Machiavellianism, in psychology, is used to describe a negative personality trait characterized by selfishness, callousness, cynicism, and skillful manipulation of others. This trait can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s personal and professional relationships, as their actions and behaviors are often driven by a desire to achieve their own goals at the expense of others.
What Is Machiavellianism?
Machiavellianism is an innate personality trait characterized by self-interest, manipulative behavior, and a willingness to exploit others for personal gain. It is also one of three traits that make up the “dark triad” personalities 1—alongside narcissism and psychopathy.
People with Machiavellian traits are characterized 2 by a disregard for social norms and ethics, a lack of empathy, strategic and selfish cunningness, as well as a tendency towards cold, manipulative, and exploitative behavior.
They are highly intelligent and confident individuals 3, skilled at influencing others and may use charm, deception, or other manipulative tactics to achieve their goals. While individuals high in any of these traits may be charming or charismatic, they can also be dangerous and harmful to others if their behavior is left unchecked.
Read More About Dark Triad Here
Machiavellianism: A historical context
The term and psychology behind Machiavellianism are derived from the political treatises of Niccolo Machiavelli 4, a 16th-century Italian Renaissance philosopher and diplomat who wrote about the use of power and manipulation in politics. Today, his more famous works, The Prince and the Discourses On Livy, remain the primary source of Machiavellian thought.
Prevalence Of Machiavellianism
Everyone exhibits some degree of Machiavellianism and its global prevalence is estimated to be around 4-5% 5. It is more common in men than in women 6, although the gender difference is not always consistent across cultures or populations.
Moreover, individuals with certain personality disorders (like antisocial, narcissistic, histrionic, or borderline personality disorders) may exhibit high levels of Machiavellianism.
Read More About Borderline Personality Disorder Here
Signs Of Machiavellianism
Common 7 signs of a Machiavellian personality include:
- Prioritizing self-interest and personal gain
- Lying or manipulating others for personal gain
- Disregarding social norms or rules
- Using charm, charisma, and deception to influence others
- Seeking out positions of power or influence
- Engaging in exploitative or unethical behavior to achieve one’s goals
- Lacking trust, empathy, or concern for the well-being of others
- Having alexithymia (or the inability to understand and identify emotions experienced by oneself or others)
- Feigning emotions to manipulate others’ perceptions of oneself
- Forming alliances or relationships primarily for strategic gain
- Concealing information or true intentions to gain an advantage over others
- Engaging in strategic thinking, planning, and calculated risk-taking to achieve one’s goals
What Causes Machiavellianism?
The development of Machiavellianism in personality traits has been attributed to the combination of factors like:
Some studies claim that Machiavellianism is a genetically heritable innate personality trait, though the exact link is not fully understood. However, people born with specific personalities and dispositions (like narcissism) 8 tend to develop Machiavellian characteristics.
2. Psychosocial factors
Machiavellianism is most considered learned behavior heavily influenced by the psychosocial environment 9. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), early socialization, and negative parenting (like parental Machiavellianism 10) are found to be common causes.
3. Socio-cultural factors
Competitive and individualistic environments, such as toxic and stressful work cultures in certain corporate or professional settings, may encourage the development of Machiavellian traits.
Moreover, people growing up with societal values and beliefs 11 that prioritize individual achievement and success tend to adopt Machiavellian behaviors and attitudes as a means of achieving their goals and out-competing others.
Machiavellianism In Mental Health
In mental health, Machiavellianism is chiefly considered a negative character trait. It is not a mental health condition that can be subjected to medical diagnosis. However, research suggests that the development of Machiavellian manipulativeness and deceitfulness is associated with the risk of mental health conditions 12 like:
- Personality disorders (like narcissistic, anti-social, histrionic, and borderline personality disorders) [Read more]
- Psychopathy [Read more]
- Depression [Read more]
- Anxiety [Read more]
- Workaholism [Read more]
- People with certain types of obsessive-compulsive traits, high perfectionism, etc.
Recognizing Machiavellianism can be challenging, as individuals who exhibit these traits often present themselves in a socially desirable manner. Moreover, not everyone exhibiting Machiavellian traits is necessarily Machiavellian and may be compelled by negative circumstances.
However, recognizing and calling out Machiavellianism is important for preventing harm to individuals as well as the spread of toxic and unethical behaviors. It further promotes a culture of honesty and respect, helping individuals with Machiavellian traits become aware of their behavior and seek help.
It also helps in understanding the impact of personality traits on mental health and well-being 13, leading to acceptance and support for people with mental health disorders like personality disorders.
Nonetheless, a lack of diagnostic criteria means there is no official treatment For Machiavellianism. But people who experience significant distress and impairment due to the high scores of Machiavellian traits can benefit from behavioral therapy, counseling, or pharmacotherapy.
For instance, the Machiavellianism Scale 14 or the Mach-IV inventory 14 is used to indicate the presence and severity of Machiavellian traits in clinical settings to aid in diagnosis and treatment planning.
Machiavellianism in relationships
Machiavellianism can have a negative impact on interpersonal relationships 15, as individuals who exhibit these traits may prioritize personal gain over the well-being of their partner. They may engage in manipulative or deceitful behaviors (like lying or emotional abuse) to gain an advantage or control the relationship.
Additionally, Machiavellians may struggle to form genuine emotional connections with others, as they lack empathy and selflessness. This can lead to difficulties in communication, trust, intimacy, and may ultimately result in the breakdown of the respective relationship.
Machiavellianism in the workplace
Machiavellianism is often seen in unhealthy workplaces with toxic work cultures, wherein individuals prioritize personal success over the well-being of their colleagues or the organization.
Such people may engage in manipulative or deceitful behaviors (related to lying, plagiarism, sabotaging, bullying, or malicious gossip) to gain an advantage or advance their careers. In some cases, the term “Machiavellian leadership 16” is used to refer to unethical and destructive types of professional leadership.
Moreover, individuals with malevolent traits may struggle to work collaboratively or empathize with others, which can lead to difficulties in communication and teamwork. This can ultimately result in decreased productivity and burnout, poor work satisfaction and mental health, and low employee turnover in the long run.
Addressing Machiavellian Traits
Consider the following tips to address difficulties 17 that may arise from having Machiavellian traits:
Recognize the presence of Machiavellian traits and their negative impact on relationships and mental health.
- Seek professional help (such as therapy or counseling) to address underlying mental health conditions and learn healthier coping mechanisms.
- Develop self-awareness and self-reflection to identify and challenge manipulative or deceitful behavior.
- Practice empathy and communication skills to improve interpersonal relationships and reduce the need for Machiavellian tactics.
- Set personal boundaries and learn to say “no” when appropriate, to prevent being taken advantage of or becoming overly focused on self-interest.
- Surround yourself with a trustworthy support system that can hold you accountable and encourage positive behaviors.
- Strive to prioritize ethical and moral values over personal gain and consider the long-term consequences of actions.
Machiavellianism may be advantageous in certain situations, but it can also have negative consequences for individuals and their personal and professional relationships. Therefore, recognizing and addressing Machiavellian traits is important for promoting healthy fairness and nurturing fulfilling equations.
By promoting awareness and understanding of this trait, individuals can learn to recognize and address it in themselves and others, ultimately leading to more positive and productive interactions and environments.
At A Glance
- Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by selfishness, manipulation, deceit, and exploitation of others.
- Individuals with high scores of Machiavellian traits prioritize their goals over ethical or moral considerations.
- Machiavellianism examples include lying, cheating, theft, sabotaging, bullying, etc.
- Machiavellianism negatively impacts the quality of a person’s personal and professional relationships.
- Machiavellianism is not a diagnosable mental health condition.
- Individuals with debilitating Machiavellian traits, behaviors, and thought processes can benefit from therapy and counseling.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. Is Machiavellianism a mental illness?
Machiavellianism is not a mental illness, but an innate personality trait. While individuals with high levels of Machiavellianism may engage in harmful or improper behavior, these types of conduct commonly do not meet the criteria for a mental illness diagnosis.
2. Is Machiavellianism treatable?
Machiavellianism is not a mental health condition and, in that, it cannot be subjected to medical diagnosis. But people who experience significant distress and impairment due to the high scores of Machiavellian traits can benefit from behavioral therapy.
3. Are Machiavellians depressed?
There is no clear link between Machiavellianism and depression. However, people with high scores of Machiavellianism tend to be more prone to negativity and mental health issues like anxiety or personality disorders.
4. Can a Machiavellian be a good person?
Despite the ill connotation of the term, people with Machiavellianism can exhibit positive traits and behaviors associated with a “good person”. They sometimes display actions, motivations, and values that prioritize the well-being of others depending on the context.
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