Shining a Light on Dark Personalities | Part Three: Meeting the Machiavellian

Miriam King is currently a Lecturer in Psychology in Carlow College, St Patrick’s. Miriam’s research interests include dark personality traits, defence mechanisms, criminal psychology and clinical psychology. This four-part series introduces the reader to the distinct yet overlapping traits of the Dark Tetrad: 1) Spotting the Sadist; 2) Noticing the Narcissist; 3) Meeting the Machiavellian; 4) Pinpointing the Psychopath

Meeting the Machiavellian

What is Machiavellianism?

The term Machiavellianism originated from Italian statesman and writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527). In 1513, Machiavelli published a pamphlet entitled The Prince outlining his vision of an ideal leader as an amoral, calculating tyrant for whom the end justifies the means.

Machiavellianism can be defined as a personality trait that is marked by a calculating attitude toward human relationships and a belief that ends justify means, however ruthless (VandenBos, 2007). Individuals with this trait tend to view other people as mere pawns, as objects to be manipulated in the pursuit of their goals.

Those who score high on the trait of Machiavellianism tend to be cynical, misanthropic, cold, pragmatic and possess immoral beliefs (Rauthmann, 2012). These traits enable the Machiavellian to climb up the ladder and kick the rungs out from behind them as they ascend.

Misconceptions and Manifestations

Machiavellians may use manipulation tactics for the purpose of self-beneficial and agentic goals such as power and money (Rauthmann, 2012).

Machiavellianism may manifest differently depending on gender with women being driven by more anxious personality features and men by opportunistic world views (Czibor et al., 2017).

Those high in Machiavellianism are not as impulsive as other dark traits: they are more strategic, strong planners, adept at managing their reputation, forming coalitions and alliances (Grosz et al., 2019). Machiavellian individuals tend to be “cautious and controlled in their misbehaviour, unconcerned about social norms, and focused on bottomline tangible rewards” (Jones. 2016, p. 93).

Motivations and Psychological Factors

Machiavellianism is associated with a lack of affective empathy (Al Aïn et al., 2013; Massey-Abernathy & Byrd-Craven, 2016). Machiavellians identify the feelings of others and understand their victims’ experiences on a situational level, rather than feel them on an emotional level (Massey-Abernathy & Byrd-Craven, 2016). This lack of affective empathy – which all dark traits lack – can enable Machiavellians to ignore the harm they may inflict and ignore the sensitivities of others when they engage in goal-focused strategies (Massey-Abernathy & Byrd-Craven, 2016).

The trait of Machiavellianism can wax and wane throughout an individual’s life (Grosz et al., 2019; Roberts et al., 2008). Decreased levels of Machiavellianism have been associated with mastering occupational roles- however, this is not always the case (Grosz et al., 2019).

References and Further Reading:

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, 454.

Chabrol, H., Melioli, T., Van Leeuwen, N., Rodgers, R., & Goutaudier, N. (2015). The Dark Tetrad: Identifying personality profiles in high-school students. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 97–101.

Czibor, A., Szabo, Z. P., Jones, D. N., Zsido, A. N., Paal, T., Szijjarto, L., Carre, J. R., & Bereczkei, T. (2017). Male and female face of Machiavellianism: Opportunism or anxiety? Personality and Individual Differences, 117, 221–229.

Grosz, M. P., Göllner, R., Rose, N., Spengler, M., Trautwein, U., Rauthmann, J. F., Wetzel, E., & Roberts, B. W. (2019). The development of narcissistic admiration and machiavellianism in early adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(3), 467–482.

Jones, D. N. (2016). The nature of Machiavellianism: Distinct patterns of misbehavior. In The dark side of personality: Science and practice in social, personality, and clinical psychology. (pp. 87–107). American Psychological Association.

Massey-Abernathy, A., & Byrd-Craven, J.(2016) Seeing but Not Feeling: Machiavellian Traits in Relation to Physiological Empathetic Responding and Life Experiences. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology 2, 252–266.

Moshagen, M., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2018). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review, 125(5), 656–688.

Nietzsche, F. (1886/1998). Beyond good and evil. Dover Publications.

Pajevic, M., Vukosavljević-Gvozden, T.,  Stevanovic, N., & Neumann, C. (2018). The relationship between the Dark Tetrad and a two-dimensional view of empathy. Personality and Individual Differences. 123. 125-130. 10.1016/j.paid.2017.11.009.

Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Toward a Taxonomy of Dark Personalities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(6), 421–426.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556–563.

Rauthmann, J. F. (2012). The Dark Triad and interpersonal perception: Similarities and differences in the social consequences of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(4), 487–496.

Roberts, B. W., Wood, D., & Caspi, A. (2008). The development of personality traits in adulthood. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (3rd ed., pp. 375–398). Guilford Press

VandenBos, G. R. (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association

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