Bright Minds, Dark Hearts: Intelligence in the Dark Triad

Scott McGreal
7 min readDec 11, 2020

Machiavellians may be the most intelligent of the dark personalities.

In popular culture, “evil genius” characters-that is, someone who combines brilliance with malevolence-have had recurring popularity. There is even a widespread misconception, which I have discussed in a previous post, that psychopaths are more intelligent than the average person (Furnham, Daoud, & Swami, 2009), even though research has not found this to be the case (O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, & Story, 2013). On the other hand, a recent study suggests that Machiavellianism, a cynical and manipulative approach to interpersonal relations, actually may be associated with high intelligence (Kowalski et al., 2018), which might mean there is a grain of truth to the “evil genius” trope after all. Furthermore, this might also help explain the fundamental difference between psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

There has been considerable research into the “ dark triad,” a trio of malevolent personality traits consisting of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Although these three traits share a common core of interpersonal antagonism, they are each supposed to have distinctive features that set them apart from each other. Narcissism is generally accepted to stand out from the other two, as it contains a mix of adaptive and maladaptive features, and therefore has been considered the “lightest” member of this triad. However, as I noted in a previous post, there has been considerable controversy about whether Machiavellianism is actually distinct from psychopathy. Specifically, psychopathy combines callous disregard for others with reckless impulsivity, lack of self-control, and deficient ability to adhere to long-term plans. In theory, although Machiavellianism is also characterized by callousness, it should also be associated with the ability to delay gratification and focus on long-term planning. For this reason, it has been argued that Machiavellianism, unlike psychopathy, should not be associated with impulsivity or low conscientiousness, which is a trait associated with self-control and deliberation before taking action. However, research has found that measures of Machiavellianism are associated with low conscientiousness and with greater impulsivity, although to a less extent than psychopathy (Vize, Lynam, Collison, & Miller, 2018). Hence, critics have argued that existing measures of Machiavellianism largely tap the same traits as psychopathy, and therefore are redundant (Miller, Hyatt…

Scott McGreal

Blogging about psychology research, especially in personality and individual differences, as well as psychedelic drug research, and whatever else takes my fancy