The Dark Triad: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy

There are people who carry gloomy, dark and cold personality traits. When faced with decisions in which morality plays an important role, how do they act?
The Dark Triad: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 20 February, 2024

People who lack the ability to connect with others or have the ability to deliberately disconnect their emotions fall under something we call “the dark triad.” This set of personality characteristics make up narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

In extreme cases, people who have traits from the dark triad turn into criminals or lose themselves in mental illness. But there are also people among us who maybe have not been diagnosed, but still have these traits.

People with these features and behaviors are said to have dark personalities. Why? Because of their insensitive, selfish and malevolent tendencies in their relationships with others. Delroy L. Paulhus and Kevin M. Williams, psychologists at the University of British Columbia, named these traits “the dark triad” because they are the most negative aspects of human relationships. Let’s take a look at what they are.

The dark triad: puppet strings in a man's mind.


I can do whatever I want” or “Other people exist to love me” are examples of narcissistic thoughts. They are selfish people, with an egocentric sense of right and wrong and a positive self-image that’s unrealistic when contrasted with how those around them see them.

Narcissists are “snake charmers”. At first people love them; they seem pleasant and attractive. But as time passes they can become very dangerous. People around them may become unable to see what their true intentions are: to get admiration and power.

Routines tend to bore them, so they look for challenges. That’s why most narcissists are leaders or work in professions that involve high levels of stress. According to psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby, narcissism is an increasingly frequent disorder in the upper echelons of the business world. It is directly related to competition, salary and glamour.

The negative aspect of narcissism

One of their strengths is their special ability to persuade others. They use it to surround themselves with a large number of followers. They easily convince others to do what they want them to do.

In short, they get what they want. In addition, since they have no empathy, it’s not difficult for them. They are not picky at all with the means and strategies they have to use to achieve their objectives.

Narcissistic people have zero interest and concern for others, even if they make it look that way. They do not experience remorse and are impassive to the needs and feelings of the people around them.

But their self-esteem is their Achilles heel. Narcissists often have very poor self-esteem and are often somewhat vulnerable and insecure. This is why they try to surround themselves with people they consider inferior, so they can dominate and feel powerful.

A vain man looking in the mirror.


For “Machiavellians” the end justifies the means, regardless of the consequences. They are usually very calculating and cold people and have no genuine emotional connections with others.

Although they tend to have traits in common with narcissists, such as selfishness and using others, there something that differentiates them: they see themselves and their relationships realistically.

Machiavellians do not try to impress anyone. Instead, they show themselves as they are and prefer to see things clearly because they can manipulate others better that way. In fact, they focus on the emotions of the people they want to manipulate in order to get what they want. If they anticipate your feelings, they’ll be able to choose the right strategy to manipulate you.

According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, people with Machiavellian features have less empathy. Their coldness seems to come from an inability to process their own emotions and other people’s emotions.

In fact, emotions make them so uneasy that when they feel anxiety, they don’t usually know how to differentiate it from sadness or tiredness. However, they tend to be very good at understanding what others are thinking. But as Goleman says, even if their head knows what to do, their heart still has no idea.


A dark face.


Psychopaths consider others as objects that they can use and throw away at will. However, unlike the other dark triad personalities, they almost never experience anxiety. It like they have no idea what it’s like to be afraid.

Without fear, they are able to be calm even in emotionally intense, dangerous and terrifying situations. They don’t care too much about the consequences of their actions. They are the most likely of the three to end up in prison.

Psychopaths have neuronal circuits desensitized to the fringe of the emotional spectrum associated with suffering. Therefore, their cruelty seems insensitive because they are unable to detect it. Also, remorse and shame do not exist for them.

However, psychopaths can get into other people’s skin easily and press their buttons if it will give them what they want. They are great persuaders. However, although they score high in social cognition, they understand relationships and other people’s behavior only from a logical or intellectual perspective.

How to avoid falling into the trap

If the dark triad is in your relationship, there will likely be abuse and psychological violence. These people are toxic, using power and manipulation to trap their victims. The key to not falling into their nets is healthy emotional independence. Learn to set clear limits in your relationships and don’t allow anyone to pass them. Protecting yourself has to come first.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.