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Rashi Goel

Shades of Grey

The Dark Triad
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Dark Matters

That there are only two kinds of people in this world – good and evil, is a myth that lives only in fairytales.

In fact, all of us have shades of grey. And as we say in India, we “kindly adjust” around it.

But when we look into the mirror, we deny it to ourselves. We see an ideal self-image. And we believe that the problem is not with us, but with the rest of the world. We say, other people have egos, lack perspective and are selfish. They just don’t ‘get it’. But we do. We are pure, the world is corrupt. 

Aha! Rethink this perspective, because there is relatively new research that reveals two extreme dimensions of human personality – Dark Triad and Light Triad. And that all of us fall along the continuum. 

The Dark Triad

“What’s one less person on the face of the earth, anyway?” – Ted Bundy

Dark personalities are combinations of three traits – Narcissism, Psychopathy and Machiavellianism. At their core is a tendency to callously use others for personal gain.

The Dark Triad

Credit: Laura Harris Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Narcissism – entitled self-importance
Machiavellianism – strategic exploitation and deceit
Psychopathy – callousness and cynicism

Studies by Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams prove that we are all at least a little bit Narcissistic, Machiavellian and Psychopathic.

Their studies show us that: 

  • on average, these traits are far more evident in men than women
  • Only approximately 1-2 per cent of us display extremely dark personality features – enough to meet the clinical threshold for a personality disorder – (take heart, pure evil is only 1-2% of the population!)
  • 10-20 per cent of us have moderately elevated levels of ‘darkness’. Even people with moderate levels of dark traits can wreak havoc: they are more likely to lie and cheat, show racist attitudes, and be violent towards others.

But the bottom line is that most of us have shades of grey.

The Light Triad

“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” – Anne Frank

Light personalities are combinations of three traits – Kantianism, Humanism, and Faith in Humanity.

Credit: Scott Barry Kaufman, David Yaden, Elizabeth Hyde and Eli Tsukayama 

Kantianism (treating people as ends unto themselves, not mere means), 
Humanism (valuing the dignity and worth of each individual) 
Faith in Humanity (believing in the fundamental goodness of humans)

At the core of all these are forgiveness, trust, honesty, caring, acceptance, seeing the best in people and getting intrinsic enjoyment from making connections with others, instead of using people as a means to an end.

These people are genuinely interested in others and treat them well without question, not as a means to an end. They applaud the success of others, believe in the fundamental goodness of humans, and respect the dignity of everyone.

study of 36,000 adults suggests that 30-50 per cent of people show prominent light personality trait profiles and that these traits are particularly common in women. 

The good news is that more of the population veers towards the light, as we can see in the scatter diagram below.

Credit: “The Light vs. Dark Triad of Personality: Contrasting Two Very Different Profiles of Human Nature,” by Scott Barry Kaufman, David Yaden, Elizabeth Hyde and Eli Tsukayama, in Frontiers in Psychology, March 12, 2019

Nice Guys Finish Last. Or Do They?

Studies show that dark personalities achieve success, but only up to a point. One study found that they win negotiations when they have to compete but perform badly on tasks that involve cooperation.

In corporate settings, they are more likely to emerge as leaders and are seen as charismatic but, when it comes to getting the job done, they are considered poor team players.

They are also not particularly happy: people with dark traits tend to report poor self-image, an inability to intimately connect with others, and little life satisfaction.

Through manipulation and expedient use of others, these individuals cut off the very (social) branch they sit on, in the long run

On the other hand, dark personalities are more ambitious, growth-oriented, assertive, and achievement driven. Their drive and hunger to win makes them effective at delivering results.

As people age, they become more likely to display light personality traits. Those with light personality trait profiles have fulfilling, intrinsically rewarding lives:

-they generally have a more positive view of themselves and more positive connections with others

-they find life more satisfying and report higher fulfilment levels

-On the other hand, they are so satisfied with their lives, that they might not be as driven to achieve.

The key factor here seems to be empathy. Light personalities feel a general sense of well-being and are more satisfied with their relationships, competence and autonomy.

The good news is that about 50-60% of the population is a combination of both personalities.

If brands reflect human truths, why do we insist on building brands that are pristine, positive, and disinfected against dark emotions?

Won’t brands that have some shades of grey resonate better?

Well, there have been a few brands that have done just that. They have taken a risk and showcased the ‘not so nice’ instincts within all of us. But they have done it in such a natural way, that they don’t make the consumer feel defensive, but embrace their frailties lightly.

Here are a few examples, but we need more such ‘real’ work on brands.


This is the first brand that comes to mind.

It played on the dark emotion of envy with the long-running campaign on “Neighbors Envy, Owner’s Pride”.

This was the right time in India for this message because television sets were new and not everyone had one.  

Career Builder

This Super Bowl commercial brings out the soul-numbing darkness that people stuck in bad jobs feel.

Even the campaign execution style induces anxiety.


Taking a leaf out of the career builder campaign, this Indian job search website brand highlighted a boss who was the epitome of the dark triad.


This is a campaign I was a part of. Conceptualized by Ogilvy Delhi, it was based on the insight that “people expect to be lied to, so when they hear the truth, they automatically think it is a lie”.

How Dark Are You?

So guess which dark trait you are partial to –  Narcissism, Machiavellianism, or Psychopathy? Write it on a piece of paper.

Then take this robust test (which has been taken by 250,000 people worldwide), to see where you are on the Light-Dark continuum and which traits you have. 

Compare this with what you wrote in your paper. Did you get it right?