What Is the Dark Triad and Why Are People With These Traits So Dangerous?

Experts describe dark triad individuals as manipulative, entitled, and lacking empathy.

The "dark triad" sounds like the title of a horror movie or video game, but it's actually the name for a disturbing mix of malevolent personality traits some people have. We asked experts to break down everything you need to know about the dark triad: what it is, the signs of a dark triad personality, and why an individual with these traits can be dangerous.

What Is the Dark Triad?
Getty Images

What Is the Dark Triad?

The term the dark triad was coined by two researchers in 2002 and published in the Journal of Research and Personality. It describes a witch's brew of three different but interrelated negative personality types. You've probably heard of them:

  • Narcissism: defined as feeling superior and entitled, but underneath the grandiosity is typically a sense of inadequacy
  • Machiavellianism: being highly manipulative, willing to deceive others to get what they want, and having a cynical view of the world
  • Psychopathy: lacking empathy and being emotionally cold, while also impulsive and prone to taking big risks

"Central to these types is a person's disregard for others and an obsession with self," Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough, told Health. "They lack compassion, empathy, and a moral compass."

People with dark triad traits rate high in their willingness to exploit anyone to get ahead and experience little remorse when they cause harm to others. They can also be deceitful and aggressive.

How Common Are Dark Triad Personalities?

"It's a bit hard to know exactly how many people fit this description since technically it isn't an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, our 'psychiatric bible,'" Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, told Health. "The closest we have to this diagnosis is antisocial personality disorder[ASPD]."

Often called sociopathy, ASPD is a known mental disorder. People who have it repeatedly disregard rules and ignore the feelings of others. And like those with dark triad traits, they show an alarming lack of empathy—and plenty of hostility and aggression.

Sadly, [dark triad personalities] seem to be reasonably common given the available data," Plante said, "and [they're] often reinforced in our culture, too."

How Can You Tell if Someone Has Dark Triad Traits?

It can be challenging to recognize a person with a dark triad personality because "they're charismatic and charming," Hokemeyer said. "They're masters at flattery and making a person feel like they're special and fortunate to be in the presence of a person of elevated taste, intelligence, and compassion."

But people with dark triad personalities can't sustain this perception forever. "They eventually burn out relationships by exploiting the people with whom they become close," Hokemeyer explained.

These four behaviors can signal someone who has dark triad traits:

An inability to sustain long-term relationships

This doesn't only mean romantic partners, but friends, family, and work colleagues. "They have a string of unsuccessful relationships where they have 'cut off' significant people in their lives," Hokemeyer said.

A history of being a 'victim' in relationships and in life

"People with a dark triad personality are masters in what's known as the narcissist cycle of abuse and gaslighting," Hokemeyer said. "When challenged, they quickly turn the tables to become the victim." According to a 2019 study published in Sage Journals, acts of rage or violence are commonly triggered when the narcissist fears abandonment or their self-esteem is threatened.

Inconsistencies in their stories

While they're pros at manipulating facts for their own benefit, over time "they're unable to sustain their perfect veneer," Hokemeyer said. So-called facts and background details of their lives are inconsistent and don't add up.

A chronic need to be fulfilled

"Individuals with a dark triad personality always have to be fulfilled at the expense of everyone around them," Hokemeyer explained. "If you're left feeling depleted—emotionally, physically, or even financially—chances are you're being manipulated and used for their personal advantage."

Can You Have a Relationship With Someone Who Has a Dark Triad Personality?

Hokemeyer doesn't recommend it. "It's dangerous to be in any kind of relationship, be it a friendship, an intimate affair, or a business association, with someone with a dark triad personality profile," Hokemeyer said. "These individuals are hardwired to exploit and will proceed to do so, regardless of how much you want them to change."

Sure, people with dark triad personality traits may be able to change, but the likelihood of that happening is "minuscule," Hokemeyer noted. "The personality traits that make up a dark triad are deeply ingrained in their psyche and highly resistant to any sort of challenge that would manifest a change. The best strategy is to move away from them as quickly as possible."

A Quick Review

People with the dark triad personality traits are best to stay away from whenever possible. They are manipulative, entitled, and emotionally cold, making it extremely difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with them. If you're in a situation where you're not sure if the individual has a dark triad personality, or you can't simply get away, seek help from a therapist or counselor.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles