What Do Master Manipulators and Psychopaths Have in Common?

Machiavellians and psychopaths are first cousins, metaphorically speaking.

Posted Oct 12, 2015

Machiavellians (“High Machs” as explained in this post) are master manipulators. We can all be manipulative at times, and certain personality and mood disorders can predispose people to behave in a consistently manipulative way.

But Machiavellians are hard-wired to deceive and exploit other people. It almost sounds as if I’m describing psychopaths, doesn’t it? That’s because Machiavellianism and psychopathy are first cousins, metaphorically speaking.

Narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism are interrelated personality traits that make up the so-called “Dark Triad.” Each has distinctive features, but they also share some overlapping traits, such as a profound sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and a tendency to think and act amorally. In my comments below, I’m referring to people in the general population who have not run afoul of the criminal justice system. Correlations in prison populations might be different.

Would it surprise you to learn that Machiavellianism and psychopathy have more in common with each other than either has with narcissism? The “Big Five” traits, or five-factor model, used in psychology to assess and describe one’s personality are: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extraversion (often abbreviated as CANOE or OCEAN). Both psychopaths and Machiavellians score low on conscientiousness and agreeableness. 

Both psychopaths and Machiavellians are dismissive of societal norms, ethics and morals, and even laws. Rules, loyalty, honesty, and reciprocation are for suckers in their view. They may never commit a crime, but it won’t be out of respect for the law or their fellow human beings. It will be because they either don’t need to, don’t want to, or don’t want to risk the consequences. Psychopaths and Machiavellians are disagreeable people, and will only look out for themselves. They will break their word, betray a confidence, undermine a friend, or plot your downfall. Machiavellians will stab you in the back. Psychopaths will stab you in the front (literally or figuratively, whichever).

If psychopaths or Machiavellians are so similar, how can you tell them apart? Wrong question. Absent the necessary training, the best one can do is make a calculated guess. What’s necessary is to recognize the malignant behavior patterns and to set clear boundaries to protect yourself as much as possible. Getting psychopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellians out of your life (or pushing them out to the margins) is the only surefire remedy.