Popular Culture Is Littered With Narcissists – Here’s Why We Find Them So Attractive

The Undoing's Jonathan Fraser is the latest in a long line of narcissists to grace our books and screens. But what is it about Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism - the 'Dark Triad' of personality traits - that we find so compelling?

The undoing narcissist

by Vicky Spratt |
Updated on

This article contains spoilers from the final episode of The Undoing.

It’s the stuff of some of the greatest literature, theatre and film of all time – individuals who specialise in intrigue, manipulation and deception. This month we're all obsessed with The Undoing's Jonathan Fraser who, it is revealed in the finale is a text-book narcissist with psychopathic tendencies. But he's the latest in a long line of iconic narcissistic characters -from the Machiavellian figures of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, Satan himself in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lord Varys in Game of Thrones, as well as the narcissistic manipulations of Sarah Michelle Geller as arch-manipulator Kathryn in Cruel Intentions or Regina George in Mean Girls. You could probably also cite Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’s Diary who was, in fact, loosely based on the troublesome character of Mr Wickham from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. All of these characters are distant relatives of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, a C16th satire about how to rule a country and get people to do what you want.

READ MORE: The Most Unbelievable Thing About The Undoing Is Nicole Kidman's Hair

In modern psychology, Machiavellianism is one of the three personality traits, which make up what’s known as the ‘Dark Triad’: Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism. These traits, glamourised as they are by books, film and TV, are far from entertaining when encountered in real life.

People who display these traits are characterised by duplicity, a cynical disregard for morality, a focus on self-interest, doing things, which will result in their own personal gain, and, often, risky behaviour, particularly when it comes to sex. And, while these characteristics and behaviours do occur in women, they are more commonly found in men. However, what that means is that you may encounter/have encountered a dark triad person regardless of your gender and sexual orientation. This is by no means something which only affects heterosexual women.


What is the Dark Triad?

First off, Narcissism: essentially an excessive sense of self-love and self-admiration, this is someone who sees themselves as better, more attractive and more intelligent, than other people. They like to compete with others, and, they like to win. They are the centre of attention, they like to be admired.

Then, Machiavellianism, this is a trait which depends on interpersonal manipulation. Essentially a Machiavellian tells people what they want to hear to maximise their own potential benefits.

And, then, there’s psychopathy, this is basically an empathy deficit - a lack of concern about the feelings of others. Often drinking drug taking, no seatbelt wearing and unprotected sex are involved.

The ‘Dark Triad’ guy is, essentially, what’s known colloquially as a ‘bad boy’ or his modern incarnation, the ‘fuccboi’ [sic] or ‘fuck boy’. You’ll know them from Instagram posts and the proliferation of click bait-style articles which are headlined ’10 Signs He’s A Fuckboy’ or words to that effect, as well as any dating, sexual or relationship encounters you may have had with them.

To be clear, Urban Dictionary defines a fuckboyas ‘a manipulating dick who does whatever it takes to benefit him, regardless of who he screws over.’ A sort of modern day, probably tinder-dwelling, Iago. If there’s a scandal, he’s probably at the centre of it but he’s never to blame. Now, this might sound like sexist pseudo-psychology, but it’s not.

Dr Gregory Carter is a psychologist from Durham University who specialises in Narcissism. His current research focuses on why people who display the traits associated with the triad and why they are so attractive. Basically, he’s interested in something that columnists, novelists and gangs of mates, huddled over drinks in the pub, have been investigating for years, why do we find people who we know are bad for us, who we know we can’t trust, who are totally self obsessed, considered attractive? Hands up if you’re a straight woman who’s ever googled ‘why can’t I stop going for bad guys?’ or, in fact anyone who’s ever typed the immortal words ‘why am I attracted to people who are bad for me?’ whilst banging their head on their keyboard.

Carter says that the research he has done to date seems to confirm that ‘the dark triad in men seems to be attractive to women, in particular, young women.’

Why is the Dark Triad so attractive?

So it is the case that nice guys really do finish last. However, when it comes to the Dark Triad ‘it tends to be a short term attraction’ Carter points out. ‘The highly dark triad male is likely to only be interested in a short-term relationship. They tend to have a strike and move on strategy’ he says, which means ‘it may come to an end because the woman calls time on it but also that its likely that he is already cheating, has already started to look for another relationship…’ Men who embody the Dark Triad are not defined by faithfulness.

But why, then, are they attractive in the first place? Carter says that ‘particularly narcissism, but also to an extent Machiavellianism and psychopathy are associated with superficial charm’ this means that people who exhibit these traits ‘tend to dress well, they have a high level of self adornment (basically, they peacock) and have relatively smooth body language (according to some recent research I’ve been conducting).’


What does he mean by ‘smooth body language’? ‘A relaxed posture, relatively open and fluid movements – not twitchy – they don’t jiggle or fidget – they tend to be quite composed and self assured – you’d look at them and think they were quite calm composed and cool.’ He adds that they ‘also make more eye contact’ and that all of this is very appealing, because it makes them seem like ‘good mates’. Not mates mates, mates as in on a primal level your brain wants to your body to have sex with them and procreate. They are quite literally smooth operators, who make incredibly good first impressions.

Carter says, ‘they present themselves as high value –a good partner – and this often seems to be supported by the trappings of their lifestyle, this is not just manifested in how they act and what they wear but, is also because Narcissism and Machiavellianism are associated with the pursuit of leadership positions. They are likely to put themselves across as a bit of a big deal because they seek out high status – and they may well be. Many people who are highly successful who would score highly on these traits.’

So initially, it’s not just you, people who are not in it for the long term and only out for themselves do appear to be attractive. And, they will go after you hard. ‘There is a degree to which novelty and the thrill of the chase is appealing to them. However, they might lose interest in the end. The more mundane aspects of a long term relationship don’t appeal…why would they constrain themselves to sleeping with one individual when they can sleep with many?’

Because of this, Carter says, dating apps ‘especially in densely populated urban areas’ are a particularly good environment for the Dark Triad male, ‘there are so many potential mates there’s even less incentive for them to act in a committed or relationship-style manner, the anonymity that environment offers is a god send to them really.’

What happens when you meet a Dark Triad man?

And now, a question many of us have asked of ourselves, or, of a friend. ‘Why do I/you think you can change them?’ Once again, the trope of a female sucker with a bad boyfriend who hangs on in the vain hope that she’ll be the one to make him change his ways is a tired and hackneyed trope, which is usually reserved for bad rom coms. However, Carter confirms one of the reasons the fuckboy or the bad guy appeals is because ‘they seem like they might change over time’. In the end, of course, it becomes clear that they won’t.

They are also very difficult to call out on their lies, manipulations and indiscretions. ‘Narcissists aren’t typically aggressive’ Carter says, ‘but they respond very badly to ego threats, they can’t bare losing face in front of a group or another person – their sense of humour – more so for psychopaths – tends to be quite self deprecating so, their response to being called out on a lie is just to turn it into a joke – and if they’re good and practiced at this they’ll probably have a back up line for being called out – its just another part of the script….’

Going back to Shakespeare and Milton, to classic moral struggles between good and bad, to the somewhat unhelpful idea that some people are just naturally or inherently evil, what causes the Dark Triad to occur in people? Dr Carter confirms that nurture plays a huge part in this, he says ‘firstly, there is a genetic basis for it, a degree of heritability. There is also some evidence that hardships in childhood – anything from absent parents to abuse can bring out these traits because, if you think about it these characteristics are relatively self serving, so, in an environment where you need to get what you can before it’s gone or someone else takes it, developing an aptitude for that is going to be advantageous.’


The moral of the story

And, therein lies the rub, manipulating people to get what you want may not be morally sound but it’s probably pretty useful and, once you’ve succeeded at it, why wouldn’t you keep doing it? ‘Generally speaking, if these behaviours are found to be successful then they self-reinforce’ Carter says, ‘so its going to be the case that with, what did you call them? ‘Fuckboys’, they will probably pretty much have a script for how a first of second date will go and will just adapt it based on the particulars of the target woman. As long as they keep getting positive feedback and outcomes they’ll keep doing it.’

Dr Carter’s research has looked at why the darker side of human nature is physically attractive and, perhaps, this also goes some way to explaining our historic fascination with the figure of the arch-manipulator, intrigue creator and heart breaker in popular culture throughout the ages. It’s over 500 years since Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince and, still, distant descendants of his protagonist fill our screens. What Carter’s work tells us is that it’s a case of art imitating life and not vice versa. Perhaps we should take heed, though, while some of the stories about them involve them getting their comeuppance as Regina George did, many inevitably also involve the destruction and downfall of those around them, let’s not forget Regina took Cady down with her and, while Iago was arrested at the end of Othello, it was Othello and Desdemona who really paid the highest price for their involvement with him: their lives.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Ghosting: What It's Really Like When Your Oldest Friend Phases You Out

How Tinder's Stopping Us Having Sex

Why Do Nice Guys Always Get Friend-Zoned?

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us