Likely any day of the week you could find a news story about someone who breaches a moral, ethical, legal, or professional code and gets away with it. You’ve probably also experienced people in your life who use illusory charm to deceive or manipulate others, those who have the financial resources to successfully bury a wrongdoing, or some who successfully cheat and lie.
You may want such people to be exposed and imagine they experience guilt or have difficulty living with themselves. Possibly you entertain the belief that ultimately they will fail or encounter something bad in their lives because of who they are or what they have done. However, such outcomes don’t seem to play out when it comes to those who get away with things.
People who deceptively or exploitatively promote their own interests have been considered as having Machiavellian traits—practicing whatever manipulative skills are required, or employing a strategy of social conduct, against the self-interests of others in order to achieve one’s ends (Christie & Geis, 1970; Wilson, Near, & Miller, 1996). Some evolutionary researchers regard Machiavellian traits as a continuum, with some people being more willing and able than others to engage in manipulative behaviors, yet strategically being cooperative and trustworthy when it is advantageous (Wilson, Near, & Miller, 1996).
Perhaps taking an evolutionary perspective would help to lessen any annoyance you might have about people who are conniving. An evolutionary perspective proposes that the ability to manipulate others is the defining feature of social intelligence, and the major selective force in the evolution of human intelligence (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Wilson, 1994; Wilson, Near, & Miller, 1996). So there may be a good reason why some people are “bad” if being manipulative or shrewd promoted the survival of the human species.
Although in ancestral environments the ability to manipulate others may have contributed to success as well as the development of human intelligence, in contemporary society manipulativity does not necessarily correlate with success. Evolutionary game theory posits that being more manipulative is only better in some situations but that it is worse in others, leading to a diversity of social strategies in human life (Wilson, Near, & Miller, 1996). Psychological research studies summarized by Wilson and his colleagues (1996) that relate Machiavellianism to measures of success in employment situations have demonstrated that it is not correlated with sales success (Turnbull, 1976), rank-tenure of college professors (Hollan, 1975), job performance in marketing (Gable & Martin, 1982), stockbrokers in structured environments (Shultz, 1993), job satisfaction (Gable &Topol, 1987), and income in low education situations (Turner & Martinez, 1977). Yet a positive relationship was found between Machiavellianism and income in high education situations (Turner & Martinez, 1977), and in stockbrokers in unstructured environments (Shultz, 1993).
Whether or not the ability to be manipulative has contributed to the survival of the species, it’s difficult not to be angry about a disingenuous co-worker receiving recognition, a promotion, or a big bonus when you have played by the rules and don’t prosper. This is one of those times when you recognize that there is something bad about being good. Similarly, you may experience helplessness, along with fury, if a rival triumphs by distorting the perceptions of others with gossip or lies about your character. Perhaps this simply demonstrates what’s good (or adaptive) about being bad.
Lying does seem to benefit people who want to get away with things, whether it is to manage what people think or exert an influence on a situation. More socially adroit people tell significantly more lies than less socially adroit people, manipulative people know that they lie more than other people but they manage to get their way and be admired in the process, and, to make matters worse, people who lie do not have low self-esteem (Kashy & DePaulo, 1996).
So if conniving and lying people are meant to be in this world, for some good evolutionary reason, what would help you to not be so angry about them being in your life and interfering with it? First of all, one of the reasons that people who get away with things make you angry is because you have been unsuspecting and trusted them. People who are trusting are less likely to lie, they respect the rights of others, and, as a benefit, they are more likely to be happy, unconflicted, and adjusted (Rotter, 1980). In addition, if you are concerned about the quality of your relationships with friends, people who describe their relationships as warm, enduring, and satisfying tend to tell fewer lies overall (Kashy & DePaulo, 1996). Thus, you may be one of those people who doesn’t get away with things, but you do have the potential to maintain enduring connections with others. It’s likely that the capacity to connect with people in an honest way has its own remarkable evolutionary purpose.
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This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.
Christie, R., & Geis, F. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.
Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind (pp. 163-225). NewYork: AcademicPress.
Gable, M., & Martin, T. (1982). Machiavellian managers: Do they perform better? Journal of Business Psychology, 5, 355-365.
Gable, M., & Topol, M. T. (1987). Job satisfaction and Machiavellian orientation among department store executives. Psychological Reports, 60, 211-216.
Hollon,C.J.(1975).ProfessionalMachiavellianorientation, academic rank, and tenure. Psychological Reports, 36, 222.
Kashy, D. & DePaulo, B. (1996). Who lies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 1037-1051.
Rotter, J. (1980). Interpersonal trust, trustworthiness, and gullibility. American Psychologist. 35(1), 1-7.
Shultz, J. S. (1993). Situational and dispositional predictions of performance: A test of the hypothesized Machiavellianism X structure interaction among sales persons. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, 478-498.
Turnbull, A. A. (1976). Selling and the salesman: Predictions of success and personality change. Psychological Reports, 38, 1175-1180.
Turner, C. F, & Martinez, D. C. (1977). Socioeconomic achievement and Machiavellian personality. Social Psychology Quarterly, 40, 325-336.
Wilson, D. S. (1994). Adaptive genetic variation and human evolutionary psychology. Ethology and Sociobiology, 15,219-235.
Wilson, D.; Near, D.; & Miller, R. (1996). Machiavellianism: A Synthesis of the Evolutionary and Psychological Literatures. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 285-299.