Understanding the Dark Triad Personality: Traits, Tests, and Implications

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Sometimes in life, we end up encountering people who appear to have dark personality traits. They might come off as arrogant, selfish, or as a person with a lack of empathy. When we meet people like this, terms like narcissist or even psychopath can get thrown around, as we’ve encountered a personality trait we just don’t like.

In instances like this, there’s a chance you’ve encountered a person with dark triad traits. But what exactly is a dark triad trait? And what does it mean for someone to live with dark traits?

What Is a Dark Triad Personality?

When we say someone has a dark triad personality, we’re referring to someone possessing one or more dark triad traits.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines the dark triad as a collection of three negative personality traits with similar features. These three traits are narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

A person who lives with dark triad personality traits can be described as emotionless, arrogant, selfish, or domineering. In many cases, their personality traits can be damaging to relationships, both personal and professional. Malicious behaviors that lack empathy make it difficult to form close connections and be a trusted partner, family member, or coworker.

These traits can raise some major red flags in relationships. This is why it’s a great idea to learn how to notice these traits, to learn how to identify traits in yourself and navigate these personality traits when seen in others.

The Dark Triad: Exploring the Traits

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A dark triad personality encompasses the traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Let’s take a closer look at them to see how they show up in individuals and the ways they can impact them.


The first dark triad personality trait I will unpack is narcissism, a word that gets thrown around a lot these days.

Narcissism is a personality trait defined by an inflated sense of self and self-importance, which can manifest as a narcissistic personality disorder. The National Library of Medicine tells us individuals who struggle with narcissism disorders experience narcissistic traits like feelings of superiority and a strong need for attention, paired with a distinct lack of empathy for others.

When identifying narcissism, you’ll want to look out for these signs of narcissistic behavior:

  • Excessive or inflated ideas of self-importance
  • A constant need to boast about achievements and abilities
  • Feelings of superiority over other individuals or groups
  • A sense of entitlement, believing they deserve special treatment/privileges
  • A lack of empathy for other individuals
  • Putting individual needs over the needs of other individuals and/or groups
  • Constant thoughts of being more successful/loved/powerful/attractive than others

Does Narcissism Impact Relationships?

When left unchecked, narcissistic individuals may struggle with personal and professional relationships. Some examples include:

  • Relationship Strain: With excessive self-focus and a lack of empathy straining connections, many narcissists may have issues maintaining healthy relationships.
  • Intimacy Issues: The traits that define narcissism can also lead to struggles with emotional intimacy, with narcissists struggling to be vulnerable and value others as much as themselves.
  • Conflict: An inflated sense of self paired with a tendency to put personal desires above others can lead to conflict, further straining relationships.


Machiavellianism is another dark triad trait on our list, inspired by the political writings of Niccolò Machiavelli. In his works, Machiavelli describes a political thought where things like violence and deceit are justifiable ways to achieve political gain.

Influenced by this, Machiavellianism in a person’s personality refers to an individual who is cunning and manipulative, often driven by self-interest. They are individuals who are strategic in their choices and willing to manipulate others to reach their goals. In life, personal gain is a driving force.

You can identify Machiavellianism by looking out for the following behaviors:

  • Strong desire for power and control
  • No issues with using deceit/manipulation when achieving goals
  • Little regard for moral/ethical standards in personal and professional relationships
  • Strong desire/need to control information to maintain an advantage
  • Willingness to exploit the vulnerabilities of others
  • No issue with lying/cheating when achieving goals

Machivelliansm in the Workplace

A person who has this kind of personality trait will eventually see its impact on their relationships. This can be especially true in the workplace/career space where power dynamics and goal achievement are central. Some examples include:

  • Lack of Collaboration: Many with Machiavellianism personalities operate with an individualistic mindset. An inability to work well with others and a preference for personal gain mean little collaboration and issues working well in a group.
  • Competitive Workspace: Machiavellianism in the workplace can lead to a toxic culture fuelled by competitiveness. A desire to be on top and in control can lead to unethical workplace behaviors, with a need to win replacing a need to work together.
  • Lack of Trust: Many who struggle with Machiavellianism end up having trust issues. A constant need to gain and win at the expense of others will break down bonds of trust as power and control become more important than honesty.


Psychopathy is the final personality trait that defines the dark triad personality and can often be found in more dangerous individuals.

The organization Psychopathy Is defines psychopathy as a kind of mental disorder characterized by lower rates of empathy and remorse and difficulty with inhibiting certain behaviors. These individuals have a willingness to hurt, exploit, and harm others for personal gain or satisfaction, though traits can vary from person to person.

When identifying psychopathy in others, look out for the following psychopathic traits:

  • A lack of empathy for others
  • A lack of remorse/guilt after hurting another individual
  • Willingness to exploit and manipulate others for personal gain
  • Difficulty expressing a full range of emotions/superficiality when expressing emotions
  • Issues with impulsivity/a need to engage in thrill-seeking behavior
  • Focus only on short-term goals driven by immediate satisfaction

Are All Psychopaths Criminals?

When examining how psychopathy can impact relationships, we need to talk about the trend that associates psychopathy with criminal behavior.

For many individuals, psychopathy and the term psychopath can bring a very specific image to mind: dangerous criminals like serial killers who have little regard for the lives of others. But does this mean we should assume anyone who struggles with psychopathy will become a criminal?

While I can’t say this applies to every single person with psychopathy, some studies show that some notable killers fall on the psychopathy spectrum.

An article from Psychology Today tells us this can happen for a number of reasons. A lack of empathy/guilt makes it easier to commit crimes without remorse, leading to a lack of value in human life. Psychopaths tend to engage in antisocial behavior, making it hard to stand out in a crowd. They can also be master manipulators, easily charming victims while seeking out feelings of power and control.

 Dark Triad Test: Assessing Personality Trait

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If you want to figure out if you or someone you know might have some dark triad personality traits, there’s an easy way to learn more: Take a personality test!

I highly recommend taking the SD-3 Short Dark Triad test, which can be done online here.

This test presents the taker with a series of statements that they rate based on how much they agree with it. The test will then rate the user on a scale of 1-5 to identify how much they relate to the traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. They can then compare their score to the mean averages for test scores from other users to see where they fall on the spectrum.

Keep Limitations in Mind

Keep in mind when doing this test that there are limitations to the data.

The test notes that test score averages presented here may be higher due to self-report bias. Simply put, the people who tend to seek out and take dark triad tests already have some inkling that they may identify with these traits, leading to higher-than-average scores for these traits. Score averages could be lower with a less biased testing pool.

While the test can provide valuable insight, don’t see it as the final marker of how these traits affect you and how often they impact society as a whole.

 How Does the Dark Triad Affect Us?

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As I’ve touched on above, dark triad traits can have some serious impact on our relationships, both personal and professional. From the people we date to the people we see in the workplace, these traits can manifest in some interesting ways, significantly affecting daily life.

Dark Triad Traits: Personal Implications

Dark triad personality traits like selfishness, a lack of empathy, and a need for power and control will greatly impact a person’s personal relationships.

In many cases, these individuals will experience relationships marked by a lack of trust, a lack of emotional vulnerability/empathy, or have relationships that are exploitative. As a result, dark triad individuals may struggle to form and maintain healthy relationships.

This is why it’s important for individuals with these traits to develop some kind of self-awareness. This can help them to recognize the impact of their tendencies and take steps to work around it. Some tips for managing dark triad traits in relationships include:

  • Seeking Therapy/Counseling: This can be an excellent resource in identifying these traits and learning coping mechanisms that are healthy and catered to you.
  • Improving Empathy: For all dark triad traits, improving affective empathy is key. Working on empathy through tools like active listening and paying more attention to the feelings of others can help. (Exploring new life philosophies like Ubuntu can help, too!)
  • Practice Self-Control: It’s also important for dark triad traits like impulsivity to be curbed with self-control practices. Learning new ways to think through scenarios before responding to others or when decision-making helps here.

Dark Triad Traits: Societal Implications

The dark triad traits don’t only affect personal relationships; they can also have a societal impact. This is especially true when these traits appear in our leaders and decision-makers, who make important choices for workplaces and society.

Manipulative leaders can justify exploiting others to get what they want. A lack of empathy can cause major issues when it comes to ethical concerns, as the well-being of others gets pushed to the wayside to achieve goals. This can massively impact an organization’s culture and working dynamics, creating toxic workplaces and social groups.

This can often present in the following ways:

  • No Trust: Organizations with dark triad leaders can be marked by a lack of trust between leaders and employees due to manipulative and mistrustful behaviors.
  • Lack of Teamwork: Dark triad leaders also tend to be self-sufficient and self-focused, unwilling to use collaboration and teamwork. With teamwork and collaboration being a big part of success in the workplace, this can hinder progress.
  • Back Reputation: Over time, organizations with leaders who are unempathetic, boastful, and selfish can gain a negative reputation. In the long run, bad behavior can ruin public perception, further hindering success.

This is why it’s important to learn to recognize the dark triad traits in others, so you can identify when it impacts an organizational dynamic. By working around these traits, you can help to lessen these negative effects and run things better.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

I want you to walk away from this blog with all your dark triad questions answered! Here are some of the more common questions people have when looking into dark triad personalities:

What are the origins of the dark triad concept?

The dark triad traits were first introduced by psychologists Kevin Williams and Delroy Paulhus in 2002. While all three of the dark traits (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) had been identified and discussed individually, these two were the first to define and mark the overlap found between them.

Can someone exhibit traits from multiple dark triad personality types?

Yes! People with dark triad personality traits can possess varying degrees of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. However, they don’t have to possess all three.

Are dark triad traits inherently negative, or can they be beneficial in certain contexts?

In most cases, the defining characteristics of dark triad traits tend to lead to negative outcomes and behaviors. However, in very specific contexts, these traits aren’t always bad.

For example, the competitiveness that defines Machiavellianism can be a dark trait in a workplace but could be beneficial in a competitive setting like the Olympics. It’s always important to note the context in which these traits appear when weighing their negatives and positives.

Is the dark triad test a definitive assessment of an individual’s personality?

The dark triad test should be seen as a tool for insight into a person’s personality, not the ultimate assessment of it.

As I touched on above, these tests can have biases and flaws. While it can give a great amount of insight, it’s impossible for a test to capture the full nuance and spectrum of a person’s entire personality. An assessment from a professional psychologist can give a much better picture and insight into someone’s personality as a whole.

Changing for the Better

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The traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy define the dark triad personality, traits that can have a big impact on relationships. Characterized by selfishness, a lack of empathy, and manipulation, individuals with dark triad traits can create toxic relationships in their personal and professional lives.

It’s important to increase your self-awareness of these traits and begin recognizing them in yourself and others. With more awareness, we can better navigate these traits, heal them, and grow happier and healthier relationships.

If you identify with the dark triad, or have someone in mind when reading about these traits, know that change is possible! People with these traits are not doomed to their behavior. It is always possible to put in the work to become more aware of ourselves and change how we treat ourselves and others.

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