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The Toxic Triangle

The dark triad offers insights into the question about the differences between ethical and unethical use of persuasion. Individuals high on dark triad traits are much more likely than anyone else to employ deception lies and trickery in their attempts to influence.

Hard tactics

As I mentioned before being aware that there are people like this can help us avoid being the next victim of theft or fraud. While discussing the dark triad you probably noticed that the examples so far have all been men. Is it the case that only men exhibit these characteristics and that only men engage in the types of influence attempts deceitful and manipulative, that the dark triad engenders?

To find out let’s turn to a 2012 study authored by Peter Jonason, Sarah Slomski and Jamie Partika. Not surprisingly the study found that people high in narcissism and machiavellianism tend to, more frequently, use hard influence tactics, those tactics that involve demands and threats to get what you want.

In contrast, soft tactics involve using appeals to logic or emotion. We will discuss these in more detail in a subsequent article. Jonason and his colleagues also found that men use more hard tactics than women.

Why is that the case? Well they found that more men and women were high in the dark triad traits. So the answer to the question do only men exhibit these traits is: no, but. There are certainly more men than women who fit the scary dark triad profile and they’re more likely to use hard tactics.

The toxic triangle

So far we’ve been discussing the dark triad in reference to the agent the person who attempts to influence others, but when we look at the harmful ways the dark triad personalities can influence other people it’s important to look at the other components of our ATTiC framework as well.

Are target, tactics and context also contribute to the success of con? To answer that let’s turn to a 2007 paper entitled The Toxic Triangle. In this paper authors Art Padilla, Bob Hogan and Robert Kaiser used the term destructive leadership to explain what happens when there’s a poisonous combination of agent, target and context.

Prof. Padilla and his colleagues use Fidel Castro as an example. Castro did some positive things for Cuba, but in his time as the longest-serving dictator in modern history he also engaged in campaigns to imprison and kill those who opposed him he was famous for a long rambling speeches focused on himself more than the issues.

Even at a young age Castro was seen as idealistic and bold and quite skilled at self-promotion, he also came to hate the United States and everything it stood for so here we have a narcissistic agent who espouses an ideology of hate.

Staying in power

That’s the quintessential agent profile for destructive leader, but how could such a leader come to and stay in power? The answer is in context. At the time of the Cuban communist revolution many, although certainly not all citizens, were ready for a charismatic leader promising reform and power to the people.

The troubled economic and political atmosphere of the time marked by intense poverty and corruption made a strong leader, strong principal leader like Castro are more compelling than any alternative. Many of the people who stood to lose the most, the middle class, fled the country, so the relative number of supportive followers was increased.

So both the targets in the context were conducive to Castro’s emergence as a powerful leader. While it is not at all clear whether historically Castro’s rise could have been avoided it’s useful to consider that certain targets of influence and certain contexts favor bold risk-taking and potentially destructive leaders.

Awareness of this fact may be useful in helping opponents rally support against such leaders, preventing them from using influence tactics to gain too much power, which they will be likely to abuse.