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The Four “Dark Personality” Traits

Del Paulhus, UBC Personality Psychologist

Paulhus and his colleagues have enumerated four different kinds of self-centered and socially offensive people who most of us encounter in our day-to-day lives: Narcissists, Machiavellians, Nonclinical Psychopaths, and Everyday Sadists. Paulhus notes that psychologists often confuse these types of individuals, who all share a tendency to score especially high on measures of Callousness (or lack of empathy for other people). Each of these types also tends to be extroverted and sociable, so often make good first impressions, before going on to make life miserable for those who are exploited by them. But there are important differences, and those distinctions have important implications for the kinds of harm these folks can do to their relationship partners and coworkers.

Narcissists are “grandiose self-promoters who continually crave attention.” Paulhus notes that: “You have undoubtedly been annoyed by these tiresome braggarts.” Frank Sinatra, the great crooner of my mother’s generation, was something of a narcissist, a trait he shared with any number of super-stars in the performing arts, then and now.

Machiavellians, according to Paulhus, are “Master manipulators… one of them has cheated you out of something valuable—a fact that you may not have realized until it was too late.” They differ from narcissists in their especially high scores on tests of manipulativeness, and their inclination to be involved in white collar crime. The stock swindler Bernard Madoff, who worked his way up to the leadership of the New York Stock Exchange, only to use his position to bilk his investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars, is the classic Macchiavellian.

Charles Manson and Niccolo Machiavelli

Psychopaths

, as Paulhus notes, are “arguably the most malevolent, ” scoring high on measures of callousness, impulsivity, manipulativeness, and grandiosity, thus being dark across the board. They often do harm to others as they go about seeking thrills with little concern for who gets hurt along the way. Their impulsiveness makes them less adept at white collar crime of the Bernie Madoff variety, and often inclines them towards violence when others get in their way. Charles Manson and Whitey Bulger are classic cases of psychopathy (see Do You Have Criminal Genes?). But Paulhus notes that there are many people whose psychopathy is low enough to keep from landing in jail, while nevertheless leading to costs for those who are drawn close to them.

What is especially troubling about this first set (the original “Dark Triad”) is that they are often socially adept, and can make very good first impressions. For example, they do better on job interviews than normal people, advantaged by their lack of anxiety about the opinions of others, and greater willingness to show off their strengths to strangers while playing it smooth and comfortable.



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