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How Master Manipulators Hide Their Dark Intentions

Are they trying to get along, or get ahead?

Key points

  • Impression management is a valuable skill, and most people try to use it to their advantage.
  • New research shows how the false front that people high in Machiavellianism put on can lead others to believe they're sincere.
  • Learning how their opportunism drives their behavior can help you resist manipulators.

The ability to convince others that you are the kind of person they want to be around is a valuable one, especially when your livelihood depends on it. As much as a cutthroat mentality might help you get ahead, especially in business, companies are increasingly seeking employees who can play nicely with each other. Indeed, outside of the world of work, it’s even more desirable to come across as a nice person. People don’t exactly like to socialize with someone who seems to be out only for themselves.

What if someone isn’t naturally a team player but knows it’s important to come across this way? According to the University of Nevada Reno’s Shelby Curtis and colleagues (2022), there are plenty of people in the workplace “willing to get ahead at the expense of getting along with others, or at the expense of others’ well-being, who might choose to hide their selfish agenda." If these master manipulators are to secure a job or promotion, they’ll engage in what the authors call “fake citizenship behaviors.” As they try to achieve their own goals, called “agentic” motives, they’ll put on the disguise of being motivated by “communal” goals that benefit the good of the group.

Such an individual might organize a donation drive, for example, not because they believe in the charity, but because they know it will enhance their image. If they are truly devious, their attempt to appear generous is intended not only to impress people but to try to gain other people’s trust so that they can exploit them later. According to the UNR research team, such behaviors constitute “anticipatory impression management,” or hiding behind a façade of communal behavior to maintain an advantage in the workplace.

Machiavellianism and Impression Management

An individual’s reputation may serve more than a utilitarian purpose, as Curtis et al. point out. According to the “socioanalytic theory of personality,” proposed by John Hogan in 1982, attention to reputation links an individual’s personality to their performance in the workplace. People high in Machiavellianism, a personality trait reflecting an individual’s disposition to get ahead at any cost, should be most likely, the UNR team proposes, to rely on impression management as a conscious strategy. If the workplace values communal behavior, then that’s the impression they will try to fake.

Machiavellianism is one of the three so-called “Dark Triad” traits, along with psychopathy and narcissism. Although all three traits may theoretically be associated with manipulative impression management, previous research cited by Curtis et al. shows that only Machiavellianism is related to “opportunistic” self-presentation strategies. In a job interview setting, narcissists make good first impressions without having to put on a false front. Even psychopaths can come across well in a first-time meeting due to their ability to mimic the people who are interviewing them.

There may be signs you can use to spot a master manipulator in the process. The methods they use, Curtis and her colleagues suggest, are “indirect and non-rational,” and involve deceit, appeals to emotions, and the planting of ideas in the mind of their target. You may find yourself convinced that they have your best interest at heart when all they’re doing is using you to further their own ends.

Testing the False Front of the Master Manipulator

Their agentic motives might get those high in Machiavellianism to where they want to be when the situation rewards cutthroat and aggressive tactics, such as in a highly competitive business environment. However, this all comes to a screeching halt when the environment instead rewards communal motives. Now, the manipulator must either adapt to this reward structure or face dismissal. To do so, Curtis et al. propose, they must first be aware of their own agentic motives. Then, they have to recognize the demands of the environment. Finally, they need the wherewithal to put on that false front of communality.

The job application process provides a perfect opportunity to study these devious strategies. In the first of two studies, the UNR research team recruited an online sample of 212 students (average age: 20 years old) who completed a standard measure of Dark Triad traits under one of two experimental conditions: a job that was extremely valuable or one that was not that valuable. Participants received instructions in a third, control, condition to respond honestly.

In a second study, using a similar experimental manipulation, the job was described as a “great opportunity” that represents a cooperative, not competitive, environment.

To assess the degree to which participants used impression management in their “job interview” questionnaires, the research team compared their scores under these conditions with the way that participants responded to questionnaires not administered with these instructions. The mock interview scores could then be used as indications of impression management. The outcome measures also tapped into agentic vs. communal motives, the personality trait of honesty/humility, and a separate measure of the Dark Triad. By combining these measures, the authors could construct an index of “communal personality.”

Turning to the results, as predicted, individuals high in Machiavellianism (but not other Dark Triad traits) indeed covered up their dark side in response to the mock interview instructions for the “cooperative environment” job.

"Individuals high in Machiavellianism are most likely to consciously manipulate perceptions of themselves when motivated to do so," the authors concluded. What’s perhaps most surprising about this finding is the fact that the entire situation was staged. Additionally, participants completed the surveys on their own rather than, as might happen in a real job situation, through an in-person assessment. Thus, the findings may even underestimate the lengths to which master manipulators are likely to go in order to fulfill their agentic motives.

How to Spot and Neutralize the Master Manipulator

You are now warned, by the results of this study, to be on the lookout for the individual who engages in deceptive strategies to cover up their dark tendencies. The Curtis et al. study gives you specific features to watch out for, particularly the way that these individuals will try to tap into your emotions as they seek to further their own ends.

The chameleon-like nature of the individual high in Machiavellianism is going to make this detective work extremely complicated. Even worse, unlike someone high in psychopathy, these manipulators are well aware of their dark tendencies. The fact that they can cover them up depending on the reward structure of their environment only adds to the deception.

Clearly, you can’t hand out a questionnaire to measure someone’s Machiavellian tendencies. However, you can use your own emotional reactions as a guide. Do you feel that you’re being swayed into agreeing to something that runs counter to your own best interests? Is the presumably charitable individual consistently interested in the well-being of others? Although the results may be beneficial to the cause they’re trying to promote, how much self-interest do you spot in their outwardly altruistic behavior?

To sum up, being conned by a master manipulator is never a pleasant experience. However, as the UNR authors note, knowing that they take their cues from the reward structure of a situation in their opportunistic behavior can help you figure out who’s trying to get ahead while appearing to get along.

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Curtis, S. R., Carre, J. R., Mueller, S. M., & Jones, D. N. (2022). Hiding your dark side: Anticipatory impression management of communal traits. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. doi: 10.1007/s12144-022-03039-5

Hogan, R. (1982). A socioanalytic theory of personality. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 55–89

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