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Don Draper in Mad Men. Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. When we think of success, we often picture rather brutal characters who will happily trample over others’ feelings in the pursuit of fame and fortune. It’s not hard to imagine how such individuals could win in a cut-throat world.

However, there’s more than one way to be bad. As BBC Future explored last year, psychologists have recently identified three traits that might describe the most ruthless people. They are:

-        Machiavellianism: characterised by cynical manipulation

-        Narcissism: how self-centred you are

-        Psychopathy: a combination of risky impulsivity and callousness

Occasionally, all three corners of this “dark triad” converge in a single person, who is vain, scheming, and unfeeling, but sometimes you can score highly in one characteristic but not the other.

So, to get ahead, does it matter what ‘type’ of ruthless you are?

Previous evidence had suggested that psychopathy is more common among CEOs

Previous evidence had suggested that psychopathy is slightly more common among high-flying CEOs than the general population – the so-called “snakes in suits”. The idea was that cool, ruthless and somewhat risky behaviour is occasionally demanded in the office. But it was unclear how the other kinds of dark personalities fare in the workplace.

The 'dark triad' of personalities: Machiavellian, psychopathic and narcissistic (Credit: Thinkstock)

Daniel Spurk at the University of Bern in Switzerland has now attempted to answer these questions with a comprehensive study that compares all three of the traits of 800 German employees from all kinds of industries. Using an online survey, he asked them to rate statements such as “I lack remorse” or “I like others to pay attention to me” and also quizzed them about their careers to date.

His results, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, were surprising.

Despite the previous findings on “snakes in suits”, Spurk found that the psychopaths in his sample actually performed worse on his measures of success: they earned less than their peers and tended to have lowlier positions on the career hierarchy. As you might expect, given these findings, they were also less satisfied with their lot.

Spurk thinks it could be down to their aggression and risk-taking. “Psychopaths are really impulsive – they have real problems with controlling behaviour.” Although their willingness to take risks could be a boon in some industries, their impulsiveness may mean that they are less productive in the long run, skiving off work as the mood takes them. The determining factor, Spurk thinks, may be intelligence: a smarter psychopath might be able to temper some of those excesses, allowing them to win out in the long game.

People with manipulative tendencies did tend to rise to leadership positions, but they weren’t the highest earners

Machiavellianism was more strongly associated with success – people with these manipulative tendencies did tend to rise to leadership positions; you don’t have to be Don Draper to realise that pragmatically pulling other’s levers will put you in a position of power. But it was the narcissists who earned the most money, overall. This may be because their sense of self-worth makes them better negotiators, helping them to swing more benefits.

Narcissistic traits help you get more money, but there are also downsides (Credit: Getty Images)

“Individuals high in narcissism have good impression management, so they can convince their colleagues or supervisors that they are worth special advantages,” Spurk says. Or as Gordon Gekko put it, there’s the belief that “What's worth doing is worth doing for money.”

Narcissists may seem charismatic to begin with, but they can become wearing with their constant need for attention

But before you consider cultivating a darker streak to further your career, Spurk points out that these people may lose out in other ways. Narcissists may seem charismatic to begin with, but they can become wearing with their constant need for attention. “Although people who don’t know them very well think they are charismatic, in the mid-to-long term there might be situations where people are no longer fascinated by their behaviour.” So even though they may be earning more money, they might suffer socially. And Machiavellian manipulators may come undone if their particularly ruthless or dishonest machinations are exposed.

If that’s not enough to persuade you, there is now an abundance of evidence showing that kindness may not make you money but it pays in other ways: more generous and honest individuals tend to be happier in life, and even have better physical health.

Steely ambition will help get you so far in life, but it alone can’t take the place real talent. For every real-life Gekko, Draper or Priestly you may come across, there will be others lurking in the shadows, without a job – or a friend.

David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

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