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Dark Authenticity, Narcissism, Psychopathy, Machiavellianism

Researchers review how authenticity plays out through the lens of darkness.

Key points

  • People high in dark triad traits also struggle with authenticity and morality.
  • Research shows that, although there is overlap, authenticity varies with dark traits on several dimensions.
  • To understand dark authenticity, it's key to look at psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism separately.
  • Learning to work with one's own darkness is necessary for well-being and life satisfaction.

Authenticity isn't all strawberries and cream. It can get dark, say psychologist Laura Visu-Petra of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania and Ph.D. student Alexandra-Andreea Bulbuc. In the following interview, we take a close lood at the moral dimension of dark authenticity and get granular: How does authenticity vary according the the dark triad factors of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy?

GHB: What is dark authenticity, and what moral conflict does it reveal?

LVP: The concept of dark authenticity brings to light a part of human experience typically concealed from awareness, akin to Jung's understanding of the shadow within: “The future of mankind very much depends upon the recognition of the shadow. Evil is—psychologically speaking—terribly real, he warned in one of his letters. And while we might reluctantly embrace some parts of our dark(er) spectrum, such as anger, jealousy, or even schadenfreude, the egoistic parts of our innermost experience are harder to reconcile. For instance, our research (Buta et al., 2022) shows that for children, adolescents, and grown-ups alike, lies told for self-interest are far less acceptable than the little white lies told to spare hurting someone’s feelings.

The inner conflict between socially enforced, communal values and inner agentic drives has only sparingly been studied in people higher in dark traits, such as the dark triad: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. An individual with psychopathic or Machiavellian tendencies may intimidate others and resort to overt manipulation to accomplish their objectives when placed in a context of power. However, they may also appear likable and communal, intending to make friends with their targets to exploit them in the future. Such dark empaths can adeptly navigate social situations, leveraging their understanding of others' motivations and societal expectations to achieve personal goals.

Besides the agentic narcissists, marked by overt grandiosity, high self-esteem, and self-enhancement (seeing themselves as superheroes—the alpha bias), there is also a type of communal narcissist, displaying an exaggerated self-perception of communal qualities (self-proclaimed “saints”– the gamma bias). They are actually driven by similar self-enhancement motives, endorsing items like “I am the best friend someone can have” or “I am an amazing listener” (from the Communal Narcissism Inventory). Interestingly, this prosocial mask can be contextually removed: For example, Giacomin & Jordan (2015) showed that communal narcissists behaved less communally when their need for power was explicitly validated and confirmed rather than threatened.

GHB: How does dark authenticity manifest in people with stronger loading on psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism?

LVP: In our recent article, we put together an initial version of the dark authenticity puzzle by placing bits and pieces of existent research into dark triad characteristics upon the template model of authenticity proposed by Kernis and Goldman. We went down the dark triad personality traits according to aspects of authenticity.

  • Psychopathy
    • Impaired body awareness. Psychopathic people struggle to perceive and understand their internal bodily sensations, though functional emotional awareness may still be possible. They are inclined to base their decisions on external rather than internal factors.
    • Biased processing. Lacking self-reflection, they use dysfunctional self-talk strategies (putting themselves down in the face of failure), struggling with impulsivity and sensation-seeking tendencies. Cognitive biases include underestimating risks and egocentric thinking, alongside reduced accountability for their actions.
    • Behavior. Both hard (assertiveness and direct manipulation) and soft tactics (seduction and charm) are common. Associating with individuals who can provide access to resources predisposes to volatile relationships when such individuals recognize their plight. Dysfunctional outcomes include disregarding social norms, driving failures, and engaging in criminal activities. More functionally, such people may show leadership potential and creative problem-solving skills.
    • Relational orientation. Self-presentation tactics such as entitlement, enhancement, blasting (saying negative things about people to appear superior), excuse-making, intimidation, and even self-handicapping (disclaimers that excuse poor performance) predominate. They may show flexibility and display some prosocial behaviors, especially when they anticipate needing others in the future.
  • Machiavellianism
    • Impaired body awareness. Those with greater Machiavellianism show more shame about their own body sensations. This is often accompanied by alexithymia, characterized by difficulty identifying and differentiating between emotions and bodily sensations, impaired ability to express feelings verbally, and an external focus on experiences.
    • Biased processing. More Machiavellian individuals typically don't naturally reflect or introspect. They depend heavily on social feedback. Prioritizing their self-interest, they view others as tools to achieve their goals.
    • Behavior. They tend to employ cognitively derived tactics (problem-solving techniques, decision-making heuristics) or soft approaches (charm) to persuade others to cooperate with them. Selecting easily manipulated friends, they seek to be attractive and hold high social status. Disregarding social norms and engaging in rule-breaking behavior can undermine these goals. Functional outcomes also include leadership potential and strong creative problem-solving.
    • Relational orientation. Tactics like intimidation, entitlement, and enhancement, along with behaviors such as excuse-making, are present. They tend to use dishonest self-promotion to manipulate others, morphing their identity like a chameleon, well-attuned to the context of their interactions.
  • Narcissism
    • Functional body awareness. Trust in bodily sensations, integration between mind and body, and the ability to regulate attention characterize narcissistic function. Narcissistic people find it easier to describe their feelings relative to other dark traits, but overconfidence in their ability to recognize emotions can backfire.
    • Biased processing. More-narcissistic people adopt self-enhancement strategies, show positive bias towards self-relevant information, and shield themselves from negative experiences. They may interpret critical feedback in a favorable light, dismissing sources of negative feedback.
    • Behavior. Subtle manipulation tactics (seduction, persuasion, or negotiation), craving validation and admiration from others abound. They valuie intelligence and attractiveness in their peers for self-enhancement. Dysfunctional outcomes include disregarding social norms and breaking social etiquette. Functional outcomes again include leadership potential and creative problem-solving skills, as well as resilience (grit).
    • Relational orientation. Tactics such as enhancement, entitlement, and intimidation define narcissists' relational toolkit. They may present themselves as prosocial while making excuses, self-handicapping, disclaiming responsibility, or simply justifying their actions to cover their true motives.

Various prerequisites of authentic functioning appear impaired or atypical in individuals high in dark traits. Does it make them less able to experience authenticity altogether? Echoing the words of James Baldwin: “It is astonishing the lengths to which a person, or a people, will go in order to avoid a truthful mirror." Or is it replaced by a different, more agentic type of dark authenticity? More research is needed to elucidate this important dilemma.

GHB: Do you have any advice for how to manage one's own dark traits when it comes to seeking to live with authenticity?

LVP: Acknowledging the darker facets of the self while engaging in self-reflection and increasing self-awareness, processing negative feedback, and delving into the true motivations behind our behavior can lead to an understanding and embracing of the shadow within. “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self.” (Jung, 1959).

It's also crucial to find safe outlets for authentic expression, where ambition or assertiveness can be channeled constructively without causing harm, leading to the “functional outcomes” above. Counseling (e.g. exploring specific vocational interests) and therapy (learning emotion regulation skills and to accept boundaries in interactions) can provide valuable insights and tools to manage and cope with our dark side in a healthy, nonjudgmental way.

As Robert Frost expressed it in his poem “A servant to servants”:

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through.

Overall, our approach emphasizes the need to capture multiple communal and agentic drives and to develop new authenticity instruments (such as the Agentic & Communal Authenticity Inventory, ACAI). In doing so, it's crucial to promote a terminology that avoids oversimplification, with the dark-versus-light dichotomy being reductionist and laden with undesirable connotations. The pursuit of authenticity might be, in its very essence, a plunge into a morally grey territory.

Laura Visu-Petra coordinates the Research in Individual Differences and Legal Psychology (RiddleLab) and the Legal Psychology Master program at Babes-Bolyai University, Romania. Her research focuses on two converging interests: the development of emotion-cognition interactions across the lifespan and the ways individual differences in dark personality traits relate to deceptive/antisocial acts or can foster authenticity/prosocial behavior. She developed the idea of dark authenticity together with Ph.D. student Alexandra-Andreea Bulbuc, whom she co-supervises with Prof. Kimberly Wade from the University of Warwick as part of an EUTOPIA alliance grant. Bulbuc was also involved in elaborating the responses to this interview.


Bulbuc, A. A., & Visu-Petra, L. (2024). Shedding a light on authenticity in high dark trait individuals: A morally grey territory?. Personality and Individual Differences, 224, 112632.

Bulbuc, A. A., Rîpeanu, R. V., & Baicu, L. I., Visu-Petra, L., (2024). Development and Validation of the Agentic & Communal Authenticity Inventory (ACAI): New Insights on Dark Personality Traits.

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