Steve Jobs. Travis Kalanick. Evan Spiegel.

These three guys have two things in common. The first is that they are all brilliant entrepreneurs who co-founded technology startups that went on to be wildly successful. The second is that they can all be described as jerks.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is still one of the world’s most praised entrepreneurs to this date, several years after his death. Despite his success as an entrepreneur, Jobs could be a pain in the back. He screamed at employees for the smallest things. He is even said to have stormed into a meeting once and hurled unprintable words at everyone inside the board room.

Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick has severally been accused by the media of being sexist, misogynist and exhibiting bad boy behaviors. A venture capitalist passed over the opportunity to invest in Uber because he felt that Kalanick acted like he (Kalanick) was a gift from God.

Snapchat co-founder, Evan Spiegel, on the other hand, has also been accused of being a misogynist and a jerk generally. At one time, he was so angry with his parents for not getting him a $75,000 BMW that he cut himself out of family photos.

These three are not the only jerks who have risen to successful positions in their industries. Several other incredibly successful entrepreneurs, such as PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk and Amazon founder have similar reputations.

They are all known for pushing their vision about their companies without giving an iota of care about the feelings of their employees or anyone else.

This is not only reserved to the tech industry.

Donald Trump has been severally referred to as a jerk, but he is the current president of the United States. Kanye West, one of the world’s greatest pop culture icons, has severally been accused of being narcissistic and maniacally egotistic.

If you look around you, will notice many more examples of people who are wildly successful despite being jerks. This raises the question:

Who is more likely to succeed in life – a nice guy or a jerk?

In an ideal world, people expect that people with virtuous traits – honesty, friendliness, generosity and warmth – to be more successful than people with darker traits – dishonesty, selfishness, cold-heartedness and hostility.

However, we see a lot of successful and powerful people who clearly exhibit the darker traits, lending credence to the popular saying that nice guys finish last.

Research cited by the Association for Psychological Science also confirms that jerks tend to be more successful, depending on the particular traits they exhibit.

How do you explain this?

Well, the success and achievements of jerks are often a result of a concept known as the dark triad. Dark triad personalities have a set of socially aversive traits which, when brought together, confer a great advantage to an individual, increasing their chances of success.


The dark triad is a concept used in psychology to refer to individuals who have a set of three aversive yet functional personality traits. The three personality traits are narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

These three traits are spectrum disorders, which means most people show these traits to a certain degree. Those who fall very high on the spectrum in the three traits are usually diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.

On the other hand, those affected by the trio of traits below clinical levels (the traits are there but not enough to be clinically diagnosed as mental illnesses) tend to achieve a lot of success in life.

Let’s take a deeper look at the three traits that make up the dark triad.


This trait gets its name from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus was the son of the River God Cephisus and the nymph Liriope. Narcissus was known for his striking beauty.

Upon seeing his reflection on a pool, Narcissus falls in love with the reflection and becomes so fixated with his beauty that he ends up drowning in the pool. Just like Narcissus, narcissists are driven by an extreme fixation on themselves.

They are selfish, arrogant and boastful. They have a grandiose self-confidence and self-centeredness and desire to always be the object of attention.

Narcissistic people also have a great sense of entitlement and believe they are superior to others. They are hypersensitive to criticism and will go to great lengths to ensure that they maintain their image.

On the outside, narcissists appear to be very confident. On the inside, however, most of them are very insecure and are constantly looking for things to reinforce their bloated egos. They will lie and deceive to maintain their public impression.

They are masters of the ‘fake it till you make it’ philosophy. Their sense of self-importance is so high that they even deceive themselves and believe their own boasts, even when it can be verified that they are overselling themselves.

In case their fragile ego is threatened, most narcissists display a lot of anger and aggression in what is referred to as a ‘narcissistic rage’.

Unlike normal and healthy self-confidence which is based on a person’s adhered values, accomplishments and respect towards self and others, the self-confidence displayed by narcissists is usually a psychological defense against their intrinsic inadequacies.

To help them maintain their public image, narcissists are often charming and charismatic, which makes them socially successful. They are highly motivated to maintain impressions and are undeterred by rejection.

Narcissists are also poor at processing shame. They see themselves as perfect people who are better than anyone else and who deserve awards and recognition because of that.

They have no problem exploiting others so long as it helps them maintain their grandiose view of themselves.


This term was derived from the philosophies of Niccolo Machiavelli, a renowned Italian politician and diplomat from the 16th century.

In his 1513 book The Prince, Machiavelli argues for the use of trickery and deceit in diplomacy. Machiavellianism, therefore, is a personality trait displayed by people who tend to use cunning and deceit in their social interactions to achieve their goals.

As such, Machiavellianism is associated with duplicity, self-interest and a lack of morality. Machiavellians exude a facile social charm which they use to undermine others.

Machiavellians are strategic and calculating. They believe that the end justifies the means and have no trouble manipulating others in order to achieve their goals. Manipulation is a trait that is also seen among psychopaths.

However, Machiavellians are more future oriented. To them, life is like a game of chess. They always think several moves ahead. They will form alliances and carefully maintain their reputations till they get what they want.

Machiavellians don’t trust human goodness. They believe that everyone only thinks about themselves and that depending on others is naïve.

Because of this, they are only focused on their own interests and ambitions, giving a higher priority to money and power over relationships. According to Machiavellians, one has to be deceptive to get ahead.

They are willing to compromise on values and principles if it helps them to achieve their goals. As part of the exploitative and manipulative strategies, their use charm, confidence and flattery to fool others.

They have low empathy and have no qualms about causing harm to others to get what they want. They are good at reading social situations. They are very patient due to their calculating nature and often avoid emotional attachments and commitment.

Unlike the other two traits that make up the dark triad, Machiavellianism is not a permanent personality trait. Machiavellians will display this trait only in certain situations, under certain conditions.

Therefore, they might seem genuinely kind and caring at one moment, and then act surprisingly Machiavellian the next moment, depending on what’s at stake.

Generally, Machiavellians have a “do or die” attitude. They will do whatever it takes to get what they want.


This is a personality trait that is associated with low or lacking empathy, antisocial behavior, guiltlessness and lack of remorse, manipulation, high impulsivity, interpersonal hostility and heartless social attitudes.

Psychopaths are unusually bold, with little or no fear, high tolerance to stress, unfamiliarity and danger, and high levels of social assertiveness and self-confidence.

Studies have shown that the connections among the components of the brain that are responsible for emotions are weak in psychopaths, which gives psychopaths the inability to feel emotions deeply.

Psychopaths also have unusually high thresholds for disgust. They will engage in unethical or disgusting actions without the slightest feeling of disgust. Psychopaths are also largely irresponsible and tend to show blame externalization, where they place the blame on others, even if they are at fault.

Forced into a corner, they might admit their blame, though they will not feel any shame or remorse even when caught in the wrong. They also have a very low tolerance for frustration and are highly aggressive.


The three traits that make up the dark triad all seem like negative traits. Yet, when brought together, they often lead to success.

According to this 15 year longitudinal study, individuals who exhibit narcissistic and psychopathic tendencies attain higher levels of financial attainment and are more likely to get to the top of the organizational hierarchy.

Another research conducted by Bond University forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks found out that 21% of senior professionals (about one in every five) in the United States have clinically significant psychopathic traits.

This becomes even more significant when you consider that psychopaths only constitute 1% of the general population. Various other researches and studies support the notion that dark triads tend to be more successful.

This research found that narcissistic individuals tend to earn higher salaries, while Machiavellians were more likely to advance and to be satisfied in their careers.

What is the reason behind this? Why do the bad guys win even at the workplace?

Apparently, there is a bright side to these dark traits. One study examining the overlap between positive and negative personality traits found that personality traits such as high self-esteem, extraversion, curiosity, and openness to new experiences were generally higher among individuals with the dark triad personality.

Apart from having the above positive traits, individuals with a combination of the three dark traits also have a knack for exploiting others in order to achieve their goals.

Dark triad personalities are also more likely to be competitive in nature, even if they do this by inhibiting cooperation and altruism at work.

Below, we take a look at how each dark triad influences success.


Individuals high in narcissism, with their grandiose self-confidence and their sense of entitlement and superiority, are more likely to seek out leadership positions at work, since this will give them a sense of status.

Their high level of confidence also plays a role in helping them nab leadership positions – after all, confidence is one of the characteristics of a good leader.

Since they care a lot about their public image, narcissistic individuals are also careful to make good first impressions, especially during job interviews.

Because of this, they tend to land better jobs and earn higher salaries than the average person. With their huge self-confidence and sense of entitlement, narcissists are also more likely to initiate negotiations and negotiate favorable terms for themselves.

Narcissistic individuals are also more comfortable networking and getting others to notice and pay attention to them.

This gives them an advantage in situations like sales and presentations. Instead of moving with the crowd, they are not afraid to innovate and shift paradigms. Whereas average people are afraid of the criticism that comes with non-conformity, narcissists thrive in controversy.

Finally, owing once again to their self-confidence, they are not afraid to seek and apply for new opportunities.

Of course, the more a person seeks opportunities, the more likely they are to find them. Even when they get rejected, narcissists do not give up.

After all, they believe that that they are God’s gift to mankind, therefore if someone rejects them, then it is that person’s fault.


Machiavellians, on the other hand, are driven by their goals. They will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

According to a 2009 paper by Jones and Paulhus, Machiavellians tend to display higher motivation than the average person. They are more focused and are willing to work harder to achieve their goals.

According to the same paper, Machiavellians also thrive in situations that provide the opportunity for manipulation. Whereas other people find situations such as negotiations and confrontations to be awkward, Machiavellians actively seek out such situations.

To Machiavellians, the only important thing in the world is their desired goal. Everything else is an obstacle that must be dealt with, even if it means deceiving or manipulating others.

Driven by their goals, Machiavellians are more likely to notice their shortcomings and take corrective action, such as improving their skills. This makes them more likely to achieve success compared to the average person.

Machiavellians also have a high degree of charm. They know what they want and they understand that they need other people to get it. They use their charm to rope in others to help them achieve their goals.

They also have no problem manipulating the truth to suit them. For instance, a Machiavellian will not think twice about lying in his resume if he believes that doing so will give him a higher chance of landing the job.

Given that many organizations do not follow up with former organizations to verify facts, this can give a Machiavellian a significant advantage over the average person.


The distinguishing characteristic of psychopaths is that they lack empathy and are not capable of feeling any deep emotion.

This means that psychopaths are more likely to make better decisions, considering that research and studies have shown that emotions lead to irrational behavior.

One research in particular set out to test the effect of emotional detachment in psychopathy on decision game through a game referred to as the ultimatum game.

The game places power in one player’s hands and then examines the rationality of the other player’s decision. In the game, the first player is given a certain amount of money, say $100 and told that he can keep the money on one condition.

He is supposed to share some of the money with the second player, and it’s up to him to decide how much he will give to the second player. He can give him as much as little or as much as he wants.

If the second player accepts the offer, the second player gets the proposed amount and both of them can keep their share. If the second player rejects the offer, then neither of them gets to keep any money.

Since the second player does not have money to begin with, it would be rational for them to accept any offer. Even if player one offers them $1, it makes more sense to take the dollar instead of walking away empty-handed.

Surprisingly, the research found that most average second players rejected offers beyond a certain level. If they felt that an offer was unfair, they rejected it, which means that both players got nothing.

They players also exhibited an electrodermal response, which means that the decision elicited a subconscious response from them.

When the experiment was replicated among people with psychopathic traits, the researchers found that the psychopathic players made better decisions. They accepted offers that were rejected by non-psychopathic players. The psychopathic players also showed lower levels of electrodermal response.

The findings from this experiment give us a clue into why individuals with psychopathic traits might be more successful at the workplace.

Their decisions are not clouded by emotion. This can give the psychopath a significant advantage over the average person, especially in situations where there are huge emotions behind a decision.

For instance, let’s assume that an organization is struggling with reduced revenue and is trying to find solutions. One solution is apparent. If the organization fires 500 people, it will become more profitable and avoid going bust.

The average manager might have a hard time making such a decision. He might be worried about what people will think of him and the anguish that the fired employees might go through.

In the end, he might even come up with a different but less effective solution to avoid firing 500 people.

A psychopath, on the other hand, would make a decision without giving a damn about the fired people, which is of course the better decision.

Tying Everything Together

We have seen that each of the three dark traits can give an individual distinct advantages over the average person. When brought together, the combined advantages can add up and become quite significant.

A dark triad personality is full of self-confidence, entitled and is quite good at making good first impressions. He is charming and charismatic, knows how to put his goals before everything else and has no trouble manipulating people to achieve these goals.

Finally, he does not care about the feelings of others and will have no trouble making difficult decisions even if others might not be happy with the decisions.

These are the ideal traits of a leader, and it is therefore not surprising that many dark triads end up in leadership positions.


While we have seen that the dark triad can improve an individual’s chances of achieving success, it is not all sunshine and roses. There are some major downsides of the dark triad.

According to this paper, the success of dark triads is usually short lived and often comes at a cost to both self and the entire organization. In other words, the dark triad helps individuals get ahead but not get along with others.

This is why you often hear the terms‘snakes in suits’ and ‘toxic leadership’.

Dark triad personalities are also more likely to be associated with issues such as lying, deception, unethical behavior, cyber-aggression and white collar crime, such as internet fraud, Ponzi schemes, malfeasance, insider trading, embezzlement and corruption.

The dark triad is also linked to higher incidents of counterproductive workplace behaviors, such as bullying, absenteeism, theft, sabotage, turnover and so on.

Many dark triads also have trouble outside their working life. The traits that give them an edge in the boardroom are the same traits that cause problems in their social lives.


The dark triad refers to individuals who exhibit a set of the three dark traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism.

While each of these is a negative trait, individuals displaying mild levels of three traits can achieve high levels of success.

Brought together, the three traits result in individuals who are full of self-confidence, are good at making impressions, are charming and charismatic, goal oriented and have no problem stepping on others’ toes to get where they want.

Unfortunately, while the dark triad can lead to success, the success often short-lived and comes at the cost of the whole organization.

Confused About Successful Jerks? Get to Know the Dark Triad

Comments are closed.