Dark Triad

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

58 Responses to Dark Triad

  1. Iona says:

    Possibly women (or, some women, some of the time) are attracted to the James Bond type “because their emotions tell them that such men would provide powerful genes for their children”, but conversely the more rational part of their brain should tell them that although he may father such children he is unlikely to provide any support with their upbringing.

  2. ionzone says:

    You have to feel sorry for Machiavelli, he wrote The Prince as a satire! At least, that is what I have heard. As far as I can make out, it is a tongue-in-cheek ‘how not to do it’ guide that seems to have been taken all too seriously for generations. I’m told that his other works are very different and completely contradict the tone of The Prince.

    In any case, I think that this very neatly sums up the three internal enemies of any practising Christian – the love of the self, the disdain for others, and the lust for power for powers sake. In fact, I think these could all be distilled down to just two words – selfishness and pride. Pride, of course, being in the sense that CS Lewis uses it – self aggrandisement at the expense of all others. The sin of pride is not the pleasure of accomplishment, it is the pleasure of thinking oneself to be a king and all others to be worthless subjects who exist only for your amusement.

    • milliganp says:

      Thank you for reminding me to re-read my CS Lewis collection, he had a clarity which is would be hard to exceed, and of course he gave us AD to undermine good and convince us of our own personal certainties.

      • ionzone says:

        Yup, CS Lewis is pretty great. In fact, I would say he is way better at theology than he is at storytelling. That’s not a disparagement on Narnia, btw, I just think his theology is in a league of its own.

      • milliganp says:

        CS Lewis himself said that people shouldn’t take Narnia too seriously, he wanted to explore the concepts of good and evil in a fantasy world; similarly with “The Great Divorce” which I still find the most understandable explanation of the inevitable consequences of the effect of vices on the afterlife.

      • tim says:

        Hurrah for CS Lewis! Currently I’m reading him to my wife at bedtime – “That Hideous Strength” – the original hardback, not the abridged Pan version. Full of good things. The baddies have subtly coded names – Frost, Wither, Stone…

    • Peter D. Wilson says:

      I don’t think The Prince can have been written as satire, as there’s some good sense in it.

  3. claret says:

    “Oh would that God, the gift to give us, to see ourselves as other’s see us.” Robert Burns. From his poem Tam O’ Shanter.

    (And before the Blog Police get to work I realise the quote is not entirely accurate, and perhaps not even the poem, but it is my memory of it at this time. I trust , perhaps unwisely, that the meaning is clear at least.)

  4. Peter D. Wilson says:

    I think that of the triad, manipulation can sometimes be justified. Towards the end of an engagement, my fiancee would automatically raise objections to anything I might suggest we could do together. Accordingly, if there was anything I particularly wanted NOT to do, I would propose it confident that the idea would be promptly vetoed (it never failed).
    Thirty years on we are on excellent terms and in weekly contact, although as we live 300-odd miles apart the question of joint activities doesn’t arise.

    • Singalong says:

      Peter, my mother used to describe family walks with her father in just the same way. If the children wanted to go along a certain lane, they would always clamour for the alternative route, knowing that he would say, No I think we will go this way, and then they would pretend to be disappointed.

      I do think that bringing up children involves a certain amount of benign manipulation, through persuasion, and feigned enthusiam, and other devious ways which parents and teachers have to use. I remember particularly our efforts to obtain enough cooperation when it was time for hair washing, after a few episodes of blood curdling screams, when we felt as if we should hang a notice outside the house to the effect that that was all we were doing.

      Knowing when to slow down these procedures and allow mistakes and wrong choices to take their course is very difficult, and I am sure we did not always get it right. And of course it is very tempting to use the same arts and wiles for ones own benefit sometimes, and why not sometimes.

      Reward and punishment systems are basically attempts to manipulate behaviour which are essential in any human society, and are part of our religious life also. The prospect of heaven, and the fear of hell may not be the highest motivation but they have a part to play.

  5. Brian Hamill says:

    The reference to James Bond is interesting since I believe Ian Fleming said that the he based Bond’s character on boys’ fantasies – the ultimate power of life and death over others, endless and irresponsible sexual pleasure, and immortality since he never gets killed. Please note that the character ‘Q’ in Star Trek has those same characteristics as do the pagan Gods of Greece and Rome. It seems the Dark Triad has a long history

  6. Vincent says:

    Notwithstanding Quentin’s remarks, I want to say something in the defence of ruthless leaders. Quentin uses Dresden as an example — that’s him making a strong point by using a dramatic and emotional case. But in fact most leadership decisions, being broad in their effect, will always be a balance between the good and the bad. The good leader should always be attempting to increase the first and limit the second. The worst leader will shy away from any decision, thus ensuring that important things do not get done.

    Little though I like the blanket bombing of German cities, for instance, I ask myself whether Churchill should have desisted, and so prolonged the War — maybe until the Germans (for all he knew) had developed an atomic bomb. We remember that from 1944 onwards Germany was specialising in long range weapons such as the V1 and the V2.

    At a less dramatic level, I never shied away from taking action if I had a person on my staff who couldn’t cut the mustard. I had to be fair to his colleagues and to the business.

    • ionzone says:

      Fortunately enough, the Germans never devoted anything like the resources that the Americans did to atomic weapons. As far as I am aware they had only one lab that we found, plus a few suspected heavy water factories..

      • Quentin says:

        Yes, it’s an interesting story. The Germans had shot themselves in the foot by chasing out all the Jewish scientists, who might have done the work. One enigma concerns Heisenberg (he of the ‘uncertainty principle’) who either believed that the amount of uranium 235 to trigger the bomb was too large to be obtained within the timescale, or concealed the fact that the amount was really quite small. No one knows which. But of course the Allies, despite Heisenberg’s famous meeting with Niels Bohr, didn’t know that. It was Einstein who put the Americans on warning (1939 et seq. letter to Roosevelt) that the Germans would attempt to build a bomb; this fired up the Manhattan project — which led to Hiroshima.

        I remember my father, reading of Hiroshima in the morning newspaper, saying that the world had changed forever.

      • ionzone says:

        Guess your dad was right. I can’t say that I really like that the Americans nuked those cities, but as we know, there are worse people to have got the bomb first. For example, China’s Chairman Mao. After WW2, he tried to trade with Russia for the plans using food the peasants needed just to survive.

        Even so, World War II nearly became World War III over a whole lot of really stupid stuff. Imagine a war where nukes are feverishly mass produced and dropped on cities across Europe and Russia while the might of the Soviet Empire and its allies crushes everything bigger than a daisy and turns the world into one big North Korea. It’s no wonder the Clod War was such a paranoid time. They were certain it was going to happen, they just didn’t know when.

  7. Singalong says:

    I certainly did, Ionzone. In the late 1950`s, in my early 20`s, I refused to join a pension scheme, because I thought it certain that the world would be in total chaos, following a nuclear war, long before I would reach 60. I think some would say that we are still on a knife edge. I probably thought also that i would be at home looking after a family with a husband`s income to rely on, how the world has changed.

    • ionzone says:

      Morality is always tricky. For example, the death penalty as a threat is thought to reduce murders, but as an act it is itself deeply immoral. So, which side do you take? The side which says that a threat to keep people in line is justified by the lives it saves, or the side which says that it is barbaric, cruel, and that innocent people have been executed as criminals?

  8. John Nolan says:

    To give Churchill his due, he was always uneasy about strategic bombing. However, this does raise the question of nuclear deterrence. The Church has come very close to condemning it as immoral. As a cold war warrior I supported it. Is it a question on which the Church has authority to pronounce? There are not many cardinals who can claim any expertise in or knowledge of nuclear strategy, and the last warrior pope was Julius II. Similarly, if the Vatican were to pronounce that anthropogenic climate change had to be accepted as a matter of faith, I would be inclined to stick two fingers at it and side with Cardinal Pell.

    • ionzone says:

      I messed up my reply a little. The reply to Singalong’s post was intended to respond to this one, if that makes sense.

      • Quentin says:

        It is a little complicated. Just for the record, clicking on ‘reply’ will attach a new contribution to the clicked contribution. But if other contributions have already been attached, the new contribution will be shown after these. The idea is to keep mini discussions together. If all is lost, give date and time of the contribution you are answering — or quote a relevant phrase.

    • Vincent says:

      I don’t think that pronouncements of this nature carry any sort of binding authority within themselves. However I believe that the authority given to the Church in moral matters obliges us to try to understand how they relate to deeper values. I happen to believe that it is better to be nuked than to nuke. But I used not to think that way.

      • ionzone says:

        One thing that may help as a thought exercise for people is this: according to rumour, there is a submarine circling the globe which contains part of the UK’s arsenal of nukes. Somewhere on that submarine there is a safe containing sealed standing orders from the prime minister telling the captain what to do in the event that England is nuked.

        What would you write to that future captain who has just seen his country blown away by a foreign power?

      • ionzone says:

        BTW, this is not directed at Vincent, I’m just interested.

  9. St.Joseph says:

    Quentin.
    You mention Hiroshima.I often wonder if it was morally correct to blast that or Nagasaki?Although I think it was not meant for Nagasaki,

    I don’t know all the ins and outs, but when 74,000 and 84,000 later of innocent civilians to me sounds as not being justified!
    For many in the West victory of World War 2 was a of triumph of Christian Civilization, over and yet by strange irony the bomb almost wiped out the largest and most ancient Christian community in the Orient.

    I don’t know too much about it, just questioning the reason.and your thoughts
    I remember my mother speaking and saying it ended the war!.However it did not stop them.

    • Peter D. Wilson says:

      St. Joseph – “I remember my mother speaking and saying it ended the war!.However it did not stop them.”
      I believe it is a matter of record that only the Nagasaki bomb convinced the Emperor to end the war against the wishes of his military advisers. As a possible indication of what might have happened otherwise, the battle of Tarawa (a small island remote from Japan) left some four thousand Japanese dead; only seventeen surrendered. It seems fair to suppose that a similar onslaught on the homeland would have caused vastly more deaths on both sides than actually occurred.

      • tim says:

        … and bear in mind also that Japanese military ethics regarded surrendering soldiers as unpersons without the rights of human beings – much as the liberal intelligentsia regard the unborn today. But we aren’t going to defend Hiroshima and Nagasaki on utilitarian grounds, I hope?

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Tim – I think you can disregard utilitarian grounds of such magnitude only if you regard nuclear weapons as so intrinsically evil that any amount of death and destruction by conventional means is preferable. I don’t.

      • St.Joseph says:

        The Catholic Church and the C of E Commemorate the 26 Martyrs of 1597 on Feb 6. crucified for the Christian faith. Yet the Christian community in the thousands died. ‘ for what’? Not for peace!.
        We pray for all those too!

  10. John Nolan says:

    St Joseph,

    The Second World War was not a triumph of Christian civilization. In the west, in order to defeat what was certainly an odious regime (although its territorial ambitions and failure to respect international agreements were the deciding factors) we had to ally with an even more odious regime, the Soviet Union. The rest of the conflict was the struggle between the USA and Japan for the domination of the Pacific, which was a strategic and not a moral issue.

    • Singalong says:

      John, I appreciate that your reply is a very brief summary, but there was so much more involved in the war with Japan than the USA and the Pacific, which brought British troops, including my father when I was a child, to defend Burma and India particularly, that I would like to recommend anyone who wants to know more, to Google, Why did Japan enter World War 2?

      I don`t think there can ever be a definitive answer to the morality of The Hiroshima bombing, but the decision was weighed up and decided by military considerations, and I do not think it comes into the orbit of the dark triad of narcissism, Machiavelli or psychopathy.

    • St.Joseph says:

      John Nolan. Thank you.
      Wasn’t Hitler already defeated by then. I remember my father coming home then.I assumed that was the reason . The war to was to win over Facism and paganism.
      As I see, it was it worth blasting all those innocent people.
      We are very quick to criticise others when innocent people are killed.and so we should
      As I said I don’t know the ins and outs of it,however the little of what I did know and that is what happened was culmination of 400 years of the bravest religious minorities in the world of the Catholic Christians in Japan..

      • Quentin says:

        Richard Feynman, the great nuclear physicist, said later that he had worked on the atomic bomb because he believed that the Germans might develop one first. But he questioned whether he was right to continue after the German defeat, since the Japanese had no prospect of a bomb.

        I have puzzled over questions such as the atomic bomb and blanket bombing for many years. And I don’t know the answer. I would like to think that I would not press the button and so take the consequences. But thousands, perhaps millions, of others would take the consequences too.

        I don’t know your age, St Joseph, but it may be that, like me, you learnt such useful childhood skills as distinguishing the whistle of a bomb that was going to be very close (an under-the-table job) or comfortably far away..

  11. St.Joseph says:

    Quentin.
    Yes and also ready with the Gas Masks. Donald Duck I think!

    • Singalong says:

      St. Joseph, my sister had such a lovely Mickey Mouse Mask, much more fun than the plain ones issued to those just slightly older!

      • St.Joseph says:

        Singalong.
        My brother had the Mickey Mouse.Or maybe the other way around.He is 2 years older than me. My older brother was away at Presentation College in Reading. I don’t know what he had
        I looked up the google info Thankyou.

  12. St.Joseph says:

    PS I could only find 1 photo of the summer school, the rest are probably in the loft.
    12 children sitting in the garden and my 2 yr old grandson( or so he looks about that age) playing with them all, 6 girls.. I expect there were more in the Presbytery. My grandson is 24 now so perhaps it will be 22 years ago.If that was when your daughter was there. I know there was someone well known there as my husband took him to the station. I will find out.

  13. Singalong says:

    Thank you St. Joseph. I have just found a couple we took when collecting her at the end of the week, 1994, nearly 20 years ago when she was nearly 16, so perhaps not the one you have found after all. It was Nympsfield or nearby anyway, a lovely place.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Singalong.
      I expect I will have seen your daughter as I went to all the Summer Schools each year Since Fr Gordon left they are not there anymore.
      The house is closed now it was sold.
      Woodchester Mansion is close by, that is lovely,but not finished inside, lots of visitors when it is open.
      Lots of history also connections with Blessed Dominic Barberi. It has a web site..

  14. Singalong says:

    Thank you again, St. Joseph, I have been looking at the websites, very interesting indeed. It looked quite derelict in 1994, but there was obviously a history there, so it is really good to know some of it now, and the connection with Bl. Dominic Barberi, and Newman, not to mention Liverpool!

    For 1995, the summer school was to be at a diocesan centre in Herts., and in the 1980`s when one of our sons went to it 2 or 3 times, it was held at Strawberry Hill, Richmond,.

  15. ionzone says:

    One of the more cynical theories as to the reasons they used them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki says that they wanted to test it on live targets. Those two towns were almost completely ignored by bombers during the war. After the surrender the place was flooded with scientists and research personnel to catalogue the damage. This obviously doesn’t mean that the entire reason they dropped the bomb is because they wanted an excuse to test it, but it has to play a part and it does mean that it was a calculated move.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Ionzone.
      A documentary by John Bird 1990 in it says shortly after the event a Japanese Catholic (I have forgotten his name) from Worahami reflected on the devastation ‘I have heard that the Atom Bomb was destined for another city but heavy clouds rendered that impossible, so the American crew headed for the second target Nasasaki. It was not the American crew that selected our suburb but the hand of Gods providence that chose Racahani and carried the bomb right over our homes and Cathedral. Were we not chosen victims without blemish slain as a whole burnt offering, altar of sacrifice for the sins of all. toning for sins of all nations during its war.. Their story is a witness to a profound truth that love through suffering is Gods way to Redemption.

      Perhaps that is how they could reconcile the devastation with their belief. I don’t know,but admire their faith!

      • ionzone says:

        That is interesting. I do know that Hiroshima was left basically untouched for months because of other witness accounts, but it is possible there were a group of cities around there that they were keeping for the bomb.

  16. Singalong says:

    I remember being told when I was still at school, of a Jesuit house which was spared from the devastation because the household was faithful to the Rosary. I must admit I thought it might be apocryphal, but I have just looked up and found this article. There are others as well.

    http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/2010/08/05/the-priests-who-survived-the-atomic-bomb/

  17. Singalong says:

    Here is one of the main sentences in the article:

    Along with his fellow Jesuits, Fr Schiffer believed “that we survived because we were living the message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the rosary daily in that home.”

    It seems that they did not suffer from the effects of radiation either.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Singalong.
      Thank you for that.
      It is a well known fact that Our Lady has intervened in stopping wars in the past.
      ‘Dark Trait’ means to me when evil is surfacing in the world, and we can see that all around,
      But the Light of Christ will overpower it eventually, Our Lady has told us many times what will happen if we don’t listen. My grandmothers words ‘The world has gone mad’ she was a great believer in the messages of Fatima. I remember her saying about the ball of fire, that was told by Our Blessed Mother, and it did.How long will Her Son be offended, she used to say,our Lady will not hold back His arm for ever.

  18. Quentin says:

    I notice in the newspaper this morning that a Michigan University study has found that those who make great use of social media have narcissistic characteristics. For the young, this tends to be through Twitter — which gives them a platform to trumpet their opinions; for the older it is Facebook, where narcissists post more frequent status updates.

    I see that we have virtually no reference to either of these on this Blog. I have no Facebook account; but I do seem to have a Twitter account — but I have never used it. However posting on and monitoring a Blog is surely a sign of narcissism!

  19. St.Joseph says:

    Quentin I can see the point you are making, however if we should think that we could say ‘Jesus and the Apostles were in that category’. Would they not have used a blog to make things known.
    The March for Life used Twitter this year and Facebook and were shut down in most cases. But used others to spread the Gospel of Life.They would not give up.
    And this year Pope Francis gave them his blessing!

  20. ionzone says:

    I don’t have either so I must be 200% awesome and not at all a narcissist! 😀

  21. St.Joseph says:

    Ionzone.
    Maybe I am confusing ‘posting with comments’!!

    • St.Joseph says:

      Quentin.
      I am puzzled a little by Ionzone’s comment.
      Did you mean that we who make comments on the blog could be a sign of narcissism, or only you who chooses the Posts. .

      • Quentin says:

        I was referring, not entirely seriously, to the posting and moderating job which I do. Of course it’s quite possible to be making comments on narcissistic grounds. You might like to think out what would be the evidence of this. But we’re all prone to think that our opinions are superior to everyone else’s, and so should be dutifully accepted.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Quentin.
        Thank you. Just what I said when I answered Ionzone,
        I am not on Twitter, and I don’t use Facebook, I have used it twice to wish my nephew Happy Birthday Yes we can all on the blog give a sign of narscissism, as could in Jesus’ time when discussion was going on with Him and His disciples!. What I said above.
        Just because one tries to get to the bottom of things on the blog that ought not to be confused with narcissisn..

      • ionzone says:

        I should also clarify that I wasn’t being serious. It is hard to understand jokes on the web but Quentin is right, an awful lot of people start blogs and join facebook because they seek instant approval for their ideas and opinions. Basically, it is an attempt to gather a circle of devoted ‘yes-men’ who nod along to everything you say while attacking your detractors. Often at least one of the yes-men is actually the blogger in disguise. However, that is clearly not what is going on here, Quentin is lucky enough to be nationally published in the Catholic Herald and does seem to go out of his way to challenge our assumptions.

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