The Dark Triad – What can we learn from Criminals and CEOs

To some people, given the financial crisis that started in 2007, there isn’t a huge difference between those involved in organised criminality and those leading the largest commercial organisations in the world. There’s a growing body of research that suggests they may be more right than they could have anticipated – there are a group of personality traits, known as “the dark triad”, which link those with the greatest business success to those involved in the most calculated criminality. This research also suggests there’s something we can learn about how people become senior within an organisation.

First, though, an explanation of the dark triad. This model was established by Paulhus and Williams in 2002, when they proved that Narcissism, Psychopathy and Machiavellianism were distinct traits. These traits are:

  • Narcissism – Admiration for oneself
  • Psychopathy – this is characterised by a lack of feelings of guilt and empathy, alongside excessively bold behaviour
  • Machiavellianism – in summary, that the end justifies the means and morality doesn’t come into decision making.

It’s fairly unsurprising that these traits are related to propensity to commit certain types of crime (e.g. Mathieu et al, 2013) – if you believe that you’re worth more than other people, don’t feel guilt, don’t have the normal inhibitions that sub-pathological (i.e. “normal”) people have and are prepared to do anything to achieve what you want, then it becomes logical to commit crime. So it seems like we should be keeping a close eye on these kinds of people, keeping them out of positions of power and doing all we can to eliminate these traits.

Given the above, it’s interesting (though given natural selection, not that uncommon for pathological conditions) to hear that having higher than average levels of these traits leads to a wide number of positives (for the individual, rather than the group- As Hogan, 2007, states the dark triad traits don’t help people to “get along”, they do help people to “get ahead”). They:

  • are perceived more favourably in the first hour after meeting someone (Paulhus, 1998)
  • have more sexual success (as defined by Linton and Wiener, 2001 – that definition was number of partners and/or children) – though there are some other elements to this, such as being more promiscuous and being less concerned about leaving a child with a single parent, which make me slightly hesitant about calling it “success”.
  • are perceived as more attractive (Dufner, Rauthmann, Czarna and Denissen, 2013)
  • obtain more resource than others, leading to competitive advantage (Campbell, Bush, Brunell and Shelton, 2005).
  • are generally happier and more positive disposition (Morf and Rhodevalt, 2001)
  • have, if highly educated, a higher income (Turner and Martinez, 1977) – although for less educated people the correlation was reversed

So why do these things help? I’ll try to use some of this evidence to give a quick breakdown of each trait, a summary of how they combine and some things we can take from each trait.


Remember all those times you wished you’d done something, but didn’t take the risk? If you had a bit more narcissism then you probably wouldn’t. In an organisational environment this has a number of advantages: a comfort networking and getting yourself noticed; the confidence that helps in sales and presentations; the self-belief to make decisions when surrounded by uncertainty; and the ego to shift paradigms and innovate (most people choose to stay within the existing framework because of the fear of being criticized for standing out from the crowd – as seen in the bystander effect). Perhaps most importantly, a healthy dose of narcissism gives people the confidence to seek and apply for new opportunities. The biggest determinant of moving up an organisation or industry is putting in that application – by definition, those who don’t apply can’t get the job. And if you believe that your the best, it doesn’t matter if you get rejected – it must be someone else’s fault because you know that you’re amazing.

This is something we could all learn from – the only way to get to wherever you want to be is to take a chance and not worry about the outcome. When you put your application in your chances might be 1%, but that’s 1% more than if you don’t apply. If you get rejected then you’ll probably get some feedback on how to get a similar job next time as well, so it’s really a win-win. Naturally, however, we’re scared of rejection – so next time you see something that you really want, take a page from the narcissist’s playbook and realise the positives almost always massively outweigh the negative.


There’s a wealth of evidence about how emotion drives irrational behaviour, so it follows that psychopaths make better decisions (in a rational, rather than social, scenario). Research by Osumi and Ohira (2010) proved this through the ultimatum game. This game hinges upon putting the initial power in one player’s hands (whether that is a genuine participant or a scientist) and testing the rationality of the second player’s reaction. The first participant is told there’s a pot of money (let’s say £10) and they can propose how this money is split between them and the second participant (e.g. £7 for them, £3 for the other person). If the offer is accepted by the second person then the money is handed out in that split. If it’s rejected, then both people get nothing. Given that this is a one-off with someone you don’t know, it’s rational for the second person to accept any offer (because otherwise they’ll get no money at all). Most people, however, reject offers at a certain level – they see it as unfair, so would rather they both got nothing. Alongside this they display an increased “electrodermal response” (they sweat more), so at both a sub-conscious and conscious level there’s a response. On the other hand, Osumi and Ohira found that people with higher levels of psychopathy both showed a lower electrodermal response and make better decisions – they accepted offers that non-psychopathic people rejected.

Those findings transfer to everyday life – we make decisions based on emotion and impulse all the time, and often regret it afterwards. The bigger the emotion behind a decision, the bigger advantage someone with psychopathic traits has – if I were deciding whether to fire 1000 people I’d think about how that would affect them and their families, obscuring my ability to decide what’s best for the organisation. A higher level of psychopathy would help me make a better decision (because, ultimately, my company going bust helps no-one). Further, psychopathy also makes people more bold, as they are less worried about what other people will think, delivering a similar stream of advantages as noted for narcissism (e.g. not having nerves when pitching to others) as well as a more exploratory approach. For a much more detailed view, see Kevin Dutton’s “The Wisdom of Psychopaths”. Learning to make those cool headed decisions would be a boon to us all and the experiment above highlights one way to do this – take a step back and let the unconscious response (and any somatic markers) die down before making your decision


Given Machiavellianism’s (Mach) association with doing everything necessary to achieve goals, it’s unsurprising that those displaying high Mach, also display higher motivation than others, are more focused on their goals and work harder to get there (Jones and Paulhus, 2009). The same research also showed that high Machs enjoy situations that offer the opportunity for manipulation – situations that other people often find awkward, such as negotiations and confrontations. Their focus also makes them decisive in delivering what they see as the right result, even when their are difficult decisions to be made or problems are encountered – the mental construct is that it’s worth doing anything to achieve the end result, so everything else only represents a bump in the road.

The obsession with their goal also enables high Machs to improve their skills; by clearly understanding their goals they can quickly assess where they’ve fallen down and can improve next time. This may well explain why high Machs often deliver successfully. They have always thought about life as a series of goals, while we generally tend to meander in a much less directed way. This can partly explain high Machs’ ability to charm others quickly – they understand that people enable them to achieve what they want and they’ve honed how to make that happen. In terms of success (removing any moral element from that definition), manipulating the truth is also often to an individual’s advantage – for example, when applying for a job. The reliance on interviews and written examples leaves organisations vulnerable to those who embellish their achievements, particularly as they often fail to follow up with the current organisation about the facts. Additionally, the more people that you tell these stories to, the more it becomes established as fact, by virtue of everyone knowing it (in an attempt to avoid libel charges I won’t name names, but there are a number of famous examples of people making a career off the back of these kind of lies).

Combined, these traits can leave high Machs ahead of the pack, but often to the detriment of the whole (as Campbell, Bush, Brunell and Shelton found in the research noted above). So what can we take from high Machs? I think we can take their utilitarian view to the world – sometimes we have to be prepared to do “bad” things in order to achieve the truly “great” things. It’s very difficult to keep perspective here and not become obsessive about your goal, but we naturally don’t like making decisions where we cause something bad to happen, and, on top of this, we show hyperbolic discounting (where we value things that are happening sooner disproportionately more than later). There is also something to admire in high Machs approach to networking – they don’t feel the same temerity that non-high Machs do and don’t have the same pretence about it’s purpose (obviously an event created with the intent of lots of executives coming together is meant as an opportunity to network, rather than about making friends).

The Whole Picture

Having run through each trait, it’s easy to see how these can combine, in the right quantities, into high business performers (they often have a negative impact on non-working life – for example, those displaying dark triad traits have higher rates of relationship breakdown (Morf and Rhodewalt, 2001)). A person who believes in themselves, can make big decisions, understands how to work through others, seeks out opportunities to develops their career and thrives in tense situations sounds like an ideal leader. It’s no surprise that a high number of executives display these traits (see a range of work by Oliver James). It also helps to explain why many senior executives have trouble outside their working life – their “working personality” strengths are their social life flaws.

But before we get carried away with the organisational performance of those with dark triad personalities, it’s important to note that their success is often short term and often comes at the detriment to the company as a whole (Furnham, 2010). All we can do is try to take the bits that work, discard the bits that don’t and try to watch out for the snake dressed in a suit…

One thought on “The Dark Triad – What can we learn from Criminals and CEOs

  1. Poppy February 16, 2015 / 9:02 pm

    Great post + interesting read


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