The Dark Triad – Why Women Love Bad Personalities

  1. Narcissism – the inordinate fascination with oneself
  2. Psychopathy – an individual who manifests amoral and antisocial behaviour, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful relationships
  3. Machiavellianism – subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency or dishonesty

These three personality traits all correlate with each other meaning if you score highly on one of them there is an increased likelihood you will rate highly in the other two. Together they are known as the Dark Triad. For years the Dark Triad traits have been scrutinised by evolutionists because they are socially undesirable yet some women, although conventional wisdom tells them that they should be weary of such characters, may find them rather charming. Now, studies into this personality type have provided new and exciting insights into this vexing phenomenon.

Being high in the Dark Triad provides some adaptive benefit, that much is certain, since it is a common personality trait across a variety of cultures. But what are these benefits? Having a Dark personality has shown links to other traits such as being emotionally stable, having resilient self-esteem and even increased sexual success. Researchers have continually argued that the Dark Triad, as socially undesirable as it is, provides some kind of benefit to individuals irrespective of its cost to society.

What evolutionists do know for certain, is that individuals high in these traits tend to mate differently, and with mating being key to evolution this may be an area where it is of benefit to have a Dark Triad personality.  Research has shown that they pursue competition and novelty in their love lives by attempting to steal mates off others and are more likely to leave their current relationships in pursuit of new exciting ones. Coupled with the fact they report more sexual success; possessing these traits may mean one employs a mating style characterised by the pursuit of short term mating opportunities (e.g. no strings attached, one night stands) and the failure to maintain long term mateships. It was also discovered that men score higher on these traits, which may explain why on average males show a less restricted sociosexuality. A collection of evolutionary theories have been used to explain this phenomenon, and when put together it makes for a compelling explanation of why these personality types still exist.

Life History Theory describes differences in the amount of resources an individual will allocate to somatic effort (i.e. resources devoted to continued survival) and reproductive effort (i.e. resources dedicated to mating). Although it is often used to explain species level differences, it has become increasingly popular in explaining differences within the human population. The easiest way to understand these differences is that individuals may choose to adopt relatively fast life strategies whereby they discount long-term gains in favour of the short-term. An individual can have one child and dedicate all their resources to that one child assuring they are quality offspring (slow life strategy) or they can have many children dedicating little to no resources to each, hoping rather than expecting each will reproduce (fast life strategy).

This is likely to be the reason why males score higher on the traits. If a female had a Dark Triad personality and expended more energy on reproduction opportunities she is likely to incur more costs (minimum of 9months investment in unwanted offspring) than if a male does whose minimum investment is the time it takes to copulate. This disparity in parental investment explains why the  Dark Triad is considered to be a male adapted trait, since consistently employing a short term mating strategy is more adaptive to men. Indeed, studies do show that females preference in relationships are largely influenced by the potential mates willingness to provide investment and paternal care.

There is a twist in the tale! Theorists proposed that ancestral women evolved to engage in mixed mating strategies in which romantic relationships were pursued dependent on social constructs in order to enhance reproductive fitness. Research shows that women’s mate preferences systematically differ in short-term vs long-term scenarios. In many cultures women place more importance on the muscularity and physical attractiveness of mates when evaluating them as short term partners. These patterned differences in women’s mate preferences for particular characteristics are explained by the Good Genes Sexual Selection Theory. In humans there are differences in heritable fitness. Since individuals cannot directly read fitness effects of a potential mates genes any preference for others who have good genes must be based on traits or attributes that correlate with heritable fitness, these are referred to as good gene indicators. This means that when women are willing to partake in short-term mating, they are only willing to do so with a mate that indicates good heritable fitness, or possesses qualities that indicate ‘good genes’.

Many researchers argue that women deem males high in the Dark Triad as attractive because having this personality indicates good genetic quality. This is why men who score highly on Dark Triad measures report more sexual success. This was then tested in an experiment of 102 female university students, and what was found was fascinating.

Women were attracted to the Dark Triad personality but their attraction significantly increased when it was attached to other attributes of genetic quality (muscularity, physical attractiveness, creativity). In other words, despite an individual possessing the Dark Triad personality, which is largely seen as socially undesirable, individuals who have no heritable fitness (facial attractiveness, physical strength, height) would pay steep reproductive costs if they had this personality without actually having good genes. The classic prototype of one such sexually selected feature is the peacocks tail, which would seem to be of no benefit to the peacocks survival yet; those peacocks who are most physically fit can afford to possess a grand tail, and so the more extravagant the tail the better genes the peacock has. The Dark Triad personality could work the same, such a social species like humans means having a dark personality could be a hindrance more than a help. The more you can exhibit such personality traits and still survive the more genetic quality you have because you are living life with a high amount of risk. This explains why the Dark Triad is often linked to other indicators of genetic quality such as physical attractiveness and social dominance. 

If exhibiting a Dark Triad personality is similar to a peacock brandishing his tail then women must be able to notice such personalities when they are at their most fertile and most likely to conceive, during ovulation. In the second part of the study we tested whether women’s preference for this personality differs over the course of the ovulatory cycle. How this works is that when women are most likely to conceive they exhibit increased attraction to indicators of good genes and place less importance on stability and paternal investment in an attempt to secure the best possible genes for their offspring. What was found is that during periods of ovulation women rated Dark Triad males as more attractive as a father, in a long term and short term relationship, indicating that at their most fertile women pick up on the Dark Triad and deem it as more attractive proving that a Dark Personality is an indicator of good genes. 

What the study found was that women are more attracted to men with dark personalities but only in specific contexts, so they do find these personalities as attractive but not all the time. It can be argued that women deem dark personalities as sexy however they are not really a consideration for long term relationships, unless women are ovulating. It is not really possible for a male to lack genetic quality, be high in the dark triad and be sexually successful, since the Dark Triad is not a direct marker of good genes instead it just suggests that a man has genetic quality. This means it is very costly for a man with a low standard of genetic quality to employ this personality type. So women are attracted to Dark Triad personalities but that doesn’t mean you can fake it!

Musa Clarke