Sexual Harassment & The Dark Triad - Kimberly Thompson


     I really didn’t want to write about sexual harassment. It’s all over the news; there seemed to be nothing left for me to say. I was actually trying to avoid reading too deeply about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and others. Then I read an article describing what NBC’s Matt Lauer is being accused of: a persistent, long-term, disgusting pattern of sexually abusive behavior in the workplace. Apparently there is an abundance of evidence coming from many different sources, including the presence of a button underneath his desk that allowed him to lock his office door remotely. If you haven’t been vacationing on the moon, you know he is one of many powerful men whose sexually exploitative behavior has been exposed in recent days.

            I needed to wrap my head around it. How can people that seem so normal treat others so shabbily? How can people appear virtually in our living room almost daily, and yet we never guessed that they carried such a disdain for women (and sometimes men)?  So I did what I do – I went to the psychological literature. Here’s some of what I found.

            People with a predisposition toward sexual harassment are likely to exhibit a trio of personality traits known as “the Dark Triad”. The Dark Triad consists of narcissistic, psychopathic, and Machiavellian traits. Each one independently contributes to nasty and exploitative behaviors. Someone who is narcissistic harasses others because they believe they are superior to others and entitled to do whatever they want. Someone who is psychopathic does it because they have really weak impulse control. There’s no particular plan to harass, but when the opportunity presents itself they take it. By contrast, someone who is Machiavellian (that believes “the end justifies the means”) does it to achieve a long-term goal, such as organizational power or a sexual conquest. When all three parts of The Dark Triad are operating, the person thinks they have a right to exploit others sexually, and they are both strategic and opportunistic about it. Everyone high on the Dark Triad is extremely self-centered and unempathetic (Zeigler-Hill, Besser, Morag, & Campbell, 2016).

            While men are more likely to engage in sexual harassment and to be diagnosed with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders (antisocial being roughly the same as psychopathy), both men and women can exhibit Dark Triad traits. Both have the potential for sexual harassment given the right circumstances. Interestingly, both men and women high on The Dark Triad are more likely than others to see women as potential victims of sexual harassment, and to see men as potential perpetrators.  This finding gives us a window into the way these personalities interpret the world (Zeigler-Hill, Besser, Morag, & Campbell, 2016). Given that sexual harassers are not likely to self-monitor or self-correct, it has been proposed that it is vital for organizations create better structures supporting a culture of respect, where those in power don’t have so many opportunities to exploit and abuse (Berdahl, 2007).

            Why is the Dark Triad expressed in some people and not others? Is there something that parents can do to help their children to develop healthy levels of empathy and self-confidence, and a healthy respect for social norms? Parents have a great deal of influence over children, and the home environment can be either favorable or unfavorable to healthy personality development. However, there are no guarantees.

            Of all of the personality disorders, the antisocial (e.g., psychopathic) type is thought to be the most biologically based. An antisocial personality is characterized by a lifelong pattern of disrespect for others’ rights, deception, recklessness, and lack of a conscience. Poor impulse control, aggression, and a resistance to learning from consequences sometimes run in families. The effect of these characteristics is compounded when the parents teach antisocial behavior through example.  Even parents with healthy personalities may sometimes have a child that is incredibly impulsive and aggressive, and for whom punishments and rewards don’t seem to make a difference. These children may have important brain differences that keep them from developing empathy and the ability to learn from experience (Millon, Grossman, Meagher, Millon, & Ramnath, 2004).

            By contrast, there is very little evidence of narcissism being inborn. Characterized by entitlement, superiority, envy, and arrogance, narcissists are made, not born. Examination of the families and childhoods of narcissists have uncovered two parenting extremes that produce nearly the same result: 1), expecting too little from the child or 2), expecting too much. Parents that expect too little treat the child as if he is too special to have to confront the ordinary challenges of life. The child is put on a pedestal and is given very little guidance about how to deal with real life. Parents that expect too much treat the child as special because of her special abilities or accomplishments. When the child succeeds at anything, it is not the result of hard work and learning but rather proof that she is innately superior to others. Narcissists are often intelligent, talented, and physically attractive, characteristics that reinforce an inflated ego (Millon et al, 2004).

            Like the antisocials, narcissists are short on empathy. This thread runs through the entire discussion of sexual harassment. Without the ability to accurately identify other people’s feelings and at the same time feel with them, personalities high in Dark Triad traits really don’t see why they shouldn’t do whatever they like. They don’t see that they’ve done anything wrong, although they may understand perfectly well that other people think it’s wrong. When caught red-handed, they are angry at being punished rather than remorseful. Their Machiavellianism may bring them to release charming apologies, but it is in the interest of returning to the powerful state from which they are fallen.

            What can moms take away from this study of sexual harassment and The Dark Triad?

            * It is vital to strike a healthy balance between expecting too little and expecting too much from our children.

            * It is vital to give grace to ourselves and to other parents whenever we can. May we all remember that there are some children that are just born difficult.

            * It is vital to encourage learning and growing, rather than focusing mainly on winning, succeeding, and triumphing over others. Kids will always keep score, but grown-ups don’t have to emphasize it, especially in the early years.

            * It is vital to teach a balance between prioritizing relationships and prioritizing personal success. A balance keeps us from slavery to people’s opinions on the one hand, and a lack of empathy on the other.

• Berdahl, J. (2007). The sexual harassment of  uppity women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(2), 425-437.

• Millon, T., Grossman, S., Meagher, S., Millon, C., & Ramnath, R. (2004). Personality Disorders in Modern Life. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

• Zeigler-Hill, V., Besser, A., Morag, J., & Campbell, W. (2016). The Dark Triad and sexual harassment proclivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 89, 47-54.


     I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I work with mothers and their children to help them heal, grow, and live their most vibrant lives. My particular expertise is pregnant and postpartum women, and moms of “littles.” My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is available on Amazon and from Praeclarus Press. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face; if you live anywhere else in the state of Texas, you can work with me via online therapy. Send me a message if you need more information, or call my office at (806) 224-0200 if you’re ready to book an appointment.