Dr. X, a friend of Hitcoffee, has warned against what some mental health professionals call the Dark Triad. This triad is, to quote Dr. X, a “personality organization that comprises three psychological traits: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism.” People with that personality organization are dangerous. They are a problem that needs to be dealt with, especially if they are a coworker or in a position of responsibility.

What do we do with such people? In the comment thread to that post, Dr. X suggests that we fire them. To me, the obligation to fire implies that we shouldn’t hire in the first place. If the dark triadic person is not independently wealthy and yet can’t or shouldn’t be hired, how should he or she fend for themselves? Perhaps once properly identified–either through that person’s actions or through some sort of deep analysis–then we ought to consider civil commitment, or prison if justified. Or you can do the Philip K. Dick option: hunt down the androids and eliminate them. I reject that “solution” as does Dr. X and most (all?) others I”ve heard speak on it. But the terms of the discussion are consistent with certain conclusions.

Absent in the discussion on that thread and in the material Dr. X cites (or at least in the quoted portions of that material…I didn’t read the linked-to articles), is a discussion of whether this personality organization is just how or what someone is, or if it has a (personal) history. If people develop into that organization or develop out of it. Not to call this an illness–it’s not clear to me that the language of “personality organization” is a language about illness–but…is there a cure? Or are people just like that?

I’m obviously uncomfortable with the idea. Maybe it’s naivete or wishful thinking. If such people exist, then they exist whether I like it or not. If almost by definition such people don’t seek to change or improve or grow, then they don’t. Sometimes survival and defense of the common good are important. My wish that such people who would imperil either don’t exist doesn’t mean that they don’t.

These discussions remind me of the “mark of Cain” from Genesis. I thought it would be cool to incorporate an allusion to that story when talking about such people. But then I actually read the story, probably for the first time since I was a child. The story starts out as I remember. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy or envy or whatever. The Lord punishes him: “When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth

But it doesn’t end there. Cain complains that it “will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.” To that the Lord commands that “whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And he sets a “mark” on Cain to warn people not to harm him.

I’m no expert in Biblical interpretations, and I imagine that that passage has been interpreted and reinterpreted through the ages. There’s also a point of unclarity. The referent “him” on whom vengeance is to be meted sevenfold strikes me as amphibolous, at least in the version I’m quoting: I assume the vengeance is to be meted against the one who would harm Cain, but perhaps Cain is the recipient of the vengeance?

Still, the “mark” of Cain seems on my uninformed reading to be the opposite of what I had thought. It strikes me as a mark of mercy, or perhaps mercy tempered by a warning. People are not expressly forbidden to be wary of him or to stop him from further crimes, but they are forbidden to harm him.

Again, there may be other ways to interpret that story, and one might legitimately question whether that story ought to be a guide to anything. But that story exists and I can’t shake it, just like I can’t shake the possibility that dark triadic persons exist.

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25 Responses to So now you are cursed from the earth

  1. fillyjonk says:

    Interestingly, the “Mark of Cain” bit was referenced in the Sunday school lesson for today (I teach a class of adults – in fact, I am the youngest in the class). The lesson-writer used it as an example of God’s love and grace: while Cain still must face the consequences of the action he took, he will not face vengeance.

    I don’t know what to do with truly dark dark-triad people. I would not want to work alongside one and might be driven to quit my job and go elsewhere if I had to. But I have worked with people who were maybe what you might call a dim dark-triad sort: manipulative, self-absorbed, and willing to do untoward things to get ahead. That was unpleasant enough.

    But yeah: what do you do with a person who is toxic to nearly everyone around them? You can’t let them starve, yet at the same time, why subject the people who do strive to treat one another with some fairness to that toxic person?

    One of my friends says he considers 5% unemployment to be equivalent to full employment, because there is perhaps 5% of the population who cannot or should not hold down a job. (I think he meant people who were so unreliable as to be a trial to their co-workers, but I would stick the dark-triad people in there too). Maybe this is what the “universal basic income” that’s been floated various places could be used for. (I know I’d happily pay a bit every month to keep a Machiavellian psychopath out of my workplace)

    • I’ve also worked with or known some people (thankfully very few, and none at my current job) who are probably “dark triad lite” (and Dr. X’s post actually mentions the notion that there’s a “normal distribution” of such traits, by which he seems to mean that some have more or less….that’s all if I understand him correctly).

      (While I’m no expert on economics or unemployment, my understanding is that “full employment” is a technical term and that whatever threshold one chooses (say, 5%), it has to do not so much with the unemployables/unreliables, but with transitional unemployment and maybe a couple of other types of unemployment. If an economist is reading, they can probably correct me here.)

    • Brandon Berg says:

      Considering 5% to be full employment is fairly standard in economics. What you have to understand is that this is mostly transitory and doesn’t actually mean that 5% of the population is unemployable. If you get laid off and can’t find another job for six weeks, for example, that’s unemployment. Long-term unemployment (15 or more weeks) is currently around 2%.

      On the other hand, people who are truly unemployable might not be counted as part of the labor force at all, because they might not be looking for work.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      These discussions remind me of the “mark of Cain” from Genesis.

      One of their more underappreciated albums, IMO. Most people don’t even remember that it exists.

  2. Jaybird says:

    Off to the side, from what I remember way back when, the “mark of Cain” is theorized to refer to travelling iron mongers who had tattoos.

    You may fear them. You may hate them. But do not harm them because they will cease to sell to you and your tribe while they continue to sell to your competing tribes and you don’t want the competing tribes to have access to metal weapons if you’d be stuck with sticks and stones.

    So do not harm those who have the Mark of Cain. Lest seven times the harm you deal to them come down upon *YOUR* head.

  3. Dr X says:

    An organization can screen for these traits during the hiring process. Some do, but most don’t. Big city police departments, Federal law enforcement agencies and the CIA uses psych evals. Depending on the organization and the nature of the risks entailed in a position, there are a variety of methods available to screen for high-risk applicants. In an a typical year, I do about 50 risk evals.

    As for broader protection of society, the law wouldn’t allow civil commitment based on a particular personality organization. To order civil commitment, a court must be convinced that a person poses an imminent physical danger to self or others. Credible verbal threats to criminally harm others or harm oneself, or clearly evident incapacity to keep oneself physically safe, are typically necessary for an order of civil commitment. After a crime has been committed, courts have more latitude in ordering commitment if there’s a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill. More controversially, some states allow civil commitment of sexual predators after they’ve finished serving a criminal sentence. This would be based on assessment findings that the offender is highly likely to re-offend. Only a small subset of sexual offenders, typically serial rapists, face civil commitment after completing prison sentences.

    There are people who fit the criteria of the dark triad who don’t actually commit any crimes. They may wreak misery and havoc in the lives of others, and they may do enormous damage to an organization, without committing any crime. Being a bad person isn’t in itself illegal, and it’s not a basis for civil commitment, nor would I ever want it to be.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Dr. X, and thanks especially for clarifying the rules about civil commitment. I still wonder, though, what we’re supposed to do with such people. I understand what we have to do individually: protect ourselves and our friends and loved ones (and coworkers) from their manipulations. I understand what we as part of a larger unit (e.g., an organization): not hire them or not put them in places of responsibility, or fire them if they’re already there.

      My main confusion is what we as a society (a phrase I dislike) have to do or ought to do (or can do) with such people if they should be screened away from certain jobs. I also suspect such people are difficult to fire, especially in “for cause” firing situations but also perhaps even in at-will situations. There’s a problem there, and I don’t know the resolution.

      Again, thanks for reading and for your comment.

      • Dr X says:

        Some people with this personality constellation can hold jobs without being destructive, but they shouldn’t have supervisory authority over anyone, and they should ever have access to the companies money/books. But it’s a problem. What do you do with a Charlie Manson before he commits a serious crime?

    • fillyjonk says:


      After the Amy Bishop incident, there were rumors my campus was going to do psych evals of all existing faculty. Not sure what they could do if a tenured person sent up a big red flag, and it does seem like “closing the barn door after the horse has left.”

      I admit to once downvoting a candidate for a position (luckily, we had someone equally qualified, and HE turned out to be an excellent colleague), not because of Dark Triad but because he struck me as arrogant and thinking of us as a “nice little stepping stone” and I couched it in “We really don’t want to do this search again in three years” but I really meant “I don’t want to work with a guy with those kinds of attitudes.”

      They will do background checks on potential new hires (except for TAs, oddly enough) but we don’t currently do psych evals. (I confess to feeling a bit nervous as to what an evaluation of me might reveal….)

      • I’d be nervous about a general requirement for psych evals, except maybe for (some) very sensitive jobs. (And to be fair, I don’t see anyone seriously advocating for that.)

        I remember once working with someone who kind of gave the vibe that he might, one day, do something bad, like bring a gun to work and start shooting. He never did, thankfully. He said/did things that I would have interpreted as warning signs if I hadn’t been in the mix, but at the same time, when one is in that situation, it’s hard to know what one is observing. (To be clear, this wasn’t (probably) a Dark Triad thing. It was more that he was (maybe?) on some level very disturbed or paranoid. He wasn’t manipulative. I was afraid that he might snap someday, but I wasn’t really afraid that he’d steal from the organization or scheme somebody out of a job.)

        • fillyjonk says:

          My family is so quiet and introverted that I tend to over-interpret anger on the part of colleagues; being around someone who is angry and cursing and throwing a tantrum as an adult scares the hell out of me because I wonder “when does the violence start and what’s my nearest escape route?”

          I forget that for some people that kind of venting is like the pressure-relief valve on a pressure cooker.

          But I still don’t like being in meetings where people are yelling at each other; they are never productive.

        • Dr X says:

          Public violence that gets the most attention — work, school, theater shootings — wouldn’t typically arise from the dark triad. Psychopathic types are too self-interested to sacrifice themselves in a mass shooting.

          In some cases, shooters are pretty obviously psychotic (delusions, hallucinations, serious thought disorders). In other instances, a depressed, humiliated, narcisstic person, or even a person with an organic (neurological) disorder, might turn to extreme suicidal violence. The problem with predicting these acts is that in each category of mental disturbance, the percentage of individuals who will act violently is miniscule.

          Even if we could evaluate everyone in every school and workplace, we have no valid, robust way of identifying the few truly dangerous needles in the haystack. It’s more likely that a friend or family member will pick up on signs that a loved one is verging on some horrible action. But even then, I would expect many false positives — individuals wrongly suspected of potential violence.

          After some shootings, we hear that a relative contacted the authorities and either the concern was ignored or the authorities investigated and found no legal basis for further action. Maybe police could be a little better trained to identify the truly dangerous, but I doubt it. People can put up a good front when questioned by the police, and there really isn’t anything the police can do without evidence of a crime, or clear indications that a person is an immediate threat to self or others.

          Laws governing civil commitment could be changed, but any law that could survive constitutional challenge would necessarily leave the police and the courts limited in their options.

        • fillyjonk:

          The interesting thing is that in my family, at least some of the men, were very loud and expressive/explosive with their anger. They never (to my knowledge) used physical force, but they did yell in a way that really scared me (and probably others in my family).

          All of which is to say that I have similar reactions to you when people vent, but from a fairly different background,a t least based on your description of your background.

        • Dr. X:

          I’m obviously just a layperson, but what you say makes a lot of sense. And I agree that it would be hard (or at least ill-advised or questionable and with the potential for abuse) to empower the state to do what it would take to root out more of those haystack needles.

  4. SFG says:

    There’s one thing nobody’s commented on: moderate levels of dark triad traits are useful, particularly to the dark triad person.

    Moderate psychopathy means you can get unpleasant things done. Moderate narcissism means you have the self-confidence to convince people. Moderate Machiavellianism means you can play the social game effectively.

    Even high levels are useful in business for screwing your competitors–assuming you can keep Mr. Dark Triad from screwing *you*.

    Very low levels of dark triad traits means you worry endlessly about hurting others, can’t stand up for yourself, and can’t navigate social structures. There’s a reason these things are selected for, after all.

    It’s a sliding scale. You’ve all behaved mildly psychopathically, perhaps telling a cruel joke, narcissistically, bragging about how great you are, or machiavellianly, trying to convince someone to go out with you. So, how much is good? Obviously our individualistic society aims for more of it than many others. But, where do you draw the line? Are you hiring an investment banker or a preschool teacher? What level of rule-breaking behavior does your industry tolerate? How much damage can the bastards actually *do*?

    It’s pretty clear that being the only dark triad person is a huge advantage over the saps around you–but too many and you all stab each other in the back and society collapses. So there’s doubtless a dynamic equilibrium. I’m willing to bet the optimal amount of dark triad behavior skyrocketed when Rome fell, for example.

    • SFG:

      It’s perhaps my fault for not including what Dr. X quotes below in my own rendering of his blog post.

      I do believe–and this probably goes beyond what the people Dr. X cites seem to be saying–that part of being human means we are susceptible to making these types of choices. This point,

      You’ve all behaved mildly psychopathically, perhaps telling a cruel joke, narcissistically, bragging about how great you are, or machiavellianly, trying to convince someone to go out with you

      is particularly well-put, in my opinion. When I read things about dark triads, or sociopaths or psychopaths, one of the things that really bother me is that perhaps those behaviors describe me. That is one reason I’m so interested in the subject to begin with. The most common quip I hear in response (“if you’re worried about being guilty of it, that’s a sign you’re probably not”) rings kind of hollow to me.

      Another concern is that if some people really can’t choose to otherwise, or if it’s a bigger challenge for them than it is for others, to what extent can we justly assign blame or punishment? There’s probably an answer to that question. And to be fair, that question might be based on a false premise. For example, I’m not sure exactly where Dr. X stands, for example, but I don’t recall him saying that such people can’t choose otherwise from how they choose, so I don’t want to put words into his mouth.

      • SFG says:

        OK, cool. Guess I shoulda read the *linked* article. 😉

        Well, here’s what I’d say about that common quip, and hopefully it’ll make you feel a little better. If you’re worried about being guilty of it, it’s probably a sign that you’re not *sufficiently psychopathic to be really evil*, because those people usually have little remorse. You’re not perfect, but then nobody is.

        It’s more difficult from a Christian point of view, I guess, because the implication is that the person is less able not to choose sin. But I won’t go into that more because I don’t know enough about that.

        • I don’t know enough about it, either. And I usually don’t read the linked-to article unless I’m the one writing the OP. Neither of those facts usually prevents me commenting, though 🙂

  5. Dr X says:


    From the original post:

    In the HBR article, the author also points out that the triad of traits are normally distributed. An individual can be low, medium or high in these traits. Moreover, moderate levels of these traits can sometimes benefit an organization. But this is often true of personality traits in general because traits represent adaptive responses to challenges. A bit of obsessive-compulsiveness can be beneficial to others depending on one’s role in an organization. A lot of obsessive-compulsiveness can completely bog down organizational processes. So a moderate level of a trait of can be a good thing for the group, but high levels of certain traits can be disastrous for the group.

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