What are the dark personality traits and how can you spot them?

Dark triad of personality traits

According to psychologists and researchers, the term ”dark triad” gets used to describe a trilogy of negative personality traits, which include:

Dark triad traits

The dark triad personality traits model was initially coined by researchers Kevin. M Williams and Delroy. L Paulhus in 2002.

Individuals with dark triad traits tend to be manipulative and callous and are capable of saying and doing anything to get their way.

Dark personality traits

Dark personality traits

People with the dark triad of personality traits are likely to be impulsive; they also get expected to engage in risky behaviours that often put them and other people in danger.

In extreme cases, dark triad individuals may even commit acts of crime, with no regard to how their actions and behaviours affect others.

High dark triad traits

People who score high in dark triad traits tend to have an overinflated sense of self and are often shameless when it comes to self-bragging and ”blowing their own trumpet”.

Although many researchers consider narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy to hold distinctive traits with conjoining characteristics, other researchers believe unidentified personality constructs could be at play but are yet to get examined.

Examining dark triad traits

As mentioned, the trio of dark traits includes narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

People exhibiting dark triad traits often have one out of these three mental health disorders or co-occurring conditions overlapping. 

For example, an individual may suffer from narcissism while displaying some of the symptoms of psychopathy.


Narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder is one of several types of personality disorder. 

It is a mental health condition in which individuals have an excessive need for admiration and attention, an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others and, as a consequence of all this, troubled relationships.

Mental disorders

Individuals diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder experience many problems, particularly in their relationships, financial affairs, and work.

Narcissists often believe their relationships to be unsatisfactory and tend to be unhappy and unfulfilled in general; this is especially true when they do not get the special attention or admiration they feel they deserve.


Narcissism symptoms
  • Exaggerating achievements and talents
  • Believing they are superior to others and that they can only associate with like-minded people, resulting in emotionally shallow relationships
  • Being envious of others and judging others to be jealous of them
  • Behaving in an arrogant, boastful manner and coming across as pretentious and haughty
  • Having a sense of entitlement and needing constant admiration and attention
  • Taking advantage of other people to get what they want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to be empathetic or recognize the feelings and needs of others
  • Having an inflated sense of self-importance


The recommended treatment for narcissistic personality disorder is usually ‘talk therapy’.


Psychopathy symptoms

Psychopathy does not get classified as a mental health diagnosis. 

However, within the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5), the disorder that most represents psychopathy is antisocial personality disorder (and antisocial behaviour).

Psychologists and researchers consider psychopathy to be a trait mainly characterized by a lack of remorse and empathy.

Within the dark triad paradigm, psychopaths cause more harm to individuals and society than narcissists or ”High Machs”.


Similar to psychopathy, Machiavellianism does not get classified as being a diagnostic mental disorder.

Instead, the personality traits associated with Machiavellianism describe a highly manipulative individual, one who deceives and tricks others to reach their goals. 

The dark triad personalities associated with Machiavellianism get centred around the philosophy of the 16th-century writer Niccolo Machiavelli.

Emotionally intelligent personality traits

Some of the literature suggests that the dark personality traits associated with Machiavellianism are strongly correlated to high intelligence.

In an instance where psychologists refer to individuals as being ”High Mach”, the person exhibits highly manipulative characteristics and behaviours.

How to spot the dark triad

Within clinical settings, the dark triad and dark personalities model attempts to capture exploitative and manipulative characteristics that are not compatible with those in the Big 5, a five-factor model of core traits representing an individual’s personality.

Five-factor model

The five-factor model is the most reliable and widely used model when examining individual personality traits; psychologists and clinicians often refer to the Big 5 when identifying those on the dark triad continuum or those who display any three characteristics.

Psychological assessment

When identifying the three traits in clinical settings, researchers commonly use individual scales that measure psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism, or the ”dirty dozen”, a 12 -item scale created to identify all three triad personality traits at once.

Dark triad members

Researchers believe that it is possible to identify dark triad members through behavioural and physical cues.

Social influence tactics

Dark triad members are often fantastic at hiding their true natures. For example, narcissists often appear outgoing and charming at first, which gives others the false impression that they are confident and have high self-esteem, a socially desirable trait to many.

A 2018 study on narcissistic personality disorder revealed that those with narcissistic tendencies often dress impeccably well. They are also likely to be more physically attractive, wear more makeup than most, and dress provocatively.

Grandiose narcissism

One particular study on grandiose narcissism showed that people with this mental disorder tended to have rather expressive, well-groomed eyebrows.

Recognizing the dark triad

The combination of dark triad personality traits often creates a cocktail of disaster, particularly for those involved with dark triad members. In addition, the behaviours displayed by those belonging to the dark triad can harm those around them.

Such characteristics often involve emotional manipulation, aversive online behaviours and many other individual differences.

The dark side

Some individuals may only display tendencies of dark triad traits, while others have much more profound pathological levels.

Dark triad signs

Here are some ways to spot the signs of the dark triad:

  1. Dark triad members are likely to adopt risky behaviors: being reckless is a substantial dark triad red flag. People with this personality type are likely to take up significant risks in exchange for small rewards. Research shows that people with dark triad traits are prone to riskier gambling bets and are more likely to get involved in petty crime and overspending.
  2. They lack empathy: Dark triad members, whether they get considered dark triad or light triad, often have difficulty understanding other people’s emotions. People who score higher for psychopathic tendencies often find it challenging to describe feelings or be empathetic. Take note of your partner’s levels of self-awareness; are they able to recognize when you feel upset or uncomfortable? If not, they may have dark triad traits.
  3. They are not very receptive or warm: People with dark triad traits do not get considered to be very friendly. In psychological terms, they are often quite disagreeable, consistent with the Big 5 model in that ”agreeableness” is on the five-factor model scale of mental wellness. However, people on the dark triad continuum are known to be friendly when it suits them. All this is maybe part of Machiavellism, where people sweet-talk others to get what they want.
  4. They use aggressive or dark humor: Those who score high for psychopathy and Machiavellianism are more likely to have a fierce sense of humor. They are also known to use self-deprecating humor out of neediness and defensiveness. If you notice that their jokes are consistently offensive or often put others (or themselves) down, this could be a sign of the dark triad personality.


Some of the literature suggests that those with dark triad traits are more likely to engage in addictive behaviors that are both substance and non-substance-related.

Substance abuse

For instance, one study showed that grandiose narcissism is strongly linked to addiction, particularly alcohol – in non-clinical groups and gets elevated in substance use disorder groups. 

Equally, vulnerable narcissism also gets linked to substance use in non-clinical groups.

Broadly, a narcissistic personality disorder is comorbid with alcohol and drug dependence.

Behavioral addiction

Apart from substance use disorders, grandiose narcissism also gets linked to addictive social media use (known as ‘process’ or ‘behavioural’ addictions). 

These addictive behavioural tendencies also include; pathological gambling, compulsive buying, compulsive working and compulsive smartphone use.

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If you are worried that you or someone you know has any of the personality disorder symptoms mentioned above or has any concerns with substance abuse, perhaps it’s time to get in touch with one of our specialists who can help.

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