Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by a manipulative, cynical view of the people and environment around an individual.
Those who possess a high degree of Machiavellianism usually see morality as a tool to attain their goals and feel comfortable resorting to manipulations or trickery to reach them.
The term get its name from Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian political leader who authored The Prince, which stresses the importance of using ruthless and cunning strategies to maintain political influence.
The trait of Machiavellianism extends beyond politics and can be found in individuals of all backgrounds. It is considered one of the three personality traits in psychology’s “Dark Triad,” along with narcissism and psychopathy.
For example, an employee vying for a promotion may show Machiavellian behavior by employing manipulative tactics to take advantage of their relationships with colleagues and management to gain an edge over other employees.
They might form strategic alliances with influential colleagues, spread harmful rumors about competitors, or even sabotage others’ work.
So, Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by a manipulative, cynical view of people and the environment.
Definition of Machiavellianism
Various sources such as Merriam-Webster and Cambridge Dictionary define Machiavellianism as a political theory that sees politics as amoral and rationalizes any methods to gain and sustain power.
However, in psychology, Machiavellianism is a personality trait that involves employing manipulative tactics and placing greater value on achieving desired outcomes than on the methods used, even if it means being deceptive and exploitative.
As stated by Al Aïn and colleagues (2013),
“Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by interpersonal manipulation and associated with specific patterns of emotional and social cognition skills” (p. 1).
This trait is marked by a calculating attitude towards human relationships, complete with the belief that one’s interests must come first, even if this entails exploiting others.
Sharpe and colleagues (2021) believe that:
“Machiavellianism is a personality construct characterized by cynicism, callousness, and skillful manipulation of others to achieve personal gains” (p. 663).
Individuals who exhibit a high degree of Machiavellianism possess strong strategic planning and execution abilities. They are likely to be adept at manipulating circumstances to attain their desired outcomes.
The Machiavellian personality is often associated with cunning, lacking a moral code, and using clever but often unethical methods to deceive people to gain or maintain power (Brewer & Abell, 2017).
They prioritize their interests above all else, making calculated decisions to benefit themselves and often placing themselves in a position of power or control.
People with high levels of Machiavellianism possess the ability to read others and leverage that understanding to their benefit. Additionally, they often exude confidence and charm, allowing them to sway those in their proximity (Al Aïn et al., 2013).
So, people possessing Machiavellianism as a trait have a tendency to turn to manipulation and deception in order to attain their goals, without any reluctance about using any means needed.
10 Examples of Machiavellianism
- Politicians: Many political leaders might display high levels of Machiavellianism. They tend to be extremely strategic and often manipulate situations and people to achieve their goals. They might make false promises to gain votes, engage in smear campaigns against their opponents, and lie or deceive, all in the quest for power.
- Corporate executives: People who exhibit high levels of Machiavellianism are frequently found in the corporate world where they advance their careers by taking advantage of other people. They might manipulate their colleagues into doing their bidding, exploit their subordinates, and engage in office politics to gain power and control.
- Salespeople: High Machiavellian individuals can be found in sales professions. To convince people to purchase their product or service, they utilize their charisma and strategies of manipulation.. They can make false claims, hide information, or use high-pressure sales tactics to close deals.
- Therapists or counselors: People trained to build trust with clients might also display Machiavellianism. They might use their knowledge of their clients’ vulnerabilities to manipulate them into doing their bidding or even develop inappropriate relationships for their gain.
- Psychopaths: People who exhibit Machiavellianism traits frequently display similar characteristics to psychopaths, including having no compassion and exploiting others for personal gain. Psychopaths can display Machiavellianism to achieve their goals in their personal and professional relationships.
- Military leaders: Machiavellianism is often associated with authoritarian regimes, where military leaders might manipulate people to gain and maintain power. They might use propaganda to control the narrative, suppress dissent, and punish those who oppose them.
- Narcissists: Those with high levels of narcissism are often seen displaying traits of Machiavellianism, as they believe in their utmost importance and have a tendency to prioritize their own interests over others. They might manipulate people into admiring them, taking advantage of their perceived superiority.
- Social climbers: People who seek to climb the social ladder might display Machiavellianism. They might manipulate their social circle to gain acceptance, befriend influential people, or engage in unethical behavior if it can help them achieve their goals.
- Lawyers: Machiavellianism can also be seen in the legal profession. Lawyers may use manipulation tactics to sway juries or judges or take advantage of their clients for their own financial gain.
- Influencers or celebrities: High Machiavellian individuals in the public eye might manipulate their fans, colleagues, and the media to maintain their image and status. They might engage in unethical behavior behind closed doors or use their charm to control narratives in their favor.
Origins of Machiavellianism
An Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli was an inspiration for the introduction of Machiavellianism due to his famous work, The Prince, which guides rulers to navigate the treacherous waters of politics.
The book discusses ways rulers can maintain control, such as instilling fear in subjects, utilizing force when needed, and strategic use of deception and manipulation (Machiavelli, 2004).
His philosophy suggested that politics lacked moral principles and that leaders should exhibit unethical behavior to uphold their power.
According to Machiavelli (2004), the top priority of a ruler is to maintain their authority, and they should be ready to employ any methods to attain this objective.
The term “Machiavellianism” was first used in psychology in the 1960s by Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis. They used it to describe a personality trait characterized by manipulative behavior and a cynical view of human relationships.
Christie and Geis (1970) claimed that those with elevated Machiavellianism scores are often manipulative and demonstrate little regard for the welfare of others.
They added that such people are strategic and proficient at devising and implementing plans to attain their goals, frequently employing techniques of deception and manipulation.
Since then, the study of Machiavellianism has extended to various areas since its origin, including the workplace, politics, and personal relationships.
Five-Factor Model of Machiavellianism
The Five Factor Model of Machiavellianism further breaks down ability to manipulate into three categories: Antagonism, Planfulness, and Agency (Jonason, 2022).
- Antagonism includes manipulativeness, cynicism, selfishness, callousness, and arrogance. These traits describe highly strategic individuals in their approach to social situations and often prioritize their interests above others.
- Planfulness includes traits such as deliberation and orderliness, which may be seen as neutral or potentially positive traits. Those who score highly in planfulness are typically highly organized and structured individuals who enjoy routine and order.
- Agency includes achievement-striving, assertiveness, self-confidence, emotional invulnerability, activity, and competence. Individuals who score highly in the agency are typically highly ambitious, competitive, and self-assured.
These different categories of traits help us understand the complexity of human personality and behavior.
Mach IV Test to Measure the Level of Machiavellianism
The Mach IV test, also referred to as the Machiavellianism Personality Test, is a questionnaire that measures an individual’s Machiavellianism level through self-reporting (Láng, 2017).
Developed by psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis in 1970, the Mach IV test is still widely used today in research and clinical settings.
The Mach IV test consists of 20 items, each with two response choices that range from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”
Examples of items from the test include:
- It is better to trust people than to be suspicious of them.
- One should take action only when sure it is morally right.
- I have used deceit or lied to get my way.
- Flattery can get you everywhere.
- Most people are too trusting.
People who achieve a high score on the Mach IV test are deemed to possess elevated levels of Machiavellianism. High scores indicate that the individual is highly strategic and manipulative but may lack empathy and concern for others (Láng, 2017).
People who have low scores on the test are seen as having low levels of Machiavellianism. They are usually more honest and cooperative in their relationships with others (Láng, 2017).
Strategies to Cope with Machiavellianism
Handling people with strong Machiavellian characteristics can be difficult, but some tactics can assist individuals in managing such personalities.
Here are a few possible approaches:
- Recognize the manipulation: One of the first steps in dealing with Machiavellian individuals is recognizing that they may be manipulative. Observing their tactics can help individuals identify when they are being exploited and potentially reduce the impact of the manipulative behavior.
- Establish clear boundaries: Setting clear boundaries can help prevent Machiavellian individuals from taking advantage of situations or people. Establishing expectations for behavior and communicating these boundaries assertively with those displaying manipulative tendencies can be helpful.
- Maintain transparency: Being transparent in communication and behavior can prevent Machiavellian individuals from taking manipulative actions in the first place. When all individuals involved have the same information, it can be more challenging for manipulative individuals to twist situations to their advantage.
- Maintain a strong and supportive social network: Having supportive and trustworthy individuals in one’s social circle can provide a buffer against Machiavellian individuals. A strong social support network can provide validation, perspective, and feedback. In addition, it can help individuals maintain a sense of self-worth and dignity.
- Document interactions: Keeping a record of interactions can provide concrete evidence of manipulative behavior. This documentation can serve as a reference in future interactions. It can be used to hold manipulative individuals accountable for their actions.
Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by strategic thinking, manipulative tactics, and a thirst for power and control.
This trait is prevalent in various professions and individuals where prioritizing one’s interests and disregarding morality and ethics are the norm.
Developed by Christie and Geis in 1970, Machiavellianism can be shown as manipulation, cunning, and deceit.
So, scientists developed a specific Mach IV test to measure a person’s level of Machiavellianism. However, it also has some limitations, and can be difficult to gauge subtle variations in Machiavellianism levels.
To cope with such personalities, there are various strategies, such as recognizing the manipulation, establishing clear boundaries, maintaining transparency, building a strong social network, and documenting interactions.
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 Psychology, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00454
Brewer, G., & Abell, L. (2017). Machiavellianism, relationship satisfaction, and romantic relationship quality. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 13(3), 491–502. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v13i3.1217
Christie, R., & Geis, F. L. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. Academic Press.
Jonason, P. K. (2022). Shining light on the dark side of personality. Hogrefe Publishing GmbH.
Láng, A. (2017). Machiavellianism scale (Mach-IV). Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1246-1
Machiavelli, N. (2004). The prince. Kessinger Pub. (Original work published 1532)
Sharpe, B. M., Collison, K. L., Lynam, D. R., & Miller, J. D. (2021). Does Machiavellianism meaningfully differ from psychopathy? It depends. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 39(5), 663–677. https://doi.org/10.1002/bsl.2538