing solely on either a clinical or non-clinical population, researchers should view the dark personality traits on a continuum, rather than discrete, fixed units. Roberts proposes undertaking multiple trials within both clinical and sub-clinical populations to generate more generalisable data.


In conclusion, there is undeniable evidence from various analytical and correlation studies that dark triad members each share a complication of traits which qualify them as dark personalities. However, despite their strong theoretical and empirical overlap, the dark triad members share enough distinct characteristics to be studied alongside each other, as interconnected but independent parallel constructs. There is strong evidence against the Dark Triad representing a single, indistinguishable unitary construct, as all three members are positively correlated but do not share all of the same correlates (Glenn & Selbom, 2015). By studying the dark triad members simultaneously, researchers can often become occupied with identifying similarities between the constructs often overlooking the conceptual differences which contribute to varying psychosocial outcomes. However, by viewing the dark personality traits as overlapping rather than equivalent, researchers are able to explore the complex relationship between the dark triad members and acknowledge shortcomings which may be problematic for application. Both the HEXACO and the Five Factor Model, along with several specific inventories (MACH-IV, SRP-4, STMO), have been powerful tools in measuring whether the three dark personalities are analogous in both non-clinical and clinical populations. However, it is important to recognise that the use of self-report and questionnaire-style measures can result in individuals underreporting or underestimating the extent to which they hold negative personality traits or behaviours. One particular path of enquiry, which explores the close link between psychopathy and Machiavellianism provides sufficient evidence in support of the dark triad as interconnected but independent parallel constructs.


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