We live much of our lives in the online world. Social media has become a necessary part of daily life for many. In these spaces, we find our work, our friends, our families, and even the partners we marry and love. The digital sphere is entrenched in our society, the good and the bad. What does that mean for dark personality types?
While we don’t love to imagine it, our apps and platforms are populated with an equal mix of light and darkness. Dark personalities with bad intentions are just as likely to be found as those who deal in the light.
You may be looking for a friend, a business partner, or even a soulmate. Go lurking too far and you may just find something else, however…the Dark Triad. A personality type so dangerous and manipulative that many of us fail to comprehend the traps that they set for us online.
What is a "Dark Triad" Personality?
If you’ve ever dealt with the Dark Triad before, then you are a highly unlucky individual. Relatively rare, this sinister personality type is manipulative, controlling, domineering, and even cruel. These individuals can see the world in some truly sinister ways, and those around them are the ones who pay the price.
Psychologically speaking, a Dark Triad personality is one with a high level of narcissism, Machiavellian tendencies, and a diagnosable level of psychopathy (Jones & Paulhus, 2013). However, the levels of these personality traits can vary from individual to individual.
Those who rank high in dark triad traits are the human representation of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
It’s helpful to think of these personality types as motion toys — specifically the ones that hold water and oil on the inside. The aspects of their personalities are shifting, often unbalanced.
Some individuals will rate higher in narcissism than psychopathy and Machiavellianism (and vice versa). It’s a sliding scale that can dramatically affect how a specific individual interacts with their environment or reacts to it. Different combinations = unique experiences. Keep that in mind as you further consider how these dark manipulators appear online.
How do Dark Triad personalities present themselves online?
The balance of someone’s dark triad personality aspects will affect how they show up online. This is obvious from several studies but is specifically shown in the recent research of Nitschinsk, who looked at narcissists, Machiavellians, psychopaths, and the online persona.
The study began with 322 mixed-gender participants, of which 191 were male. The ages of the participants varied, with the average age settling in at around 33 years old, and most of the participants were college-educated or had some college experience.
The purpose of the study was to look at dark triad traits and how those who ranked high in them performed or masked themselves online. As expected, the results were highly illuminating and showed a pattern of both intentional and unintentional manipulation.
In this study, researchers looked at a couple of things:
- The 17-item Presentation of Online Self Scare for Adults (or POSSA)
- The 27-item Short Dark Triad (SD3) scale
The first assessment measures three subscales: the authentic self, the adaptable self, and the freedom of self. All three of which focus on whether an individual is able and willing to show up authentically, and how they rate the value of being authentic with others.
The second scale looks specifically at narcissistic traits (those who believe themselves to be above others), psychopathy (those who do not value others in any way), and Machiavellianism (those who use information to manipulate or control others).
What we learned
For online personas, results of the study were clear. Specific patterns were illuminated and broke down (primarily) along the lines of those who were high in narcissism, versus those who were high in Machiavellianism or psychopathy.
Machiavellianism and Psychopathy: Those identified as being high in this calculating trait were more likely to show up as adaptable or inauthentic versions of themselves online. These individuals looked at social environments for their perceived benefits. Included in those benefits was a higher level of anonymity and greater control over interactions. Machiavellians were also more likely to enjoy the risk-free self-expression offered online.
Narcissism: For the narcissists, it was different. Those higher in this trait were more likely to present with authentic self-presentation. Motivations were different. Rather than desiring to manipulate others with their behavior, many desired to be praised (or even pitied) for their authentic presentation. However, many felt they could not present authentically online and preferred offline, face-to-face interaction.
Could you spot a Dark Triad personality offline in the real world?
Narcissists show up authentically, psychopaths and Machiavellians don’t. That’s great knowledge to have, but what does that actually look like when we put it into action in the “real” online world? In most cases, we wind up with a deadly combination of charmers, manipulators, and the charismatically controlling.
For the psychopaths, the online realm becomes a place to turn on the charm. They are able to manipulate others by presenting a mask that shows victims everything they want to see. But the facade is false. It changes and fluctuates based on the needs of the psychopath, which is what makes them such incredible performers online. With a great control over how people see them and when, they can wield control on a grander scale.
Machiavellians are much the same. Relishing the control they have over online presentation and interaction, they can use their cold, strategic natures to create as many online personas as they need. Just as the narcissist, though, this persona is inauthentic. It exists only to force others to give the Machiavellian what they want (whatever that may be).
The narcissist can be the hardest manipulator of all to spot online. Those high in this trait often present as the ideal we want to see. They are excellent at mirroring our desired traits, and adopting them as their own “authentic” self. Many can even show up exactly as they really are, demanding love for that. But it all exists with the demand of praise and obedience. Go beyond that and punishment will be waiting.
What is the best way to protect yourself from online manipulators?
All of this knowledge, all of these studies, means nothing if you don’t take action to protect yourself online. It’s important to be aware of intentions: both your intentions when in the digital sphere, and the intentions of those you revere, follow, and invest in within those spaces.
Look out for those who show unfamiliar faces, who wear too many masks to be trusted. Consider as well the intentions of their presence online. Are they creating content to share information? Or to earn the affection and dedication of a new supply?
Many of us come to the internet exactly as we are in real life, with the intention only of sharing ourselves, and our lives. We hope to connect with others who can value us for who we truly are.
And that’s okay. Apps and social media can be incredible places to meet with like-minded and inspiring people from all over the world. It can give you the village you didn’t get at home. Intention is key. Know what your intentions are and don’t allow yourself to be taken in by the truly selfish intentions of anyone else.
Pay attention to the small stuff. Dark triad personality traits conceal themselves in the little details (until it’s too late). Stay true to yourself, your integrity, and the optimism you have in the world. Invest in a higher caliber of friend, influencer, and online personality.
Jones, D., & Paulhus, D. (2013). Introducing the Short Dark Triad (SD3). Assessment, 21(1), 28–41. doi: 10.1177/1073191113514105
Nitschinsk, L., Tobin, S., & Vanman, E. (2022). The dark triad and online self-presentation styles and beliefs. Personality And Individual Differences, 194, 111641. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2022.111641