Assessing for the Dark Triad Personality

Research on personality pathology has identified a set of three co-occurring toxic personality traits that have received the label of the Dark Triad personality because of the severe toxicity of these personalities:

Narcissistic Personality Traits

Psychopathic Personality Traits

Machiavellian Manipulation

A borderline personality variant of the Dark Triad personality has also been identified in the research literature, the Vulnerable Dark Triad, consisting of:

Vulnerable Narcissism

Psychopathic Personality Traits

Borderline Personality Traits

The Dark Triad Personality:

“First cited by Paulhus and Williams (2002), the Dark Triad refers to a set of three distinct but related antisocial personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.  Each of the Dark Triad traits is associated with feelings of superiority and privilege.  This, coupled with a lack of remorse and empathy, often leads individuals high in these socially malevolent traits to exploit others for their own personal gain.”  (Giammarco & Vernon, 2014, p.  23)

The Vulnerable Dark Triad Personality:

“In the current study, we posit the existence of a second related triad – one that includes personality styles composed of both dark and emotionally vulnerable traits… The members of this putative vulnerable dark triad (VDT) would include (a) Factor 2 psychopathy, (b) vulnerable narcissism, and (c) borderline PD (BPD).” (Miller, Dir, Gentile, Wilson, Pryor, & Campbell, 2010, p. 1530)

Research on the Dark Triad personality has linked it to a particular set of high-conflict styles of communication, referred to in the communication literature as The Four Horseman of conflict communication.  According to Horan, Guinn, and Banghart (2014):

“How individuals communicate during conflict is important, and the previously reviewed studies reinforce that personality is important in understanding this process.  Four conflict messages that have received academic attention are contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness.

Contempt involves “statements that come from a relative position of superiority… “You’re an idiot’”;

Criticism entails “stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality… “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish’”;

Stonewalling describes “the listener’s withdrawal from interaction;”

“and defensiveness describes self-protection in the form of “righteous indignation or innocent victimhood (Gottman, 1993, p. 62).”

“Collectively, these conflict messages are known as The Four Horsemen.” (Horan, Guinn, & Banghart. 2015, 159; emphasis added)

The research literature has established the existence of the Dark Triad and Vulnerable Dark Triad personalities:

Research has linked the Dark Triad personality to The Four Horsemen of high-conflict communication:

Horan, S.M., Guinn, T.D., and Banghart, S. (2015). Understanding relationships among the Dark Triad personality profile and romantic partners’ conflict communication. Communication Quarterly, 63, 156-170.

To vengefulness in romantic relationships:

Giammarco, E.A. and Vernon, P.A. (2014). Vengeance and the Dark Triad: The role of empathy and perspective taking in trait forgivingness. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 23–29

Rasmussen, K.R. and Boon, S.D. (2014). Romantic revenge and the Dark Triad: A model of impellance and inhibition. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 51–56 

To lying and manipulative deception:

Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M. Baughman, H.M., and Vernon, P.A. (2014). What a tangled web we weave: The Dark Triad traits and deception. Personality and Individual Differences, 70, 117–119

Baughman, H.M., Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M., and Vernon, P.A. (2014). Liar liar pants on fire: Cheater strategies linked to the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 71, 35–38

To attachment-related pathology:

Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M., and Bethell, E. (2014). The making of Darth Vader: Parent–child care and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 30–34

To the absence of empathy:

Jonason, P. K. and Krause, L. (2013). The emotional deficits associated with the Dark Triad traits: Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 532–537

Wai, M. and Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 794–799

And to the core of evil:

Book, A., Visser, B.A., and Volk, A.A. (2015). Unpacking ‘‘evil’’: Claiming the core of the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences 73 (2015) 29–38.

Given the research-linked association of the Dark Triad personality to high-conflict forms of communication, all court-involved child custody evaluators and court-involved therapists working with families evidencing high-conflict patterns of communication surrounding divorce should assess for the possible presence of the Dark Triad and Vulnerable Dark Triad personality pathology within the family.

Self-report personality assessment measures have been developed to assess for the component personality traits of the Dark Triad personality:

Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI; Raskin & Hall, 1979),

Machiavellianism (MACH-IV; Christie & Geis, 1970)

Subclinical psychopathy (Self-Report Psychopathy Scale-III; Williams, Paulhus, & Hare, 2009). 

Self-report measures have also been developed to specifically assess for the Dark Triad personality constellation:

Short Dark Triad (SD3) scale (Jones & Paulhus, 2014). 

Research on the core personality characteristics uniting the Dark Triad personality constellation has also associated the Dark Triad with low scores on scale H (Honesty-Humility) on a prominent personality assessment, the HEXACO Personality Inventory:

Low H scale on HEXACO Personality Inventory (Book, Visser, & Volk, 2015; Lee, & Ashton, 2012). 

The assessment difficulty with all of these self-report scales of the Dark Triad personality is that the Dark Triad personality parent may not accurately self-report on his or her belief systems when there might be negative consequences for this self-disclosure.

An alternative method for potentially identifying the possible presence of the Dark Triad personality within the high-conflict family is to have each parent rate the other parent on these personality pathology scales (such as the SD3).  While this approach runs the counter-risk of a motivated desire by each spouse to present the other spouse in an over-pathologized way, this alternative approach of “informant rating” nevertheless could identify the potential presence of a Dark Triad personality parent which could then be followed-up with additional relevant data collection through clinical interviewing by asking each parent to provide specific examples of the other parent’s personality trait.

What is important – what is essential – given the evidence-based association of the Dark Triad personality with The Four Horsemen of high-conflict communication is:

1.)  The essential importance of professional expertise in assessing and identifying the Dark Triad and Vulnerable Dark Triad personalities in high-conflict families surrounding divorce;

2.)  The essential importance of court-involved child custody evaluators and court-involved therapists to conduct a proper assessment for the potential presence of the Dark Triad and Vulnerable Dark Triad personalities in ALL cases of high-conflict divorce.

In cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, in which a child is rejecting a relationship with a parent, this assessment for the Dark Triad and Vulnerable Dark Triad personality should be in addition to the recommended assessment protocol for attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce (Assessment Protocol):

Assessment leads to diagnosis, diagnosis guides treatment.

Professional Competence

All psychologists are required by Standard 9.01a of ethics code of the American Psychological Association to conduct an assessment sufficient to “substantiate their findings”:

9.01 Bases for Assessments
(a) Psychologists base the opinions contained in their recommendations, reports and diagnostic or evaluative statements, including forensic testimony, on information and techniques sufficient to substantiate their findings.

If the mental health professional has NOT assessed for the pathology of pathogenic parenting and has NOT assessed for the possible presence of the Dark Triad and Vulnerable Dark Triad personality as potentially causing the high-conflict relationships within the family, then this mental health professional has NOT based their diagnostic or evaluative statements, including forensic testimony, on “information and techniques sufficient to substantiate their findings,” and they are therefore likely in violation of Standard 9.01a of the APA ethics code.

Children and families evidencing attachment-related pathology surrounding high-conflict divorce warrant the professional designation as a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat. The domains of relevant pathology needed to competently assess, diagnose, and treat this special population of children and families are:

  • Attachment-Related Pathology:  Including disordered mourning, goal-corrected motivation, insecure attachment characteristics, and the the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma;
  • Personality Disorder Pathology:  Including the Dark Triad and Vulnerable Dark Triad personality pathology, and the negative influence of parental personality disorder pathology within family relationships surrounding divorce (including role-reversal relationships, psychological boundary violations, and use of the child as a “regulatory object” to stabilize the parent’s emotional and psychological state);
  • Family Systems Pathology:  Including triangulation, cross-generational coalitions, homeostatic balance, and emotional cutoffs;
  • Trauma Pathology:  Including the effects of child abuse and domestic violence.

Failure to possess the necessary professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat this special population of children and families may represent a violation of Standard 2.01a of the APA ethics code requiring professional competence:

2.01 Boundaries of Competence
(a) Psychologists provide services, teach and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience.

If emotional and psychological harm then befalls the child or parent as a result of the mental health professional’s violation of Standards 9.01a and 2.01a of the APA ethics code, then this may represent an additional violation of Standard 3.04 of the APA ethics code prohibiting harm to the client:

3.04 Avoiding Harm
(a) Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable. 

Assessment leads to diagnosis, diagnosis guides treatment. Mental health professionals are expected to conduct an appropriate assessment that leads to diagnosis in order to guide treatment.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologists, PSY 18857

References


Horan, S.M., Guinn, T.D., and Banghart, S. (2015). Understanding relationships among the Dark Triad personality profile and romantic partners’ conflict communication. Communication Quarterly, 63, 156-170.


Baughman, H.M., Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M., and Vernon, P.A. (2014). Liar liar pants on fire: Cheater strategies linked to the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 71, 35–38.

Book, A., Visser, B.A., and Volk, A.A. (2015). Unpacking ‘‘evil’’: Claiming the core of the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences 73 (2015) 29–38.

Christie, R. C., & Geis, F. L. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.

Giammarco, E.A. and Vernon, P.A. (2014). Vengeance and the Dark Triad: The role of empathy and perspective taking in trait forgivingness. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 23–29.

Jonason, P. K. and Krause, L. (2013). The emotional deficits associated with the Dark Triad traits: Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 532–537.

Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M. Baughman, H.M., and Vernon, P.A. (2014). What a tangled web we weave: The Dark Triad traits and deception. Personality and Individual Differences, 70, 117–119.

Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M., and Bethell, E. (2014). The making of Darth Vader: Parent–child care and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 30–34

Jones, D.N. and Paulhus, D.L. (2014). Introducing the Short Dark Triad (SD3): A Brief measure of dark personality traits. Assessment, 21, 28-41.

Lee, K., and Ashton, M. C. (2012). The H factor of personality: Why some people are manipulative, self-entitled, materialistic, and exploitative —and why it matters for everyone. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Miller, J.D., Dir, A., Gentile, B., Wilson, L., Pryor, L.R., and Campbell, W.K. (2010). Searching for a Vulnerable Dark Triad: Comparing Factor 2 psychopathy, vulnerable narcissism, and borderline personality disorder. Journal of Personality, 78, 1529-1564.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556–563.

Raskin, R. N. and Hall, C. S. (1981). The narcissistic personality inventory: alternative form reliability and further evidence of construct validity. Journal of Personality Assessment, 45, 159–162.

Rasmussen, K.R. and Boon, S.D. (2014). Romantic revenge and the Dark Triad: A model of impellance and inhibition. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 51–56. 

Wai, M. and Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 794–799.

Williams, K. M., Paulhus, D. L., & Hare, R. D. (2007). Capturing the four-factor structure of psychopathy in college students via self-report. Journal of Personality Assessment, 88, 205-219.

One thought on “Assessing for the Dark Triad Personality”

  1. Part of the issue is that many / most of those working in the social services and psychological profession surrounding these divorce conflict personality revealed psychosis have never fully been identified and treated themselves, causing a complex situation that is also completely undermining the system that is driven both by family legal dynamic and the profit that is generated, including the repeat business, and the onion layers of psychosis, mixed with lies, wrong diagnosis, that tend toward generational and institutionalized lifetime victimization for court advantages, then adding in gender based partiality that results in the “perfect storm” so most profit is made by all when it is stirred to a frenzy. Some, or most, of the children that are a product of this frenzy are life long customer / patients, who repeat these patterns in their own family.
    One must ask the glaring white elephant in the room questions like, “is there a deviant motive of conflict of interest?” And “Are these professional systems simply bent on self serving, sick even evil power and money driven conspiracy to profit from a form of family, or better yet, child trafficking that is condoned among the so called “professionals”?” Then by research you find the buzz words most used are the buzz words that generate the most Federal dollar kickbacks? And the amount of money being poured into these systems is in the billions with a “b”? And the “problems” the poured in money is supposed to fix, are only increasing and never getting better? Does any one really want to fix the problem with real solutions? Or is the system fixed to once again make We The People in to a cash cow? Fact is any professional who really opens their eyes finds the hideousness permeates the system so badly that if you do not play along you are probably without any career opportunities within the system.
    I propose that the whole multilayered psychosis family court driven system is one big mess of a fraud perpetrated upon U.S. to simply support itself with a sanctioned form of white collar crime by psychos who are actually sickening the nations one family and child at a time, A disgrace to the profession, and/ or pure diabolical evil, You could even say the blind leading the blind, or,,, the psychotic leading the psychotic.

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