Is the Dark Triad Really Attractive? A Review of the Literature

Are Dark Triad individuals attractive or do they compensate with effective short-term strategies?

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Over the last decade, a “Dark Seduction” ecosystem of discourse has been produced by dating gurus and coaches. These refer back to the Dark Triad: a personality construct that consists of three traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) and is characterized by manipulativeness, lack of empathy, and a focus on self-interest.

A lot of research has been done on the Dark Triad, human mating, and attractiveness. Broadly across the literature, the Dark Triad has been associated with higher short-term mating orientation and success (Jonason et al., 2009; Carter et al., 2014). A key piece of evidence in support of higher mating success for individuals high in the DT is that they self-report having more sexual partners on average (Jonason et al., 2009; Borráz-León & Rantala, 2021).

However, having more sexual partners is not in itself evidence of higher attractiveness or desirability. The Dark Triad could be associated with more sexual activity because it is appealing, but being more appealing is not implied by having more sexual partners.

For example, Dark Triad individuals have lower standards in mate selection (Jonason et al., 2011) and lower sensitivity to sexual disgust (Burtăverde et al., 2021). When exposed to “dealbreakers,” individuals high in the Dark Triad are also less likely to express a change in their desire for someone as a romantic partner (Jonason et al., 2020). Dyadic mate value is highly correlated; individuals high in attractiveness tend to also select others high in attractiveness (Conroy-Beam et al., 2019). Having lower standards may simply open up the pool of potential mates. In other words, someone who is willing to have sex with pretty much anyone available will have more sexual partners on average, but this is not a testament to their own desirability or attractiveness.

Research robustly shows that people high in the Dark Triad have a stronger orientation toward short-term mating (Jonason et al., 2009, 2010, 2011; Carter et al., 2014; Koladich & Atkinson, 2016; Burtăverde et al., 2021; Kay, 2021) and a lower orientation toward long-term relationships (Jonason et al., 2012). High Dark Triad individuals are also higher in sociosexuality, or the willingness to pursue casual sex and multiple sexual partners, on average (Jonason et al., 2009). In large European and Latin American samples, both sociosexuality and Dark Triad traits were the highest in participants who exhibited high mating effort, but low investment in long-term relationships and parenting (Valentova et al., 2020). The Dark Triad may be a partial expression of a “fast life-history strategy:” a willingness to select potential mates indiscriminately and low commitment or investment in long-term relationships (Jonason et al., 2010, 2017; McDonald et al., 2012).

This is important to understand: high average desirability is not the only (nor even the best hypothesis) for having more lifetime sexual partners. For example, my meta-analysis on physical attractiveness and sexual partner count found only a weak relationship between the two (see: Male Attractiveness and Sexual Partner Count). Imagine two men who are of equally high desirability across measurements. The first man is picky and has a high long-term mating orientation; he finds an attractive woman and marries her. The second man is indiscriminate, has a strong desire to have sex with many women, and has little desire or ability to maintain a long-term relationship. The second man will accumulate more sexual partners over his lifespan, not because he is more desirable, but simply because that is what he wanted to do.

Results from past research are mixed on the relationship between the Dark Triad and attractiveness (we will review this below), but are more consistent when examining the behaviors of individuals high in the Dark Triad as short-term mating strategists. As described above, people high in the Dark Triad simply want to have more short-term sex. They are also more likely to use mating strategies that facilitate this.

Individuals high in the Dark Triad are more likely to engage in sexual coercion (Figueredo et al., 2015; Jonason et al., 2017; Prusik et al., 2021). They are more likely to commit sexual assault (Navas et al., 2022) and sexual harassment (Zeigler-Hill et al., 2016). Further, individuals high in the Dark Triad are more aware of potential victims (Zeigler-Hill et al., 2016). They are more likely to have a “whatever-it-takes” attitude to their social interactions more broadly (Jonason et al., 2012). Evolutionary scholars have proposed that the Dark Triad may be an “adaptation for sexual exploitation” (Jonason et al., 2017; see also Thornhill & Palmer, 2001). Consistent with this, individuals high in the Dark Triad are also more likely to be perceived by others as having a higher likelihood to commit rape (Pavlović et al., 2019). 

The Dark Triad is also associated with higher mating effort (Westhead & Egan, 2015) and more attempts at self-enhancement (Schröder–Abé et al., 2016). In other words, high Dark Triad individuals have more sexual partners because they try to have more sexual partners. Using 130 items from the Mate Attraction Scale (Buss, 1988), Monteiro et al. (2017) found that participants high in the Dark Triad were more likely to score high on items indicating mating effort, including being more likely to approach women. Rather than desirable men hanging back and being approached, men high in the Dark Triad spend extra effort enhancing their physical appearance, social image, and going out to talk with women. Men high in the Dark Triad even express a higher preference for living in cities over rural areas (where they have more potential victims, mates, and anonymity) (Jonason, 2018). Perhaps unsurprisingly, men high in the Dark Triad are also more likely to use dating apps like Tinder (Jonason & Bulyk, 2019), despite having lower mate value themselves, and more likely to post image-enhanced or edited selfies on social media (Fox & Rooney, 2015). The association between the Dark Triad and this kind of sexual competitiveness also holds across genders (Carter et al., 2015; Semenyna et al., 2019).

Aside from sexual coercion and assault, individuals high in the Dark Triad are more likely to break the “rules of love” in other ways as well. They are more likely to lie in attempts to enhance their perceived mate value (and to lie across the board) (Jonason et al., 2014). They are more likely to cheat or be sexually unfaithful to a partner (Jones & Weiser, 2014; Alavi et al., 2018; Sevi et al., 2020). High Dark Triad individuals are also more likely to engage in “mate poaching,” or trying to “steal” an already-partnered mate from someone else (Jonason et al., 2010; Brewer et al., 2015; Erik & Bhogal, 2016). Not only that, but individuals high in the Dark Triad are more likely to be poached — to be lured away from relationships they are already in — and more likely to be cheated on (Jonason et al., 2010; Brewer et al., 2015). It is unsurprising that Dark Triad traits are associated with divorce (Rabiee et al., 2023).

Finally it is important to note that people high in the Dark Triad mate assortatively: they pick one another (Smith et al., 2014; Webster et al., 2014; Birkas et al., 2018; Burtăverde, 2021; Kay, 2021). They view negative or antisocial traits in others as more attractive (Kornienko et al., 2020). They are also more likely to form friendships with others high in the Dark Triad, in order to help facilitate exploitative social strategies (Jonason & Schmitt, 2012). This results in lower average relationship satisfaction in general and further low satisfaction when there are certain dyadic combinations of Dark Triad traits (e.g. someone high in psychopathy with someone who is low, or when two individuals are both high in Machiavellianism) (Smith et al., 2014; Yücesan, 2016; Brewer & Abell, 2017; Goetz & Meyer, 2018; Kardum et al., 2018, 2023).

Reviewing the research on the Dark Triad we can paint a general picture: the high Dark Triad individual desires long-term relationships less, desires casual sex more, and spends more effort in attempts to acquire casual sex. They have a higher drive for sexual novelty and a higher willingness to use deception (and even force) to meet their sexual goals. When they do form long-term relationships they are less likely to be able to maintain them; their relationships are full of conflict and their relationships are more likely to end with the high Dark Triad individual cheating or being cheated on.

This doesn’t sound like a highly desirable mate! Yet it is easy to imagine how they accumulate more lifetime sexual partners.

How Dark Triad Individuals Acquire More Sexual Partners

Attractiveness and mating success are not the same thing, but given that the relationship between mate value and mating success is nonzero we might expect a relationship here. Holtzman & Strube (2011) proposed an evolutionary hypothesis for the evolution of short-term mating and narcissism. In short, narcissism evolved to co-vary with both physical attractiveness and coercive sexual strategies. Narcissists should be more physically attractive in order to effectively employ coercive short-term mating strategies.

Conversely, Campbell et al. (2006; Campbell & Foster, 2011) proposed an agentic model of narcissism and mating (Image 1). In this, personality traits associated with narcissism lead to self-perceptions and interpersonal behaviors that facilitate greater short-term mating success.

Here I refer to narcissism rather than the Dark Triad as a whole, because past research has also found that narcissism (but not psychopathy or Machiavellianism) is most closely associated with attractiveness and successful mating outcomes (Rauthmann & Kolar, 2013; Holtzman & Strube, 2010; Holtzman & Strube, 2013; Jauk et al., 2016; Salvino, 2018). Rather than the Dark Triad being attractive, narcissism specifically may be doing most of the heavy lifting.

Further, this may be specifically agentic narcissism rather than narcissistic rivalry (Dufner et al., 2013). The traits of narcissistic rivalry are antagonistic traits: hostility, high negative competitiveness, a tendency to devalue others, and increased interpersonal conflict (Rogoza et al., 2018). Narcissistic agency, on the other hand, is in effect high (or “narcissistic”) self-esteem (Campbell & Foster, 2011). Narcissistic self-esteem may be composed of inflated perceptions or value of the self, but is not as closely associated with negative interpersonal interactions. These are individuals who come across as charming, charismatic, extraverted, and exciting (Campbell 2006; Campbell & Foster, 2011). Individuals high in the Dark Triad rate themselves as more attractive and behave accordingly (Borráz-León & Rantala, 2021). 

Physical Attractiveness and the Dark Triad

Attractiveness may be physical or behavioral and per Holtzman & Strube (2010) we might expect to see correlations between physical attractiveness and the Dark Triad.

Past research has found that we can assess personality traits, including Dark Triad traits, in the face (Holtzman, 2011; Alper et al., 2021). This may remind you of physiognomy, or what has been called a “pseudoscience” of inferring character traits from facial characteristics. While it is true that a long, pointy nose isn’t indicative of telling lies, there is substantial support for the hypothesis that we can accurately discern some personality traits by a person’s appearance (Borkenau et al., 2009; Naumann et al., 2009; Kramer et al., 2011; Petrican, 2014; Walker & Vetter, 2016; Kachur et al., 2020). Two recent meta-analyses found modest effects of predicting personality traits and behaviors from facial photographs (Foo et al., 2022). This could be explained by assortative mating producing a covariability in desirability: because all traits are heritable, because we tend to prefer certain traits (both physical and behavioral) across cultures, and because we select assortatively for traits, we tend to see positive traits emerge as correlated within individuals (Conroy-Beam et al., 2019). We may also have adaptations to make heuristic decisions and identify the presence of such traits (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2011). For example, there is a bidirectional Halo Effect: we tend to perceive what is good as beautiful, what is beautiful as good, and process both in similar brain regions (see: The Neuroscience of Facial Attractiveness). 

One line of research has looked at the faces of individuals high and low in the Dark Triad. Faces of individuals high or low in the Dark Triad may be rated individually for attractiveness. Alternatively, faces of individuals high or low in the Dark Triad may be combined into facial morphs to create composites of High/Low Dark Triad faces.

This research has largely produced null or negative results. Table 1 summarizes research of the Dark Triad using facial ratings and facial morphs:

Lyons & Simeonov (2016) found null results and concluded, “It is possible that there are very little benefits for women in mating with high Dark Triad men, and that the self-reported mating success is based on effective manipulation of potential partners.” Similarly, Holtzman & Strube (2013) — originators of the hypothesis that narcissism was correlated with higher physical attractiveness — found null results when the unadorned full bodies of individuals high in the Dark Triad were rated. They concluded, “Due to the near-zero correlations between the Dark Triad and unadorned attractiveness in the current research, the evidence in our study is inconsistent with the prediction that dark personalities evolved to exhibit higher levels of unadorned attractiveness.”

The hypothesis that physical attractiveness and the Dark Triad covary is likely a wash. If anything, results are more consistent with our ability to detect dangerous traits in others and avoid them. Consistent with this, Gordon & Platek (2009) found higher activation in the amygdala — associated with danger and fear — when viewing faces high in the Dark Triad.

Behavioral Attractiveness and the Dark Triad

Given that there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between the Dark Triad and physical attractiveness, this leaves behavioral attractiveness on the table. Remember that there are two pathways to mating success and that they are not the same thing:

  1. Dark Trait traits are attractive to women (or men).
  2. Dark Triad traits facilitate behaviors in the actor that increase their own mating success.

Most of the research examining the behavioral attractiveness of the Dark Triad has used vignettes. A vignette is a short description or profile of an individual. These are invented by the researcher. Dark Triad vignettes are created by describing what a man high in the Dark Triad might be like. This is often done by taking items from a Dark Triad scale, such as the Dirty Dozen (Jonason & Webster, 2010) and rewriting them into the description of a person. Much of the commonly-cited research on the attractiveness of the Dark Triad has used vignettes. Table 2 summarizes these results:

These results are all over the place and also do not show a consistent picture of the Dark Triad being attractive — not even for short-term relationships.

Additional research on the attractiveness of the Dark Triad (that does not slot neatly into facial studies nor vignettes) is also inconsistent. In a speed-dating paradigm — where actual mate choice at zero acquaintance can be examined — Jauk et al. (2016) found that although Dark Triad traits were associated with rated mate appeal, they were not associated with men being more likely to be chosen for a future date. Haslam & Montrose (2015) selected 20 items from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) and found that individuals rated high agreement with those statements as more attractive than low agreement. Dufner et al. (2013) gave fake forms of the NPI, with high or low scores, to participants and asked participants to rate the attractiveness of who they believed filled them out. The forms with high scores on the NPI were rated as more attractive than the forms with low scores. Further, individuals were asked to approach women on the street; men high in narcissism got more contact information (phone numbers). This effect was attributed to high physical attractiveness and “boldness” associated with agentic narcissism.

Replicating Carter et al. (2014)

Carter et al. (2014) conducted one of the early vignette studies assessing the attractiveness of the Dark Triad. In this they created two vignettes, one exhibiting high Dark Triad traits based on the Dirty Dozen (Jonason & Webster, 2010) and one exhibiting low Dark Triad traits. They sampled 128 female undergraduates (mean age 19) and asked them to rate the vignettes. In attractiveness, the High Dark Triad vignette was rated a 4.44 on a scale of 6 and the low DT trait was rated a 3.34.

I attempted to replicate this with a second convenience sample (N = 133 Female, mean age 36) using the methodology described in Carter et al. (2014). Below are the high and low Dark Triad vignettes:

“Richard is a hard worker and often feels highly motivated to seek prestige and status for himself. In his work and social life he is popular; he tends to want others to pay attention to him and occasionally uses flattery to get his way. Getting his own way in romantic relationships is important to Richard and he is not beyond manipulating his partners, using deceit, or lying to do so. He will occasionally exploit others toward his own ends and, when he does so, tends to lack remorse over his actions. If you were to ask him, he would say that he isn’t too concerned about the morality of his own actions.”

“Richard is a hard worker and often feels highly motivated to help others through his work. In his work and social life he is popular, although he doesn’t seek attention and is honest with others even when it is unflattering. Richard is willing to compromise in romantic relationships and tries hard to deal with romantic partners in an open and honest fashion. He has a strong moral compass, would feel remorse for intentionally harming others, and is unwilling to exploit or manipulate people for his own benefit. The morality of his own actions are important to Richard.”

Image 2 below shows the main result:

The analysis revealed a significant difference in attractiveness perception between the two conditions (t(130.05) = -35.01, p < .001). The mean attractiveness perception of the male vignette with high Dark Triad traits was substantially lower (M = 1.46) compared to the low Dark Triad vignette (M = 6.44).

This held both for short and long-term desirability (Images 3 and 4):

The results are wildly different — why?

Carter et al. (2014) did not describe the vignettes that they used, so the best I could do was to replicate the experiment following the description that they gave. Although the vignettes they used passed the manipulation check (participants rated the high Dark Triad vignette higher in Dark Triad traits than they did for the low Dark Triad vignette), ratings of Dark Triad traits were only moderate in Carter et al. (2014). In other words, their high Dark Triad vignettes were possibly written in such a way that they did not effectively communicate high Dark Triad traits. They communicated medium levels of Dark Triad traits.

Table 3 shows scores from Carter et al. (2014) and scores from the current study normalized on a scale of 10:

The high Dark Triad vignette I created was assessed as being higher across all Dark Triad traits than the vignette used in Carter et al. (2014) and the low Dark Triad vignette as lower across all Dark Triad traits.

Another potential explanation is age: the average age in my sample was 36 and in Carter et al. (2014) was 19. Do younger women show a higher preference for Dark Triad vignettes? Not in my sample. Age was not significantly correlated with attractiveness ratings for both high and low Dark Triad vignettes (r = -0.121, p = 0.351 High DT / r = -0.052, p = 0.665 Low DT).


Given how robustly the Dark Triad is associated with poor relationship outcomes, it’s baffling that anyone would wish to emulate it. However, the Dark Triad has filtered into pop dating psychology as a Frakenstein of behaviors. I recently heard a call-in to a popular dating guru ask, to paraphrase, “I do MMA — how do I showcase my Dark Triad traits if I don’t fight in the ring?” Doing MMA has nothing at all to do with the Dark Triad, but likely does have something to do with behavioral dominance, fighting ability, athleticism, and winning physical contest competitions. People like this have probably formed an impression of the Dark Triad as a stereotypical “bad boy:” he wears leather jackets, rides a motorcycle, and probably smokes unfiltered cigarettes.

However, the Dark Triad is more closely associated with emotional instability and neuroticism (Lyons, 2019). Rather than being cool and collected, the Dark Triad individual is more likely to have an anxiety or depressive disorder (Birkás et al., 2016; Gómez-Leal et al., 2019). They have a higher fear of uncertainty, more anxious disturbances, and don’t even sleep as well at night because of it (Sabouri et al., 2016). Much of the “acting out” behavior of Dark Triad individuals reflects insecurity, defensiveness, and psychological immaturity (Richardson & Boag, 2016). It is more often the case that they present themselves as “virtuous victims” than men on top of the world (Ok et al., 2021). They are more likely to bully, but also more likely to be bullied themselves (Fatima, 2016; Pineda et al, 2022). Psychopathy, in particular, is associated with low status across measures (Spurk et al., 2016; Aluja et al., 2022). Youth high in the Dark Triad are more likely to become delinquent (Alsheikh Ali, 2020).

A recent meta-analysis found only the grandiose facet of narcissism may have some upsides for well-being (Blasco-Belled et al., 2024). Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the agentic model of Campbell & Foster (2011; see also Dufner et al., 2013) only agentic narcissism should predict higher attractiveness. Why? As we have seen, neither the Dark Triad nor narcissism specifically are linked with physical attractiveness. Further, Dark Triad traits are not probably not attractive in and of themselves.

Rather, individuals high in the Dark Triad are able to express or mimic prosocial traits and behaviors that would be attractive even in low Dark Triad individuals. These are, among other things, confidence, charm, charisma, and extraversion (Campbell, 2006; Campbell & Foster, 2011). This may even be a deliberate strategy. Brazil et al. (2023) found that individuals high in psychopathy were able to mimic prosocial traits in dating contexts in order to boost their own attractiveness.

Mimicry behavior is typical of antisocial individuals, from Cluster B disorders like antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), to psychopathy, to the Dark Triad (Book, 2015; de Roos et al., 2022). They mirror the expectations of peers and potential mates. They try to emulate individuals who have the traits that they do not. This is occasionally effective, but more often disastrous (especially in the long-term), which is part of why high Dark Triad individuals cannot maintain lasting romantic relationships.

Not one single study on the Dark Triad has uncovered that “being a jerk” is what drives its associations with mating success. Your goal should not be to mimic Dark Triad traits — it should be to cultivate the authentic, prosocial traits associated with attractiveness that Dark Triad individuals will only ever be able to mimic. Further, if you want satisfying long-term relationships with high quality women who will not cheat on you then you should lean as far away from Dark Triad behaviors as you are able to. Refer back to the introduction of this article and the principle of assortative mating: individuals high in the Dark Triad select mates who are as well. At the end of the day the partners you attract will be similar to you.


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