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Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by manipulativeness, deceitfulness, high levels of self-interest, and a tendency to see other people as means to an end. People who display especially elevated levels of Machiavellianism—referred to by some psychologists as “high-Machs”—lack empathy and take a cynical, unemotional view of the world; their primary interests center on power and status, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals.

The trait was named for Niccolò Machiavelli, a 16th-century author and political philosopher who argued in works like The Prince that kings and other rulers should do whatever is necessary to seize and maintain their power. Today, some evidence suggests that people high in Machiavellianism are more likely to pursue high-power careers such as politics or law. Machiavellianism, along with narcissism and psychopathy, make up a collection of unpleasant and closely related personality traits known as the dark triad.

What Makes Someone Machiavellian
Women high in Machiavellianism accepting an envelope from someone

The trait of Machiavellianism was first conceptualized by psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis in the 1960s. According to the construct they developed, and subsequent research on the trait, someone who is high in Machiavellianism is likely to:

  • Consider their own goals and interests to be more important than that of others
  • Place particularly high importance on power, status, fame, and or money
  • Be willing to lie to, manipulate, or exploit others for their own gain
  • Have a negative, cynical view of the world and of other people’s motivations
  • Feel little empathy for others
  • Display little emotion and feel largely disconnected from their own feelings

While someone high in Machiavellianism is often confident in social situations and can be charming when needed, many will largely avoid close interpersonal attachments because they view them through a negative, distrustful lens that renders them less satisfying.

What causes Machiavellianism?

Like other personality traits, Machiavellianism is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Research has found the trait to be highly heritable and finds significant overlap with the genes that influence psychopathy, a closely related trait.

Is Machiavellianism the same as psychopathy?

Machiavellianism and psychopathy are generally thought to be distinct from one another, though they share many similarities. While both psychopaths and Machiavellians can be callous and use others for their own gain, Machiavellians tend to be more motivated by fame, status, and power than psychopaths. Psychopathy is also linked to impulsivity and aggression, traits that are not often seen in pure Machiavellianism. It’s important to note, however, that the traits can coexist. What’s more, some researchers do argue that they are in fact the same trait.

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Managing the Machiavellian in Your Life
Businesswoman looking up at her Machiavellian boss with an apprehensive look

Narcissism and psychopathy have received significant attention in recent years—and as a result, many people have come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that their lives have been harmed by someone with high levels of these traits. Machiavellianism, however, and the problems that may arise from the trait’s characteristic deceitful, manipulative behavior, have received considerably less attention—even though some have argued that, because of the Machiavellian tendency to scheme, connive, and play the long game, it may be the dark triad’s most troubling trait. Knowing how to spot and respond to someone with a highly Machiavellian personality could help protect you from being used toward their unsavory ends.

How do I spot a Machiavellian personality?

Because they have less of a tendency to be grandiose or impulsive, Machiavellian personalities may be harder to recognize than other dark triad traits. Yet research suggests there are some behavioral clues that could give them away—including a tendency to tell white lies when it benefits them, a desire to get close to people of high social status, and a negative, cynical outlook that assumes everyone will lie, cheat, or steal to get ahead.

Does Machiavellianism interfere with relationships?

It certainly can. People high in Machiavellianism tend to be deeply distrustful of others and struggle to engage in the warm, communal behavior that healthy relationships require. They may have little qualms about deceiving or manipulating someone they’re close to. Unsurprisingly, research has found that the trait is associated with lower relationship quality and reduced satisfaction.

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