Do you know someone who will go to any lengths necessary to get what they want, often scheming and manipulating others to gain power and control? If this person, whether it be a coworker, friend, family member, or partner of yours, also displays signs of narcissism, seems to lack empathy, and overall has a calculated personality, then you may be dealing with someone who’s “Machiavellian.”
The term Machiavellianism was coined after the 16th-century Italian statesman, author, and philosopher Niccoló Machiavelli who wrote a manifesto called “The Prince.” In his short essay, Machiavelli explained reasons why he felt rulers should prioritize being deceptive and cold over being moral and emotional.
In his famous words, “It is more important to be feared than loved.” Machiavelli also said, “the end justifies the means,” meaning that if a goal is important enough for a leader, it’s acceptable to do anything and everything to reach it. In his TED Talk on Machiavellianism, Pazit Carlin calls “The Prince” a “manual for tyrannical rulers,” although he also points out that Machiavelli once stated that he hoped his writing “would help people learn the road to hell so they could flee from it.”
While Machiavellian people are capable of climbing their way to success, working with or having relationships with them is often complicated, hurtful, and sometimes traumatic. In this article, learn about the most common personality traits of Machiavellianism to guard yourself against its negative influences and protect your mental health.
- People with Machiavellian personalities live their life by the motto, “it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.” They’re very competitive and see nothing wrong with lying, scheming, and exploiting situations and people as long as it directly benefits them.
- The prevalence of Machiavellianism is not well-established, however, research suggests that it’s similar to rates of clinical psychopathy, which is about 1 to 2% of the population.
- Machiavellian personalities are one component of what psychologists call the “dark triad,” which also includes narcissism and psychopathy.
- Compared to narcissists and psychopaths, Machiavellians are more calculated and seek power more so than thrills, attention, or the spotlight.
- Some professions or roles tend to attract individuals with higher Machiavellian traits, such as sales, politics, and management roles, where power and influence are important. Therefore, unfortunately, their personality traits might be highlighted and even praised in certain situations.
What Is Machiavellianism?
A Machiavellian personality is one that’s calculated, deceitful, and focused on achieving outcomes without taking other people’s feelings into account. Traits associated with Machiavellianism include the desire for power, lack of morality, a willingness to use deceit and manipulation to achieve one’s goals, and a focus on self-interest above all else.
In 1970, two psychologists named Richard Christie and Florence Geiss identified Machiavellianism as a personality trait rooted in the exploitation and manipulation of others for one’s own purposes. Today, this type of personality is measured on a scale called the Mach-IV test. Machiavellian personalities are believed to be much more common among men than women and somewhat prevalent among people in competitive corporate environments. That’s because Machiavellians often strive to obtain power, influence, and money and tend to do well at excelling in upper-level management positions.
Machiavellianism and the “Dark Triad”
Machiavellianism is a part of the “dark triad,” which describes three overlapping personality disorders that have many things in common. All three personalities are considered by experts to be “exploitative social strategies that promote personal goals.”
The dark triad includes:
- Machiavellianism: Some specific examples of Machiavellian traits include being cunning, ruthless, and amoral. They have little regard for adhering to moral or ethical standards. Not all Machiavellians want attention or admiration—some prefer being in control and “pulling the strings.”
- Narcissism: Narcissism describes an obsession with the self. Key characteristics of narcissism include a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, a disregard for others, and a need for validation, attention, and admiration. Dr. Ramani Darvusula, a clinical psychologist and leading expert on narcissism, distinguishes narcissists from Machiavellians by explaining that Machiavellians are more concerned with gaining power than attention. As “ultra opportunists,” Machiavellians are often more calculated, less impulsive, and more interested in “playing the long game” than narcissists. That said, the two are similar in many ways, such as being manipulative and self-serving.
- Psychopathy: Psychopathy is considered the most dangerous and malignant personality in the dark triad. It’s characterized by a lack of emotions and empathy, being antagonistic, thrill-seeking, impulsive, and reckless. Psychopaths rarely experience remorse, guilt, and shame. What makes psychopaths different than Machiavellians is their tendency towards impulsivity, while Machiavellians are more strategic.
In Sprouts School’s video on the dark triad, the author gives an example of how the three personalities differ, stating: “If we were to ask the three dark triad personalities who had the darkest personality, the narcissist would say ‘I do,’ the psychopath would say ‘I don’t care,’ and the Machiavellian would say ‘whoever I want to.’”
8 Traits of a Machiavellian Personality
People with Machiavellian personalities want what they want and believe that they’re entitled and smart enough to earn it. They’ll use many tactics to get their way, even if other people are hurt in the process.
Below are the most common traits of someone with a Machiavellian personality:
- Emotionally shallow: Alexithymia is a term that describes people who are out of touch with their emotions, which often applies to those with dark triad traits. Some are cold, shallow, and unemotional, although not always. It’s often easy for them to cut ties with people, “burn bridges,” and walk away from relationships without feeling much pain. That said, certain people with Machiavellian traits can be charming at times, outgoing, fun, and full of energy since these traits get them attention and praise.
- Power-seeking: While not as attention-seeking as narcissists, people with Machiavellian personalities enjoy being praised and recognized, especially by people in powerful positions. They tend to put others down by any means necessary in order to gain control and climb the social or corporate ladder.
- Lack of empathy: Machiavellians are disconnected from the experiences of others. They can’t easily put themselves in other people’s shoes or predict how their actions will affect others, therefore they rarely care if they hurt people.
- Calculated behaviors: Many Machiavellians are cunning, smart, and detail-oriented (although not all are), using their knowledge to their advantage in order to influence others. They’ll often carefully think through steps they can take to get what they want, sometimes practicing a lot of patience and diligence. Some are also skilled at reading and understanding other people, giving them an advantage in social situations.
- Manipulative and deceitful: Many are willing to use lies, deceit, manipulation, and even unethical or illegal means to get what they want. They’ll often betray people’s trust or sacrifice others if it boosts their power and image.
- Cynical views: Machiavellianism is full of distrust and associated with arrogance and independence. Most with this personality type think they’re better and smarter than everyone else and that others are also selfish and cannot be relied upon or trusted.
- Problematic relationships: When someone with this personality type does form a close relationship with another person, it’s often dysfunctional, full of conflict, potentially abusive, or co-dependent (in which the partner lacks boundaries and can’t stand up for themselves). Research suggests that people who score high on dark triad traits are prone to engage in short-term, non-committal romantic encounters.
It’s important to note that Machiavellianism is complex and can manifest itself differently, depending on the individual and the situation. While some individuals may score highly on measures of Machiavellianism, they may not necessarily engage in deceitful or manipulative behavior, and vice versa.
In the workplace, someone who is a “High Mach” is likely to engage in some of these behaviors:
- Falsely taking credit for other people’s work
- Bragging and actively promoting themselves
- Being hostile and in denial after receiving negative feedback
- Treating people in positions of power better than others who don’t “serve a purpose”
- Not sharing knowledge with colleagues that could help them
- Lying and exaggerating to avoid blame and improve their image
- Competing rather than cooperating
- Manipulating people into doing things that will sabotage their work and image
How Does Machiavellianism Develop?
Psychologists believe that people develop Machiavellian personality traits due to their upbringing, life experiences, and in some cases, genetic factors. It’s thought that Machiavellianism is complex and most likely to develop under circumstances that involve early childhood trauma, although this isn’t always the case.
Contributing factors to the development of Machiavellianism can include:
- Genetics: Studies have found that individuals with certain genetic variations may be more likely to score highly on measures of dark triad traits, such as lacking morals. That said, Machiavellianism is less linked to genetics than narcissism and psychopathy.
- Family dynamics: Exposure to models of deceitful or manipulative behavior, either in the family or in the media, may lead to the development of Machiavellian traits. For example, if a father showed a willingness to use deceptive and selfish tactics to achieve his goals, his children may learn from his example and repeat the pattern in adulthood.
- Early life experiences: Traumatic events, including abuse, bullying, exposure to corruption, or being in situations where deceit and manipulation were required for survival, can also influence the development of Machiavellianism.
- Environment, cultural, and societal influences: Educational experiences, such as growing up in a highly competitive or hierarchical environment, can increase the risk of a child growing into a Machiavellian adult. If a child’s teachers, parents, and mentors emphasized the importance of wealth, power, and control, a child is more likely to prioritize earning these as an adult.
According to experts in Machiavellianism, there’s a difference between “High Machs” and “Low Machs,” which are terms used to describe the degree to which an individual possesses Machiavellian personality traits.
A “High Mach” individual is someone who scores highly on measures of Machiavellianism, meaning they are likely to lack morality and have a strong focus on self-interest above all else.
A “Low Mach” individual, on the other hand, would score lower on the Machiavellianism scale, meaning they are less focused on power, more moral, and more concerned with the well-being of others.
How to Protect Yourself From a Machiavellian Personality
Can people who have Machiavellian personalities change for the better? While it’s possible for them to improve their behaviors with help from knowledgeable therapists specializing in dark triad personality traits and disorders, this is not necessarily likely to happen, nor easy to do. People with dark triad traits are notorious for deflecting blame and failing to admit that they have problems, therefore, most never seek help. Low Machs are most likely to improve their relational skills with professional help compared to High Machs.
Here’s what to do if someone you know has Machiavellian personality traits and/or those indicative of the dark triad:
- Be aware of the signs: Knowing what to look for in terms of Machiavellian behavior can help you to identify and avoid individuals who may be prone to using deceit and manipulation.
- Trust your instincts: If something feels off about an individual or situation, it’s often best to trust your gut and proceed with caution. Look at the big picture of their personality and avoid being too forgiving or passive.
- Focus on self-care and your own goals: Frequently dealing with someone who displays Machiavellianism can take a toll on your mental health, therefore it’s essential to protect your energy, time, and peace of mind. Building healthy self-esteem makes you less vulnerable to manipulation and more resilient in the face of dark triad tactics. Trust and rely on other people instead of Machiavellians to gain support and limit disappointment and anger.
- Limit contact and set clear boundaries: Being clear and direct in your communication can help to prevent misunderstandings and to establish boundaries with others. Keep your conversations and interactions with dark triad people brief and about unimportant, unemotional topics. Be careful not to share too much with them, especially information that they can use against you.
- Don’t take their behaviors or words personally: The way that Machiavellian people act toward you has much more to do with themselves than you. Pay attention to how they treat others, including their exes, kids, coworkers, friends, and neighbors. This makes it clear that it’s not only you who is being treated poorly, plus it’s a good predictor of how they’ll eventually treat others in the future.
- Try to stay on good terms with them: It’s tempting to blow up on people with dark triad traits and to seek revenge, but experts warn against this. Don’t try to teach them a lesson, humiliate them, or outsmart them, all of which can enrage them and wind up backfiring.
- Know when “enough is enough”: If you’ve shown compassion and patience toward someone, but they continuously disrespect you, then it’s time to give up on helping someone or staying in touch with them. It’s best to cut ties and focus your attention on people who reciprocate your kindness. Avoid them entirely if possible, or keep interactions to a minimum.
Do you think you might have a Machiavellian personality? Gain insight into your own personality traits and potential shortcomings by taking this 3-Minute Machiavellian Test.
Want to learn more about the dark triad and people who lack empathy? Check out this article: “19% of People Are Dark Empaths—Here Are 10 Ways to Spot Them.”
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