Scammers have been top of mind in the past week, as people stream the various Fyre Festival documentaries on Hulu and Netflix. The deep-dives into Fyre Fest founder Billy McFarland's actions and psyche have helped shed light on the common threads among scammers. Because as cunning as scammers are, they're also consistent.
One alarming personality trait that came up in a Vox interview with Maria Konnikova, the psychologist featured in the Hulu documentary? The "dark triad", a set of three socially aversive personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, all wrapped up in one person. "I think [McFarland] definitely has narcissism and Machiavellianism," Dr Konnikova told Vox. "He might also have psychopathy, but it’s hard to know without talking to him further." And while we don't know McFarland personally, it's hard not to be intrigued.
The "dark triad" was first coined by two psychologists in 2002, although the concepts have been around for ages, explains Ernest O'Boyle, PhD, associate professor of organisational behaviour and human resources at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, who studies the dark triad. The special thing about people with the dark triad is that they possess "sub-clinical" levels of all three traits, he says. So, while they're not at levels that would typically require treatment, they're still enough to wreak havoc on people around them.
Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy are very multifaceted concepts, but there are a few ways that they're typified. For example, we know that narcissists have an excessively high degree of self-interest, sense of entitlement, vanity, desire for power, obsession with self-sufficiency, and exhibitionism, Dr O'Boyle says. "From outward appearances they may dress and look well, brag about their wealth, status and social circles, project authority and importance, but this is all a thin golden veneer of them trying to get others to reinforce what they know not to be true," he says. They may deliberately seek out drama, because they adore attention. At their core, narcissists are deeply insecure: "A narcissist’s ego is an over-inflated balloon and they’re doing everything in their power to avoid introspection to address their insecurity," he says.
Then there's Machiavellianism, which is expert emotional manipulation, Dr O'Boyle says. Machiavellians are only out for their own interests, which helps justify their wildly selfish and cutthroat behaviours, he says. "Playing people off of each other is their preferred route to success at work and in life," he says. "For the capable ones, their social circle is impeccable." Little do these "friends" know that they're just being played. Combined with psychopathy, this creates a recipe for disaster. Psychopaths lack the emotional awareness that teaches us right from wrong, so they believe that you shouldn't do bad things simply because you could get caught and get in trouble, he says. "Those high in psychopathy have an antisocial streak, callous disregard for others, but they also are pretty good socially — at least at first because this helps them get what they want," he says.
While these traits on paper are enough to make most of us want to run for the hills, the crazy thing is that people who meet the criteria for the dark triad are often charming and successful, Dr O'Boyle says. (One look at the current US administration is enough to prove that narcissism and psychopathy are easy to capitalise on.) But charm is also part of the scam. Psychopaths might study others to learn how to be likeable, but they're "cold and calculating" when it comes to business decisions, he says. A narcissist tends to be "exceptionally good at projecting a grandiose vision and getting followers behind it," but they steal all credit and demand subservience, he says. And in a situation where there's not a ton of oversight (like, say a brand new music festival on an island in the Bahamas), Machiavellians thrive, he says. "Basically if their scheming is noticeable, they lose, if not, they win," he says.
Chances are you're thinking of at least one person in your life — or someone in the news — who fits the dark triad. It's tough to say how common the dark triad is because most people who meet the criteria don't have the level of introspection required to realise that they do in the first place, Dr O'Boyle says. So they'd never think to consider it. There are certain markers, of course, but it could take years for people to reveal themselves as all three. The best thing you can do is trust your "lizard brain" and gut instincts about people, he says. Because usually where there's smoke, there's Fyre.