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The Dark Triad: Relationship Preferences and Trustworthy Faces

Angel is currently a second year Psychology student with a keen interest in psychopathy.

What is The Dark Triad?

The triad revolves around three distinctive yet often overlapping traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism.

. Narcissism is related to a sense of entitlement, superiority and grandiosity

. Psychopathy is associated with low empathy, low anxiety and high impulsivity

. Machiavellianism includes traits such as manipulativeness and coldness

The Dark triad and its association with the Big 5

The big 5 personality test identifies five key personality types: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

A study by Paulhus & Williams, 2002 investigated the relationship between these traits and the dark triad:

They found that narcissism is positively correlated with extraversion and openness but negatively correlated with agreeableness. This may be because narcissists seek validation from others so are likely to be social and extraverted.

Machiavellianism was negatively associated with agreeableness and conscientiousness. This is most likely due to their cold and manipulative behaviours which can make them unlikeable.

Psychopathy was positively correlated with extraversion and openness but negatively with agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. This may be due to their superficial charm and manipulative behaviour which can ultimately appear social at first but harmful in the long run. Psychopaths are also said to score low in neuroticism as they are much less susceptible to anxiety than other people.


The Dark Triad and Relationships

Preferences for short term relationships seem to correlate with the dark triad. In particular, those rating high in narcissism have a preference for one-night stands and friends with benefits. This is hypothesised to be because narcists need someone who can “reinforce their sense of self” and boost their ego. In contrast, psychopaths were found to prefer booty calls as this allows for them to take advantage of their manipulative and exploitative traits. Those high in Machiavellianism, however, where not associated with any of these preferences (Jonason, Luevano, and Adams, 2012). A follow up of this experiment found that all three dimensions of the dark triad are correlated with one-night stands, booty calls, and friends with benefits (Koladich and Atkinson, 2016). There appears to be some inconsistencies within research with regards to relationship preferences which only further and more in-depth investigation can resolve, however, there does seem to be a consensus that those who score high within the triad seem to prefer short over long term relationships.

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Dark Triad and Facial Features

Research has found that brain activation in areas associated with untrustworthiness is particularly prevalent when looking at psychopaths. Previous studies have found that the amygdala in the brain increases in activation as perceived untrustworthiness of a person increases (Engell, Haxby, and Todorov, 2007). In relation to the dark triad, Gordon and Platek (2009) tested whether individuals would automatically perceive faces of those from the dark triad as less trustworthy. 6 participants took part in an fMRI task where they were presented with a series of photos of people scoring high for psychopathy, narcissism, or Machiavellianism whilst brain activity was measured. The results indicate a significant correlation between untrustworthy associated activity and looking at psychopaths. Whilst there was a pattern found for narcissism and Machiavellianism the association was not as prevalent. This may be because psychopaths are more of an evolutionarily and immediate threat to one’s safety whereas narcists are more likely to hide unpleasant characteristics of themselves so the need for recognition is less immediate. The study concludes that facial geometry holds accurate markers for the trustworthiness of an individual. This is of course interesting but not necessarily true – especially as this study only used 6 participants.

The Dark Tetrad

Chabrol et al (2015) found evidence for a fourth trait, sadism. In a study of 600 students they investigated levels of each of the four traits. They discovered they could categorize students into four groups: those who scored low on all four (28% of the sample), high on Machiavellianism and sadism (29%), high on narcissism and psychopathy (28%) and high on all four (15%).

Chabrol et al looked into these clusters of students and their likelihood to participate in antisocial behaviours, have depressive symptoms, use cannabis and have suicidal ideation. Those high in all four were also scored higher for suicidal ideation and cannabis use. The most remarkable difference was the level of antisocial behaviour, which was greatly higher in the dark tetrad cluster.


Chabrol, H., Melioli, T., van Leeuwen, N., Rodgers, R., & Goutaudier, N. (2015). The Dark Tetrad: Identifying personality profiles in high-school students. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 97–101.

Engell, A. D., Haxby, J. V., & Todorov, A. (2007). Implicit Trustworthiness Decisions: Automatic Coding of Face Properties in the Human Amygdala. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(9), 1508–1519.

Gordon, D. S., & Platek, S. M. (2009). Trustworthy? The brain knows: Implicit neural responses to faces that vary in dark triad personality characteristics and trustworthiness. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 3(3), 182–200.

Jonason, P. K., Luevano, V. X., & Adams, H. M. (2012). How the Dark Triad traits predict relationship choices. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(3), 180–184.

Koladich, S. J., & Atkinson, B. E. (2016). The dark triad and relationship preferences: A replication and extension. Personality and Individual Differences, 94, 253–255.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556–563.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Angel Harper


cheaptrick from the bridge of sighs on September 11, 2021:

Nicely done,a bit over my head as are most things,but you had my attention all the way through.thanks

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