An interesting study published this year looked at the association between impulsivity and the dark triad. The dark triad represents a set of three distinct socially aversive traits: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism.

Psychopathy: individuals high in psychopathy demonstrate impulsive, thrill-seeking behaviour, irresponsibility, interpersonal antagonism, manipulation, lack of empathy, cold affect and anti-social behaviours. If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, you will easily recognise many characters as having a dark triad personality; however, Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsey Bolton are both strong representations of someone with these traits. If Joffrey hadn’t been poisoned by a Machiavellian mastermind, he would take the crown for being the most evil character in the show.

Machiavellianism: individuals possessing this trait are perceived as cold, cynical, pragmatic, low in pro-social orientation, and as engaging in immoral thinking. They seem to strive for agametic goals such as money, power and status, and are known to be manipulative. Tywin Lannister and Littlefinger are both portrayed as calculating, manipulative and focused on achieving their goals. They are not always the loudest characters; however, they often survive the longest.

Narcissism: this condition includes individuals high in grandiosity, egotism, callous manipulation and entitlement. In Game of Thrones, the crown lawfully belongs on Queen Cersei’s head. Like many other people high in narcissism traits, she is self-focused, manipulative and entitled.

And now let’s take a look at impulsivity. When we are impulsive, we struggle to wait, or to suppress unwanted or undesired behaviours that frequently lead to negative consequences. People high in impulsivity are more likely to take risks, to act whenever they experience an urge, to have poor planning skills, and to act impulsively when they experience positive and negative emotions. For example, someone who picks up a muffin and eats it even though he or she is not hungry, someone who can’t resist and puts all their purchases on a credit card, or who has trouble with gambling or binge drinking as they simply can’t stop. All in all, if you are impulsive, you tend to struggle more with the negative consequences of your behaviour, compared to someone who is able to self-regulate, to wait for what they really want and to persevere through difficult and unpleasant emotions.

In the study Dark triad and impulsivity–an ecological momentary assessment approach,  the authors investigated the association between impulsive behaviours and the dark triad. The results have shown that people high in psychopathy and narcissism are more likely to display impulsive behaviours, and people high in Machiavellianism were not displaying the same tendencies. What is interesting is that individuals with Machiavellian traits who are seeking to be successful are able to demonstrate average or above average impulse control.

This can be further explained in that people with high psychopathy tendencies struggle to suppress unacceptable behaviours and antisocial impulses, and people with narcissism are more likely to engage in behaviours that provide short-term benefit but are more likely to lead to negative outcomes. However, some previous research suggests that they might miss out on some short-term gains or exploitations in order to build stronger trust and to make the most of long-term exploitation.

It has been considered that Machiavellians are less likely to be impulsive due to their high need to control their environment and obtained the desired outcomes. It appears that people like Littlefinger and Tywin Lannister, who are able to control their impulses and behaviours well to achieve their desired outcomes, might be the most dangerous ones, as they are less likely to make a mistake by doing something impulsive and reveal their weaknesses.

Malesza, M., & Kalinowski, K. (2019). Dark triad and impulsivity–an ecological momentary assessment approach. Current Psychology, 1-9.