Temperament and Politics and the Dark Triad

The Dark Triad:  What is it?  Is this related to Halloween?  (No, though it sounds spooky enough.) Is it related to temperament?  Should it be?  How about foreign policy?

With Halloween off the list, let’s look first at what the Dark Triad is.  It is a combination of three rather unlovely qualities–Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathology.   Narcissism, is taken from the Greek story of Narcissis, who saw his reflection in the water of a pond.  According to the myth he did not recognize himself, but fell in love with the image.  Because he could never find this image out in the world, he pined away by the pond and eventually turned into the flower, Narcissus, thus giving us a pitiable image of self-love.

According to the (still) current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual  (DSM IV),*  Narcissism today is a clinical personality disorder.  The DSM is the combined work of many hundreds of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, mostly working in committees. DSM IV is still current because DSM5 has been on the way since 1999 and has been through many revisions including a public comment period, and only now being field tested for publication in 2013.  Narcissistic Personality Disorder almost disappeared in 2010 when it was proposed to  fold it into a category called Antisocial Personality Disorder/Psychopathy.  However, perhaps by popular demand, it is back in its own slot for 2012.

Whatever the future may bring, DSM IV defines the disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of situations.”  Criteria include “exaggerates achievements…is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance….requires excessive admiration….has a sense of entitlement….is interpersonally exploitative….lacks empathy….”.  Less than 1% of the general population is believed to have enough of the criteria to receive this diagnosis–for which we can all be grateful.  However, many more of us have slight to serious narcissistic traits without the full picture.

Psychopathy is pretty much a part of DSM IV’s Antisocial Personality.  Way back in DSM III, it had its own category, but was later replaced by Antisocial Personality.  For a brief time in 2010 it appeared that the new DSM5 category would be Antisocial Personality/Psychopathy, but that is currently back to Antisocial Personality.  DSM IV tells us that Antisocial Personality (and thus, roughly, psychopathy) “is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”  It includes such criteria as “deceitfulness….conning others for profit or pleasure….impulsivity or failure to plan ahead….irritability and aggressiveness….reckless disregard for safety of self or others….consistent irresponsibility….lack of remorse….indifferent to…..having hurt mistreated or stolen from others.”  DSM IV estimates Antisocial Personality as present in about 3% of all males and 1% of all females.

Machiavellianism has a long history.  The term was first coined in the early 1600s when Niccolo Machiavelli published a treaty on statecraft called The Prince.  This was basically a very early “how to” book on the use of cunning, deception, and trickery in the management of governments.  The term has transferred virtually intact to the description of persons today who consistently try to manipulate others through deception, for their own personal gain.  Unlike Narcissism and psychopathy there is no unique category for this in DSM, though you can see shades of it in the Antisocial Personality and the Narcissistic Personality.  However there has been substantial research work done on scales to measure Machiavellianism (MACH) and on the behavior of persons who are high or low in this trait in all sorts of game-playing situations.  One researcher notes that “In experimental settings high MACHs frequently outperform low MACHS whether this be in bargaining and alliance forming, or assuming leadership in group situations.  As persons high in MACH are likely to exploit others and less likely to be concerned about other people beyond their own self-interest, MACH is predictably negatively correlated with empathy.”**  It would seem that MACH is most different from the rest of the triad in sounding much more planful, and less impulsive or reactive.  All in all, Narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism comprise a very Dark Triad indeed.

Are they related to temperament?  In years past the clinical answer would probably have been no.  Like more pervasive disorders such as Schizophrenia or Autism it was rather commonly assumed that the Personality Disorders were an illness category.  You met the minimum criteria and you received the diagnosis or you did not meet it so didn’t have it.

Several statements in the working papers for DSM5 give the impression that DSM5 is moving toward looking at the Personality Disorders (now called types) as traits along a continuum from normal to less than ideal to clearly abnormal.  For example, on the DSM5 website at www.dsm5.org an introductory section on the Personality Disorders notes that “The personality domain in DSM-5 is intended to describe the personality characteristics of all patients, whether they have a personality disorder or not.”  Adding to this, a news release from the American Psychiatric Association on July 7th of this year noted that “The importance of personality functioning and personality  traits is the major innovation here.  In the past we viewed personality disorders as binary.  You either had one or you didn’t.  But we now understand that personality pathology is a matter of degree.”  Finally, in addition to deciding whether a client has a personality disorder, and deciding which is the best fit, if so, clinicians will be asked to rate the individual on a series of “trait domains” which are taken directly from the Big Five. It looks very much like the study of normal temperament and the study of abnormal personality disorders or types, are moving much closer together.

In a final comment on temperament and the Dark Triad,  one group*** has found that “there were significant and systematic correlations between the scales of the dark triad and the A dimension” (Agreeableness dimension of the Big Five). That is, not too surprisingly, people high on the Dark Triad are pretty disagreeable!

Another factor that is at least acknowledged in the corridors, if not in the consulting room, is that the Personality Disorders/Types are relatively intractable to treatment.  This may be clearest with Antisocial Personality which often is the final link in a chain from Oppositional Defiant Disorder, to Conduct Disorder to Antisocial Personality, that may begin  in early childhood and continue undiminished into adulthood.  Many times the most useful role of the therapist is in helping the families or spouses of the client (the victims) rather than changing the client’s behavior in any major way.

This leads to the last question–How about foreign policy?  Let’s look again at the descriptors for the triad:

Narcissism:  “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of situations.”  Criteria include “exaggerates achievements…is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance….requires excessive admiration….has a sense of entitlement….is interpersonally exploitative….lacks empathy….”.

Psychopathy:  ” a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”  It includes such criteria as “deceitfulness….conning others for profit or pleasure….impulsivity or failure to plan ahead….irritability and aggressiveness….reckless disregard for safety of self or others….consistent irresponsibility….lack of remorse….indifferent to….having hurt mistreated or stolen from others.”

Machiavellianism:    Machiavelli’s The Prince was a”how to” book on the use of cunning, deception, and trickery in the management of governments.  The term has transferred virtually intact to the description of persons today who consistently try to manipulate others through deception, for their own personal gain.  And “In experimental settings high MACHs frequently outperform low MACHS whether this be in bargaining and alliance forming, or assuming leadership in group situations.  As persons high in MACH are likely to exploit others and less likely to be concerned about other people beyond their own self-interest, MACH is predictably negatively correlated with empathy.”

Add to this, then that for persons high in these three elements of the Dark Triad, these are enduring characteristics, unlikely to change significantly over the course of a life time.

And Foreign Policies? What does this tell us about North Korea’s  Kim Jong-il or Iran’s Ahmadinejad?  Does their on-going behavior reflect The Dark Triad?  If so do we have anything to gain through negotiations?  Are we like the therapist who can only try to mitigate the effect on the victims?  If so, how?

Selected references

*American  Psychiatric Association (1994).  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:  Fourth Edition, APA:  Washington DC

** ***Jokobwitz, S & Egan, V. (2006).  The dark triad and normal personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 331-339.

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