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Dark Triad

The Dark Triad’s Dark Underside Shows Where Things Go Wrong

New analysis shows the need to peek below the dark triad's surface.

Key points

  • The dark triad traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism are both fascinating and frightening.
  • A new meta-analysis breaks the dark triad down into its components, showing well-being comes up short.
  • Knowing the challenges that dark triad people face can help you understand and potentially help them change.

If you know someone with the so-called “dark triad” traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, it’s likely you see them as on top of their game. They can sweet talk anyone into anything and appear to have few, if any, self-doubts. Perhaps there’s someone in your social circle who constantly brags about their successes which, indeed, they seem to acquire on a regular basis. Their posts to their social media constantly portray them in a favorable light, whether it’s a glamorous outfit they’re sporting or a work recognition they’ve just received. As much as you’d like to shut down this constant stream of self-aggrandizement, you can’t bring yourself to do it just yet.

Personality researchers also seem unable to turn away from the dark triad as a topic of study. This fascination with the showy but undesirable combination of qualities has led to a number of questions not only about whether it’s a valid concept, but also what it means for the people who possess these undesirable traits.

Putting the Dark Triad Under the Microscope

With the large body of accumulated research now at the disposal of personality psychologists, it is now possible to answer the question of what having dark triad traits does to a person’s life. University of Lleida’s Ana Blasco-Belled and colleagues (2024), in a meta-analysis of 55 studies (with over 26,000 participants), sought to unpack the dark triad’s three basic traits and examine how each relates to well-being. The studies selected for the analysis all met stringent scientific criteria, and the authors additionally controlled for publication bias (the tendency for only significant results to see the light of day). If climbing over everyone else to achieve what you want is indeed psychologically healthy, this analysis can provide some clues.

To understand their approach, it’s first necessary to probe into each of the dark triad traits. Beginning with narcissism, there is a distinction in the literature that is fairly solid between the grandiose variety, those who grab all the attention, and the vulnerable, whose self-centeredness is based on deep insecurity. Even within this distinction, there is another that breaks narcissism down into the three facets of “agentic” (charmingness), “antagonistic” (feelings of superiority), and “neurotic” (hypersensitivity).

Psychopathy itself divides into the separate components of antagonism and impulsivity, as is well-established by studies on the antisocial personality. However, there can also be a flip side in which the person high on psychopathy shows what’s called “fearless dominance.” This is what can make them appealing as leaders.

Turning next to Machiavellianism, there is little evidence to date on whether this trait can be broken down as well. Instead, it remains defined by an “‘ends justify the means’ orientation, which includes strategical manipulativeness, lack of conventional morality, and cynical worldview in addition to antisocial tendencies” (p. 585). You might know you’re with a person high on this trait by the fact that you get talked into doing something (like giving up your hard-earned cash) without even realizing it’s happened.

The Links to Well-Being

With this background, you can now appreciate the study’s findings, which Blasco-Belled et al. describe for each of the three traits:


The breakdown of narcissism into its components, as the authors predicted, proved to be important in understanding its relationship to well-being. Grandiose narcissism, and its agentic facet, came out on the positive side of satisfaction and positive affect. The vulnerable and neurotic forms of narcissism, also as predicted, did not. However, the authors issued a caution on this result: “Although there seems to be an association between grandiose narcissism and desirable outcomes, it is important not to fall under the certainty that narcissism entails psychological adjustment” (p. 594). The main reason for this caution is that grandiosity may be followed by vulnerability within the same person, depending in part on what is going on in that person’s life. These fluctuations mean that the person you meet today who seems on top of their particular world may fall into a metaphorical pit the next day if they don’t get the attention they seek.


The distinction between the antisocial and leaderlike qualities of psychopathy turned out to be important in analyzing this trait’s relationship to well-being. Overall, the fearless/dominant facet did appear to have adaptive qualities, and the antisocial side did not. There was no particular relationship between antagonism and well-being. The moral of the story would appear to be that fearless/dominant psychopaths probably feel pretty good about themselves, which only reinforces the tendency of other people to admire them, too.


This trait, the least complex of all three, came out with findings similar to the antagonistic side of psychopathy. The authors noted the problem in defining this trait as separate from psychopathy, however, and so some rethinking of the dark triad may be required. At the very least, the authors argue, more work is needed to differentiate its possible sub-facets.

What Looks Like Well-Being May Not Be

As you can see from these findings, the outward indicators of the charming side of narcissism and the dominant side of psychopathy would seem to bode well for the well-being of individuals who possess these traits. However, although they may seem satisfied with their lives and feel generally happy, the matter of adjustment is not so simple.

In answer to the question “What is the Footprint of Well-Being?”, the U. Lleida researchers show that well-being is more than feeling good. In their words: “Extant research demonstrated that healthy relationships are a prominent predictor of mental health and a necessary component of well-being” (p. 595).

The people high on the traits that seem to give them a sense of power and greatness may be the ones, from this perspective, least likely to have those all-important relationships. Thinking back on that person with all the self-congratulatory posts on social media, how much time would you really want to spend in their presence? If you are in a relationship with them, how many times do you imagine yourself breaking free?

Yet, as the authors also point out, change is possible even for the darkest of personalities. They offer hope that, by targeting these traits, these individuals can be shown the way to healthier relationships.

This comprehensive look at the dark triad, its strengths and weaknesses, provides an important contribution to both the personality and well-being literatures. Not only did Machiavellianism seem to fade as a robust concept, but also the identification of antagonism as the true dark side of the triad shows the need for a more nuanced understanding of well-being.

To sum up, it’s likely you don’t really want to be close to someone with dark triad traits. However, by bringing their relationships into the light, you may be able to show them the way to greater fulfillment.


Blasco‐Belled, A., Tejada‐Gallardo, C., Alsinet, C., & Rogoza, R. (2024). The links of subjective and psychological well‐being with the Dark Triad traits: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Personality, 92(2), 584-600.

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