Niccolò Machiavelli was a turn-of-the 16th century Florentine diplomat who lived in devilishly dangerous times. The pope himself waged wars, and each city of what is now Italy bloodily vied to bring large chunks of the region into its control. Catholicism reigned supreme, but Machiavelli’s religion was ambition. With it unbounded, he played one ruler off another, prospering while fellow diplomats fell to the sword. His successful use of duplicity was so legendary that an English debasement of his first name (“Niccolò” to “Old Nick”) became a synonym for Lucifer. His last name found linguistic use, too. Modern psychiatrists now use “Machiavellian” to describe people who are brilliantly and dangerously self-centered.
Beginning a few decades ago, behavioral scientists began formal studies of Machiavellian personalities. In one study that gained notoriety, Machiavellian people volunteered to do charity work, but only when there were other potential volunteers present. When asked anonymously, they declined to help out. Over the years a portrait coalesced of ready social poseurs good at defrauding others and covering up their tracks.
Wanting to know more about the cognitive processes behind getting the best of one’s peers time and again, two evolutionary psychologists from Hungary’s University of Pécs conducted a new study. (Their paper was published online in April 2012 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.) Andrea Czibor and Tamas Bereczkei asked 150 people to play the Public Goods Game.
The PGG is a standard game in experimental economics. At the outset, all players are given an equal stash of tokens. Then, round by round, each player contributes to the “public” pot. The amount of each donation is chosen by the player, who keeps it secret. When contributing, the player knows that, at the end of the round, the total in the pot will be multiplied and then distributed evenly to all players. Everyone will get an equal share regardless of how much they contributed. Because of this, pretending to contribute hugely (so as to convince others to contribute hugely) while actually contributing little or nothing is a low-risk strategy that can bring great reward.
Czibor and Bereczkei had the subjects play in groups of 15. The factor by which they routinely multiplied the pot before dividing it was 2. And to spark the interest of any Machiavellian players, they added an extra competitive element to PGG: At the end of all rounds, the single player with the most tokens would get a cash prize.
In order to identify which players were Machiavellian personality types, Czibor and Bereczkei gave each player two psychological assessments. The first was a Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) that quantified traits like novelty seeking and harm avoidance. The second was the Mach[iavellian] IV test, which measures willingness to manipulate others. It does so by asking subjects to agree or disagree with utilitarian statements like, ‘The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear’’ or ‘‘It is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there.’’ If those don’t sound Machiavellian enough, the test also includes certain choice quotes of Niccolò Machiavelli himself.
Round by round during the PGG, Czibor and Bereczkei analyzed the behavior of the players, especially those who had scored on the extreme ends of the Mach IV spectrum. Not surprisingly, they noticed high Mach players pretending to contribute heavily while not contributing much. Also not surprisingly, these players fared better than low Machs at game’s end.
According to the researchers, the signal strategy differences between the high and low Mach players were attention paid to other players and flexibility. High Machs, who had generally scored high on the TCI in a measure of novelty seeking, paid close attention to their game-mates. Competitive and stimulus-loving by temperament, they flexibly changed their contribution strategies according to what other players did. By and large, very low Machs used a very different strategy. Generally aversive to risk (as suggested by low TCI scores on novelty seeking), they played cautiously, paying little heed to what was said by fellow players. Instead they based the amount of their contributions largely on how well the previous rounds’ investments had paid off, and on what they believed they could afford.
Checking their budgets and living safely within their means, the low Machs performed miserably. Posing and opportunistic, the high Machs flourished, playing PGG much as Machievelli himself might have. Apparently, in the game of Public Good, winning requires duplicity and the willingness to do harm.
“Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”