You Should Be Afraid of the “Dark Triad”

Philis Wood, Contributing Reporter

As we approach Halloween, some of us may find ourselves viewing horror films on
Netflix. Nowadays, many popular Halloween movies feature a psychopathic serial killer
Friday the Thirteenth, Silence of the Lambs, or American Psycho. When you know
you’re safe, it’s fun to scare yourself. But believe it or not, you actually face a danger all
the time, wherever you are. This danger emanates from the dark triad. What is the “dark
triad”? Is it a criminal gang or a terrorist organization? Is it a powerful conspiracy that
secretly causes many of the global threats we seem to face nowadays? Not exactly. In
psychology, the dark triad refers to the personality traits of narcissism,
Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. What do these terms mean?

Thanks to TV serial killers, most people are aware that psychopathy is characterized by
persistent, violent criminal history (with a wide variety in type of crime), lack of emotional
warmth, lack of empathy for others, and deceptive and predatory attitudes toward
others. Psychopaths also exhibit impulsivity, selfishness, and thrill-seeking behavior.

Most people probably know that narcissists are grandiose; they need to be admired. But
narcissists are also deceitful, manipulative, and—like psychopaths—they have a lack of

empathy for other people. Narcissists also often have contempt for the people around

What about the last dark triad personality trait, Machiavellianism? “Machiavellian” is
really just a highfalutin word for something that is actually very common and familiar. A
Machiavellian is just a person who is so focused on his own profit and/or power that he
will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve his goals. Machiavellians believe
that the end of power or profit justifies any means, even those means that are inhumane
and immoral. In short, Machiavellianism is primarily the art of being deceptive and
unscrupulous to get ahead. I’ll bet you know someone like that!

Even without diving into the specifics of diagnostic criteria, clearly what we are referring
to here is a portion of the population (at least 1%) who are neurologically wired in such
a way that they experience other people as things to be exploited. For simplicity’s sake,
we can briefly consider only three traits: callousness, manipulativeness, and lack of
empathy. Statistics show that in the US, there are millions of people who are primarily
characterized and motivated by these three dark triad personality traits. You will cross
paths with one of these people. Will you recognize him when you do? He is hiding
among every hundred people you encounter. And for the dark triad personality, other
persons are just objects which he uses to gain power or profit or enjoyment of some
sort. Dark triad personalities have no meaningful personal connections or interactions.

Dark triad personalities are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Because they consider other
humans as merely resources, they are not inhibited by empathy or conscience.
Because they don't value other people, they use people like disposable tools which can
be exploited and then discarded. Dark triad personalities want power, wealth, sex, or
luxuries instead of meaningful human relationships. The problem is that dark triad
personalities often rise to the top in our competitive capitalist society.

There is a biological aspect of these personality traits. With dark triad traits occur, brain
functioning is impaired in certain key areas of the brain (like the amygdala). A test called
a PET scan clearly shows whether or not these impairments exist. In addition, these
traits exist on a spectrum. In other words, it’s not all or nothing: there are degrees of
psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. This is the main reason why the dark
triad traits are a danger all the time and wherever you go. Absolutely everyone exhibits
some dark triad tendencies, at least occasionally.

And even a full-blown psychopath might not know that’s what he is. Hmm. That’s a little
scary. It means that any one of us could request a PET scan and learn that we are a
psychopath. But what if I myself am the very enemy I fear?