The most overlooked skill for technical people in Silicon Valley is the ability to detect and avoid Dark Triad personalities. Why do our humanities and social sciences courses fail to impart this obviously beneficial skill?
Xander Dunn, 19 Feb 2023, Initial draft ~2019
Hell is empty and all the devils are here. - William Shakespeare
Evil is not an ethereal force from hell, it is just Psychopaths.
The Dark Triad refers to narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy/sociopathy. Narcissism is an outsized sense of self-importance. Machiavellianism, named after the author of The Prince, is the belief that the only thing that matters is power. Finally, we have sociopathy and psychopathy, which are defined by an inability to feel empathy for other people.
There is a common misconception that sociopaths are white-collar criminals while psychopaths are serial killers. The sensational hit book Bad Blood about Elizabeth Holmes specifically calls her a sociopath in its conclusion. This may be the pop culture usage of these terms, but it bears no relation to the technical use of the terms in clinical psychology. As a starting point, read this article. Sociopathy is defined as a lack of empathy resulting from environmental factors, such as a challenging childhood. Psychopathy is defined as a lack of empathy resulting from genetic factors. It turns out that serial killers are more likely to be sociopaths than psychopaths. Many serial killers had extremely challenging childhoods, for example physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their parents. Environmental extremes like parental abuse causing a destruction of empathy would be designated sociopathy rather than psychopathy. But, it's not hard to believe that lack of empathy can be genetic: Elizabeth Holmes' father was a Vice President at Enron where he perpetrated one of the largest frauds in US history. Furthermore, Elizabeth had an extremely privileged childhood with very little hardship. With little environmental hardship and a history of wrong-doers, Holmes probably came by her lack of empathy genetically, not environmentally. My goal here is to reveal complications in how these terms are used popularly, but ultimately we don't care whether someone is a psychopath or a sociopath. If someone lacks empathy, we don't care why, we just want to identify and avoid.
Another common misconception is that people with any of the above personalities have stunted social skills, and come across as aggressive or otherwise bad or off-putting. On the contrary, these personality types tend to have above-average pro-social skills. They tend to be very charming and very good at convincing others. See here for evidence that psychopaths can appear above average genuine when they choose. Pop culture imagines that sociopaths and psychopaths are bad at understanding others' emotions, but actually, they are above average at identifying the emotions of others. Their ability to identify others' emotions is what empowers them to use those emotions in manipulative ways to achieve their goals at the expense of other people's goals. Identifying and understanding emotions is wholly separate from feeling any kind of empathy, values, or remorse. Indeed, on the other end of the spectrum, there are highly empathetic people who are strongly affected by the emotions of others but are very bad at identifying what those emotions are.
One lens for looking at Dark Triad personality types is as an evolutionary advantage. I see these personalities as something that adversarially evolved. If your genes are attempting to get an advantage over others so that they can propagate better than other people's genes, developing a better-than-average ability to manipulate others to do your bidding is clearly an advantage. Of course, it would be bad for your genes and the genes of your entire species if everyone evolved into a psychopath, narcissist, or Machiavellian, so it's going to be an uncommon trait. I'll estimate that around 5% of the general population is Dark Triad, and I would roughly estimate that about 20% of Silicon Valley leaders are Dark Triads. If you pore over the literature estimating the common population and executive prevalences, you could come up with sums across the Dark Triad personalities that are both much lower and much higher than these numbers. Most people are decent people. Never confuse incompetence, burnout, stress, or other issues with Dark Triad.
It's particularly important for people in Silicon Valley to be aware of these personality types because they are particularly prevalent in Silicon Valley. Anywhere there is money and power to be had, you will find Dark Triad personalities in higher-than-average abundance. See various sources for the higher prevalence of Dark Triad personalities in executives, including here, here, and here.
Avoid. Simply avoid them at all costs. Identify these personalities as early as possible and just leave. Block them. Move on. It's not normal, it's not healthy, and it's not productive. You can get paid even more than you are paid now somewhere you don't have to deal with these personalities. There are all sorts of strategies for dealing with these people, such as "grey rocking," trying to be as uninteresting as possible when they've got you in their crosshairs. Forget all of these strategies. The Dark Triads are evolutionarily hardwired to withstand infinitely more emotional crap than you are. You will lose. Other than perhaps a helpless child who doesn't know better, I can think of few to no circumstances where it is truly impossible for you to just leave the situation. "It's my cofounder" doesn't count as a truly impossible situation. Trust me, you can quit and start again and everything will be fine.
One failure mode I see good people in Silicon Valley fall into after discovering these personality traits is an attempt to "use them," to align with Dark Triad people professionally in the hopes of getting the good while avoiding the bad. This is a terrible idea. You can be professionally successful without associating with any of these personalities, and you will be wholly unable to mitigate the negative effects in your vicinity even if you can name them. Knowing that arsenic is poisonous doesn't allow you to live in the vicinity of arsenic with impunity.
You should have litmus tests, principles, or "razors" in your back pocket that you continuously pull out when you meet new people. Some that I've found useful over time:
I would highly recommend reading some books to learn more about identifying and avoiding these people. Some of these books are targeted at romantic relationships, but all of the same advice applies professionally:
Philip K. Dick in his seminal work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, posits that it is empathy that separates the human from the non-human. With complete sang-froid, the replicant picks the legs off of one of the last real spiders on the planet, confused by the human's horrified reaction at this callous act. If being human requires having empathy, then Dark Triads should be seen not so much as human, but as evolutionary aberrations prowling amongst us as wolves wearing human skin.
Most people are mostly honest and have empathy and can take responsibility for their mistakes. Even "good" people will have some bad too. Most founders aren't Dark Triad. 99% of the people I've worked with have been fantastic people, and I am still friends with nearly all of my former coworkers. Most of my experiences here come from a romantic relationship. Don't go around waving your newfound Dark Triad wand at every person you don't like. Be particularly cautious of casting the Dark Triad label on people whose political opinions you don't like. But do start asking questions when charismatic, ideal, innocent people come into your life.