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Mentalizing Malicious Mindreaders

There’s more than one way to skin the Dark Triad.

Harvard University recently decided to remove the cover of a Houghton Library book dating from the mid-1880s because it was made out of human skin. According to a BBC article (1) on the topic: 

The book Des Destinées de l’Ame (Destinies of the Soul), written by Arsène Houssaye, is a meditation on the soul and life after death.
He is said to have given it to his friend, Dr Ludovic Bouland, a doctor, who then reportedly bound the book with skin from the body of an unclaimed female patient who had died of natural causes.
Des Destinées de l’Ame arrived at Harvard in 1934. Located within the book is a note written by Dr. Bouland, stating no ornament had been stamped on the cover to “preserve its elegance.” “I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman,” he wrote. “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

According to the BBC article, the practice of binding books in human skin (an esoteric process known as anthropodermic bibliopegy) was known as early as the 16th Century. The article macabrely noted:

Numerous 19th Century accounts exist of the bodies of executed criminals being donated to science, with their skins later given to bookbinders.

According to Simon Chaplin, an authority on the subject, the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy “generally seems to have been done in the 19th Century by doctors who had access to human bodies for dissection.”


Imagine you are invited for dinner at the house of someone you just met. In the course of conversation, you learn that your host is an anatomical pathologist. While he is mixing you a drink, you peruse the contents of the bookshelf in his living room and your fingers trace across the cover of a book with an odd appearance.

The owner of the house notes your interest in his collection, suspends his bartending duties, approaches you slowly, removes the book from the shelf and proudly displays his bookbinding handiwork.

You express your admiration for the elegance and unique appearance of the book’s exterior. Your host asks what you think the book’s cover is made of. When you are unable to come up with the right answer (and hopefully you couldn’t), the eccentric host proudly reveals that it is made of human skin, which he has preserved from a dead body . . . 


How would you describe the host to your friends when you later recount the events of the evening? Would you perhaps describe your new acquaintance as a member of the Dark Triad? If so, which personality construct from the Dark Triad cluster would best describe him: machiavellian, narcissist, or perhaps psychopath?


Within the field of psychology, the “Dark Triad,” a term coined by Paulhus and Williams in 2002, encompasses the personality traits of “machiavellianism,” “narcissism” and “psychopathy.” Together, these three personality traits are referred to as the Dark Triad because they share characteristics of a callous-manipulative and selfish interpersonal style. (2)

Machiavellianism, for instance, is associated with the use of manipulative, deceptive and immoral behavior to promote self-serving goals in callous disregard for any adverse impact on others.
Narcissism is characterized by a sense of grandiosity, vanity, pride and egotism. People who score high on the narcissism scale believe they are superior to others. They seek out opportunities to gain a lot of attention and praise from others.
Perhaps the darkest of the three Dark Triad constructs, psychopathy, an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder, is characterized by continuous antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness and remorselessness. (3)

I suspect that most people would select the third personality construct of the Dark Triad (psychopathy) to describe Dr. Bookbinder’s behavior.

The jury is still out on whether these three personality constructs are truly distinct psychological concepts. This lack of consensus is often demonstrated by the level of difficulty most of us have in deciding which label to use when we meet a person who seems “Dark Triad-ish.”

Why is it important to distinguish between the three members of the Dark Triad?

In general, knowing the type of person with whom we are dealing is critical to adjusting our own behavioral strategies to suit the person’s temperament and personality traits. When it comes to choosing the most effective behavioral strategies to deal with Dark Triad members, knowing who you are dealing with is even more critical, particularly in light of the considerable risk of harm they can pose.

How can we detect whether we are dealing with a machiavellian, a narcissist, or a psychopath?

Many of us are familiar with the nefarious personality traits attributed to the Dark Triad members. We are, however, not always informed about the distinct mental states that underlie overlapping Dark Triad traits, such as callousness, manipulation and selfishness.

When we notice that a particular person is regularly behaving in a selfish and manipulative manner, we need to pay close attention to their verbal and nonverbal behavior to uncover the underlying mental states that motivate their behavior.

To illustrate, narcissists attribute godlike properties to themselves, driven by their high level of insecurity, so that others will hold them in high esteem. Psychopaths tend to do the same, although not out of insecurity. They see themselves as a god because they view themselves as the ones who can and should decide over other people’s lives (sometimes even literally). In other words, narcissists look in the mirror and imagine themselves as having a god-like appearance, psychopaths perceive themselves as a god through the power they have over others.

What about Machiavellians? Machiavellians don’t tend to attribute godlike properties to themselves. They will, however, do their utmost to make you feel godlike when they want something from you.

The following study provides another illustration of how mental states influence the manipulative behavior of different Dark Triad members. Jonason et al., in their 2012 research paper, concluded that all of the Dark Triad traits were associated with manipulation in the workplace, but each trait was driven by its own distinct mechanism:

machiavellianism was found to be especially associated with the use of excessive charm as an instrument of manipulation; 
narcissism was closely associated with the use of physical appearance as an instrument of manipulation; 
and psychopathy was particularly associated with physical threats as instruments of manipulation. (3)

Understanding the mental states of the Dark Triad members enables you to explain and predict their manipulative behavior. Knowing their modus operandi helps you in selecting the most effective strategies to protect yourself against their toxic behavior. Be aware, however, that they will probably already be mentalizing about you . . .

What are the chances that members of the Dark Triad mentalize about you to inform their manipulation tactics?

Dark Triad members do not tend to employ affective mentalizing: mental state reasoning about emotions, feelings and moods to empathize with others and show compassion. Why is that?

There is a large body of research suggesting that all three personality constructs of the Dark Triad are characterized by atypical responses to distress cues, such as facial and vocal expressions of fear and sadness. While narcissism is not always associated with such atypical responses, machiavellianism and psychopathy are.

Many people think Dark Triad members simply lack the ability to empathize with others. Recent research suggests, however, that these individuals do not truly lack empathy, but rather are less sensitive to certain emotional expressions, such as fear and anger. In fact, a study by Cairncross and colleagues in 2013, indicated that there is a positive correlation between scores on psychopathy or machiavellianism and scores on alexithymia scales. (4) Nemiah (1977) describes “alexithymia” as a subclinical phenomenon involving difficulty in identifying, processing, describing and dealing with one’s own feelings or the feelings of others. (5)

On the basis of their 2013 research results, Meffert and colleagues propose that Dark Triad members are capable of empathizing, but they also have the ability to “switch these feelings off.” (6) It could be argued that these individuals actually skip or disregard the level of affective mentalizing by processing all affective input on a strategic mentalizing level. On this level, affect is taken into consideration to explain and predict behavior all the while holding two strategic orientations in mind: first, to cooperate or affiliate with others; and second, to compete against or socially distance from others.

Do Dark Triad members excel at strategic mentalizing?

Strategic mentalizing focuses on increasingly cognitive mental states, such as desires, beliefs, motivations, intentions and knowledge levels, largely obtained through verbal information sharing. It enables people to gain the “cognitive” perspectives of others that are necessary to explain and predict complex, goal-directed behavior.

Regrettably, most research to date is designed to measure Dark Triad members’ capacity for affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Empathy has a much narrower application than mentalization. Strategic mentalizing goes well beyond reasoning about affective mental states. Studies designed to measure the strategic mentalizing abilities of Dark Triad members are scant. What does research on the mental state reasoning abilities of Dark Triad members indicate so far?

Being quick thinkers, machiavellians are able to use their manipulative strategies in a flexible way. In fact, Kowalski and colleagues found in their 2001 study that there was a significant positive correlation between machiavellianism and fluid intelligence. (7) This, however, is not necessarily evidence of mental state reasoning, as machiavellians might just be trying different strategies and proceeding with the one that seems most effective. For instance, studies suggest that machiavellian behavior is strongly tied to rewards and punishments, but not necessarily to cognitive deliberations about what is going on in the minds of others.

People who present with vulnerable narcissism (having an avoidant and hypersensitive attitude in interpersonal relationships) try to close themselves off from what is going on in the minds of others. People scoring high on grandiose narcissism (characterized by interpersonal dominance and a tendency to overestimate their own capabilities) are focused on themselves and how they compare to others. Their mental state inferences about themselves and others are highly biased toward a self-serving perspective.

Psychopaths tend to be inflexible in their strategies and rather opportunistic. They often use disruptive interpersonal tactics, sometimes extending to sadistic behavior.

Jonason and Webster (2012) note, 

those high on the Dark Triad traits may have a standard-yet-varied toolkit for social influence they deploy on everyone. (8) 

This indicates a lack of mentalizing, which is not surprising, as research supports the disinclination of such individuals to mentalize about others. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this disinclination to mentalize is often more related to motivation and not necessarily to deficiencies in mentalization.

When Dark Triad members are highly motivated they are inclined to gather verbal and nonverbal indicators that reveal mental states of others, especially to find vulnerabilities in others, or to estimate the willingness of others to cooperate with them and do their bidding. Jonason and Webster indicate in their 2012 study that Dark Triad members mentalize strategically when they are afraid of being found out, or when consequences of their behavior are dire for them. (8)

For Dark Triad members, the use of mentalization mediates their choice of influence tactics. When they don’t use their mentalization abilities, their strategies seem to be premeditated. The fact that Dark Triad personalities often work from premeditated tactic scripts might make them more predictable in their influence tactic choices. We must, however, also take into account general personality characteristics that exist independent of the Dark Triad personality constructs, such as intelligence, cognitive control and cognitive flexibility. These human factors play a significant role in the ability of Dark Triad members to choose the most effective manipulation strategies.

To summarize, members of the Dark Triad operate from a strong goal-directed disposition, predominantly employing their strategic mentalizing abilities when motivated to do so. This is coupled with a low consideration of the consequences that their behaviors have on others (or on their relationships with others). Therefore, they don’t tend to affectively mentalize. Machiavellians, narcissists (with the exception of vulnerable narcissists) and psychopaths are therefore less distracted by the affective states of others, which keeps their strategic mentalizing faculties sharp. Coupling these characteristics with a high level of intelligence can make Dark Triad personalities extremely ruthless and dangerous.


Dark Triad members often get their way because of their callous-manipulative and selfish interpersonal style. This behavior is generally unfamiliar to non-Dark Triad people, who are therefore not experienced in dealing with Dark Triad members. Learning to explain and predict Dark Triad member behavior on the basis of their mental states can help us to stay one step ahead in the Dark Triad mentalization arms race!




  2. Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556–563.

  3. van der Putten, A. A. J. T. (2022). Mastering Mentalization: Complete Volume. ToM PRESS.

  4. Cairncross, M., Veselka, L., Schermer, J. A., & Vernon, P. A. (2013). A Behavioral Genetic Analysis of Alexithymia and the Dark Triad Traits of Personality. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 16(03), 690–697. doi:10.1017/thg.2013.19

  5. Nemiah, J. C. (1977). Alexithymia. Theoretical considerations. Psychother Psychosomatics, 28(1–4), 199–206. doi: 10.1159/000287064.

  6. Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A. J., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 136(8), 2550–2562. doi:10.1093/brain/awt190


  8. Jonason, P. K., & Webster, G. D. (2012). A protean approach to social influence: Dark Triad personalities and social influence tactics. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(4), 521–526. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.11.023


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