Can Research Into the Dark Triad Benefit People with Personality Disorders?

Problematic behaviors can be symptoms of borderline personality disorder, other personality disorders, and psychosis. Recent research into the Dark Triad of personality traits may point toward new techniques for improving certain behaviors of people who have these mental health concerns.

What Is the Dark Triad?

The term “Dark Triad” was coined by psychology researchers Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams in 2002. It refers to three negative behavior traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

As Scott Barry Kaufman reported in a 2019 post on the Scientific American blog, most research into the three traits that compose the Dark Triad had focused on criminals. This is somewhat understandable, as these traits are associated with socially unacceptable and potentially destructive behaviors. They can also be symptomatic of certain mental health disorders, such as borderline personality disorder and psychosis.

However, Paulhus and Williams posited that these characteristics are best described as existing on a spectrum, and that everyone has elements of the Dark Triad within themselves.

Before we explore the Dark Triad in terms of people who have developed psychosis and/or borderline personality disorder, let’s take a moment to look at what each of descriptors actually describe.


The term Machiavellianism has its origins in Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian author and philosopher from the 15th and 16th centuries. In his novel The Prince, Machiavelli described criminal and treacherous behaviors of evil leaders.

In psychological terms, Machiavellianism refers to a tendency to engage in manipulative behaviors to amass or increase personal power, with callous disregard for social morals or the effects that one’s actions will have on others.


Narcissism is an exaggerated sense of self-esteem and a virtually insatiable need for attention. Narcissists act arrogantly, crave preferential treatment, and demonstrate little to not regard for other people. Narcissism can also manifest as manipulative and demanding behaviors.

The Cleveland Clinic has reported that about 5% of the population has narcissistic personality disorder. However, a person does not need to have NPD to exhibit signs of narcissism.


Psychopathy describes antisocial characteristics such as a lack of empathy and remorse, a tendency to grandiosity, and impulsivity.

According to a November 2020 article in Psychiatric Times, about 1% of the general population has psychopathic traits, but among the incarcerated population this rate rises to 15%-20%. Research indicates that psychopathy is three times more common among men than it is among women.

The Dark Triad & Personality Disorders

In the subsection on narcissism above, we mentioned that this trait is associated with narcissistic personality disorder. NPD is one of 10 personality disorders in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Here are the other nine:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder
  • Histrionic personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
  • Paranoid personality disorder
  • Schizoid personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder

Of course, each personality disorder has distinct symptoms. But certain traits and behaviors are shared by multiple disorders within this category. For example, psychosis is associated with both borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia.

Other similarities include the following:

  • Attention-seeking behaviors can be symptomatic of both narcissistic personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder.
  • Aloofness, instability, and other traits that can undermine or prevent relationships can indicate that a person has schizoid personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and avoidant personality disorder.
  • Malevolent actions, disregard for social norms, and lack of empathy may be signs of paranoid personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

If some of the characteristics in this list sound familiar, it’s because they are also associated with the Dark Triad.

Whether or not someone has a personality disorder, reducing their Dark Triad traits can be beneficial for the individual and for society at large. Recent studies have explored techniques for accomplishing this. Successful results in this area would suggest that there may also be new ways of improving behaviors among people who have personality disorders.

Improving Dark Triad Traits

In the past, the conventional wisdom about personality traits is that they remained relatively consistent throughout a person’s life.

A few researchers have argued with this conventional wisdom. And they have the data to back up their beliefs.

  • In 2017, psychologist Brent Roberts led a meta-analysis of 207 studies. Roberts and his team found that various interventions led to “marked changes in personality trait measures over an average time of 24 weeks.” Therapy was most successful at helping people achieve emotional stability, the researchers discovered.
  • A May 2020 paper in the European Journal of Personality revealed that two weeks of smartphone-based interventions led to improvements in self-discipline and openness to action. These improved personality traits remained evident during follow-up sessions two and six weeks after the intervention concluded.
  • In a March 2020 article in the Journal of Personality, Nathan Hudson of Southern Methodist University reported that small interventions that are designed to increase a person’s agreeableness can lead to a reduction in all three Dark Triad traits.

A press release that announced the findings of Hudson’s study noted that activities such as donating money to charity or asking a stranger about themselves were associated with reduced Dark Triad traits over a four-month period.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the press release reported that Hudson’s study led to improved characteristics even among subjects who initially said they wanted to increase their Dark Triad traits.

Agreeableness & the Dark Triad

Hudson’s study involved 460 students who said they wanted to improve one of the following “big five” personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, or neuroticism. Each study subject selected one of these traits that they wanted to improve over a period of 16 weeks.

Depending on which trait the subjects selected, they would receive challenges such as “ask a friend to coffee” or “download the MeetUp app and attend an event that interests you.”

Efforts to improve extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism did not necessarily lead to improvements in the Dark Triad. In fact, subjects who successfully followed the challenges that were designed to improve extraversion actually showed an increase in narcissism.

As Hudson noted in the discussion area of his study, agreeableness was the one personality trait that had the most beneficial impact in terms of the Dark Triad. This was true regardless of whether the individual wanted to improve their Dark Triad traits. Hudson’s findings included the following:

  • Most people do not want to change their Dark Triad levels in socially desirable ways.
  • People who do want to change their Dark Triad traits can achieve corresponding trait growth over time.
  • Interventions that are designed to promote greater agreeableness led to reduced levels of all three Dark Triad traits.

Treating People with Personality Disorders

Depending on which disorder a person has, the following interventions have demonstrated varying degrees of effectiveness in the treatment of personality disorders:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Cognitive-behavioral group therapy (CBGT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Schema-focused therapy (SFT)
  • Functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP)
  • Skills-based interventions

CBT is generally considered to be the most effective type of therapy for the greatest number of personality disorders.

A September 2011 study in the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America reported that CBT’s effectiveness for treating personality disorders may be related to the following factors:

  • CBT emphasizes the connection between automatic thoughts and their underlying schemas. This can help people overcome dysregulation in these areas.
  • CBT focuses on skills development and other practical goals.
  • CBT can help people overcome social dysfunction.
  • CBT works well with other treatment approaches, which is valuable when treating the complex needs of people who have personality disorders.

Nathan Hudson’s study into the Dark Triad did not include subjects who displayed symptoms of personality disorders. Neither did the other research efforts described in the “Improving Dark Triad Traits” earlier on this page.

However, given the close association between the Dark Triad and personality disorders, further research may indicate that Dark Triad interventions can benefit people who have borderline personality disorder, psychosis, and related concerns.