Study indicates the Dark Triad personality traits are more complex than previously thought

(Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay)

New research sheds light on the structure of Dark Triad traits — a cluster of intertwined personality characteristics comprised of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. The findings, which appear in Personality and Individual Differences, suggest that these personality traits contain several subdimensions that might have differing relationships with various psychosocial outcomes.

“Much of my research focuses on personality in parents and adolescents, particularly the Dark Triad domains. There has been a lot of discussion recently regarding the smaller traits which are encompassed in these larger personality ‘domains’ — subclinical narcissism, subclinical psychopathy, and Machiavellianism,” explained lead researcher Tayler Truhan, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast and member of the InteRRaCt Lab .

“For example, narcissism is a larger parent domain to traits of authority, exhibitionism, entitlement, need for admiration, etc. A lot of research has shown that smaller, specific traits (e.g., superiority, a facet of narcissism) can predict life outcomes with more accuracy than the larger, general traits (e.g., narcissism). This led to the current study — a comprehensive examination of the Dark Triad structure in which we attempt to identify specific traits within the Dark Triad domains.”

In the study, 525 adults from the United States and United Kingdom completed several assessments of Dark Triad traits. The researchers then used a statistical technique known as exploratory graph analysis to estimate the number of relevant dimensions within the three Dark Triad traits.

“This technique was created by Hudson Golino and Sacha Epskamp (2017), and it uses graphical modelling to estimate both the number of dimensions within a construct (e.g., traits within a personality domain) and which questionnaire items belong to these dimensions,” Truhan explained.

“Exploratory graph analysis has benefits over more traditional factor analysis techniques (i.e., methods used to look at the structure of psychological constructs like personality, empathy, resilience, etc.). More traditional techniques can be influenced by smaller sample sizes, strong relationships between factors (e.g., personality traits), and factors with very few items (e.g., a personality trait that was measured by only two questionnaire items). This is one particular strength of the current study.”

The analysis suggested that narcissism contained eight dimensions (antagonism, authority, distrustful self-reliance, agentic extraversion, indifference, superiority, acclaim-seeking, and narcissistic shame), psychopathy contained six dimensions (detachment, aggression/impulsivity, antisocial, manipulation, risky behavior, and thrill-seeking), and Machiavellianism contained four dimensions (cynicism, amorality, manipulation, and detachment). The researchers also found that antagonism played a central role in the Dark Triad, linking the cluster of traits together.

The next step is to examine how these subdimensions of Dark Triad traits are related to various life outcomes. It is plausible that some dimensions, such as acclaim-seeking, are associated with more positive consequences while others, such as aggression/impulsivity, are associated with more negative consequences.

“Our main message is that these general personality domains (e.g., narcissism) we think of as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are actually very complex and involve many different characteristics (or traits). Some of these traits might lead to better, more socially praised life outcomes, such as job success or better classroom behavior, whereas other traits may be associated with more negative outcomes, such as antisocial behavior,” Truhan told PsyPost.

“We must move beyond a rigid understanding of personality, to look at how different traits operate under different environments. For example, some of the recent research we have conducted suggests that maternal narcissistic neuroticism (a trait of narcissism characterized by shame, need for admiration, and distrust) is associated with more hostile parenting only in higher socioeconomic households. In low socioeconomic households, there is no relationship between maternal narcissistic neuroticism and hostile parenting.”

The study was limited by its sample size, and its unclear how well the results generalize outside of the United States and United Kingdom. “The structure of the Dark Triad we identified in this sample may not apply to adults in other cultures. Future research could examine the structure in other cultures, and then the specific traits identified could be used to predict different life outcomes,” Truhan said.

The study, “The many faces of dark personalities: An examination of the Dark Triad structure using psychometric network analysis“, was authored by Tayler E. Truhan, Paul Wilson, René Mõttus, and Kostas A. Papageorgiou.

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