How the “Dark Triad” of Personality Traits Relates to Bullying Behaviors

Need for Research on Adult Bullying

Baughman, Dearing, Giammaro, & Vernon (2012) conducted a study of the relationship between bullying behaviors and three distinct personality traits often referred to as The Dark Triad: Machiavellianism, sub-clinical narcissism, and sub-clinical psychopathy. The aim of the researchers was not only to better understand bullies, but also to attempt to create a Bullying Questionnaire appropriate for use with adult populations. They had noted a paucity of research that addressed bullying behaviors (besides workplace bullying) prevalent in adult interactions. Citing research by Huesmann et al. (1984), the team expressed support for the evidence and consequent conclusions that “bullying behavior is relatively stable from childhood to adulthood” and that “highly aggressive children continue to become highly aggressive adults” (Baughman et al., p. 574). Thus, the creation of adequate measurement tools was a critical ambition behind this study and an invaluable initial step taken toward improving the quality and availability of research on adult bullying. 


Measurement of Personality Traits and Bullying Behaviors

Baughman et al. pioneered the specially created Bullying Questionnaire during this study. Participants, recruited at the University of Western Ontario and through Facebook and other online advertisements, were asked to rate the frequency of their engagement in 17 bullying behaviors on a 5-point Likert Scale (1=Never; 5=Always) over the course of a month. Personality traits were subsequently measured via the Short D-3 developed by Paulhus & Williams (2002) and consisting of 28 items measured on a Likert Scale and assessing for Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.



Machiavellianism refers to a “tendency to manipulate and deceive others in social situations for personal gain” (Baughman et al., p. 572). It was chosen as a trait for this study because previous research has shown a positive relationship between Machiavellian traits and adolescent bullies, with an emphasis on relational aggression. Cognitive empathy, or the ability to predict and understand the emotional reactions of others, was also positively correlated to Machiavellianism.


Narcissism and Psychopathy

Narcissism is characterized as low self-esteem disguised as grandiosity. Studies have shown that, when an individual with narcissistic traits perceives his/her ego is under attack, he/she may retaliate with aggression, most often in direct or overt behaviors. The third and last personality trait addressed by the researchers is psychopathy, characterized as a combination of traits including impulsivity, narcissism, and callous-unemotional (CU) traits, all of which have been linked to “proactive and reactive aggression” (Baughman et al., p. 572). 


Adult Bullying Similar to Childhood/Adolescent Bullying

The results yielded by the study of adult bullying behaviors concurred with those of previous research on bullying among adolescents in that males reported bullying more frequently than females. Of the three personality traits considered, psychopathy was the most strongly linked to bullying behaviors, followed by Machiavellianism, and then narcissism. Baughman et al. hope that their study, the first to investigate a direct relationship between “The Dark Triad” and bullying behaviors, will prompt further research into the specific personality traits most prevalent among bullies and also fuel increased investigation into bullying as a phenomenon not singular to childhood and adolescence. 





Baughman, H., Dearing, S., Giammarco, E., & Vernon, P. (2012). Relationship between bullying behaviours and the dark triad: A study with adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 52: 571-575.


Huesmann, L. R., Eron, L. D., Lefkowitz, M. M., & Walder, L. O. (1984). Stability of aggression over time and generations. Developmental Psychology, 20: 1120–1134.


Paulhus, D. L. & Williams, K. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36: 556-568.



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