One of the current problems faced by contemporary society is the continuous increase of couple
break-ups; hence, many children grow up under the protection of only one of their parents. When a
couple that has children breaks up, it is difficult to be detach the children from the fight between the
parents; what is even worse, the opposite may happen and the children become a weapon to attack
the (ex-)partner. In line with these tenets, Gardner created the concept of the parental alienation
syndrome (PAS), which claims that often one of the parents (normally the mother, who tends to be
the custodial parent) mentally manipulates children so they will not wish to have contact with the
other parent (usually the father and non-custodial parent). Thus, the alienating parent induces the
child to lie about the other parent harming them.

Children would then start elaborating on these false claims and deluding themselves into believing that the other parent has actually harmed them. According to PAS, the alienating parent manages to convince the child that the other parent assaulted them physically. The goal of the manipulative parent is that the justice system intervenes to punish the ex-partner and to prevent contact between the child and the allegedly aggressive father. A problem
with PAS assumptions is the belief that children routinely lie and are easy to manipulate against the
noncustodial parent, making up claims of non-existent aggressions.

Sometimes, the accusation is of sexual abuse, which often cannot be medically proven, and this
inability to provide evidence is taken as a confirmation of PAS. However, the fact that it cannot be
proven does not mean it does not exist, and there are cases of children’s physically and sexually abused by their parents that do not show medical signs of the damage caused.

In these cases, the only way to discover the existence of the abuse is by resorting to the testimony of the minor (if the child is old enough) or through the detection of some typical signs of abuse. Abusive parents may argue that it is an invention of the child, who has been convinced by the other parent to lie and invent non-existent aggressions. Therefore, they will state that the abuse is exerted by the parent who is allegedly manipulating the child.

Subsequently, they will claim that the court must act to prevent it and protect the child, who is being manipulated and the parent the child refuses contact with. The existing evidence shows that complaints of abuse and, specifically, of sexual abuse are very rarely false [5–10] and that parents, specifically the guardian, normally do not invent aggressions that the child has not suffered nor do they instill any belief in the child. Hence, parental complaints are most times the result of actual child abuse and the Justice system runs the risk of failing to provide protection, based on a false argument that the minor is being manipulated by the custodial parent [6,11–17].

However, despite this evidence, some authors still support that accusations of maltreatment or abuse toward
minors advocated by Gardner are frequent .

Although from a legal point of view, the topic (protection of minors) is of great relevance, it is no
less relevant from a psychological perspective, because a variable—manipulation—is introduced in
the parent-child relationship. Thus, from the perspective of psychology, it is important to determine
whether parents offer affection and sincerity to their children, doing everything they can to educate
them in positive values, or, in contrast, they don’t mind using their children to attack the other
parent, often as vengeance for breaking up the relationship.

Up to 75% of parents report difficulties in the relationship with their ex-partner [30], and custody conflicts, often accompanied with financial conflicts, are related to negative emotional, behavioral and academic effects on children [31], both externalizing and internalizing [32]. So judicial manipulation is harmful and devastating for the
victim parent, but also extremely serious for the child. As stated above, the PAS, which focuses on the
effect of manipulative behavior on the parents and the children, provides a popular approach to this
issue [18,24,26–29]. However, other authors [13,14,33,34] argue that most assumptions derived from
the PAS are questionable.

Rather than adopting the PAS approach, evaluating specific traits that predict manipulative
behavior seems more promising. Narcissistic individuals have lower ethical standards in their pursuit
of self-interest, and thus are more prone to manipulative behavior [35]. Machiavellianism is also a
good indicator of lying in different situations [36] and dark traits of personality influence willingness to
make false claims in legal settings [37]. Traits in the dark triad may be sound indicators of manipulative
behavior against the ex-partner. In related domains, psychopathy [38] predicts divorce and undermines
marital relationship functioning. High Narcissism is also related to conflicts over visitation and custody
of children after divorce [39] and disengagement from children in the non-custodial parent after divorce
litigation [40]. Currently, research has established that Machiavellianism, subclinical psychopathy, and
subclinical Narcissism are inter-correlated and are part of the “dark triad” construct. The dark triad of
personality provides a framework to explore specific traits to predict detrimental and manipulative
behavior. It encompasses Narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism into one latent superordinate
trait that subsumes all their common characteristics of malevolence [41].

Regardless of the individual scores in manipulators, one of the topics of debate is whether men
or women score higher in dark triad variables. Gardner thought, at least initially, that the mothers
were most often the manipulators, and many female authors think that fathers are the manipulators.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that males score higher in dark triad traits [42,43] and cultural gender
roles also influence the expression of dark triad traits [44]. Additionally, we must consider that children
can also show dark traits like, Machiavellianism [45–47].
So far, the relationship between dark traits and the manipulation of children to attack the other
partner has not been examined. The purpose of the current research is to determine whether people
who are in a process of couple break-up and who are willing to lie in issues concerning their children
possess higher levels of the three dimensions that comprise the dark triad. Whether people with higher
levels of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and/or Narcissism (that is, the “dark personality”) will admit
they are more capable of deceiving and lying in court is of practical interest.

The objective of this study is to build a judicial manipulation scale to measure willingness to lie and use children to harm the other parent that could be used in professional practice. Our main hypotheses are that this scale would be
correlated to each of the traits in the dark triad, so that these traits could be used as potential indicators
of judicial manipulation during or after child-custody litigation. Dark triad variables are thus expected
to be predictors of an individual’s agreement with “dirty” judicial behavior.