Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Machiavellianism is one of the personality traits of the “dark triad” that involves a person who is so focused on their own interests that they would manipulate, deceive, and exploit other people in order to achieve their goals.

What Is Machiavellianism?

Machiavellianism, in psychology, is one of the personality traits of the “dark triad” which is characterized by manipulation, deceit, and exploitation of other people in order to achieve their selfish goals. The dark triad involves a combination of the three personalities of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. The term derives from a reference to the infamous Niccolo Machiavelli, a diplomat and philosopher in the Renaissance period who is well known for his work “The Prince”. This notorious book demonstrated his views that strong rulers should be harsh with their subjects and enemies, and that glory and survival justified any means. In the late 16th century “Machiavellianism” became a popular word to describe the art of deception to get ahead. It wasn’t a psychological term until the 1970s.

Two social psychologists Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis developed the “Machiavellianism scale” which is a personality inventory that is used as the main assessment tool for Machiavellianism. The scale is now referred to as the “Mach IV Test”. This trait is more common in men than in women. There are numerous studies 1 that show that men score higher than women on Machiavellianism. It can also occur in children. A 2008 study 2 found evidence that there may be genetic and environmental influences that contribute to Machiavellianism in people.

Read More About Dark Triad Here

Understanding Machiavellianism 

People with high Machiavellian traits try to achieve their goals through whatever means necessary. This includes things such as bending and breaking rules, cheating, and stealing. They do not have the same level of emotions as others and for this, they are willing to do things that are terrible or immoral. In order to pursue their goals, they resort to extreme measures to get what they want. A 2012 study 3 pointed out that Machivellinian individuals can easily read the minds of others and understand social situations that they can manipulate in favor of their own intrinsic motivations. Machiavellian individuals have better “mind reading skills” or Theory of mind (i.e the ability to understand and appreciate why people think in the unique ways they do) and have frequently been characterized in terms of their detachment and lack of emotional involvement with others. The apparent emotional deficit in Machiavellian individuals may be indicative of an inability to feel empathy.

Numerous studies 4 demonstrated a negative correlation between empathy and Machiavellianism scores. Machiavellians tend to have limited empathy towards others on a cognitive and emotional level. Owing to limited emotional resonance and emotional experience demonstrated by Machivellinians, they possess an evolutionary advantage wherein they are not willing to consider the harm that they may cause to others in an attempt to achieve their goals. Due to the Mach’s skills at interpersonal manipulation, it is often assumed that high Machs possess superior intelligence or the ability to understand other people in social situations. However, some research 5 indicated that Machiavellianism is unrelated to IQ.

Signs Of Machiavellianism

Signs Of Machiavellianism

Machiavellian individuals are expert manipulators and often resort to extreme measures to achieve their goals. A person with Machiavellianism traits displays the following tendencies:

  • They are only focused on their own ambition and interests
  • Prioritizing money and power over relationships
  • Coming across as charming and confident
  • Exploiting and manipulating others to get ahead
  • Lie and deceive when necessary
  • Using flattery often
  • Lacking in principles and values
  • Acting aloof or really hard to get to know
  • Cynical of goodness and mortality
  • Capable of causing others harm in order to achieve their means
  • Low levels of empathy
  • They often avoid commitment and emotional attachments
  • Act patient due to their calculating nature
  • They rarely reveal their true intentions
  • Prone to casual sex encounters
  • Extremely capable of reading social situations and people
  • Lack of warmth in social interactions
  • Not being aware of the consequences of their actions
  • Tend to struggle to identify their own emotions

Behavioral Traits Of Machiavellians

Behavioral Traits Of Machiavellians

The Machiavellianism scale measures the traits of Machs and individuals who score high on this questionnaire are referred to as “Machiavellians”. The behavioral traits of these individuals are as follows:

1. Calculating and Strategic Individuals

A 2019 report 6 pointed out that Machiavellians are calculating and strategic individuals who are capable of lying, cheating, and deceiving others to meet their goals. Due to their lack of emotional attachment, they find it extremely easy to harm others. Machiavellians tend to manipulate and deceive others as a way to advance themselves with no consideration of emotional collateral.

2. Cold and Hot Empathy

Cold empathy refers to the strategic cognitive empathy and the ability to understand how others may be thinking, how they might act in a particular situation, and how events may unfold for certain individuals. While hot empathy refers to emotional empathy. For instance, a manager may resort to cold empathy when they provide negative feedback to their employee. This can involve defensiveness, disagreement, and ultimate acceptance of feedback. The same manager may also resort to hot empathy to resonate with his employee on an emotional level. He may think to himself that ”Jane will feel frustrated and embarrassed when I give the feedback and hence I want to be as constructive and friendly as possible.”

The manager tries to connect with her on an emotional level as a means to avoid emotionally harming his employee. Inversely, a Mach may have a good understanding of how his employee will react and yet fail to resonate with his employee on an emotional level. As a result, the manager may come across as harsh and friendly and may fail to care about any emotional harm that he might have caused.

Read More About Empathy Here

3. Having an evolutionary advantage

Research 7 indicates that Machiavellians display a deficit in hot empathy while others have a good ability to understand the emotions of others but simply don’t wish to care. A subgroup of Machs has been found to demonstrate “bypass empathy” wherein they display a good understanding of thoughts and feelings that may occur as a result of deceit or lies and yet fail to curtail their response. Due to this lack of moral conscience in Machiavellians, evolutionary psychologists 8 believe that they have an “evolutionary advantage”. This is because they may not be held back while harming others in pursuing their goals.

4. Behavioral Inhibition

The behavioral inhibition system is associated with avoidant tendencies or introversion, withdrawn behavior, and thinking rather than doing. Machiavellians are more likely to engage in withdrawal behaviors and rely on their thinking and intuition. Due to this, they are calculating and cunning manipulators who use others for their own benefits.

5. Alexithymia

Alexithymia is the inability to understand and identify emotions experienced by oneself or others. Machiavellians display a deficit in naming and understanding their emotions. Evidence 9 suggests that Machiavellians who are overly cognitive in their approach towards others and themselves are out of touch with emotions in general.

Psychological disorders associated with Machiavellianism

Machiavellianism is one of the three traits of the dark triad, the others involving narcissism and psychopathy. It can be difficult to be around someone who possesses only one of these traits but a person having Machiavellianism traits may also have narcissistic or psychopathic tendencies. Despite having obvious connections among the three dark triad traits and the obvious prevalence of one trait occurring with the other two, research is still being conducted to prove a correlation between them. Some of the personality disorders that people with Machiavellianism suffer from are antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. A 2013 study 10 found a prevalence of depression in people with Machiavellianism traits. A 2007 study 11 also found that Machiavellianism had high cocaine users and problematic or addictive internet use.

Diagnosis With The Machiavellianism Scale

The Machiavellianism Scale involves a score of up to 100 and consists of a test that involves a series of questions. This scale is used to diagnose people with Machivellinian traits. People scoring above 60 are considered to be “High Machs” and those scoring below 60 are “Low Machs”. Children are assessed in the “Kiddie Mach Test” scale.

High Machs are extremely focused on their own well being. They believe that they must be deceptive to get ahead. They don’t believe in human kindness and think depending on others is naïve. High Machs prioritizes power over love and connection. Low Machs tend to empathize with others. They are honest and trusting and believe in human goodness. In case the level is too low on scale people tend to be submissive and agree to everything.

Treatment For Machiavellianism

People with Machiavellianism traits that are found in the dark triad are unlikely to seek therapy or attempt to change. They tend to seek therapy if pushed to do so by family members or in case they committed a crime and have to attend court order therapy. Psychotherapy is effective when they are honest and allow a trusting relationship between themselves and their therapists. People with this trait are often dishonest and don’t trust other people.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often recommended for people with malevolent traits. This therapy involves identifying and evaluating the negative thoughts and patterns that trigger negative behavior. These negative thoughts are then replaced with positive ones to attain the desired behavior. Medications may also be prescribed in cases where comorbid conditions are present. A trained therapist can identify and also treat other comorbid conditions such as depression and anxiety.

There are a number of strategies that may be used to deal with Machiavellian behavior. They include:

  • It may be beneficial to develop the ability to understand other people and their emotional state and perspectives.
  • Taking anger management classes
  • Learning coping strategies for anger in order to avoid violence or impulsivity
  • Building good “people skills”

Read More About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Here.

The Cure To Machiavellianism

The only way to heal is to acknowledge your true intentions or behaviors. Acknowledging the negative behaviors will allow you to seek therapy. With a little self-determination, it is possible to keep the extremely negative and manipulative behaviors in check. It is important to keep in mind that if you are on the receiving end of such deceitful behaviors, covering up for it may prove to be dangerous. In such cases, it is advisable to not wait for something to happen or trust that it will not be repeated.

Machiavellianism At A Glance

  1. Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation, deceit, and exploitation of other people in order to achieve their selfish goals.
  2. People with high Machiavellian traits try to achieve their goals through whatever means necessary.
  3. Machiavellian individuals are expert manipulators and often resort to extreme measures to achieve their goals.
  4. The Machiavellianism scale measures the traits of Machs and individuals who score high on this questionnaire are referred to as “Machiavellians”.
  5. Some of the personality disorders that people with Machiavellianism suffer from are antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
  6. The only way to heal is to acknowledge your true intentions or behaviors.
👇 References:
  1. Dahling, J. J., Whitaker, B. G., & Levy, P. E. (2009). The Development and Validation of a New Machiavellianism Scale. Journal of Management, 35(2), 219–257. []
  2. Vernon, P. A., Villani, V. C., Vickers, L. C., & Harris, J. A. (2008). A behavioral genetic investigation of the dark triad and the big 5. Personality and Individual Differences44(2), 445-452. []
  3. Czibor, A., & Bereczkei, T. (2012). Machiavellian people’s success results from monitoring their partners. Personality and Individual Differences53(3), 202-206. []
  4. Watson, P. J., Biderman, M. D., & Sawrie, S. M. (1994). Empathy, sex role orientation, and narcissism. Sex Roles30(9-10), 701-723. []
  5. TOUHEY, J. C. (1973). Intelligence, Machiavellianism and social mobility. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology12(1), 34-37. []
  6. Monaghan, C. (2009). Two-Dimensional Machiavellianism Conceptualisation, Measurement, and Well-Being. CORE – Aggregating the world’s open access research papers. []
  7. Lyons, M., Caldwell, T., & Shultz, S. (2010). Mind-reading and manipulation — Is machiavellianism related to theory of mind? Journal of Evolutionary Psychology8(3), 261-274. []
  8. JONES, D. N., & PAULHUS, D. L. (2009). Machiavellianism. ResearchGate | Find and share research. []
  9. Sheikhi, S., Issazadegan, A., Norozy, M., & Saboory, E. (2015). Relationships between alexithymia and machiavellian personality beliefs among university students. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling45(3), 297-304. []
  10. Al Aïn, S., Carré, A., Fantini-Hauwel, C., Baudouin, J. Y., & Besche-Richard, C. (2013). What is the emotional core of the multidimensional Machiavellian personality trait?. Frontiers in psychology4, 454. []
  11. Quednow, B. B., Hulka, L. M., Preller, K. H., Baumgartner, M. R., Eisenegger, C., & Vonmoos, M. (2017). Stable self-serving personality traits in recreational and dependent cocaine users. PLOS ONE12(3), e0172853. []
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