Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya • ISSN 2075-7999
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Egorova M.S., Sitnikova M.A., Parshikova O.V., Chertkova Yu.D. Do Dark Triad Scores Change with Age?

Full text in Russian: Егорова М.С., Ситникова М.А., Паршикова О.В., Черткова Ю.Д. Меняются ли показатели Темной триады с возрастом?
Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia

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The association between the Dark Triad traits and age was examined for a sample of 989 participants aged 16–84 (М = 36,28, SD = 13,28), where women represented 60,7% of the sample. The Dark Triad traits were measured with the Short Dark Triad (SD3), which was validated for the Russian population. All of the Dark Triad traits were correlated with age (–0,26 for Machiavellianism, –0,11 for narcissism, –0,25 for psychopathy, and –0,30 for the Dark Triad composite). Multiple regression analysis revealed an association of Machiavellianism with sex and parental status; narcissism with age squared; and psychopathy with age squared, family status, and sex. A comparison of age subsamples showed that all of the Dark Triad traits tend to first rise with age (Machiavellianism until 25–30, narcissism and psychopathy until 30–39) and then either remain at the same level (Machiavellianism) or decrease (narcissism and psychopathy). The highest sex differences were observed in the 24–29 year and the 60+ year subsamples. This finding has been interpreted from the viewpoint of loss of stability and security during these life phases.

Keywords: Dark Triad, Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, age differences, sex differences


There is a consensus on the direction of age-related changes in Machiavellianism, sub-clinical narcissism and sub-clinical psychopathy, as well as in the Dark Triad construct that unites them. Theoretical models that link the Dark Triad traits with competitiveness, rivalry and ambition predict that the intensity of these negative traits declines with age as the problems the individuals are trying to resolve through relevant tactics lose their urgency: the individuals may have already achieved their goals by developing and relying on manipulation, cunning, and resourcefulness; or chosen to forgo less-than-honorable means of competition, becoming aware of their destructive potential for themselves and those around them; or failed to succeed and grown tired of struggling for stardom, settling for supporting roles and allowing those who are more capable or less scrupulous to fight for first place. It is also relevant that values change with age.

Empirical research has largely supported theoretical expectations, but few studies have been carried out and their results are still somewhat ambiguous. One of the first researchers of age-related differences in Machiavellianism noted that “surprisingly little is known about the nature of the relationship between age and Machiavellianism given the regularity with which this personality variable is measured and the ease with which age can be assessed.” [Mudrack, 1992, p. 1210]. His statement about Machiavellianism made a quarter-century ago is fully applicable to the latest empirical research on the Dark Triad.

This appears to reflect the implicit understanding of the logical order for pursuing research objectives: one must first make sense of the subject of study (describe a trait, explore its correlates, and develop a valid methodology) and then analyze the reasons for variation, including changes that occur over the lifespan. Yet such a logical process is difficult to accomplish. As one examines a personality trait for a longer time, in more detail, and more systematically, new questions arise about the trait’s structure, correlates and measures. Understanding the sources of variation (in particular those related to age) is what helps answer such questions.

This article offers a brief overview of studies that have investigated ways in which Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy change with age. It also presents a breakdown of data on correlation between Dark Triad scores and age for a sample of participants assessed in Russia.

What Do We Know About the Link Between the Dark Triad and Age?

Age-Related Variation in the Dark Triad

Few studies offer age-specific results for the Dark Triad composite or all three of its elements.

Studies on adolescents (12–18 years old) show no significant correlation between age and   any of the Dark Triad traits [Muris, Meesters, Timmermans, 2013]. With older age groups, a relation can be established. For example, in a comparison of samples of different ages, the composite scores of adult volunteers participating in the study were lower than those of students (Cohen’s d = 0,28) [Jonason, Slomski, Partyka, 2012]. For a sample aged 18–57 (М = 31,24, SD = 8,94), the association of Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and the Dark Triad composite with age equaled –0,29, –0,25, –0,13, and –0,31, respectively (the level of significance was p < 0,05 for narcissism and p < 0,01 for the other scores) [Aghababaei et al., 2014]. With a sample aged 18–74 (М = 32,99), the association of Machiavellianism, narcissism, primary psychopathy, and secondary psychopathy with age equaled –0,14, –0,10, –0,23, and –0,14, respectively (p < 0,01) [Barlett, Barlett, 2015]. Meta-analysis of the results of 39 studies that compared Dark Triad scores with intelligence (average sample age ranged from 16 to 40) showed that age moderates the correlation of intelligence with Machiavellianism and with narcissism (the correlation was somewhat stronger at a younger age) [O’Boyle et al., 2013]. The data also indicate that the structure of the Dark Triad traits (as diagnosed with the Dirty Dozen) changes with age. For younger study participants it presents as a hierarchical structure of the three traits and the composite, but with age it becomes unidimensional [Carter et al., 2015].

The relation between the Dark Triad and age is mediated by psychological dimensions that play a key role in the transition from adolescence to adulthood (such as negativity, identity exploration, experimentation, and being self-focused vs. other-focused). Identifying the dimensions that serve as markers of emerging adulthood and determining their correlation with the Dark Triad makes it possible to determine one of the causes for age-related variation in the Dark Triad traits, linking it with adaptation to the more complicated and less predictable period of adulthood (which results in increased Dark Triad scores in emerging adulthood) [Barlett, Barlett, 2015].

Age-Related Variation in Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy

Before Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy came to be viewed as a single construct (which happened fairly recently [Paulhus, Williams, 2002]), each trait had its own long history (in fact, to date many studies target only one or two of the three Dark Triad elements). There do exist age-specific studies for the separate traits of the Dark Triad.


Correlation between Machiavellianism and age can be seen only when samples are not limited to young participants. Student samples frequently do not reveal correlation [Tang, Tang, 2010], though there are examples to the contrary [Brankley, Rule, 2014]. In samples that go beyond the student age, correlation does emerge [Yetişer, 2014]. For example, with an adult sample (М = 28,6, SD = 11,9), the use of hierarchical multiple regression showed that age has a closer relation to variation in Machiavellianism scores than sex and many other personal attributes [Boozer, Forte, Harris, 2005]. With a sample aged 17–65 (М = 30,9), significant differences in Machiavellianism scores were identified between the youngest subsamples (aged 17–21 and 22–24) and participants over 38 years of age. The correlation with age equaled –0,27 [Mudrack, 1989]. An older sample (М = 37,9, SD = 12,3) yielded a lower correlation (–0,20). When the four subscales of Machiavellianism (immorality, cynicism, deceit, and flattery) were considered separately, no correlation with age was identified for immorality and cynicism, but deceit and flattery were shown to decrease with age (–0,24 and –0,23, respectively) [Mudrack, 1992].


There exists a theory that narcissism increases in early adolescence due to psychological distress and the “loss of epistemological innocence,” i.e., a transition from dualistic to relativistic epistemological thought [Swan, Benack, 2002]. Starting in emerging adulthood, narcissism declines [Foster, Campbell, Twenge, 2003]. For example, in a study with more than 6,000 participants (average age of 47,8, SD = 15,80), the correlation of narcissism with age equaled –0,16; a study with more than 2,500 participants (average age of 29,57, SD = 11,66) showed a –0,20 correlation [Wilson, Sibley, 2011]. In addition, the findings demonstrated that narcissism dynamics between age 20 and age 75 were non-linear and exhibited more exponential effects of age [Wilson, Sibley, 2011].


The correlation between psychopathy and age rarely exceeds –0,20 [Brankley, Rule, 2014] and it is usually observed more frequently for secondary psychopathy than for primary psychopathy [Huchzermeier, 2008]. The use of a three-factor model of psychopathy and the comparison of each of the three factors with age for a sample aged 17–62 showed a negative correlation ranging from –0,04 to –0,18. Only the overall psychopathy score and disinhibition displayed a significant correlation with age.

Age-Related Continuity and Change in Personality Traits

There are numerous studies indicating that changes that occur with age have a positive impact on personality and subjective well-being. One such study – aptly titled “Getting Older, Getting Better?” – provides empirical evidence for the title’s hypothesis [Sheldon K.M., Kasser, 2001].

Age-related variations and changes have been analyzed most closely for the basic personality dispositions (which is not surprising, since studies of personality domains such as the Big Five are much more common than any other personality trait studies, and include not only cross-sectional studies, but also life-span longitudinal studies). The effect of age on the Big Five domains has been assessed based on virtually all indicators of continuity and change [Caspi, Roberts, 2001; Caspi, Roberts, Shiner, 2005]. Studies of age-related variations in the Big Five domains have looked at continuity (or rank-order change), mean-level change, age-related variations in the structure of relations, intra-individual (ipsative) stability, and changes in trait coherence (e.g., [Roberts, DelVecchio, 2000; Roberts, Walton, Viechtbauer, 2006; Terracciano, Costa, McCrae, 2006; Allemand, Zimprich, Hendriks, 2008; Donnellan, Lucas, 2008; Soto et al., 2011; Anusic, Lucas, Donnellan, 2012; Graham, Lachman, 2014; Milojev, Sibley, 2014; Mõttus et al., 2015]).

Inter- and intra-individual changes that occur over the lifespan suggest that as individuals get older they become more agreeable and more likely to conform to social norms. However, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are the polar opposites of the Dark Triad traits. Agreeableness is characterized by altruism, empathy, trust, and willingness to compromise. Conscientiousness presupposes impulse control, tendency to follow generally accepted rules, obedience to figures of authority, and reliance on personal effort rather than evasive tactics to attain goals. Such strong (negative) association gives reason to expect the Dark Triad traits to be linked with the Big Five domains, and connections really can be observed. The very first work on the Dark Triad [Paulhus, Williams, 2002] demonstrated that all of the Dark Triad traits correlate with Agreeableness. In addition, narcissism correlates positively with Extraversion and Openness, Machiavellianism correlates negatively with Conscientiousness, and psychopathy correlates with all Big Five domains (negatively with Neuroticism and in the same direction as other elements of the Dark Triad for the rest of the traits). Analysis of findings from research with 14 samples – as well as studies carried out after this integrated work – suggests that most research replicates at the very least the correlation with Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, as well as the direction of correlation with other Big Five traits [Furnham et al., 2014].

The association between the Big Five and the Dark Triad gives reason to expect that age-related changes and variations that can be observed in the Big Five personality domains will be found to some extent in the Dark Triad traits – i.e., if Agreeableness and Conscientiousness increase with age, then the Dark Triad traits that have a negative correlation with Agreeableness and Conscientiousness should decrease. At the same time, some of the Big Five domains show the opposite dynamic with age. For example, Extraversion and Openness – which in some studies correlate positively with narcissism – decline with age very slowly. Thus, expectations for narcissism based on the association with the Big Five are less straightforward than for Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

A comparison of the Dark Triad traits with the general factor of personality (GFP) for a sample with a large age span (16 to 92 years) demonstrated a negative association of Machiavellianism and psychopathy with the GFP: –0,48 and –0,43, respectively – or –0,31 and –0,30 (p < 0.001), respectively, when controlling for social desirability [Kowalski C.M., Vernon P.A., Schermer, 2016]. In other words, at least two of the Dark Triad traits have a negative correlation with the positive personality dimensions measured by the GFP.

In addition to the basic personality dispositions, the Dark Triad and its elements exhibit links with other more specific personality traits that are marked by age-related dynamics, such as the locus of control [Jones, Paulhus, 2009], self-control [Jonason, Tost, 2010], empathy [Jonason, Krause, 2013], anxiety and emotional dysregulation [Burns et al., 2015], self-esteem [Barnett, Powell, 2016], impulsiveness [Jones, Paulhus, 2011; Morgan et al., 2011; Poythress, Hall, 2011; Feilhauer, Cima, 2013; Malesza, Ostaszewski, 2016a], aggressiveness and tendency towards violence [Jones, Paulhus, 2010; Masui, Fujiwara, Ura, 2013; Jones, Neria, 2015; Westhead, Egan, 2015], sensitivity to reinforcement [Donahue, Caraballo, 2015], risk- and sensation-seeking [Malesza, Ostaszewski, 2016a; Young, 2013], guilt [Campbell, Ellison, 2005], and many others. The age-related changes of these and other correlates of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism (for example, [Ball, Farnill, Wangeman, 1984; Walker, Richardson, Green, 2000; Roth, Hammelstein, Brähler, 2007; Steinberg et al., 2008; Orth, Trzesniewski, Robins, 2010; Niv et al., 2012]) suggest that similar dynamics could be observed in the Dark Triad traits, i.e., that the Dark Triad levels should decrease with age.

At the same time, the Dark Triad traits present as relatively independent indicators of “dark” attributes of personality. Their correlation with certain psychological dimensions therefore differs not only in level, but also in direction of association. For example, subjective well-being, which tends to rise with age, is positively associated with narcissism, negatively associated with psychopathy, and has virtually no correlation with Machiavellianism (Aghababaei, Błachnio, 2015). Thus, one must be very cautious in drawing conclusions about the age dynamics of the Dark Triad based on age differences and changes in personality traits that correlate with the Dark Triad.

Sex Differences and Age

Sex differences can be observed by adolescence (12–18 years of age), though only for Machiavellianism and psychopathy [Muris, Meesters, Timmermans, 2013]. Researchers working with adults (starting with college students) generally report on sex differences in all three of the Dark Triad traits (for review see [Egorova, Sitnikova, 2015]). At the same time, differences are not always found. For example, none of the Dark Triad traits exhibited sex differences with a sample aged 16–64 [Carter et al., 2015] and narcissism did not show sex differences with a sample aged 16–92 [Kowalski, Vernon, Schermer, 2016].

The Dark Triad scores are believed to decline with age, but empirical evidence on age differences in the Dark Triad levels is very limited, and the impression that age-related changes are logical is based largely on the belief that the Dark Triad is similar to other psychological dimensions, which allows for expectations about particular directions of age-related changes but does not fill in many of the blanks – for example, about the linear vs. non-linear nature of the dynamics.

Our research examined the connection between the Dark Triad traits and age: mean-level age differences, sex differences, and interrelation of the Dark Triad traits. In addition, the mutual effect of sex, age, and socio-demographic attributes on the Dark Triad traits was analyzed.


The study had 989 participants aged 16 to 84 (М = 36,28, SD = 13,28), including 588 women, 380 men, and 21 individuals who did not specify their sex in the questionnaire. Thus, of the participants who provided their sex, 60,7% were women and 39,3% were men. The breakdown of the highest level of education completed was as follows: 4,1% of participants were high school graduates, 10,5% had trade, vocational or technical diplomas, 22,6% had some college (no degree), and 62,8% had at least an undergraduate degree.

The participants’ number of siblings ranged from 0 to 6 (19,8% were only children, 57,9% had one sibling, 15,8% had two siblings, 4,3% had three siblings, and 2,2% had four or more siblings); 50,1% of participants were married; and 54,4% of participants had children.


The study was conducted individually. Each participant filled out a questionnaire (sex, age, educational background, structure of family of origin, marital status, and parental status), three measures of the Dark Triad, and measures for a number of personality dispositions. This article only addresses results obtained through the Short Dark Triad (SD3) brief measure [Jones, Paulhus, 2014]. The SD3 is made up of 27 statements evaluated on a 5-point Likert scale. It measures levels of Machiavellianism, sub-clinical narcissism, and sub-clinical psychopathy, as well as the Dark Triad composite. The psychometric features of the SD3 – validated for Russian participants – are presented in an article in the given issue of the journal.

The data were processed using IBM SPSS Statistics version 18.0 software.


Aggregate Results for All Age Groups

Descriptive Statistics

Table 1 presents the means for the entire sample, for men, and for women, as well as sex differences. In line with other studies (for example [Jonason P.J., Wee, Li, 2015; Book, Visser, Volk, 2015]), scores in this study were highest for Machiavellianism, somewhat lower for narcissism, and lowest for psychopathy. The internal consistency (Cronbach's α) of the Dark Triad traits was in the 0,71–0,83 range.

Means for men were higher for all of the Dark Triad traits. Using the t-criterion, significant differences between the scores of men and women were observed for all of the Dark Triad traits except narcissism. All values of effect size (Cohen’s d) were negative, which in this case signals lower levels of “dark” traits among women. Cohen’s d values were low for narcissism (d = –0,11) and medium for other traits (from –0,25 to –0,30). With the exception of the absence of sex differences for narcissism (t-criterion), the results were in line with expectations.

Table 1
Descriptive Statistics

The Dark Triad traits All Women Men Differences between women and men Cronbach’s α
M SD M SD M SD   t Cohen d
(f  – m)
Machiavellianism 3,21 0,72 3,13 0,70 3,33 0,74 –4,04* –0,26 0,71
Narcissism 2,83 0,76 2,80 0,78 2,87 0,73 Ns –0,11 0,73
Psychopathy 2,32 0,91 2,24 0,96 2,46 0,80 –3,80* –0,25 0,83
Composite 2,79 0,57 2,72 0,60 2,89 0,53 –4,41* –0,30 0,83

Notes.* – p < 0,001; ns – non-significant differences

Intercorrelations Between the Dark Triad Traits

Correlations between the Dark Triad traits (Table 2) were measured to be below those cited by the authors of the SD3 [Jones, Paulhus, 2014]. Narcissism and psychopathy were shown to be linked more closely with each other than with Machiavellianism. Correspondingly, the contribution of Machiavellianism to the Dark Triad composite was lower than those of narcissism and psychopathy: the correlations between Machiavellianism and the Dark Triad composite for the overall sample, as well as for men and for women, were in the 0,56–0,59 range; correlations of narcissism and psychopathy with the Dark Triad composite were in the 0,74–0,80 range.

Table 2
Intercorrelations of the Dark Triad Traits (Spearman’s r)

The Dark Triad traits All Women Men
Machiavellianism 23** 19** 58** 29** 22** 59** 13* 10 56**
Narcissism   48** 78**   49** 80**   46** 76**
Psychopathy     79**     79**     74**

Notes. * – p < 0,01, ** – p <0,001. The zeros and decimal points in correlation coefficients are omitted hereinafter. N – Narcissism, P – Psychopathy, DT – Dark Triad.

The Dark Triad and Age

The distribution of the Dark Triad indicators based on age (figures 1–4) suggests that the variation in the levels of negative personality traits is high enough to find respondents with very low or very high Dark Triad scores at a young or old age. Nevertheless, the downward trend in scores for Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and the Dark Triad composite scores is visible from the trend lines based on linear regression and can also be discerned through correlation analysis (Table 3): the association of all of the Dark Triad traits with age was negative (all correlations were significant, ranging from –0,11 to –0,31).

Figure 1. Machiavellianism values and linear regression for the entire sample, for men, and for women.
Notes. Blue points - women, green points - men.

Figure 2. Narcissism values and linear regression for the entire sample, for men, and for women.
Notes. Blue points - women, green points - men.

Figure 3. Psychopathy values and linear regression for the entire sample, for men, and for women.
Notes. Blue points - women, green points - men.

Figure 4. The Dark Triad composite and linear regression for the entire sample, for men, and for women.
Notes. Blue points - women, green points - men.

Table 3
Correlations of The Dark Triad and Age

The Dark Triad traits Correlations of The Dark Triad and Age (Spearman’s r)
All Women Men
Machiavellianism –12** –15** –11*
Narcissism –27** –29** –23**
Psychopathy –25** –30** –21**
Composite –28** –31** –25**

Note: * – p < 0,03, ** – p < 0,001

Multiple Regression Analysis

The mutual effect of various characteristics on the Dark Triad elements was examined through multiple regression analysis (Table 4). The following attributes were used as independent variables: sex, age, age squared (included in order to account for the non-linear relation between age and the Dark Triad), and socio-demographic characteristics: education, number of siblings, marital status, and parental status.

The variation in Machiavellianism was revealed to be linked with the respondents’ sex and parental status. Machiavellianism was higher for men and lower for individuals with children. At the same time, the mutual effect of the two attributes accounted for only 4% of the variation in Machiavellianism scores. Age was not shown to correlate with Machiavellianism levels.

Other traits of the Dark Triad exhibited a stronger correlation with age. Narcissism was associated with only one of the independent variables: age squared (R2=0,088); narcissism decreased with age. Psychopathy and the Dark Triad composite were affected by three independent variables: age squared, sex, and marital status. These attributes accounted for 10,7% of the variation in psychopathy and 12,2% of the variation in the Dark Triad composite. Psychopathy scores were higher for younger participants, for men, and for married participants.

Table 4
Results of  Multiple Regression Analysis

Model Predictor β  P R2 F
Dependent  variable – Machiavellianism
Model 1 Parental status –0,165 0,000 0,027
Model 2 Parental status
Dependent  variable – narcissism
Model 1 Age 2 –0,279 0,000 0,088
Dependent  variable – psychopathy
Model 1 Age 2 –0,260 0,000 0,068
Model 2 Age 2
Marital status
Model 3 Age 2
Marital status
Dependent  variable – the Dark Triad Composite
Model 1 Age 2 –0,316 0,000 0,100
Model 2 Age 2
Model 3 Age 2
Marital status

Results by Age Group

The overall sample was divided into the following six groups for analysis of age-based differences: 16–23 years, 24–29 years, 30–39 years, 40–49 years, 50–59 years, and 60+ years.

The internal consistency (Cronbach's α) for indicators from various age groups was in the 0,69–0,76 range for Machiavellianism, 0,64–0,75 for narcissism, and 0,67–0,89 for psychopathy.

Distinct and significant differences (decreasing Dark Triad scores with age) were observed between the youngest and oldest age groups – 16–29 years vs. 50+ years. The differences are presented in Figure 5. However, a comparison of all six groups produces a more complicated picture: the indicators exhibit a clearly non-linear pattern, dynamics vary somewhat for men vs. women, and there are differences among the various Dark Triad traits – Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy (Figures 6–9).

Figure 5. The Dark Triad composite for ages 16-29 and 50+.

Figure 6. Age Differences in Machiavellianism for men and for women.

Figure 7. Age Differences in narcissism for men and for women.

Figure 8. Age Differences in psychopathy for men and for women.

Figure 9. Age Differences in the Dark Triad Composite for men and for women.

Differences Among Age Groups

Means for Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy from the six age groups were compared based on the t-criterion and effect size (Cohen’s d). In this case a negative value of Cohen’s d indicates that Dark Triad scores increase with age, while a positive value indicates that they decrease. The results based on the t-criterion and Cohen’s d are presented in tables 5–8 and can be summarized as follows.

Machiavellianism increases somewhat from age 16–23 to age 24–29 (the differences are not significant based on the t-criterion and effect size d is equal to –0.15) and then decreases during age 30–39 (the significance of the t-criterion is 0,01%, d = 0,39). Starting with age 30–39, Machiavellianism remains at approximately the same level (Table 5).

For narcissism, age differences are not significant in younger age groups (looking at the 16–23, 24–29, and 30–39 groups). Starting at 40 years, narcissism declines: differences in means become significant, with Cohen’s d reaching medium and high values. Thus, d for comparing narcissism in the 50–59 subsample with narcissism in younger subsamples is in the 0.77–0.96 range (Table 6). The differences also increase for greater age intervals, which is not the case for age differences in Machiavellianism.

Psychopathy scores stay at approximately the same level during age 16–23 and 24–29, rise significantly during age 30–39, and then decrease for age 40–49, returning to the levels of age 16–29. After 49, psychopathy levels continue the downward trend. Psychopathy scores are much lower in the 50–59 and the 60+ age groups than for younger participants. The effect size (Cohen’s d) when comparing the psychopathy scores of participants aged 60+ with those in younger groups is in the 0,34–1,57 range. As with the age differences in narcissism, the differences in psychopathy increase for greater age intervals (Table 7).

Differences in the Dark Triad composite scores of the outermost age groups (16–23 years vs. 24–29 years and 50–59 years vs. 60+ years) are not significant. Dark Triad composite scores increase from age 16–23 through age 30–39 and then decrease (Table 8).

Table 5
Machiavellianism means for different age groups and differences in narcissism among age groups (t-criterion and Cohen’s d effect size)

Age M SD Age
16–23 24–29 30–39 40–49 50–59 60+
16–23 3,29 0,68   ns 2,47** 2,13* 2,77** ns
24–29 3,39 0,68 -0,15   3,55*** 3,42*** 3,85*** 2,34**
30–39 3,10 0,68 0,26 0,39   ns ns ns
40–49 3,15 0,72 0,20 0,34 –0,06   ns ns
50–59 3,07 0,72 0.31 0,45 0,04 0,11   ns
60+ 3,10 0,82 0,26 0,39 0,01 0.07 –0,03  

Notes. In tables 5–8: * – p< 0,05, ** – p< 0,01, *** – p <0.001; mean differences (t-criterion) are shown above the diagonal line and effect size (Cohen’s d) is shown below the diagonal.

Table 6
Narcissism means for different age groups and differences in narcissism among age groups (t-criterion and Cohen’s d effect size)

Age M SD Age
16–23 24–29 30–39 40–49 50–59 60+
16–23 2,95 0,55   ns ns 2,91** 6,98*** 4,98***
24–29 2,96 0,52 –0,01   ns 2,92** 6,88*** 5,22***
30–39 3,07 0,72 –0,16 –0,16   4,25*** 7,98*** 5,92***
40–49 2,74 0,77 0,27 0,29 0,44   4,35*** 3,31**
50–59 2,41 0,65 0.77 0,81 0,96 0,47   ns
60+ 2,31 0,79 0,83 0,87 1,00 0,55 0,14  

Table 7
Psychopathy means for different age groups and differences in the Dark Triad Composite among age groups (t-criterion and Cohen’s d effect size)

Age M SD Age
      16–23 24–29 30–39 40–49 50–59 60+
16–23 2,30 0,72   ns –6,6*** ns 6,38*** 5,59***
24–29 2,37 0,68 –0,10   –5,86*** ns 7,20*** 6,45***
30–39 2.93 1,04 –0,72 -0,65   6,02*** 11,05*** 10,36***
40–49 2,29 1,06 0,02 0,10 0,62   5,15*** 5,60***
50–59 1,84 0,58 0,70 0,84 1,33 0,54   1,90*
60+ 1,64 0,60 1,00 1,15 1,57 0,78 0,34  

Table 8
The Dark Triad composite means for different age groups and differences in narcissism among age groups (t-criterion and Cohen’s d effect size)

Age M SD Age
16–23 24–29 30–39 40–49 50–59 60+
16–23 2,85 0,55   ns –3,23** 2,25* 6,87*** 5,33***
24–29 2,90 0,52 –0,11   –2,14* 3,24*** 7,90*** 6,13***
30–39 3,03 0,57 –0,34 –0,24   5,20*** 9,57*** 6,96***
40–49 2,73 0,59 0,21 0,33 0,53   4,98*** 3,83***
50–59 2,44 0,47 0,79 0,94 1,14 0,53   ns
60+ 2,35 0,57 0,89 1,03 1,21 0,65 0,18  

Correlation Between the Dark Triad Traits in Different Age Groups 

Correlation between Dark Triad traits was calculated for each age group (Table 9). In the 16–23 and 24–29 groups, correlation between “dark” traits is within the 0,29–0,41 range. Starting with age 30–39, the association of Machiavellianism with narcissism and psychopathy becomes looser and then insignificant. In addition, for ages 30–39 and 40–49, the association of Machiavellianism with the Dark Triad composite is much lower than the association of Machiavellianism with the Dark Triad composite for other ages, as well as than the association of narcissism or psychopathy with the Dark Triad composite. These changes in the correlation of Machiavellianism with the other Dark Triad traits cannot result from age-related changes in connotations of certain dimensions of the Machiavellianism scale (and thus the scale’s loss of reliability), since the internal consistency of the Machiavellianism scale does not change with age. It is more likely that the changes reflect differing dynamics of age-related changes in Machiavellianism vs. the two other Dark Triad traits: as shown earlier, Machiavellianism remains virtually unchanged after age 30–39, unlike narcissism and psychopathy. Around the same age, as will be shown below, sex differences are least pronounced.

Table 9
Intercorrelations of the Dark Triad Traits in different age Groups  (Spearman’s r) 

Age Interrelations
  М and N N and P М and P М and DT N and DT P and DТ
16–23 30*** 34*** 41*** 72*** 76*** 74***
24–29 38*** 39*** 29*** 72*** 78*** 73***
30–39 16* 38*** ns 44*** 71*** 75***
40–49 ns 47*** ns 46*** 75*** 76***
50–59 ns 31*** 37*** 72*** 64*** 74***
60+ ns 56*** ns 66*** 78*** 71***

Notes. М – Machiavellianism, N – Narcissism, P – Psychopathy, DT – Dark Triad.

Sex Differences

There was a total of 28 Dark Triad indicators in our study (the Dark Triad composite and its three elements were assessed for the overall sample and for the six age groups). Women only scored higher on four of the 28 indicators. The size effect (Cohen’s d) for these four indicators was within the 0,04-0,18 range, which means that the differences can be described as small. The differences in other indicators (where men scored higher on Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy) were in the 0,08-0,66 range (Table 10).

Table 10
Sex differences  (Cohen’s d effect size)

Age Machiavellianism Narcissism Psychopathy The Dark Triad Composite
16–23 –0,19 0,04 –0,40 –0,24
24–29 –0,60 –0,22 –0,34 –0,51
30–39 –0,08 0,09 0,18 0,11
40–49 –0,23 –0,15 –0,31 –0,35
50–59 –044 –0,10 –0,53 –0,49
60+ –0,13 –0,71 –0,66 –0,63

Effect of Marital Status and Parental Status on the Dark Triad Indicators

According to the evolutionary interpretation of individual differences in the Dark Triad traits, the long-term mating orientation correlates with lower Dark Triad scores (for example, [Jonason, Webster, 2010; Jonason et al., 2011]). Dividing the overall sample into groups by age makes it possible to extract the sample that corresponds to the active fertile age and has an inherent orientation toward establishing a family. It is also possible to examine whether marital status or parental status affects Dark Triad scores.

The sample analyzed in this section of the study includes 159 women and 142 men aged 25–39. Of these participants, 137 were married and 110 had children. The age interval was selected to account for the fact that the average age at which women in regions where the respondents reside give birth to their first child was 26,4 years in 2014, and somewhat lower in previous years.

Differences in Dark Triad means were calculated (t-criterion) for married vs. unmarried participants, as well as for those who do vs. don’t have children (Table 11).

For the entire sample that includes men and women, married participants and participants with children scored lower on narcissism and Machiavellianism. However, the differences were only significant for Machiavellianism. Findings for psychopathy were reversed: being married and having children was associated with higher levels of psychopathy (significant differences). For women, significant differences were only observed for psychopathy (married women and women with children exhibited higher levels of psychopathy). For men, only differences in Machiavellianism were identified (men with children scored much lower on Machiavellianism).

Multiple regression analysis of the mutual effect of sex, education level, marital status, and parental status for participants aged 25 – 39 did not show significant influence of marital status or parental status on Dark Triad composite.

Table 11
Significant differences in the Dark Triad indicators based on marital and parental status

  M SD t
All (25–39)
Machiavellianism Married 3,12 0,76 –2,45 (p<0,02)
Unmarried 3.33 0,77
Machiavellianism Children 3,08 0,72 –3,55 (p<0,000)
No children 3,40 0.71
Psychopathy Married 2,80 1,01 2,34 (p<0,02)
Unmarried 2,55 0,84
Psychopathy Children 2,86 1,05 3,33 (p<0,001)
No children 2,49 0,79
Women (25–39)
Psychopathy Married 2,86 1,08 2,47 (p<0,01)
Unmarried 2,45 0,94
Psychopathy Children 2,98 1,18 3,05 (p<0,003)
No children 2,48 0,80
Men (25–39)
Machiavellianism Children 3,20 0,85 –2,95 (p<0,000)
No children 3,60 0,69


It should be noted that the study was cross-sectional and therefore age differences may be confounded by cohort effects. The fundamental impossibility of separating age-related phenomena in cross-sectional studies from the effects of growing up in different social situations is well known. For research conducted in Russia, the problem of disentangling the effects of age and cohort is particularly acute. The changes that have occurred over the past quarter-century have had an impact on values, acceptability of violating social norms, and – perhaps most of all – views on the social desirability of “dark” traits. The problem is further complicated by the fact that knowing a participant’s age is not sufficient for controlling cohort effects. In addition to chronological age, it is important to consider events witnessed by participants (historical context), the age at which they experienced these events, and the personal impact of the events on the participants [Schaie, 1986; 2011]. In other words, it is not enough to know that certain participants lived through a financial crisis; it is also important to know whether they were children or adults, how much responsibility they had in providing for their families, and whether they lost their jobs in the crisis. The only way to separate out age effects from cohort effects is to conduct replicated longitudinal sequences, but so far there have been no longitudinal studies of the Dark Triad traits, let alone longitudinal studies with different cohorts. Taking the potential confounding of age and cohort effects into consideration, let us review the results of the study.

Research conducted with a sample aged 16–84 showed that the Dark Triad traits change over the lifespan. All of the Dark Triad traits correlate negatively with age. When groups of different ages are compared, differences in the Dark Triad traits can be found.

The Dark Triad composite scores were highest for age 30–39 (for both men and women), and then gradually decreased. Similar changes (with some variations) could be observed for the Dark Triad traits.

For men, Machiavellianism scores rise until about 30 years of age, decrease over the next decade, and then remain at approximately the same level until old age. For women, the peak of Machiavellianism is not as pronounced and occurs earlier, in the 25–30 year range; otherwise, the age-related dynamics are similar.

Sub-clinical narcissism scores rise until about 40 years of age, peaking for age 30–39 for both men and women. After 40, narcissism scores decline with age. The only exception from this trend is a certain increase in narcissism for men over 60 years old. It is possible that this dynamic relates to changes in the connotations of particular statements used to diagnose narcissism. The narcissism scale contains certain dimensions where scores go up rather than down with age. While these dimensions remain to some extent measures of narcissism (as evidenced, for example, by the fact that Cronbach's α is more or less the same in the older age group as in younger groups), they acquire additional meanings with age. For example, the statement “I insist on getting the respect that I deserve” may attest to excessive entitlement for young men, but for older men it can convey a response to disruptions in relations with friends and family, or reflect a desire to remain authority figures (whose life experience ensures sound judgments) to others despite their advanced age.

Sub-clinical psychopathy scores are highest for age 30–39 for both men and women. Psychopathy levels are significantly higher in this age group than in any other. The peak of psychopathy scores is more pronounced for women.

The results also highlight sex differences. With most of the Dark Triad traits (for the entire sample and for separate age groups), men exhibit greater levels than women. In cases when women score higher (14% of the indicators), the differences between men and women can be described as small. These results are in line with expectations and with findings from academic literature.

At the same time, there were some surprises. The biggest differences between the scores of men and women were observed in two age groups: 24–29 years and 60+ years. Sex differences in the younger group correspond to the most common model for interpreting sex differences that is borrowed from evolutionary psychology. Thus, according to the life history theory, young men and women differ in important life history characteristics such as the age at onset of sexual activity, the number of sexual partners, short-term vs. long-term mating orientation, etc. These strategies are associated with the Dark Triad and with the entire set of its correlates, such as aggressiveness, antisocial behavior, impulsiveness, altruism, and empathy – and since these differ for men and women, they result in sex differences for psychological traits. However, the same expectations suggest that the versatility of these strategies decreases with age, which results in their revision and in behavioral changes. For this reason, sex differences in the older age group do not fit the same model.

Another logical explanation is that different age groups belong to different cohorts: over time, stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviors have changed, perceptions of acceptable behavior have become more liberal, and gender roles have expanded. Thus, sex differences should be more significant for the oldest respondents, who came of age in an era when behavior was more regimented. Overall, such an explanation is plausible, but with relation to Russia’s realities it must at the very least be checked. The changes that have occurred in recent years are not one-way: while certain double standards have faded, others have become more pronounced.

One more way to interpret the results is to look at social situation factors that are the same for the younger and older groups and that could yield similar results despite age differences. These include, in particular, stability and security of living conditions. Fundamental life changes are typical for both emerging adulthood and old age. Young adults are starting to live independently and beginning their careers, facing challenges they had not encountered before [Barlett, Barlett, 2015]. The elderly are retiring, experiencing shrinking social circles and dealing with health problems. Even though the challenges faced by the young and the old are very different, both sets are related to disruptions in stability and accompanied by a sense of loss of security. At the same time, it has been shown that correlates of environmental stability and environmental security differ for men and women (for example, [Copping, Campbell, Muncer, 14]), which could account for the sex differences in the results of the research.

We should note also that women in the 30–39 age group scored higher than men on narcissism, psychopathy, and the Dark Triad composite scales. We cannot say that such a result conflicts with findings from other studies, since data on the Dark Triad indicators have not been reported for a sample of this age. However, this result clearly contradicts expectations. For one, it is believed that sex differences in psychopathy always exceed those in other traits of the Dark Triad and should be reproduced in various social groups, as well as in cross-cultural studies (for example [Figueredo et al., 2005; Jonason et al., 2012]). Yet there is some precedent for the results obtained. For example, studies of sensation-seeking show the highest indicators for women aged 30–39, and women scored higher in sensation-seeking than men [Horvath, Zuckerman, 1993].

The most unexpected result came from comparing married vs. unmarried respondents under 40 years old, as well as respondents of the same age who do vs. don’t have children. Psychopathy scores were different for the various groups (married participants and participants with children scored higher on psychopathy). The differences were not significant for men, but were significant for women and for the entire sample. The results were sharply contrary to expectations. The greatest mystery in the results of the study is: Why did married women and women with children ascribe themselves higher levels of interpersonal antagonism and lower empathy? The differences in other traits of the Dark Triad – viewed based on marital and parental status – exhibited results that were in line with expectations. Married participants and participants with children scored lower on Machiavellianism and narcissism, though significant differences in Machiavellianism were only observed between married and unmarried men.

It is possible that the results reflect the gender role conflict and burnout effects for women torn between family and career, but it may also be that some unaccounted-for peculiarities in the sample had an effect. For this reason, prior to drawing conclusions, it is necessary to check the reproducibility of the results on other samples and with the use of other Dark Triad measures.

In closing, we can state that Machiavellianism, sub-clinical narcissism and sub-clinical psychopathy scores decrease with age. However, the picture of the associations of the Dark Triad traits with age is quite complicated: the links are not linear, they differ for separate traits of the Dark Triad, and there exist sex-based distinctions.

The study was supported by Russian Fundamental Studies Foundation, project 14-06-00400-а.


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Received 13 April 2015. Date of publication: 29 October 2015.

About authors

Egorova Marina S. Ph.D., Professor, Corresponding Member, Russian Academy of Education; Head, Department of Behavioral Genetics, Faculty of Psychology, Lomonosov Moscow State University, ul. Mokhovaya, 11–9, 125009 Moscow, Russia.
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Sitnikova Maria A.  Lomonosov Moscow State University, ul. Mokhovaya, 11–9, 125009 Moscow, Russia.
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Parshikova Oxana V. Ph.D., Senior lecturer, Department of Behavioral Genetics, Faculty of Psychology, Lomonosov Moscow State University, ul. Mokhovaya, 11–9, 125009 Moscow, Russia.
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Chertkova Yulia D. Ph.D., Associate Professor, Faculty of Psychology, Lomonosov Moscow State University, ul. Mokhovaya, 11–9, 125009 Moscow, Russia.
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Suggested citation

Egorova M.S., Sitnikova M.A., Parshikova O.V., Chertkova Yu.D. Do Dark Triad Scores Change with Age? Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya, 2015, Vol. 8, No. 43, p. 4. (in Russian, abstr. in English).

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