The Dark Triad traits are often associated with deviant behavior, but can they predict criminal behavior in the general population? A study published in Current Research in Behavioral Sciences explores how Machiavellianism and psychopathy can be associated with criminal behavior, even for people who are not incarcerated.
The Dark Triad traits include Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. These traits have been long associated with undesirable characteristics, such as lacking empathy, being impulsive, arrogance, selfishness, and entitlement. These three traits have also notably been linked to many types of bad behavior, including lying, manipulating, exploiting others, aggression, misconduct, and offending.
Most previous research has focused on relatively young online samples. The new study sought to contribute to the breadth of knowledge on the Dark Triad by exploring how these traits are related to antisocial, self-reported offending behaviors in a non-clinical sample of adults.
“For the past two decades, a considerable amount of research has been conducted on the relation between the Dark Triad traits and a variety of antisocial behaviors,” Wim Hardyns and his colleagues wrote. “According to previous research, all three traits are positively related to risk-taking behaviors, aggressive behavior, different types of misconduct (such as minor and serious offending) and (violent) offending behavior. In the present study we are interested in antisocial behavior (hereafter: adult offending) in adults in a non-clinical population.”
The researchers utilized a representative sample of 1,587 adults living in Ghent, Belgium to serve as their sample (average age 48). Trained interviewers conducted in-person interviews and brought a device in which participants could complete online measures on as well. Participants completed measures on self-reported adult offending, Dark Triad traits, and demographic information.
Adult offending included four items that included wrongfully accusing someone, stealing or attempted stealing, hitting or threatening to hit someone, and purposely damaging another person’s belongings.
Hardyns and his colleagues found that psychopathy and Machiavellianism significantly explained self-reported offending behavior for a non-clinical sample of adults, which is consistent with previous research that focused on adolescents. Narcissism did not have a relationship with offending behavior in this study, which is possibly due to the fact that people high in narcissism engage in antisocial behaviors when their egos are threatened, rather than at random.
The study found that younger participants were more likely to report offending behavior, which is consistent with previous research, but found no significant gender differences, which contrasts with previous research that suggests men offend at higher levels than women.
This study took interesting steps into better understanding how Dark Triad traits relate to offending behavior in adults. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the sample was constrained to participants living in Ghent, Belgium, which could have limited generalizability. Additionally, self-report measures are susceptible to desirability bias, and this can be especially true when asking about something extremely socially undesirable, such as committing antisocial acts.
“Despite these limitations, our findings show that the Dark Triad Theory can be applied to explain individual differences in adult offending and as such, the theory could be integrated in contemporary theories of antisocial behavior,” Hardyns and his colleagues concluded. “Future research could examine which mechanisms lie underneath this relationship between the Dark Triad traits and self-reported offending, by integrating the findings of this study with for example theory on the role of self-control and strains in criminal behavior, or the theory of cumulated disadvantage.”