Unfortunately, there are so many myths regarding psychopathy, one post is not going to cut it. This one is going to delve into both scientifically published myths, and also some that appeared in an article that I went through point by point to debunk.
Let’s start with the so-called “dark triad”. The dark triad is the image above, and it claims to be the overlap of psychopathy, narcissism, and machiavellianism. There are problems with this, and we are going to go through them.
The first part is the narcissism part. This definition fluidly moves between narcissism, the personality trait, and narcissistic personality disorder even in professional circles. I went over this previously as to why that doesn’t work, and you can find that link here:
First what the experts have to say about this:
“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.”
If we are to take this at face value, we are working with the understanding that a person in the dark triad umbrella is someone that is an exhibitionist, has a sense of entitlement, and a need for admiration.
Psychopaths on the other hand have no empathy, no need of other people, do not care about attention or admiration, and would be an exhibitionist only if it served a greater purpose, such as a psychopathic female becoming an exotic dancer because it was high pay and easy work. It wouldn’t be about the flaunting of her body, it would be about the paycheck and lack of requiring work take place during regular work hours.
They go onto to say this:
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.
Let’s put this into a readable list, and then look at whether these traits are possible in a psychopath, shall we?
Narcissism in their minds means:
Antagonism- Unless there is something to be gained from this, antagonism is a dead end strategy. There is no reason to engage in this, as it has very little if any payoff. Psychopaths are focused on the self, and what benefits the self most. Antagonism does not do this.
Authority-For what purpose? Again, this is something that researchers have claimed is an attraction to psychopaths, but when speaking to actual psychopaths, and comparing it to my own mindset, authority has little value. It means you are on the hook. The place to be is behind the authority. The best strategy is to pull the strings, not to be the one implementing policy.
Distrustful self-reliance- I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. Maybe it’s a new fangled way of describing a parasitic lifestyle, I don’t know. If that is what it is it could be defined better. If anyone has a clue what they are getting at, feel free to chime in down in the comments section.
Agentic extraversion-…again…? What? We already addressed exhibitionism, so that is not what they are getting at. Agenic, meaning:
an individual's power to control his or her own goals actions and destiny
and extroversion. If this is meant to mean the ability to be an extrovert when necessary, sure a psychopath certainly can do this. I do so all the time. There is no difference in terms of my comfort level at home, or out on the town. I can do either, so long as there is something in it for me. An enjoyable experience definitely qualifies.
Indifference-All right, this one is spot on for psychopaths, but I have a very hard time seeing it for narcissists. Indifference means you don’t care, but narcissists do care, and they care a lot. So I don’t see how this applies to narcissism, but absolutely can see where it applies to psychopathy. It seems that they are so deep in the conflation well, they may have misassigned this trait.
Superiority-Absolutely true for a narcissist, not for a psychopath. Remember that indifference trait? That still applies. Psychopaths are indifferent to those around them. They aren’t considered enough to do any sort of comparison to determine superiority. This requires that the other people around you first cross your mind, and they don’t in psychopathy. They are nonfactors. Perhaps this comes across as a sense of superiority, but that would be more projection than it being reality.
Acclaim-seeking-Unless there is some advantage to this, it is meaningless to a psychopath. If it provides something tangible, and not emotional, I can see this applying, but certainly not for the sake of acclaim. Who care what someone else thinks? They have no bearing on my life. However, this is very par for the course in narcissism.
Narcissistic shame-Nope. Not in psychopathy. Someone that has this is in no way, shape, or form, a psychopath. This immediately drops them off the remotely possible list, but is very on par for narcissistic personality disorder.
Next we get to psychopathy:
The traits of psychopathy are defined as
Detachment- Nope, wrong. For there to be detachment, there has to first be attachment. There is not in psychopathy. Lack of attachment would have been accurate, but not detachment. Detachment is a process that a person undergoes when they are first attached to people, places, memories, things, etc, but then something happens, and they withdraw into themselves and separate that emotional process, and mechanism.
Psychopaths don’t do this. There is no attachment to begin with. We are born without that ability, so there is no detachment.
Aggression/impulsivity-Why this is listed as one trait, I have no idea. They aren’t the same thing, they aren’t relatable, and one is accurate, while the other is bollocks.
Aggression. Nope, not inherent to psychopathy at all. Granted, it seems to be the case that male psychopaths are aggressive, however, this seems to be more related to the fact that they are male, and have testosterone, making this trait appear. Add to this a complete lack of fear, and there is no reason to back down from a bar fight.
This also might be a trait you would see in more antisocial psychopaths. In an antisocial psychopath they likely were raised in a bad environment. That will produce a mentality of I will get them, before they can get me. Self preservation type thinking. While they may have this mentality on a physical level, it would not exist on an emotional level.
Impulsivity. Yes. This is psychopathic in nature. We are impulsive, and have to learn our way out of this in order to keep ourselves both alive, and out of trouble. Some psychopaths never get over this. I estimate that they are likely in jail, or dead. It’s difficult to counter a mentality of, I want what I want, when I want it, with rational thought if you have never implemented the proper stopgaps to override this way of thinking. Also, it is far too easy to see something interesting to try that may in fact be deadly, but without the fear factor weighing in, nothing stops that impulse, and they may have a deadly accident.
Antisocial-Most psychopaths are not antisocial. In fact over eighty-five percent are not antisocial. The ones that are, are in the minority, and likely that antisocial nature is a product of their environment. Oftentimes you will see a quote from a researcher that will make the claim that psychopathy is fifty percent genetic, and fifty percent environmental. That means that they are defining psychopathy as both the genetic differences that occur in the brain and chemical processing, and also the antisocial aspects that got those particular subjects put in jail.
There is an inherent flaw to this, because all of the behaviors that the antisocial aspects cover can be found in all personality types, and all neurotypes. It is not exclusive by any means to psychopathy, and in fact it is found the vast majority of the time in non psychopaths. If it is not:
A. Inherent to psychopathy
B. Exclusive to psychopathy, or even prevalently in psychopathy based on the numbers
it is not something that can be used to define it. This trait has no place on this list.
Manipulation- Uh-huh, and? Not sure why psychopathic manipulation is such a focus for neurotypicals. We learned literally every manipulation technique we use in the neurotypical university that we were enrolled in from the moment that we were born… so… not really sure why us doing it is such an emergency that it has to be attached to these trait lists like it is some aberrant behavior.
Sorry to burst your bubble researchers, but every human interaction is based in manipulation. You are trying to get your wants and needs met, as am I. All humans are, and they manipulate those around them in order to accomplish this. The basis for psychopathic manipulation is different, and I think that is where the rub is. Neurotypicals take no issue with agreed up manipulation, such as getting their emotional needs met. That’s no problem, because it put everyone on equal footing.
However, psychopaths seek other payoffs in our manipulation, and emotional manipulation is a dead end with us. Also, frankly, we are better at it than you guys. No emotional investment in the outcome, means that we have less to lose. We are also better at switching to different tactics that work. That is why I think this one sticks in neurotypicals' craw so much. It’s the unequal grounds, not the manipulation itself, because if it was the manipulation itself, they would be fairly hypocritical.
Risky behavior- I wonder why risky behavior and thrill seeking are two different traits on this list. Psychopaths engage in risky behavior because it’s fun. In other words one begets the other. They aren’t separate. One is literally the result of the other. This is true. Of course we engage in risky behavior. It’s interesting and passes the time.
Last we get to Machiavellianism:
Machiavellianism has four traits which are:
Cynicism- Cynicism quite literally means “bites like a dog”. Fun little tidbit, right? I paid attention in English class… sometimes. Anyway, to be cynical you basically have to be self focused. That isn’t that difficult for humans, as they are self focused. Some people are just more upfront about it than others. Apparently Machiavellians are such. All right, no argument from me. Psychopaths are like this as well. There is a difference however, and we will get into that after I finish with the traits.
Amorality-Willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed. Yes, also in line with psychopathy.
Manipulation-Are we just copying things from one list to another now? This seems lazy.
Detachment-See above. Seriously lazy.
I will agree that machiavellianism is very different from psychopathy. It may have similar traits, there is a fundamental difference that cannot be overlooked. Machiavellianism is a choice. It is not a personality disorder, nor is it something that is inherent to the person. It is a life strategy. Nothing more, nothing less. It is a person that has identified this way of being as a way of achieving their goals, so they set aside their emotional makeup, in order to employ it.
It is a representation of behaviors, much like ASPD. It is not an explanation for said behaviors. This is one of my gripes with it as a construct to begin with. Machiavellianism is just describing behavior, it is not describing the cause of those behaviors, and this is an issue because cause is the most important part.
If you are high in Machiavellian traits it could be for a dozen or more reasons. You may have nothing wrong with you, and you are choosing to get ahead because you read The Prince and thought, hey now, that guy was onto something.
You might be depressed and the regular connections to your emotions aren’t firing correctly at the moment. There is a large overlap between Machiavellianism and depression.
It may be that you have alexithymia, which is the inability to identify what emotions you have going on at any given time.
You could have had a head trauma, organic illness, or a brain tumor that caused you to behave in a more Machiavellian manner.
There can be many reasons for traits to appear. Machiavellianism doesn’t describe anything more than those traits being present. So when speaking about someone’s affective empathy being absent or lower, that doesn’t tell you why. In Machiavellianism the reason can be many fold.
In a person that is psychopathic it is because the brain is literally different. You have traits, and causes described with psychopathy as a construct. You do not have this with Machiavellianism. Instead it is just representative behavior described by a label with no further clarity.
In other words, a psychopath does not have machiavellian traits, and while machiavellian’s may use psychopathic traits, they are emulating them, they are not hardwired with them. The main difference between the traits would also be the detachment trait. This indeed is accurate for machiavellianism, as they are engaging in behaviors contrary to their nature for an end goal, whereas a psychopath never had attachment to begin with.
Looking through this list, and the traits that they have determined represent the different aspects of the list, there are significant issues with their thinking. From the narcissism column, none of them can be overlapped with psychopathy outside of the antisocial traits. As I mentioned, anyone can have these, and they are not inherent to psychopathy, so there is no overlap.
Let me be clear, I don’t consider the antisocial traits to just be the “antisocial” section. From their own list, antisocial traits would be all of the following, antisocial, aggression, and manipulative. I could see adding impulsivity here as well, but I think that it is rightly assigned to psychopathy, and in narcissism impulsivity would be for a different reason than it would exist in a psychopath.
I take issue when they are overlapping behavioral things, without addressing the cause of those things. It makes for a mess, and the Dark Triad is a mess. It really isn’t helpful in determining anything concrete, it’s more about pointing at behavior and marveling at how bad a person is the more boxes they check off on the list. It is also a template for people that want to create a fictional persona for themselves, and often that is exactly what they use. They try to cram it all together, and behave accordingly, but the traits contradict themselves so much, you get the quintessential “Edge Lord Personality”.
I think we have all had enough of that nonsense.