The Dark Triad in History & Politics
In the context of "big five" personality theory, the phrase "dark triad" refers to individuals who are simultaneously narcissistic, Machiavellian, and psychopathic. It will be helpful to more fully understand what each of these terms mean by themselves.
The narcissistic individual is egocentric, grandiose in self-concept, and lacking in empathy. Typically such an individual will demonstrate an almost overwhelming need for admiration and attention.
The Machiavellian is lacking in morality and routinely engages in the manipulation and exploitation of others.
And the psychopath is a person who exhibits poor self-control, is selfish, callous, unemotional, and vindictive.
Those exhibiting the full complement of "dark triad" traits have a propensity to criminality; and when given authority of any kind are apt to abuse it in ways that create serious problems for everyone concerned. However, a fourth trait of sadism more accurately predicts the most brutal and destructive behavior, and when combined with the "dark triad" of traits this especially toxic amalgam is referred to as the "dark tetrad".
This personality typology grew out of research originally conducted by Canadian psychologists Delroy Paulhus and, later, Kevin Williams, with the first introduction of the concept and phrase appearing in 2002. Their original research interest was primarily in determining how distinctive each of these component traits is. Subsequent investigation demonstrated that, while distinct, these tendencies are nevertheless often found in association. (For a less technical account of the type, see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201812/beware-the-malevolent-dark-triad )
The earlier Myers-Briggs personality typology identified the ENTP and ESTP types as being most predisposed to psychopathy, and related research indicated that the psychopathic personality is drawn to business, law enforcement and intelligence work, the military, politics, and more generally positions of authority and power.
Research into the career preferences of the dark triadic personality is less well-developed, having only gotten underway in 2015, but a study dating to 2016 indicated "a significantly higher level of Narcissism within the Leadership group, a significantly higher level of Machiavellianism in the Competitive group and a significantly higher level of Psychopathy in the Authority & Power group." For their part, Machiavellians "are likely to choose careers which provide access to extensive resources and means of controlling others."
A 2019 meta-study of career preferences found that "business students displayed higher levels of narcissism than psychology students," and observed that "narcissists are highly attracted to the business and management sector."
While further research in career preferences is needed, the studies done so far suggest strong convergence between the Myers-Briggs career preference research and that done on dark triads.
A strong correlation between dark triadic traits and genetics has also been shown; and dark triads are much more likely to be male than female, particularly when psychopathic tendencies are more pronounced.
In many ways anticipating this body of research, and revealing of its broader implications, were the historical investigations undertaken by author Colin Wilson, as detailed in his "A Criminal History of Mankind" (1990). Other research into the worst forms of criminality carried out by forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Stone ("The Anatomy of Evil", 2009) reached conclusions convergent with those of Wilson and of the dark triad investigators.
Perhaps the most surprisingly prescient of all, however, are the many startling insights offered in George R. Stewart's novel "The Years of the City" (1955). Stewart was a historian as well as a novelist, and this provided a much deeper and clearer perspective on the societal influence exercised by dark triads than do the more recent empirical investigations. However, Chris Harman's "A People's History of the World," (1999/2017) makes clearer still the socially destructive nature of this influence when exercised in a political context.
Harman views this influence through the conventional lens of "class conflict"; but what dark triadic research strongly suggests is that underlying most class conflict are deeper, genetically-based psychological predispositions. If we keep in mind that body of investigation, Harman's book takes on an even more profound significance. Indeed, it becomes altogether riveting, as well as alarming, because in it we can trace the repetitive collapse of civilization itself primarily to the perennial presence of these individuals among us.
And herein lies the profound significance of Stewart's novel. It weaves the insights that may now be gleaned from psychological research and from historical studies into a narrative that can be understood in terms of the sorts of personalities we encounter in society today - as well as yesterday.
When we read, say, the article about Donald Trump's narcissism by Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, we can see only too clearly Trump's reflection in Stewart's most malignant characters - as well as in the historical figures we encounter in Wilson and Harman. And this, in turn, helps us to understand the forces that have brought about the collapse of civilization after civilization with such disturbing regularity.
Whatever perspective we may take with respect to an individual such as Trump, it is impossible to doubt that he is an intensely divisive figure, and one lacking core values of any kind, while the maintenance of civilization requires instead the very inverse of this: leaders who can instead unite us behind shared human values.
Once our perception has been augmented by these writers, we can also see, with x-ray-like vision, precisely what is wrong with the Trumps and Pol Pots and Stalins of the world: above all else, they are wholly lacking in empathy. Of course they are sexist - they have difficulty enough relating even to men of the same class and race and age as themselves. Of course they are racist: the same considerations apply in this case, too. Of course they have no value system: values begin with an understanding that other people are much the same as us, and therefore merit fair treatment and constant recognition of their human dignity. And of course these individuals are brutal and authoritarian: they not only actually enjoy brutality and cruelty for their own sakes, they have no value system to reveal to them what is so profoundly wrong with their brutal, violent, and consistently anti-social conduct. Having no empathy for others, and entirely blind to values, it is hardly surprising that they have no capacity for uniting the inviduals who make up any society.
Research into the personality of dark triads and tetrads is now supplying hard empirical evidence for the insights of writers like Wilson and Stewart, and this is urgently important, since the relatively more opaque events of history don't suffice. We ignore these insights at the greatest possible risk to life and civilization. If societies of any kind are to survive, let alone prosper, the nature and ultimate outcome of dark triadic proclivities must be clearly understood by everyone.
It is no accident that Finland, the most advanced contemporary society, is also the one that has been most resistant to dark triadic propensities. It is also not surprising that the US, where their influence is most painfully felt, now lags far behind its societal peers, placing an embarrassing 20th.