Does the phrase “dark triad” mean anything to you? Were I asked to guess, I would probably come up with the witches in Macbeth. But in fact psychologists use the concept to refer to three personality traits which can often be found together in certain people. They are narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.
Some definitions will help us to understand this better. Narcissism refers to people who have a grandiose view of themselves. They tend to be egotistical and they lack empathy for others. They crave attention and often expect special favours. The Machiavellian personality is one which is intent on manipulating other people in order to exploit them. They have a disregard for morality and are motivated by self-interest. The psychopathic personality is characterised by impulsive behaviour, callousness and indifference to the feelings of others. It is often accompanied by charm as well as a reduced sense of remorse.
When you read those characteristics you may, as I did, suspect that you were not entirely free from some of them. When was the last time you chose to speak nicely to someone in order to obtain a favour? Traces of narcissism and Machiavellianism there, I suspect. Fortunately, these characteristics are on a continuum and for most of us they represent minor habits which any search for perfection would lead us to avoid. The third member of the dark triad does not refer to extremes: a full-blown psychopath is probably already in jail, yet most of us know individuals who have at least psychopathic tendencies.
These traits are described collectively as a triad because they can often all be found in one person. Indeed, psychologists once suspected that they were a single characteristic expressed in three different ways. The more recent view is that they are distinct traits, albeit overlapping. And the only factor they clearly have in common is that those who have them are disagreeable people.
Screwtape (of the Letters fame) provides a marvellous example of narcissism as practised by a woman who refuses offered food with a demure little sigh: “Oh please, please, all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.” Thus she offends her hostess, and puts her to a deal of extra trouble, while drawing the attention of all to her refinement and moderation. A true narcissist!
Machiavellianism relates, of course, to Niccolo’s 1513 book The Prince, which was dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent. It has been the foundation text for manipulation – in this case, in the context of the successful ruler. Some years ago it was the basis of a witty critique on television of Margaret Thatcher in which “Machiavelli” assesses her alleged usage of his principles. Another example is provided by Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Analysis shows that this speech is a masterpiece of manipulation. But then the ultimate purpose of rhetoric is always persuasion, as Plato pointed out in his Gorgias (who was a leading rhetorician of his time).
We may bear in mind that the etymology of the word “manipulation” is manus, or hand. But the dividing line between handling people and manipulating them is vague. We must suppose that the Machiavellianism of the dark triad requires an ingrained habit of exploiting people through a range of deceits in order to achieve an end. The most successful incident of manipulation known to us was the Serpent’s little conversation with Eve about the advantages of eating from the Tree.
I have noted before that sub-clinical psychopathy can be found in strong, and often charismatic leaders. I seriously doubt if anyone can lead, on a big scale, without a tendency towards the case-hardened remorselessness that secular leaders have from time to time to apply. Thatcher would not be alone. Nor would Winston Churchill: ask an aged resident of Dresden, should any have survived the indiscriminate bombing. But mention of such leaders reminds us that the other members of the triad, narcissism and Machiavellianism, often go hand in hand with a level of psychopathy. Effective leaders who do not see themselves to be a boon to the commonweal are rare, and, of course, manipulation is a staple of political discourse.
As my examples may have implied, the dark triad appears in women as well as men, but it is significantly more often found in men. And this points us to the epitome of the dark triad: James Bond. At first sight it is an enigma that this attractive man should sport three personality characteristics whose common factor is disagreeableness. But would you really like a man who is infinitely pleased with himself, an expert manipulator and a ruthless executioner? You might, if you were a woman. The evidence shows us that men who have high levels of the dark triad are attractive to women.
Substantial studies have shown that they have significantly more partners and to be more active in short-term relationships. Just like James Bond, in fact. The tendency of women (let’s say some women at some times) to be strongly attracted to men who flag up high testosterone is well documented. But I shall not pursue it here, other than to note that although their minds tell them otherwise, their emotions tell them that such men would provide powerful genes for their children. Nor will I pursue a new, and altogether more evil, characteristic which some nowadays suggest should lead to us referring to the dark tetrad in future. We may look at that on another occasion.