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The Dark Triad: Understanding the Underbelly of Psychology and Personality

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

Ted Bundy. Gary Ridgeway. John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. Joe Goldberg…

The last name on this list may very well be a fictional character, but he belongs among the list of insatiable and dangerous criminals for the simple reason being that there is a very real fascination with serial killers and true crime that permeates society. In fact, with the release of Netflix films and mini-series that immortalise the brutality and psychopathy of psychopathic individuals such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, never before has a brighter light been shone on the dark reality of human nature. And thanks to the acting graces of Zac Efron, Evan Peters and Penn Badgley, an even more disturbing truth has evolved… the undeniable glorification and attraction expressed towards these characters.

Image: Evan Peters' (left) portrayal of the 'Milwaukee Cannibal', Jeffrey Dahmer (right) in the 2022 Netflix limited series 'Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.'

Penn Badgley, who portrays the violent and obsessive male antagonist on the hit series ‘You’ has recently called out this phenomenon of young women and men proclaiming their fascination and empathy for truly sadistic individuals. And he hints at his own understanding of this phenomenon…

And he has a point – why on earth would anyone attempt to humanise an individual responsible for so much trauma, destruction and pain? Is it simply a case of an innocent, albeit questionable attraction? Or is there a psychological explanation at play? The latter may very well be it.

Let’s Talk Psychology…

The attractiveness of modern actors aside, there is an obvious allure towards the dangerous individual. And if you think you’re exempt from this phenomenon, think again. Businesses and producers of all kinds have long capitalised on the bad boy and bad girl image… and this branding begins in adolescence, with modern entertainment portraying dangerous and questionable individuals as generally good human beings in need of a significant redemption arc. Chuck Bass, Damon Salvatore, Jess Mariano, Loki, Daemon Targaryen (It’s the Damon/Daemon’s for me) Spike, Barney Stinson - these are all household names and characters who receive a great deal of attention for the simple reason being that they are bad, and they revel in it. But our attraction towards these characters is deeper than this. In fact, these characters and personality types, while extremely problematic, exude qualities that are deemed socially desirable, including charisma, self-confidence, thrill-seeking behaviour and a general presence about their air that enables them to manipulate and draw in their victims. These qualities are socially advantageous to these people, but they don’t come without a very real and dangerous set of qualities and characteristics that make them capable of exploiting others… often to the extreme detriment of the very people who fall prey to them.

The Dark Triad

Image: The Dark Triad incorporates narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy.

The Dark Triad is a well-researched psychological description of a combination of undesirable personality and psychological traits – Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy. These three personalities share a range of overlapping features which, in combination, describe a socially malevolent character with adverse core behaviours including duplicity, aggressiveness, lack of empathy and self-promotion. It is well established that individuals who are high in narcissism and psychopathy often exhibit traits that align closely with the manipulative core of Machiavellianism and, as a result, all share a common core of disagreeableness - that is, these individuals are extremely draining and difficult to be around for very long.

It has been suggested that members of the Dark Triad lack the executive functioning needed to regulate their emotions. As a result, these people will exploit and manipulate others for their own advantage without consideration for the consequences of their behaviours. In essence, these individuals behave as petulant children, incapable of rational thought in the face of adversity and their own unchecked emotions. It has been suggested by Jonason et al. that the aggressive tendencies of these individuals, particularly those high in narcissism is linked to self-regulation problems and an increased desire for attention and validation. In this sense, individuals who routinely provoke and attack others are doing so out of an inability to control their own emotions and, more simply, for attention. The psychopath, however, operates from a callous and cynical worldview where they deem everyone and everything as an extension of themselves, to do with as they see fit. The psychopath’s general lack of emotion and anxiety indicates the absence of remorse and guilt, which enables them to commit atrocities that others could not begin to fathom. This is why many serial killers continue to take the lives of others for months, if not years, often without the burdensome feelings of guilt associated with these actions.

Image: Narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy share similar, interrelating characteristics and behaviours.

I have been quite vocal of my advocacy for awareness of narcissistic abuse and the vile and destructive cores of these individuals, however research has showed people high in narcissistic and Machiavellian traits are more of an interpersonal nuisance, as opposed to a threat. It is the psychopathic character that lacks remorse and a moral centre that can, and has, committed the most heinous crimes… and it is the aforementioned characters and serial killers that fit squarely into this definition.

But why do we find ourselves attracted to individuals high in psychopathy? The answer is fairly straightforward and relies upon the definition of aggressive mimicry. Aggressive mimicry is defined as the actions of a predator to present themselves as harmless and alluring, in order to convey a sense of safety that draws prey in. When it comes to the use of aggressive mimicry in psychopathic individuals, this presents in the form of helplessness and victimisation that deceives the victim and encourages them to drop their guard. When it comes to narcissistic and Machiavellian individuals, this deception enables them to present themselves as altruistic and innocent to continue manipulation and exploitive abuse. In a psychopathic profile, this deception enables them to strike. This tactic may explain why the American serial Killer Ted Bundy, responsible for the brutal kidnappings, rapes and murders of countless women in the 70s, approached women with a plaster cast or his arm in a sling, in order to appeal to his victim’s empathy.

Image: Zac Efron's (left) portrayal of the American serial killer Ted Bundy (right) in the 2019 Netflix film 'Extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile.'

As deception has been established as a core behavioural trait of members of the Dark Triad, it is important to conceptualise how these individuals lure their victims in. While psychopathic individuals lack emotional control and authenticity, they are extremely intelligent in the ways of manipulation and mimicry of the core traits of humanity, the very traits they themselves lack. Dark Triad personalities target and abuse individuals that possess empathy, compassion and a general faith in humanity as these individuals are far more likely to excuse abusive behaviour and strive to believe there is inherent good in everyone – thus enabling the abuser to continue to abuse. The psychopath sees these traits in their victims, and thus will mimic them in order to lure the empathetic individual in. Socially desirable traits of confidence, attractiveness and high self-esteem are a part of this mimicry, as the psychopath understands these characteristics will ‘hoodwink’ the victim. John Wayne Gacy was a serial killer and rapist who tortured and murdered young boys in the 70s and who presented himself as a self-made character ‘Pogo the clown’ to children, and as a benevolent carpenter and painter to young men. Gacy understood the value of empathy and compassion when dealing with young, wayward men which enabled him to deceive and ultimately, manipulate and kill them. Gacy had no compassion. He had no empathy. But he knew how to fake them.

Image: John Wayne Gacy as 'Pogo the clown' and upon his arrest. The cover for the 2022 netflix documentary series 'Conversations with a killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes.'

Is there hope?

For these individuals, there is very little hope. The psychological makeup of individuals under the Dark Triad personalities hinders them from experiencing genuine growth and change. Those high in narcissistic, machiavellian and psychopathic tendencies will continue to abuse and exploit others because it is the only life they have ever known. Understand, they are extremely broken and damaged individuals, but we are all responsible for the choices we make. These individuals choose to deceive, manipulate and abuse others and, as a result, will never be capable of redeeming themselves unless they willingly engage in psychiatric help and cognitive therapy. Due to these individuals’ inability to take responsibility for their actions, they will likely never seek out or receive the help they need.

But there is hope for the rest of us. Through education and awareness, an individual can learn to protect themselves from the tactics and abuse of narcissistic, machiavellian and psychopathic individuals and they will be in a better position to identify these vile creatures before they get a chance to sink their claws in. But if, after everything you’ve read and identified about personalities under the Dark Triad, you still find yourself inexplicably attracted to serial killers… to quote my boy Penn, “That’s on you.”

Written by Megan Adler.

BCMS (DS)/BA, MTeach (Sec)


-Paulhus, Delroy, L. Williams, Kevin.M. ‘The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.’ Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 36, no. 1 (2002) pp. 556-563.

-Peter, K. Jonason.; Jasper, J, Duineveld,; James, P. Middleton. ‘Pathology, Pseudopathology, and the Dark Triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 78, no. 1 (2015) pp. 43-47.

-Peter, Lukic. Marko Zivanovic. Shedding Light on the Light Triad: Further evidence on structural, construct, and predictive validity of the Light Triad. Personality and Individual differences, vol. 178, no. 1 (2021) pp. 1-12.

-Holly M. Baughman, Sylvia Dearing, Erica Giammarco, Philip A. Vernon. ‘Relationships between bullying behaviours and the Dark triad: A study with adults. Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 52, no. 1 (2012) pp. 571-575.

-Scott Barry Kaufman, David Bryce Yaden, Elizabeth Hyde, Eli Tsukayama. ‘The Light vs. Dark Triad of Personality: Contrasting two very different profiles of human nature. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10, no. 467 (2019) pp. 1-26.

-Emanuel Jauk, Raoul Dietrich. ‘Addiction and the Dark triad of Personality.’ Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10, no. 662 (2019) pp. 1-7.

-Jennifer Campbell, Julie Aitken Schermer, Vanessa C. Villani, Brenda Nguyen, Leanne Vickers, Philip A. Vernon. ‘A Behavioral Genetic Study of the Dark Triad of Personality and Moral Development.’ Twin Research and Human Genetics, vol. 12, no. 2. (2008) Pp. 132-136.

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