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Warning Signs: The Dark Tetrad

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

For those of you with a background in psychology, you may be familiar with the term "Dark Tetrad" For everyone else, basically the Dark Tetrad are the four components which make up the spectrum of closely related personality disorders. They include Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Sadism. If any of these words sound intimidating and/or unfamiliar to you, don't worry about it. We'll break it down for you in the article. The reason I bring this up is because it is important to know whether your perceived mistreatment is imagined in your head, or if there is merit to your speculations.


Perhaps the term that people are most familiar with is psychopathy. People throw it around all the time in popular culture, media, or other informal ways. People even abbreviate psychopath down to "psycho", when referring to someone that they find crazy/horrifying. However, psychopathy is a little more complicated than that, and one is not really doing the term any justice by throwing the term at anyone we think is "crazy".


However, that said, psychopathy isn't considered an official medical diagnosis, according to the governing documentation on mental health disorders: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). Instead, mental health professionals prefer to use the terminology "Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD)", when referring to Psychopaths/Sociopaths. Although I do not claim to be a licensed medical professional by any means, and I'm not saying that you will be able to officially diagnose psychopathy by the end of the this blog posting, I want you to be aware of the common misconceptions which surround psychopathy.


Let's start by identifying what isn't necessarily a psychopath. For one thing, they don't have to be serial killers. Unfortunately, the bulk of research done on psychopathy over the years was done on serial killers in prison, including infamous individuals such as Charles Manson or Ted Bundy. Some individuals are high functioning and can assimilate into the corporate workplace and society just fine. I say "just fine", because they're clever enough to know that it's not in their best interests to commit serious crimes such as murder. If they're going to be committing any crimes, usually it's more subtle and involves various white collar crimes such as embezzlement or money laundering.


They also don't necessarily have to come off as dark, horrifying or crazy. On the contrary, some can actually be absolutely charming and delightful. They might even be the life of the party with their "fun-loving" nature, charisma, and clever witticisms. We consider these individuals "high-functioning", and may actually be more destructive than the stereotypical "serial killer" psychopath, largely because beneath all that wittiness and charm is a complex of several dark personalities, by which I mean the Dark Triad.


These leads us to the discussion of what is a psychopath. We start by differentiating the terms of the Dark Tetrad, and also explaining how they overlap with each other.


Machiavellianism is one of the dark personalities in this tetrad. It refers to a famous Italian political theorist, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, who is most well known for his literary work, The Prince. Most, if not all of the concepts of Machiavellianism are detailed in this book, which was originally written as guidelines for royalty to follow when dealing with foreign powers and local subjects. Basically, Machiavellian personalities believe that it is justified and appropriate to take whatever steps necessary to assert your power and dominance. Do whatever you need to do to climb up the ranks, whether that means being forceful, cruel, manipulative or downright sadistic. Might is right, and you got where you are because you're better than everyone else, and you're willing to do whatever it takes. No one is going to take that away from you. Because Machiavellian personalities are self-righteous in this manner, it is nearly impossible to reason with them; they look at you as an object or something to conquer. At best, you are one of their loyal subjects. At worst, you are a peasant uprising that needs to be quelled. If you ever noticed that you can't get an argument in edgewise with your supervisor, or other people in the workplace, and that nothing, no matter what you do is ever considered good or right, you might be dealing with a Machiavellian personality.


The next trait of the Dark Tetrad is sadism. This is a little bit more simple to define than some of the others. Basically, a sadist takes pleasure in causing pain or suffering to other people. While many psychopaths do express a sick, twisted pleasure in causing people pain and suffering, it is not an absolute requirement. With some psychopaths, the pain is afflicted merely as a means to an end. Others experience genuine pleasure by torturing other people or animals. Whatever the case, if you feel like your boss or coworkers are going out of their way to make your life miserable, and seem to be enjoying it, they might be sadists.


The next trait in the Tetrad after this is Narcissism. Like Machiavellianism, this term was coined after a famous figure in European culture - Narcissus from Greek Mythology. In the Greek Myth, Narcissus essentially starved himself to death, because he was captivated by the beauty of his own reflection on a pool of water. These individuals are entirely and completely self-absorbed, and to them, nobody or nothing else matters in the whole world. They think they're the best thing since sliced bread. They're the smartest, most beautiful, most physically fit, charming, etc., person in the entire room, and quite possibly, the whole world. Anyone that doesn't agree can quickly become their target. If you find yourself constantly having to inflate your supervisor's ego, or as my mother puts it, "blow sugar up their ass", you could be dealing with a Narcissist. These individuals are dangerous, because they are again part of the closely connected Dark Tetrad.


Finally, we make it to Psychopathy itself. Psychopaths are individuals that completely lack empathy or emotion. To compensate for this, many psychopaths become great actors. They learn how to be "angry", "happy", or "sad". Some of them can sound frustrated, indignant, or jolly. Some of them can even conjure up tears on command. Don't be deceived, however; a real psychopath is not capable of expressing any real emotion. They are also incapable of putting themselves in someone else's shoes, and view other people as objects to control and manipulate, similar to a Machiavellian personality. Similar to Narcissists, they're the only people in the world that matter, because they lack the ability to care about other people. Many psychopaths also get pleasure from "winning", that is, they feel a rush whenever they break somebody down and make them upset/depressed. Again, this is not to be confused with actual joy or happiness, which they are incapable of expressing.


Many psychopaths are also highly ambitious and due to their excellent acting skills will learn to climb up the corporate ladder, through complex social engineering techniques. They will figure out who are the "important" people in the company, which does not necessarily have to include the executives. Anyone that can be of use to them, they will learn how to manipulate and push their buttons. If the secretary is the only one that can access the CEO, they will "warm up" to this secretary by whatever means necessary, even if it means getting "romantically" involved with that person. If they need the company's financial information, they will find a way to access the CFO, likely through the finance and accounting offices. However, the major Achille's Heel for a psychopath is that they're disorganized, lack discipline and become bored easily. Although they may have grandiose aspirations to move to the top, they lack the genuine ability to be a successful leader, and will often lead the company of institution down a dark path of desolation and destruction. This is how you get scenarios like Enron, where the entire company seems to spontaneously collapse overnight. Psychopaths are ultimately thrilled by the concept of chaos and destruction, whether that's by ruining relationships, or entire organizations. If you work for a supervisor that has overly ambitious projects without an actual, clear picture, and they express many of the other traits of the Dark Tetrad which we previously discussed, you could be working for a bona fide psychopath.


The reason why I bring all of this up is because I feel like academia and corporate America are unfortunately the perfect breeding ground for these types of individuals. With the limited tools that human resources has to properly identify a psychopath, they can easily fall for their guiles and charms, thinking they exhibit all the effective traits of a successful leader. Even though hindsight is 20-20 in retrospect, it takes a long time and a considerable amount of experience to identify a psychopath. By that time, it is likely already too late, and they have already managed to cause irreparable damage to people and/or organizations.

This is an excellent read if you have time on workplace psychopathy!

On that note, I'll close here. If you are interested at all in what I discussed today and would like to read further, I would highly recommend the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go To Work. This book was co-authored by Dr. Robert Hare, the individual responsible for the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), which is currently the official standard for diagnosing psychopaths. Dr. Paul Babiak, the other co-author has a considerable wealth of experience studying psychopathy himself. I cannot recommend this book enough. It can be a great way to help you look out for the warning signs of dangerous people to be working for. And with that, I'll close. I look forward to seeing you around for our next discussion!

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