The Dark Triad Rises

Today I want to examine the notion that Narcissim isn’t out on its own on the “everyday people it is not good to have a relationships with” stakes.  In fact Narcissism is one of the so called “Dark Triad” of personality types .  The Triad is so called because of similarities between three profoundly negative personality types which have overlapping characteristics and one personality trait common to all three – a lack of empathy.

Empathy is an essential ingredient in mature, psychologically healthy relationships.  Having the right amount of empathy means you can feel and share, to some degree the emotions of others.  For example, recognising that something said or done may have hurt feelings and apologising for it.  An empathetic person chooses to understand and respond to the emotions of others and in most cases, this will curb the worst excesses of selfishness characterised by the Freudian “Id”.  An empathetic person with think first then act.

A complete lack of empathy in the extreme leads to psychopathy, an ability to harm another person either deliberately or because they “get in the way” without any conscience at all.  Most serial killers and historical figures such as Adolf Eichmann – the architect of “The Final Solution” would be characterised as psychopathic. In his book “Zero Degrees of Empathy”, professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading expert on Autism suggests that a lack of empathy diminishes or dehumanises “the other” making them less than “the I “which represents the person without empathy. Whilst we all do this to some extent, to lack empathy makes it the preferred mode of operation.

So what are the dark triad?

The dark triad are Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.  As readers of this site will be aware, Narcissists have an enormous ego, over inflated sense of self-importance, are proud and have low or non-existent empathy.  And as I have explored elsewhere, they are often found in the ranks of successful businessmen and politicians and the like.


Machiavellianism, named after the 5th century politician and writer, Niccolò Machiavelli  who,  wrote an instruction manual for prince regents during the Italian renaissance, the most enduring aspect of which was the concept of “The end justifying the means”.  The main characteristic of this “dark” personality is an ability to manipulate others for self-gain combined with actions which lean towards the amoral. Machiavelli himself is much maligned and did not necessarily approve of the mechanisms he described.  However, his name has been for ever linked with underhand and manipulative acts, though he himself did none.


Psychopathy is the big daddy of the triad, and the behaviour of psychopaths generally involves some type of antisocial acts, impulsivity and a callous selfishness arising from a total lack of empathy. It is believed that many serial killers have psychopathic tendencies and because they completely lack any empathy, they are extremely dangerous.

No whilst there are obvious differences, some psychologists are beginning to argue that rather than being separate, these conditions overlap or at best are a continuum..

Does the dark triad exist  as a separate entity?

Well according to research done by  Delroy Paulhus and Kevin William  of the university of British Columbia, the short answer is “no”. However, certain correlations do seem to exist.  They are all “disagreeable” (yes, surprisingly that can be objectively measured by a questionnaire) but whilst psychopaths and narcissists are both extroverts, Machiavellians, appear to be introverted.

Machiavellians and psychopaths are not conscientious.  Psychopaths are not neurotic, but the other two are. If you want a person who is realistic about themselves then the Machiavellian guy or gal is a better bet since their self-identity is grounded in reality, unlike the other two Thus leading to a relationship which can be illustrated thus:

Fig1: correlations amongst measurements of narcissism, Machiavellianism,psychpathology based on n=245. Results significant to p<001, two tailed test. (after Paulhaus &Williams)

Apparently Narcissists are slightly more intelligent, so there may be a basis for their smugness after all, however psychopaths and Machiavellians are better on non-verbal IQ tests.

So what does this mean for the rest of us ?

Narcissist’s self-belief make them more easy to spot since they are not shy, retiring and they are confident in themselves.  If he’s your boss, your president then his confidence may serve his team well.  If they are your friend or your lover and you are committed to them then you may have to hold back your own needs or develop strategies to deal with them in the interests of peace and understanding.

Machiavellians are likely to be equally successful, but in a quieter way.  For in all too many cases, manipulation can be a positive attribute if he or she is on your side.  As my grandad used to say, make sure he is in your tent pissing outwards rather than the other way in.  If they are your friend or partner, then you must find a way of living with the uncertainty that they may manipulate or leave you.

Psychopaths overall are less successful than their triad counterparts in business. They are dangerous, antisocial and impulsive.  If you are in a relationship, you need to ask yourself just one question, am I safe? and if you are still unsure, remind yourself of Ted Bundy; Fred West or Harold Shipman. Where it is possible to support a narcissist, appreciate a manipulative Machiavellian, if you disagree with a psychopath you may end up the worse for it so just run!

It sounds like the beginning of some awful joke but if faced with the choice between a narcissist, a Machiavellian and a psychopath, the dark triad, the narcissist may in these circumstances be the least bad!


Paulhus, D & Williams, K (2002) : The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy in Journal of Research in Personality 36 pp 556–563

Baron-Cohen, S: Zero degrees of Empathy, Pub Allen Lane, 2011

4 thoughts on “The Dark Triad Rises”

  1. This is the first page I’ve ever witnessed people making the connections and distinctions between ASD/Asperger’s and NPD/Dark Triad when it comes to the lack of empathy. I’ve been seeing many people mistaking their kid for a narcissist when it appears to be Asperger’s. Very interesting. I hope that you find relief, Nancy Cooper. The best thing to do in order to heal is to remember what activities or passions gave you the most joy and get back to your own purpose. Too many parents of these type of kids forget to exist, and they often can’t realize that they cannot change, heal, or fix them. Many years can be wasted on this.

  2. I am a reader of yours in Toronto, Canada.
    I have a son who has Autism and OCD who is 29 and a daughter who is all of the above mentioned in your articles. I have no contact with her.
    The stigma for all this chaos of the mind is that the public think that prejudice starts outside the family when it can actually and often begins at home.
    My daughter is the selfish precise person you describe.
    I am 59 and have yet to meet another mother who had such a cruel daughter and the damage they can do.
    It has ruined my life for so many years, I no longer have contact.
    Might there be a genetic connection for my two adult kids, even though they present a completely different sense of morality?
    Our family unit was doomed from the start.
    I would welcome any mother in the world who has endured what I have to contact me.
    I am alone with this nightmare and can’t escape it.
    Thank you kind sir!

    • Hi
      I am a mum in the UK. I have a son with High Functioning Autism and two daughter’s both of whom have a smidgen of Asperger’s each but are completely different. My youngest is emotionally literate but finds social life and rues of interaction hard. My elder one (24) sounds like your daughter but not so extreme. Asperger’s can present in many forms and girls are often under diagnosed. But she may have Asperger’s and have “zero empathy” and that may be the aspect you find difficult. My suggestion is to look at some of the materials on women with Asperger’s or some of the work of Simon Baron Cohen on empathy. I don’t think there is a link between Narcissim and Asperger’s since the origins are different (the former is created by social factors, the latter mainly biological factors) however, both can have problems with empathy. This may mean that her seeming cruelty is not purposefully done, I hope this helps.

    • I also married a narcissist , and have a daughter with narcissism ,and a daughter with o.c.d. mixed with narcissism . And yes their tounges can cut through you like a knife.. They always feel bad after and are very apologetic , but it still hurts.


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