Psychologists use the term ‘the dark triad’ to describe three hostile personality traits. People who have these traits use other people for their own gain.
A word about personality traits and disorders
Psychological disorders and traits are not illnesses you can see under a microscope. They are terms created by mental health professionals to describe groups of people with behaviours that make them different from the current day ‘norm’.
In fact psychological diagnoses could be argued to be as much sociological as psychological. For example, the traits that make someone a ‘psychopath’ in our society could have been seen as normal if one was a Viking a thousand years ago!
It’s also important to recognise that we all, at some point in our life, experience dark thoughts and do unkind things. We all have a shadow. This does not mean you are on the dark triad, unless those behaviours are constant. So despite the current trend to label everyone we know, diagnosis is best left to a professional.
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If we had to sum up each trait with one word it might be narcissism/selfish, machiavellianism/manipulative, psychopathy/cruel.
Narcissism leaves someone self-centred. They are vain and well-presented, and believe they are special and should be treated as such (grandiosity). Attention hungry and self-obsessed, they lack empathy for others.
Machiavellianism means someone finds deceiving and manipulating others amusing. They mock morality as beneath them. And use things like flattery and lies to exploit those around them.
At one point researchers argued that there was no triad. They thought there should just be one diagnosis for all these traits. Others argue that narcissism is the odd one out. As narcissists get along quite well in society in comparison, it should be renamed ‘the malicious two’. And still others argue that nothing should be taken away but added. They think the fourth missing element is sadism.
This again goes back to the reminder that these are just manmade terms. Traits and diagnosis often change as society changes and more research is done. For example, we now have ‘internet trolls’ as a new form of dark triad behaviour to analyse.
In summary, people are individuals. Some will seem to have all three traits. Others will clearly have only one dark triad trait.
How does someone end up with dark triad traits?
Research does confirm that each trait has a genetic component. This means you can be born with a greater potential to have dark triad traits. Psychopathy and narcissism having a higher heritability than machaivellianism, which is more influenced by environment.
But people are too unique for an exact answer beyond that it tends to be a mix of biological and environmental, or ‘nature vs nurture’. Even if you are born more likely to have dark triad traits, whether or not they fully develop might depend on how, and by whom, you are raised.
And there is another argument entirely that dark triad traits are evolutionary . It believes that these genes are there to ensure the ‘survival fo the fittest’, so to speak. A sobering perspective.
How is someone diagnosed with the dark triad?
Again, it’s far from an exact science. Psychology gets by on interviews, self-reporting, surveys, questionnaires, rating scales, and controlled scenarios. The closest psychology gets to accurate research is ‘twin studies’, where they can examine people with the same genetics in apparently the same environment.
But this does not account for individual experiences each twin has. A parent might punish one twin but not another, or one twin can have less friends at school than the other. As for questionnaires and other tests, the main problem is that someone who has dark triad traits is excellent at manipulating and lying.
So at present psychologists diagnose someone with dark triad traits by interviewing and observing them. The psychologist will have the person fill out questionnaires, and compare the information gathered to behaviour scales. They will also use their experience of working with other people with dark triad traits.
Of course it’s rare that people with dark triad traits seek therapy for themselves. Those with dark triad traits often seek treatment only when incarcerated. This also means they are doing therapy against their will, which makes it less effective. And there is a strong tendency to manipulate the therapist.
Psychopathy is the trait that is the least treatable. Psychopathy in often part of antisocial personality disorder. A personality disorder is an entrenched, lifelong way of seeing the world that is thought unchangeable. The best hope is to control the trait of psychopathy with reward and positive reinforcement.
Do you suspect that someone you know has dark triad traits?